“Where has your beloved husband gone?”
“And what do you think he’ll change into?
“What ever you change into when you go to jail.
“Very well. I bet that he will come back here wearing his best evening dress, top hat, white tie, waiscoat, the toute ensemble.’
— Dr. Falke and Rosalinde, Die Fledermaus
CONFESSION: I’ve been trying to finish and post this review for over a week now. I told myself it was because I was trying to identify exactly what was wrong with the film, but the truth is I knew exactly what was wrong and was trying to find some good things to say about it.
If what’s said is true, that “the hero is only is good as the villain”, then it’s no wonder that Batman is often thought as the greatest hero of all time. His is indisputably the most recognisable rogues’ gallery in contemporary fiction. Batman himself is such a morally questionable character – he is, after all, a vigilante – the appeal of his foes lies not just in their flamboyance, but in the way each one reflects back at him a specific element of his those dubious morals (and his fractured psyche).
Since his creation by (over-acknowledged) illustrator Bob Kane and (under-acknowledged) writer Bill Finger some 73 years ago, some damned good storytellers have a had a helluva fun time spinning yarns for Batman. At his best, he can be a complex investigator and spirit of vengeance; a detective whose Holmes-ian attention-to-detail is matched only by his unquenchable drive to inflict pain and fear upon the “superstitious, cowardly lot” that would prey upon the good, law-abiding populace. At his worst, he can be a costumed clown to be mocked for having originated from a medium renowned for its adolescent fanbase.
His motion picture interpretations have been hit-and-miss. From a campy serial in the 1940s to the even campier tv series and accompanying film from the 1960s to the gothic/campy film series of the late-‘80s/early-90s, The Caped Crusader’s big screen adventures have never seemed quite right (despite how popular they were). I mention this because for a while it seemed as though Christopher Nolan’s “realistic” millennial take on the character had finally done right where so many others had erred. In many ways it had, but as his trilogy comes to a close, its closing chapter brings to the forefront the problems that had plagued his vision since the first film, Batman Begins, in 2005.
I must admit: I was one of the few comic book fans who was not looking forward to Batman Begins. Like the rest of the world, I’d been burned – badly – by Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin in 1997. Granted, the two Tim Burton films that preceded Schumacher’s were no masterpieces, but “social misfit” vision of the young, hungry Burton blended well with the “urban medievalist” landscape of Gotham City; the look was so right that is was almost enough to forget that the film had Alfred inviting Vicki Vale into the Batcave. Almost. But with Burton’s departure from the series went also his gothic sensibilities. Director Schumacher, with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, crafted two movies to return Batman’s adventures to the campy tone of the 1960s tv show and film; the very tone Burton’s films intentionally tried erase. Say what you will about Kim Basinger’s shrieking or Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing, neither of them appeared in a film that had a Bat-credit card.
What’s more, I wasn’t a fan of Nolan’s work up-to-this-point. To date, I haven’t seen any of his original short films, but I was not a of his feature-length debut, Memento; it’s a film that hangs too heavily on its weak twist when it should have told the (slightly) more interesting tale of a man descending further down into his own delusions. Nor was I a fan of his moody thriller Insomnia, a style-over-substance remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Add to that questionable casting choices and trailers that failed to impress, and you have one incredibly unenthused Bat-fan, pre-2005. Yet there I sat on a Wednesday evening (I didn’t care enough about the film to try and see it opening weekend) on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the screen, as I sat enjoying the “first” Batman film just as I had 1989.
But as much as I loved the film, re-watching it on television revealed some pretty inescapable flaws. Flaws that I was willing to overlook the first time, but became all the more apparent with its sequel, The Dark Knight. Flaws that are apparent not only in The Dark Knight trilogy, but in Christopher Nolan’s entire film career.
The third film opens eight years after the events of its predecessor. It begins with a masked and bald criminal named Bane (Tom Hardy) being captured by the CIA, led by Aidan Gillen (aka “Little Finger” the brothel owner from Game of Thrones). Bane’s mask (supposedly) feeds him some pain-killing gas (from what source, we’re never told, as the mask is connected to other apparatus). In a daring, in nonsensical, daylight spectacle: Bane’s colleagues rescue him from the CIA’s plane and they head toward Gotham City.
Speaking of Gotham, the scene then cuts to Wayne Manor where a memorial is held in the name of the late Harvey Dent. Since Dent’s death Bruce Gotham has apparently been all-but purged of crime and Bruce Wayne has retreated into a Howard Hughes-esque state of seclusion. He’s first seen out of the shadows when he happens upon skilled cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) stealing his mother’s jewelry. This incident – combined with an encounter with a “good cop” named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the appearance in the city of Bane’s underlings, and an assault on Commissioner Gordon – inspires Wayne to once again take up his cape and cowl as Batman.
No sooner does the Dark Knight return than he is brutally beaten by Bane (I apologise for the alliteration). In his absence, Bane unleashes a wave of terror upon Gotham for which no one was prepared and to which no end appears to be in sight.
Will the Caped Crusader overcome his injuries in time to save the city?
Will Bane’s fabulous fur coat become the latest in criminal couture?
Is Lucius Fox the only Black man in the entire city?
And why doesn’t anyone atleast mention the Joker?
All these questions to be answered next time – Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!
I never expected for it to be this difficult to write about either a superhero film (a Batman film, no less), let alone a Chris Nolan film. And yet, as I mentioned before, this film (mostly) fails because it serves to highlight problems that have plagued Nolan his entire career, including the Dark Knight films.
Let’s start with the most egregious problem: that of the Convenient Plot Device. Every time I walk out of one of Nolan’s films, I’m usually high of the dazzling spectacle. But once that high wears off, the countless plot holes become more apparent. From the question of how anyone actually enters a dream in Inception (yeah, I know the serum puts them to sleep, but how do you get into someone’s mind?) to Al Pacino seemingly able to sense that Hilary Swank was in danger in Insomnia to the whole Joker-captured-Joker-escapes sequence in The Dark Knight. The latter is on that I found most insulting because, while I like good twist as much as the next guy, that films scenes and setpieces are predicated on a foreknowledge of human reaction that might as well be called psychic. The Joker was less a “realistic, insane villain” than a Pre-Cog.
The Dark Knight Rises commits this sin from the get-go with the whole “Bane wanted to be caught” thing. It’s a gripping sequence to be sure, but it hinges so much on the assumption that a situation-in-which-the-slightest-error-could-spell-disaster will be perfectly executed that I’m surprised Bane doesn’t just try to make millions predicting the stock market (he later shoots stock trading floor, so maybe that’s not for him?). This continues throughout the film: when Batman first chases him, Bane knows that Batman will stop chasing him; he knows where the police will go so as to trap them underground; he knows what kind of resistance he can expect when he takes over; he knows when, where, and how to blow up the stadium, including a specific luxury box – how does he know all of these things? There’s being smart and then there’s treating your audience like they’re stupid.
When Nolan can’t come up with reasonable answers for his plot holes, he settles for ridiculous ones. Remember how we watched The Prestige thinking that there would be an intelligent payoff to conclude it? Instead we got a Deus ex Machina of steam punk clones long-lost twins.
And while we’re on the subject of Bane, one must ask why he was changed from the light-skinned South American to a rather flamboyant Brit? Tom Hardy claims that the voice is meant to be Caribbean, in acknowledgement to the character’s comic origins. Why then does he sound like Elton John with a Sean Connery accent speaking too close into a microphone? At least he fares better than two other characters from the comics – one revealed at another one of those Plot Convenient moments in the climax, the other revealed (very idiotically) in the film’s epilogue. The only one who seems to fare well is Selina Kyle, Catwoman – which brings me to another recurrent problem for Nolan: Women.
He seems to suffer from the Woody Allen syndrome in which women are either she-devils out to seduce and destroy you, or innocent (read: “ignorant”) ingénues who hang on your every word and wish to drink deep from you well of knowledge. Woody Allen has been able to get away with this because he can atleast write interesting women. Not so for Nolan: from Memento with its conniving Carrie-Anne Moss to Inception’s ditzy Ellen Page and evil Marion Cotillard, he seems to think a man must always be cautious around a woman, lest lead to your downfall. When the aforementioned character reveals herself in Rises, it is to betray Bruce Wayne/Batman after slowly gaining his trust and intimacy. Not only is this the sort of thing I’d expect to be written by a teenage boy who’s just been through his first break-up, but it’s a real waste of the talented women whom Nolan is always able to cast in his films.
I’m forced to cut this review shorter than I’d like, lest it just be one long rant of the movie’s problems. What did I actually LIKE about it? Well, Catwoman for one. She’s the most interesting character to ever show up in one of Nolan’s films and Anne’s Hathaway’s portrayal is a wonderful contrast to that of Michelle Pfieffer’s. Whether or not it’s “better” is subjective, but just as Jack Nicholson’s cartoonishly over-the-top Joker was different than Heath Ledger’s knife-wielding villain, so too has Hathaway brought a more realistic tone to Pfieffer’s seductive Jekyll & Hyde take. Just as the Joker represents the limit to which Batman will go to stop a criminal, Catwoman represents the moral compromise he’s happy to make over and over again.
Let me try to wrap this up quickly with some quick notes:
• The action was well shot, but poorly edited (it’s clear Nolan and lenseman Wally Pfister composed some great shots for long, single takes, but the cuts can be too abrupt at times).
• The plot owes a lot to the graphic novels Batman: Knightfall and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One (also given a nod in Batman Begins). Picking up on those acknowledgements was nice, but this story didn’t flow as organically as those did.
• No explanation is given as to why anyone follows Bane, especially when he takes over Gotham. I find it hard to believe that no one thought of taking him down through pure strength-of-numbers.
• There’s no way in a million years that Alfred and Bruce would ever have that sort of falling out.
• Couldn’t they have atleast mentioned the Joker? I realise Ledger’s death painted them into a corner, but just a quick throwaway line? (“He’s been transferred to another prison”. “He found Jesus, reformed, and preaches with Kirk Cameron.” “He died of dysentery.” I mean, Something!)
• Let’s talk about Bruce’s electric knee brace… I think we should talk about it because no one else in the film does.
• The clumsy shoe-horning in of a certain character during the epilogue. I call that the final insult.
• AND FINALLY (as you may have gathered from the title of this blog post): why the hell does a Batman film feature so little of Batman?
I know it sounds like I’m just eviscerating the film, but I’m pressed for time and can’t mention all the good things. Hell, I can barely remember all the good things. I went into this film really wanting to enjoy myself and was letdown by the way the conclusion to the trilogy just reminded me of everything that was wrong with it. As such, I’m not too disappointed that Warner Bros. will be rebooting with the next entry. Batman Begins is still one of my favourite comic book films. It’s preference for practical effects over CGI combined with fun-yet-realistic storytelling makes it as much a pleasure to rewatch as Iron Man. If those qualities can be kept in the new film incarnation of Batman, I’ll be a happy camper.
PS: No one tell my friend Sunil, but this means the best movie I saw over the summer was a superhero flick written and directed by Joss Whedon. How the hell did that happen?!