Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises.

It’s been a weird week for Batman. Arguably the year’s most anticipated film, it has elicited a torrent of conflicting emotions. Last week began with threats of violence against those giving negative reviews and ended with a very real act of violence against those who were most excited to see it. The Dark Knight Rises, which should be judged only on its own merits, is now surrounded by a lot of excess noise. Needless to say, people are very emotionally invested in the Batman story, and more so than ever in its long-awaited conclusion. And that makes commenting on it a harder task.

I too was incredibly excited about seeing The Dark Knight Rises and I’ve had a solid few days now to mull my experience over. To find out what I thought, join me.. after the jump!

I love Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. I love his unique take on the Batman mythos, particularly the intelligence and nuance that he injects into the franchise. I love each actor's 100% commitment performance and readily embrace every single new character. I love all the pieces. But I didn’t love this film.

I wanted to, and I think in time I probably will. I didn’t love Batman Begins the first time I saw it. I enjoyed it, certainly, but it took multiple viewings for me to realise just how well crafted it is, and to truly appreciate it for what it accomplishes. But it was The Dark Knight that I loved straight away. That was a film that gripped me right from the start and held me until the end, and remains just as effective each time I watch it. That was the experience I was hoping to replicate. So Nolan faces an incredibly hard task here, where our expectations are ridiculously high. We want him to trump The Dark Knight, and yet still construct a cohesive trilogy which not only expands upon the previous films but also creates a satisfying and logical conclusion that the majority of fans are willing to accept.

It’s a lot to juggle, and Nolan mostly succeeds in tying everything together, although this film is far clunkier as a whole than its tightly woven predecessor. In Dark Knight Rises we see the direct consequences of the decisions Bruce made at the end of the last film, and become very aware of the toll that these choices have taken on our ailing hero. And our new villain/s are not only a renewed threat to Gotham’s citizens and ideology, but also function to tie-up loose ends from Batman’s past, and thereby providing the catalyst for Bruce's future.

It’s a neat package, and by the end of it all Nolan’s Bruce Wayne story feels adequately complete. When viewed in the context of all three films, The Dark Knight Rises is both an achievement and a solid final chapter to Nolan’s ongoing arc. If Batman Begins had given us a stronger villain with a more engaging motive, then I think this final film would have benefited greatly and had more interesting places to go. Instead it can only really draw upon that which has already been established, and does a decent job of working with what it's got, managing to deal with a multitude of threads efficiently.

And yet I never felt completely energized by the actual events of the film. Every scene had potential and events continued to bubble away in an intriguing manner, but I was always waiting for the film to totally explode in ways that I wasn’t already expecting. 

It’s really the plot itself that is the letdown for me, seeming almost a little pedestrian in stretches as it lumbers along its gargantuan task of ticking all of the necessary boxes required to deliver our hero from A to B. Insert vehicle chase here. Now another teary monologue. A quick fight scene here. Here’s the requisite twist at the end. Plot-wise it’s almost a remix of the first two films. It never really surprised me (bar the few fan-pleasing bones that are thrown right at the end) and none of the huge shocks that I was hoping for ever truly arrived.

I’m not going to explicitly spoil anything, but I’d tread carefully from here on if you haven’t seen the film...

Bane is a bizarrely engaging villain and Tom Hardy convincingly commands the screen with little regard for the Joker-sized shoes he’s been left to fill. At first he’s so odd that it’s disconcerting, but I grew to enjoy his calculated menace, although it never really has the over-the-top pay off he deserves. I imagine that Nolan is somewhat stifled by the PG-13 rating too. The Dark Knight was so surprising and subversive that we perhaps expect things to get a little darker and more adult than they are actually allowed to. Bane is sadly never given even a fraction of the shock of the Joker’s little “pencil trick”. Instead he routinely breaks the odd neck, but always just out of our view. It’s a simmering menace that’s never fully realised.

Much of my anticipation was in seeing exactly how Bane would “break the bat”. What would be the extent of this conflict and how would it tie into Batman's "end". We’ve all seen the poster imagery with the broken hero mask and this was the aspect of the film that intrigued me the most. However, the actual event occurs far too early in the film for it to be of any real consequence. Largely because we've all also seen the trailer footage of Batman fighting Bane in the riot on the streets, so we know he is going to pull through relatively unscathed so that he can appear in those scenes. Knowing this outcome already, Batman’s rehabilitation feels like something that we just have to get through and endure. It's divorced of any real tension, and frustratingly removes Batman from the story for an extended period of time.

And rather than escalating as the story progresses, Bane’s role actually diminishes, and I feel like he is robbed of the climax he deserves, exiting the film with more of a whimper.

Equally appealing (okay, she’s a lot more appealing) is Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (although she is never referred to as such) who is an encouragingly complicated counterpoint to the main clash. She  remains refreshingly selfish and neutral, independently slipping in and out of the central story's cracks. It’s a strong performance which doesn't rely on sexy cat-girl cliches. My favourite dialogue sequence in the entire film is the exchange that she has while dancing with Bruce. Her barely restrained delight at the oncoming change-of-fortune gave me tiny chills. But ultimately she too is a side-note to this story. A welcome complication, but not entirely essential to the thrust of the main plot. I love every second she’s on screen but this is not her story, and she’s as big a mystery at the end as she is at the beginning.

So whose story is this? With so many characters vying for our attention (including, it should be mentioned, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s heroic and likeable young cop) it’s sometimes difficult to say. Characters disappear from the story for long periods of time, occasionally crippling the momentum of their arc. And while this is ultimately Bruce Wayne’s story, Christopher Nolan has essentially made a Batman movie that is strangely devoid of Batman!

And that’s probably my biggest obstacle with this film. I go to see a Batman movie because I’m interested in Batman and I want to see him on the big screen! But in his continued quest for realism, Nolan puts Bruce in a situation that mostly excises Batman out of the story entirely. Nolan wants his Batman to be justifiable, but once you intellectualise a billionaire vigilante dressed as a bat, justifying his continued presence is difficult to do. Bruce Wayne, himself, can no longer justify the Batman, and so Batman is barely in this three hour film.

And when Bats does appear, the threat is so sprawling and out of control that he’s mostly relegated to flying around in his bat-plane, rather than solving crime on the street. Gone is the “dark”, gone is the “knight”,  and gone is the “detective”. This is a solid, entertaining thriller, and very much a unique Nolan creation, crafted with his trademark intelligence and style, but it never really feels like a Batman story. There are hints of this, sure - I loved watching Batman and Catwoman scuffle with thugs on a rooftop and banter in the plane - but these comic book moments are few and far between. It’s just not the goal of this particular series. And I can respect that choice, but the comic book Batman is someone I miss.

The good news is that these “obstacles” are easy to get past. There's too much good stuff here to let them sour your enjoyment. Nolan's work always deserves further thought, and I look forward to future viewings where I can take the time to unravel what’s there, as opposed to what I feel is missing. It's a film that certainly sticks with you. I’ve thought about it a lot these past few days and it’s filled with many memorable moments and images. I think that people will be talking about The Dark Knight Rises for a long time.

1 comment:

  1. I did like it a lot as a whole, but it did meander quite a bit. And I was really surprised/disappointed that they didn't kill off any characters. Fox was in the perfect position to be knocked off, but he was allowed to live. I wanted more consequence from the finale, but it all ended up feeling a touch too 'happy ending'. This is Batman, King of Angst. Give me more angst. But not Michael Caine's brand of angst. Making me cry during a superhero movie is so uncool.