Just so you know, there will be serious spoilers here if you haven’t seen this movie. But no more than there already are on Wikipedia.
Seven years ago, Christopher Nolan (don’t trust him; he doesn’t truncate his name) made Batman Begins, which was an unexpectedly stylish, believable, and satisfying resurrection (or reboot, or retelling, or whatever) of the Batman character and universe on the cinema screen. I went in with almost no expectations and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Three years later, we saw The Dark Knight at a preview screening, full of über-fans in Batman t-shirts and Heath-Ledger-as-Joker make-up and purple suits, and we were pretty much blown away. We saw it twice more (I think; certainly once more) in the cinema, and have subsequently watched it another half a dozen times at least on DVD. We’ve watched it so often that it’s become a standing joke to say to each other “should we watch that Batman film everyone’s talking about?” as if we’ve never seen it. I wrote about it at length on an old blog, and would happily call it one of my favourite films ever.
(I’m not a slavish fanboy, though; The Dark Knight had issues and things that could have been improved, but is more than the sum of its parts, both successes and failings.)
Last night we went to see The Dark Knight Rises, which we’ve essentially been waiting to do for either two or four years, depending how you look at it – since the last Batman instalment, or since Nolan’s between-Bats film, Inception. It’s fair to say that we were looking forward to it mightily.
Sadly, Em and I (she, if anything, likes Batman and Nolan’s interpretation thereof even more than I do) both left the cinema feeling a little deflated and disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about The Dark Knight Rises. No jump-the-shark moment. No poor performances. No, as far as I could tell from one viewing, bad cuts (there’s a doozy in The Dark Knight when Alfred is talking to Bruce as he stitches himself up; camera cuts to another angle of Bruce, his voice still talking but his mouth closed and still for a fraction of a second: it bugs me every time, especially given how often Nolan is described as “meticulous”). The Dark Knight Rises just didn’t quite grab us the way that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight did.
Score and editing
For a start, I feel as though the pacing, editing, and score didn’t work together here as effectively as they did in The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was gifted with an extraordinary, avant-garde, tension building, rising single tone that pierced every scene the Joker graced and added a veneer of nervous apprehension regarding what the hell this crazed lunatic might do next. Smash a pencil through someone’s head? Set fire to a few million dollars in cash? Explode a hospital?
The Dark Knight used its score and its astonishingly taut editing to create a sense of unbearable, inexorable momentum, only losing its way a little with the citizens vs criminals face-off on the ferries. The Dark Knight Rises never seemed to quite build that synthesis of score and editing to ramp the tension up to maximum; it got close, but maybe Nolan and company had just done it so well before that matching or surpassing previous efforts becomes an impossible task.
Which leads to the next, sad point. Ledger’s death denied Nolan the use of a truly great screen villain for Batman. Bane just can’t compete – he isn’t a great baddy. Certainly he’s physically frightening (he, of course, literally breaks Batman across his knee, as Bane must do), and with his startling mask (which looks like hands trying to wrench his jaw apart) he resembles a muzzled fighting dog. Which is interesting: after Batman is bitten by a dog at the start of The Dark Knight, and the Joker iconically leans out of a police car window, lapping at the air like a happy dog later in that film, and barks like a dog in one of his video messages to the city (“LOOK AT ME”), I wonder if this is a deliberate theme for Nolan; villains as mad dogs.
Bane takes an entire city hostage for three months (which pass in mere seconds of screen time, and consequently don’t feel all that perilous or plausible), smashes the Batman to bits with his bare fists and throws him down a metaphorically bottomless pit, raids the stock exchange and destroys a football stadium full of people, but he never seems as unstoppable, as fascinatingly, charismatically crazy, or as dangerous, as the Joker. I didn’t think this would bother me – I know Bane’s schtick, his USP, his use in the comics, I knew what to expect – but unfortunately it did. Tom Hardy is a great actor, tremendously watchable and likable, and capable of imbuing total nutjob characters with great charisma (go and watch Bronson), but he’s literally like a muzzled dog here. Also, his voice really is a little silly, and, at times, incomprehensible; not just his muffled enunciations but also his strange accent.
Not enough is made of Bane’s motivation either; ‘evil man does evil things because he is evil’ is a rote and unsatisfying comic book baddy motivation which doesn’t really work in otherwise grown-up films; there’s a hint that Bane is motivated, right before he dies, by love (possibly inappropriate, given that he first knows her as a little girl when he’s a fully-grown man) for Talia al Ghul, but there’s nary a split second to ponder this before he’s kaput.
Talia al Ghul
Talia isn’t explored enough either; not enough is made of her relationship with Bruce in order to make her reveal at the climax emotionally satisfying. She’d also be much more satisfying, and plausible, if she wasn’t just slavishly following dead daddy’s plan. If she’d been something more than just a cypher villain, she could have been awesome. Also, Cotillard, though fantastic as Édith Piaf, is a strange screen presence in both Inception and here: glamorous but strangely hollow. Apparently Talia is the only character Batman has ever canonically slept with, though, Bat-nerds, so Nolan plays it according to the book here as well as with Bane smashing Batman’s vertebrae over his knee.
Why oh why is Catwoman dolled out in a lonely-fanboy-pleasing black rubber superhero suit? There’s no explanation as to why it exists, how she got it, or why she wears it, and given that she’s never referred to as “Catwoman”, it would seem more fitting if she just wore a regular black jumpsuit or something, like a real jewel thief might. I’m not opposed to characters arriving with no backstory (the Joker didn’t have one, and that worked fantastically), but there are ways to deal with it: “nothing in his pockets but knives and lint” is almost all you need.
I actually found Hathaway’s performance satisfying, sassy, and amusing, and a welcome spark of charm in an otherwise really quite exceptionally bleak film, which I didn’t really expect. But the catsuit was an annoyance that seemed at odds with the universe that’s been created over the films. When she jutted her arse in the air as she climbed astride the Bat-pod, it seemed like a nod too far to comicbook misogyny.
I’ve actually often had a problem with the way Nolan treats his female characters; they do seem to be very often simple Hollywood clichés, vehicles to inspire men to great things rather than there to achieve anything for themselves. Hell, in Inception Cotillard practically plays a MacGuffin. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s father imparts line after line of pastoral wisdom to his son, whilst his mother barely opens her mouth to speak before being gunned down.
Other stuff that left a disappointing taste
The Bat, Batman’s new helicopter-thing toy/vehicle, was a little problematic. Though generally utilised in a fine, plausible way, in the climactic scenes it suddenly weaves through Gotham, dodging bombs and missiles and then ferrying a nuclear bomb out to sea more like a spectacular, physics-defying creation from GI Joe or Transformers. It lacked the physicality of the Tumbler, Nolan’s interpretation of the Batmobile, and thus the realism that this trilogy been so satisfyingly grounded in.
Speaking of realism, once again you see nobody bleed, even when shot to ribbons by sub-machine guns or brutally smashed with massive fists. In fact, the only person you see bruised and battered is, again, Batman himself. Partly this is a nod to the unrealism of comicbooks, partly a concession to 12A / PG13 certification, and partly a device to demonstrate the physical as well as mental toll taken on Batman over the years. With The Dark Knight I felt that this was a great, clever, hyper-real move (Batman pummels the Joker’s head, and all that happens is his make-up comes off), but for some reason here I found it a little childish, mainly when Matthew Modine’s deputy police chief ended up shot to death with not a mark on him. Conversely, I’m happy that Bane breaks a lot of necks, but always off screen.
The opening plane hijack was a little disappointing, too, seeming like a cross between the audacious henchman-kill-henchman heist from The Dark Knight’s opening and the extraordinary, anti-gravity hotel corridor fight scene from Inception. Sadly it lacked the shocking novelty and audaciousness of either; possibly because shots from it had been glimpsed in the trailers.
The use of flashbacks to Batman Begins seemed a little strange too; the film started almost directly on from The Dark Knight, with no exposition or context, assuming that the viewer knew exactly what was happening and what was going on. After this tone setting, it seemed strange to then almost patronise the audience by not trusting them to remember what had gone before.
Batman himself doesn’t get to do very many Batman-esque things; there’s precious little detective work (except by Gordon-Levitt), and barely any crepuscular beatings of baddies, one of the most satisfying aspects of the previous two films for me – Batman is meant to move in the shadows, to scare the hell out of people, make villains afraid of the night; seeing him duke it out on the steps of city hall in broad daylight is just weird.
Finally, how does Bruce Wayne get back into Gotham, when a major plot point is that it’s impossible to get back into Gotham? I know he’s got mad skills, but I’d have liked at least some attempt at an explanation.
But still, Batman!
I probably sound, after 1,700 words of moaning, as if I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises, but that’s not true: I enjoyed it an awful lot, didn’t look at my watch once, and felt genuinely moved and satisfied by the closing scenes. Christian Bale turns in his best performance yet as Bruce/Batman, tying the two personas seamlessly into one damaged, sympathetic whole. Alfred, Gordon, and Lucius are all, though perhaps a little under-used, as charismatic and human as ever. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific, and the treatment of his character shows that Nolan can find a way to bring even the most potentially eye-rolling bits of comicbooks to plausible, satisfying life on celluloid (he’s Robin, if you didn’t guess, but sans tights, thank the lord).
It looks, as with all Nolan films from Memento onwards, absolutely sumptuous; not real but hyper-real, dream-like, comicbook like. I’d love to see him do straight sci-fi, create a world unlike ours rather than one so like it in almost every way as to be uncanny, which is what he’s done with Batman and what he did with Inception.
We’ll probably go and see The Dark Knight Rises again soon; as much as anything I have loyalty to two cinemas in town and feel guilty for going to one and not the other to see it! But also I want to assess how much I felt disappointed; did The Dark Knight Rises simple fail to live up to impossible, outrageous expectations, or did it actually fail me as a fan? I hope, and strongly suspect, that it was merely the former.