Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Second take (2012)

In  Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns comic, Lana Lang is attempting to defend Batman: "We live in the shadow of crime . . . with the unspoken understanding that we are victims-of fear, of violence, of social impotence. A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been in our hands. We are under siege  -  He's showing us that we can resist." It's an important point, one that has seemed crucial to Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman universe. The idea here in those lines is about transferring some amount of autonomy to the citizens of Gotham city - "the power is, and always has been in our hands".  More on that in  a bit.

It's a bit hard - nay impossible - to be completely objective about a movie series if you've been the kind of fan that Nolan's Batman films made you.  If you were a proud comic book nerd, you gushed at the ways the movies had paid homage to different parts of the canon, ultimately weaving in a new narrative that stands proudly aside the best of what DC has to offer. And if you were just the regular cinemagoer, you marvelled at the complexity of the narrative, the brilliance of the performances, the sheer thrill value of the movies. 

The problem with being a fan is that it becomes particularly difficult to write a review resembling anything approaching balance. I sensed fleeting moments of disappointment within myself while watching the Dark Knight Rises, and yet when a friend began dissing the movie as we walked out, the rabid fan in me took over. You will not dismiss this movie, the fan said, you will acknowledge the brilliance of Nolan's vision, you will accept that this is the best conclusion to a motion picture trilogy yet, you will ... you get the drift.  But over the days that have passed since I saw the movie, it is that mild disappointment that has festered and grown, not the admiration for the parts that worked. 

Try as I might, I have been unable to love The Dark Knight Rises the way I loved some of its individual parts, or the way I loved its predecessors.  So what did I appreciate?

One part of Bane's plan: the idea of having Gotham cut off from the external world and be forced to retreat into a Hobbesian state of nature. The fact that it must face this, its greatest challenge punctuated the absence of Batman,  and also the absence of its state sanctioned law enforcers. To the extent the movie focuses on that, its conflicts are grandiose, its stakes never higher.

Anne Hathaway: Her Selina Kyle takes pride of place in the canon of magnetic characters Nolan has etched out. Every line reading she does is delicious, and every time she's on screen, the movie fires up with a vitality it lacks otherwise.

The sheer spectacle: Except for the opening sequence which was filmed in a curiously flat manner, the set pieces in this finale upstage anything that's come before by a long shot. The mid-movie football field implosion is fantastic, as is the frenetic final half hour.

But then,  there is the question of what the movie does to Gotham city. This has been a series as much about the battle for Gotham's soul as it has been about Bruce Wayne's.  The Dark Knight crystallized this by giving us the two standout sequences of the series - and perhaps cinema as a whole.  There was the terrible choice that the citizens of the city had to make as they sat on two explosives-laden ferry boats; and there was the choice that Batman has to make when he finds out the lives of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent are in imminent danger.  The citizens make the ethical choice despite all indications to the contrary (of course Batman himself is on shakier ground here, but that's another story). Despite the Joker's best efforts, he is unable to tilt the citizenry into anarchy, thus also proving something essential: Gotham is a city worth saving. The League of Shadows might have believed it was beyond hope, and the Joker may believe it is beyond hope, but the citizens by choosing to not press the trigger prove them wrong. They take, as Lana Lang would say, some amount of power into their hands. Social order prevails.

Cut to The Dark Knight Rises. The ferry-boat thought experiment has now been in a way expanded to include all of Gotham within its ambit. Anarchy reigns wide in the city - but not quite. There is also the fascistic regime of the Scarecrow presided "sentencing" court, where the only  sentence is, effectively,  death. Across the city, the 99% seem to resort to thuggery and looting (thanks for demonizing the Occupy movement guys!). The law enforcers are of course trapped underground, until they're rescued for the final standoff.

Who are they and Batman fighting for? For a city that's content to finish itself off, bomb or no bomb? For a citizenry that is unable to raise its voice, take a stand, open its doors to kindness, demonstrate some sense of an ethical compass?  I don't know where the Gotham of the last movie disappeared to, but it's not on display here. Unlike the Dark Knight, the city doesn't earn its salvation.

While my biggest gripe with the Dark Knight Rises is its (mis)treatment of Gotham, there's also the fact of its alarmingly ham-handed dialogue - poor Michael Caine is saddled with a clunky bit of exposition which he is required to deliver through blubbering tears. Then there is that disappointingly conventional idea of a nuclear bomb serving as the plot driver, devolving into an annoyingly familiar race against the clock. Batman's ultimate enemy is really chaos and anarchy - to saddle the conclusion of this trilogy of ideas with such a stock Hollywood device feels like a failure of ambition.  Also, Bane? Doesn't work. After the physical fear toxins of the first and the mind games of the second, to have it all come down to a question of sheer brawn?

That said, the movie still works as a conclusion to the arc of Batman/Bruce Wayne.  "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely. Are you ready to begin?". That's the challenge Ra's al-Ghul puts before him early in Batman Begins, and that's a theme that has echoed through the trilogy. The Bruce Wayne who was ready to shoot his parents' murderer in cold blood has disappeared, replaced by a man who refuses to engage in retribution, to a man ready to sacrifice everything for his beloved city, and finally, a man who comes full circle. As we leave him, he's able to close one journey and pass on his identity to another.

Gotham, as we say goodbye to it, still needs Batman. But Bruce Wayne, finally, doesn't.

Look, it still works. It works spectacularly as a comic book movie in general, it works perfectly as a Batman story in particular, and it is just about serviceable as a conclusion to this fantastic series of films. But, to echo the words of Commissioner Gordon, the Dark Knight Rises is not the movie I needed it to be. Maybe, with the over-high expectations, it's the one I deserved? 

Thursday, July 26, 2012



All superheroes are ultimately tragic characters. Most of them lost their parents in terrible circumstances;  others lost their entire planet. Oh, Marvel may put a happy spin on things with wise-cracking alcoholic superheroes, but donning a mask and cape and saving hapless women from rapists makes for a lonely life.  But few superheroes have fared better from a gritty reboot than the Batman.  The adoption of his phobia as his symbol, the filth of the city of Gotham and the excellent decision to omit the placement of underwear over tights have all helped make the gritty reboot a thing.  It has fared so well that the Bat Nipples are now forgiven and nearly obscured from memory.

The Dark Knight Rises brings Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to a close. It began with Bruce Wayne's childhood trauma of losing his parents, his rise through the ranks of the League of Shadows, him defending Gotham against all manner of evil, whether or not it wanted him to and then saving Gotham again from the clutches of The Joker.  The Dark Knight now occupies the place of the superhero movie that was so good that its sequel could never hope to top it (?)

Now everybody wants to know if it was as good as The Dark Knight  and there are the inevitable comparisons between The Joker and Bane.  This is where most people will fall in two categories:  people who have invested so much love and time in TDK that TDKR will be loved regardless and people who have raised their expectations so high that anything short of  Greatest Movie Ever Made On the Planet Till Forever More will be loathed.  And as much as I believe that a series should be judged in its entirety,  everybody knows that the second movie in a trilogy is (sometimes) ALWAYS the best and then there's the Dreaded Curse of the Third Film.  Once you have a bad third film, the entire series is just tainted.  Is there anyone who can say "Spiderman Trilogy" or "Matrix Trilogy" without looking nauseated?

Despite having so much riding on this film,  Nolan's Batman series shrugged off that curse and TDKR provided a fitting conclusion to the series.  It wasn't perfect, but then, neither was The Dark Knight.  Seriously, what was that ending?  Why did Batman have to take the fall for Dent's death? If they really and truly wanted a martyr, why couldn't they have just put out a story that the Joker killed him or that he died from septicaemia?  In the words of one inimitable Supreme Court advocate, "[because] Batman is a drama queen."

At the end of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne set aside his Batman persona and let the memory of Harvey Dent's idealism and Giuliani-ness save the city and clean the streets off the mafia gangs.  8 years after Harvey's death, Bruce Wayne is no longer Batman; he's a broken man mourning the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes.  But he must once again put on his Batsuit and save the city from a new kind of evil: a deliberate, precise and cold brute of a man, Bane and his ruthless team of sycophants who are intent on completing Ra'as Al-Ghul's pet project: destroying Gotham city.

Bane was a fantastic character and Tom Hardy played him so convincingly.  Where the Joker was insane and unsettling,  Bane is just flat out terrifying.  He is insurmountably strong and his brawny physique is complemented by his calm, deliberate and calculated speech.  His first fight with Batman was gut-wrenchingly visceral and ups his respect level considerably.  Hardy is a fine lesson to actors that you can have your face obscured for an entire film and still manage to be memorable.  Unfortunately, the character was let down by a weak ending which took away from all his strengths while adding little to his character.  In any case, a weak Bane story line did not ruin the film because he was not as central to this film as the Joker was to the last.  Joker's story arc was to remind Batman that there is a yin to every yang; that there is no Batman without the Joker and no Joker without Batman.

On the other hand, this film went back to some of the unanswered questions from Batman Begins.  Are Batman and Bruce Wayne two different people? Does Gotham need Batman?  The Bruce Wayne from the first film was a vengeful man who wanted to clean the streets of Gotham because his parents died at the hands of a common criminal.  But the Bruce Wayne we see now, almost a decade later is old and weary.  His thirst for vengeance brought him nothing except more loss. His alter ego wasn't stopping crime as much as it was creating other crazies in masks.  While he no longer doubts whether or not Gotham needs a Batman, Bruce finally begins to question his need to be Batman.

As for Catwoman, full disclosure: I cant stand Anne Hathaway. I did my best to be unbiased but have you met a more yawnworthy Catwoman?  Oh, I'm glad she wasn't licked back to life cats or something, but she was just so goddamn boring and without individuality.  Even her fight sequences were boring.  Apart from one or two good lines, she would've been completely lost in the epicness of the film if it wasn't for the fact that she was wearing a latex suit and was straddling a bike in a way that only Megan Fox could (Transformers). I get that they didn't want to festishize her like Michelle Pfeiffer but girlfriend's already got the skintight suit, red lipstick and mask, might as well make her purr her lines.  But Joseph Gordon-Lewitt, on the other hand!  Now there's a side-character who managed to stand out.  He wasn't just the young idealist foil to Gordon/Batman's jaded veteran but he was no hothead either.  He managed to combine Bruce Wayne's anger and Commissioner Gordon's composure and forged a very interesting character.  I can't wait to see Gordon-Lewitt in more movies that aren't 500 Days of Summer.

There were also a few ridiculous things which are to be expected in a film about masked vigilantes like Batman taking the time to rig up a large-scale pyrotechnic marvel of a Bat symbol while Gotham is being ripped to shreds.  Was it awesome? Yes.  Was it symbolically relevant to the plot? Sure!  Did I cheer and clap like mad when it was lit up? Of course.  But one merely questions the timing of setting it up, that's all.  And while I enjoyed the film: the nail-biting climax, the cool new gadgets and superb subplots and side-characters like Gordon, the conclusion to Bruce Wayne's story arc was supremely out of character, unsatisfying and totally unnecessary.  You may disagree, but never forget that Conservapedia has now claimed this film as one of its Greatest Conservative Films (because it correctly portrays those Occupy Wall Street hippies as thugs and murderers). Along with those other conservative classics like Ghostbusters and The Lord of the Rings.   Yeah.

Also, the reboot has been announced.