July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (7/29/2012)

Lettergrade: C

I liked The Dark Knight Rises well enough while watching it, I suppose, but nevertheless something about it felt really "off."  As time goes on and I think back through the various scenes and plot turns, that feeling only intensifies... the whole thing makes less sense to me, and the "whats," "whys," and "hows" of the movie grow steadily more baffling and less satisfying.  It concludes the series, no doubt about that, but in order to get there it amps everything up to a preposterously epic scale that feels completely out of step with the other movies in the series.

Now I thought Batman Begins was good when it came out in 2005, but it didn't necessarily feel like the Batman I knew as a kid right away.  This is the part where I should admit, as I feel I have to in pretty much every blog post I've written this summer, that I'm not a comic book reader at all.  I mostly know Batman from his other films, from the terrific animated series that was on in the 90s, and from the classic Adam West rendering from the 60s, which, while not faithful to the source material at all, was (and still is) a hell of a lot of fun.

But anyway, if Begins didn't entirely sell me on director Christopher Nolan's take on the material, its sequel - 2008's fantastic The Dark Knight - is what turned me into a believer.  I probably saw it 4 or 5 times in theaters (including twice in IMAX, where the 65mm footage was completely thrilling), and whenever I've tried to revisit the Tim Burton movies from the late 80s / early 90s in the years since, I find them almost unbearably thin and simplistic by comparison.  Nolan's Dark Knight kinda redefined what Batman was for me, and even made Begins seem like a better picture after the fact... a rare case where a sequel pulls that off.

If there's a downside to liking a movie as much as I liked that one, however, it's that any potential follow-up has nowhere to go but down, almost to point where I was kinda hoping they would not attempt one.  I tried to be cognizant of that when we went to go see the third picture this weekend, but I am convinced that multiple aspects of it would have still rubbed me the wrong way regardless.

Rises starts some eight years after the events of the previous movie.  New legislation enacted after the murder of Harvey Dent (who became the villainous Two Face toward the end of the second movie, unbeknownst to the general public) has made organized crime in the city practically disappear, and Batman himself has disappeared along with it.  The reclusive Bruce Wayne hasn't been seen publicly in years, and mostly limps around the recently rebuilt Wayne manor, suffering from the emotional and physical effects of the last movie.  He's drawn back into action, however, when the sinister Conrad Bain arrives in Gotham, and puts a plan in motion that ultimately allows him to recreate the exact same scenario from Escape From New York: Quarantining the city off from the rest of the United States by blowing up all the tunnels and bridges so no one can leave, etc, and essentially holding everyone at ransom.

Now, it's that last bit (the "taking-the-whole-city-hostage-for-months-on-end" thing) that totally lost me.  While I didn't find Bane or Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle / Catwoman to be terribly interesting baddies, it's the size and scope of what they're up to in this picture that seemed to betray the more reality-based spirit of the earlier films and take the movie into "bullshit summer time-filler" territory.  In fact, this whole aspect of the movie undercuts one of the most interesting decisions that Nolan made with the earlier two pictures: To discard anything relating to the series' lore that was fantasy-based or even mildly supernatural or far-fetched, and to instead concentrate on grounding Bruce Wayne / Batman in as real of a modern urban environment as possible in which there could still plausibly be a costumed vigilante crime-fighter with a bunch of cool gadgets.

Now, none of the Nolan Batman movies have entirely pulled this off (part 1 opens with a lengthy segment where a billionaire ex-pat trains with a bunch of ninjas in a remote mountain-top lair, for fuck's sake), but in The Dark Knight especially, the view we get into the corrupt inner-workings of Gotham City politics and its police department felt sleek, modern, and real enough, as does the irrational way in which the citizens panic when the Joker's relatively modest attacks on the public start to heat up.  The Gotham City mafia in the first two movies largely consists of Tom Wilkinson and then Eric Roberts putting on the most stereotypical Italian accents imaginable, and yet there's still something there that felt very real and relevant to the cities of today... as if at least some of it could happen..  There was an omnipresent dread in the air, as if all judges and government officials had been bought off everywhere and anyone can be gotten to just by making a call.

That earlier Nolan take on Batman was effective because it existed in the framework of a city that felt more plausible than the Burton / Schumacher films.  This new one doesn't.  It exists in fantasy land:  Where there are flying cars, and you can apparently create massive tunnels under a major metropolitan area and pack them with explosives without any of the utility workers noticing, and where there's a secret prison on the other side of the world that you can get to and from instantly and without explanation (and which also has electricity and cable television, somehow).

Another overall comment is that although the picture is quite long, it also feels like it is missing a great deal of connective tissue that might have better sold what was happening.  Let's pick on the title character again... to recap, Bruce Wayne is supposedly completely wrecked after the events of the last movie (although he didn't seem that beaten up to me when the end credits rolled last time).  Bruce hadn't been Batman or even spent much time out in public for EIGHT YEARS, but seems to return to both with almost casual ease in the course of a single afternoon in this movie, in spite of how extreme his injuries apparently were.  Once he decides to be Batman again, the movie very easily slides into "bat-business as usual" for a while, as if very little time has passed since he had last prowled around the city fighting crime.  No readjustment period, nothing... just right back into it.

And although I don't want get into too much minutia here, there are several big questions that I keep wondering about… So Bruce retreated into a reclusive shell, but was apparently still working on a massive energy project at the same time that just happens to figure prominently into the second half of the movie, huh?  Why did Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox keep making expensive Bat-gear between this movie and the previous one?  It is established way early in the movie that Wayne Enterprises is having significant financial problems, and furthermore Bruce was very adamant that he was retired from vigilante crime fighting...  Seems like Lucius was pissing away an ungodly amount of cash on the off chance that Bruce didn't really mean it.  On the night that Batman returns to action - when he breaks up the Bane's positively ludicrous heist of the New York Stock Exchange (which now seems to be in Gotham City, by the way) - how did Batman have the clairvoyance to park his new hover-car in a random alley downtown just in case he might need it?  When Bruce Wayne loses all his money, how come his car is repossessed and the electricity is turned off his mansion within, like, a couple hours?

Bane himself, played by Tom Hardy with a voice that falls somewhere between Patrick Stewart's and Goldmember from Austin Powers 3, is an empty shell of a character who spouts bullshit platitudes about "starting fires" and "people rising up" endlessly.  It's a weird anti-rich sentiment that oddly mirrors 2011's "Occupy" movement, but with none of the substance or logic.  There's a positively ridiculous scene where he releases most of the inmates of Gotham City Prison and stands atop a van giving a lengthy and long-winded speech that I could barely comprehend because I fixed on how undeniably stupid he looked while giving it.  

Plus, both in that scene and elsewhere, what he was talking about didn't make any sense, and by "giving Gotham back to the people" he mostly meant all the criminals, but only long enough so Bane and his cohorts could blow the whole thing up in anyway.  Why did he want to create some sort of class uprising when the end-goal was just to destroy the city?  Why didn't he just do that as soon as he had the quarantined off the city and had the doomsday device he needed instead of giving Batman so much time to regroup?

Anyway, I don't know... Perhaps the most damning thing I can say about The Dark Knight Rises is that I looked forward to seeing for years, and I typically don't feel that way about comic book movies or summer tent-pole product anymore.  Now that I've seen it once, however, I can't really envision any scenario anywhere down the line where I'd want to take three hours to sit through it again.

Check out my post on The Dark Knight from 2008 here.

And read this parody from Cracked.com... although the guy who wrote it said he really liked the movie, I think it's the most concise road map of everything about this movie that doesn't add up or entirely make sense:

Oh, and when you've done all that, watch this: