Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises... then Returns.

by Scott Speegle

Batman. The consensus over here is that we like him. A lot. The thing is though that these days just about everybody and their mother likes Batman. The nerds don't own him anymore. We lost whatever battle it was that decided he belonged to everyone and now we have to live with the fallout. This isn't all bad however in that, just like everything else, with greater exposure to a wider variety of creative people, properties like comic characters should see changes that increase their depth and add to what makes them interesting.
This has largely been the case with Batman thus far. What the promotional image above strongly implies and communicates are a wide variety of very serious promises with far reaching implications. As arguably one of the most anticipated films ever, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of challenges in dealing with its choice of executing these promises or side stepping them entirely.

-hit the jump to read the full review. SPOILERS ABOUND. Also as a note: this review is written on the assumption that the reader has seen the film and is familiar with the characters involved.-

With something of this scope, this magnitude, the massive gravity this film holds where do we even start? Apparently Christopher Nolan saw fit to start us right in the middle of what it is by now something of a signature cinematic sequitur into the narrative to come. In 2008's Dark Knight it was the elaborate bank heist scene which serves as a vehicle to introduce The Joker. Here in Rises (we'll be referring to it thusly to get around its clumsy and stupid title) we get essentially the same treatment. Villain is doing something vague, mystery, goons fight for vague reasons, something of a larger plan is hinted at and then the whole bit is abruptly cut away from.

"Why is it necessary for all this to happen sideways Chris?" "Just trust me."

Call it a prologue or don't. It doesn't matter because either way all it amounts to is a thing we watch until actual exposition takes place. Overlooking things like Bane's incredibly irritating voice and already annoying mannerisms, the first scene in the movie feels so shoehorned and forced that it doesn't end soon enough. Leading into the third and final installment of a 'trilogy' is a hard thing to do granted, but you don't get to just throw up pictures of dead characters and fast forward things x number of years and call that integration of continuity. Now at this point there is substantial exploration of Bruce Wayne's psyche in the aftermath of The Dark Knight but this is probably where the film's biggest problem for me pops up: it's so brazen about stealing.
I should be clear that I don't like Christopher Nolan and I think that there can be a case made about his generous borrowing of ideas, especially in the realm of Batman but Rises has to be the most egregious example.
In its most bare bones form Rises is a strange fusion between The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (unfortunately sharing the exact abbreviation) and another work: Rocksteady's Arkham City.
If you've played that game then the similarities should be apparent enough, if you haven't you should know that it's a different set up to the same premise.

pictured: a screenshot from Arkham City. 

We'll get back to Arkham City though because most of the movie's inner workings set themselves to the stage of The Dark Knight Returns. It's not as annoying when someone steals something and does so much work hiding it that the whole of the work becomes something entirely unique. This isn't what Rises feels like though, it feels like someone stole a lot of stuff and was too arrogant to work at covering it up. Changing Bruce Wayne's 10 year retirement to 8 years, essentially mirroring James Gordon's situation of retirement, conveniently placing the reappeared Batman at odds with police over the supposed murder of Harvey Dent, the folklore status of a faded hero to younger cops and citizens. Piece after piece was taken and carefully rearranged into the framework of the universe these movies have tried to establish. Some 'borrowed' ideas don't even come from good sources (Anyone remember another superhero who wasted a ridiculous amount of time constructing their own logo out of flames?)
The thing is I think I could forgive all of this if Rises showed at least a little restraint. It literally steals from The Dark Knight Returns right up until the end, which isn't a good thing because the ending of that book is also terrible. I say terrible not as an objective statement of value, if you like it then you're more than welcome to do so. I say terrible more in the sense that it makes a promise to do something then takes an easy copout. Killing Batman is a serious thing to say you're going to do and saying it will probably get you attention. But if you don't actually do anything then you're kind of just that kid who got everyone to gather around you and watch you front flip down three flights of stairs only to call it off because the bell rang.

These are large problems and to be fair are ones that most casual fans have no trouble overlooking. Rises does do a lot of things well and on the whole it's very enjoyable. At this point in the game Michael Caine's Alfred and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox offer consistent quality that helps anchor the film in a familiar framework of elements that work well (although not being utilized in much of an emotional of narrative capacity). Gary Oldman and Christian Bale add to this while Joseph Gordon -Levitt and Anne Hathaway seem to offer an almost equal proportion of 'unbalancing' to the equation. Anne Hathaway might be the most irritating in that I don't want to be mad at her about anything but she finds a way to not work despite being gorgeous and entirely visually encompassing of her character. Her Catwoman is one whose entire motivation is to not be Catwoman. Therefore her Selina Kyle is one who doesn't really enjoy anything about anything that is happening. This leads to the squandering of the relationship that could have been fostered between her and Bruce Wayne, which is only developed very hastily very late in the game.

"I'm going to kiss you once now for no reason and then again much later at a very inopportune time because that's empowering or some other shit."

True to her nature of guile and deception Catwoman at first aligns herself with whatever side will serve her own means and is where some of the films more complex and intentional bits can be found but ultimately Catwoman as a character stops developing and just does whatever Batman wants.

It shouldn't need to be stated but the action and fight scenes in Rises are for the most part superb, albeit too hyper focused in spots. I'm still not at all sold on the decision to include Bane in the Rises mythos because I think frankly he is a lazy choice to write and his arrangement in a hierarchy including Ra's Al Ghul feels labored and clumsy. And while I don't favor the overall execution of Bane in the film, he does offer at least the physical imposition and immediacy that Batman has not yet faced in this continuity. Therein lies probably the film's biggest strength: Big fights and big set pieces set within its own unique aesthetic (as much I'll point out what Christopher Nolan borrows from I'll also say that he has worked at making at least the visual aspect of his Batman unique). The brief encounters Batman has with Bane are gratifying if only for the fan service they provide (at the end of their first fight someone in the audience loudly proclaimed "That's from the comics!" No shit.) But honestly how much is that worth? You're sitting at the helm of the biggest iteration of Batman that has ever been, if you can't at least provide the most base element people want to see then you probably wouldn't have been allowed to make another movie.

The Dark Knight Rises: an elaborate set up to one glorious moment of gay chicken.

Rises does a lot. It glances into the realm of possibilities which would surround the death of a symbol, it laughably makes the analogy that that same symbol is nothing more than an angry child, it employs some degree of tact to explore ideas of terrorism, it attempts to make grand statements about what consequence actions have. It does all of this but still is wrapped up neatly in an easily digestible package that doesn't really stir anything up. It has a myriad of weird casting bits that muddy its vision (Tom Lennon? Seriously?). And while it tries to tie this installment into the established continuity with brief cameos, Liam Neeson's is painful to say the least while Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow is quite welcome despite his comical perch on thousands of desks, it still feels like a tacked on afterthought.

And as bad as all of these problems are I can't help but feel that the biggest problem is me seeing these things as problems. I literally could not shut off the part of me which broke down every miniscule aspect into pieces that just weren't fun to look at. There was a time when I was happy with whatever decision a writer or artist made just because I was able to be a part of it, enthralled by it. This version of me didn't break down each of these decisions and see if they conformed to my idea of the 'right way' they should be executed. This version of me actually wanted to be Batman and not just draw him. This version of me could actually enjoy things that other people worked on and not be jealous of them. This version of me also thought puka shells were awesome so there's that. So what Batman doesn't die in Rises, Batman is awesome and he shouldn't die. So what there are plot holes and things that don't make sense? So what? What all of this is about is people being able to have fantasies and see them be realized in a more gratifying way. The Dark Knight Rises does that and I think that's damn well enough.


Thanks for reading.

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