Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The last film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy leaves me terribly conflicted. On the one hand, I recognize that it intends to be a thoughtful provocative movie that rises above the genre it is a part of, but I still come away from it feeling that it is somewhat flawed. Similarly, I have tried with all of my critical faculties to think of The Dark Knight Rises as its own film, but I continue to be unable to separate from its predecessors in the trilogy, especially The Dark Knight but also at crucial moments, Batman Begins.

The overall subject of the movie is redemption, which should not come as much of a surprise since that is generally the subject of the third segment of most trilogies. Given the way that The Dark Knight ends, it should be obvious that one of the characters most in need of redemption is Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). While the audience and some of the primary characters in the movie know that Batman is not the villain whose role he was forced to take on, some years of silence have made Wayne a hermit I his own huge estate and Batman something of an urban legend, used to threaten misbehaving children. But the movie's opening scenes also make it clear that Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is also suffering from the decision to demonize Batman. Despite prosperity for Gotham City in the wake of Harvey Dent's "sacrifice", Gordon suspects that it is all a sham since it is based on a lie. The logic surrounding this is not clear: while Dent's name and the laws that were enacted at his death have led to the renaissance of Gotham City, there is no indication that in and of themselves, those laws are unconstitutional or immoral. Smart people can recognize that good can come from a tragedy, and not enough attention is paid to why these laws are necessarily a bad thing. But this plays an important part in where the movie goes.

A new character is introduced, Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who is consistently portrayed as a good woman forced to do bad things for reasons that are not altogether clear. Catwoman is regularly called upon to rise above her criminal background, to strive for something better…to redeem the belief that Batman has in her. And then there's the villain of the movie, Bane (Tom Hardy), whose motives are slowly revealed over the length of the picture, a woeful story of redemption as he tries to rise above his terrible and ignominious birth.

As Bane enacts his convoluted plot to separate Gotham City from the rest of the world, we are often subject to his tirades about the inequality of society, about how the wealthy spurn the needs of those who are not so fortunate. It's an interesting motivation, garnering the attention of the press and politicians alike. These jeremiads mirror the best speeches of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, but what political commentaries seem to overlook is that it's all a lie. Bane makes it clear to Batman that his motivation is to hurt Batman for his destruction of the League of Assassins in Batman Begins, and the best way to do that is to incapacitate him and make him watch as his beloved Gotham City is slowly destroyed. The result is that the powerful and chilling speeches by the Joker are blunted when Bane speaks them, not only because they are not what he really thinks but also because of the gimmick of his talking through a breathing mask (for some barely explained reason necessary for his continued survival), which makes it extremely difficult to understand his words at some points in the film. This is particularly frustrating because Bane actually speechifies a lot, and I can't help but feel that we are supposed to be as chilled by the truths he speaks as we were when the Joker ranted in the previous movie. The power of what he says is blunted by how obviously he does not believe what he says, and so we get long portions of movie where he talks with difficulty about things that aren't really crucial to the movement of the film.

There's also the somewhat unbelievable method by which Bruce Wayne recovers from the horrendous injury that Bane puts upon him. I'm trying very hard here not to give any spoilers away, but if you keep up with cultural events, you may remember the press when Bane did the same thing to Batman in the comic books in the 90s. At any rate, Batman's recovery is nothing short of miraculous, even blowing away how quickly he recovered in the comics.

Thus far, it appears that I am disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises, but it really is only in comparison with what its predecessors did. A lot of the ground covered in this movie feels like it has been done before and better, though some of the effects are spectacular. Even the huge plot twist in the last act is foreshadowed by the exact same trick in a previous movie. But standing by itself, The Dark Knight Rises is better than most superhero films outside its own series. I've been asked by a number of folks to compare it to The Avengers, but to me that's like comparing a summer action movie to a drama vying for Oscar consideration—they both have their strong points and do what they set out to do well, but one is intended purely to entertain while the other has depth and thoughtfulness. Honestly, most of the action sequences in The Dark Knight Rises are just sidenotes, the working out of issues that have been explored by other methods throughout the movie. They verge on spectacular but could have been given shorter shrift since the focus is never on the cool toys (and there are some cool toys). That Nolan decided to not treat them as incidental is a testament to his storytelling—giving all the parts of his story the same masterful treatment.

One of the strengths The Dark Knight Rises shares with the earlier films is a stunning score by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer's collaboration with director Christopher Nolan has been powerful; Zimmer has never been a slouch, but his work on the Batman trilogy and Inception are models of how movie scores should be used to inform the story on the screen. While it will always be difficult to not think of Danny Elfman as the creator of the Batman soundtrack, I have to recognize that it's mostly out of repetition I know it so well. Zimmer's soundtrack, while not as iconic, is I think much more powerful than the sum of Elfman's work.

The Dark Knight Rises also excels in its minor parts—Michael Caine continues to establish himself as the archetypal Alfred, Morgan Freeman is strong as Lucius Fox, and Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt exude charisma in their underspoken roles.

The Dark Knight Rises is a good film, an important milestone in the history of the superhero genre in the movies. It just suffers from "younger brother syndrome": it has to work hard to get out from under the shadow of members of its own family who have gone before, and it never does quite enough to succeed in standing alone.

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