How I’d Fix It: The Dark Knight Rises
In light of some of the… “discourse” generated by reviews of The Dark Knight Rises that have been less than positive, I feel my standard disclaimer might need to be bolded for extra emphasis this week:
I’m not going to claim that this is “the right way” to handle this material. I also don’t claim to be an expert on filmmaking or story. And I certainly will admit that I don’t know the behind-the-scenes deal with this movie, so I have no idea what kind of machinations went on for the film to turn out the way that it did. All I have is the finished project, and while I won’t pretend that I could somehow make the movie perfect, I do think that these thoughts point to aspects of the film that definitely needed improvement.
…Please don’t send me death threats.
Also, I AM NOT SAYING THAT THE DARK KNIGHT RISES IS A BAD MOVIE. Because it isn’t. But then, I’m writing about it for this column, so there are more than a few flaws in it… and they’re pretty significant. I’ve generally been rather cooler on Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy than a lot of other geeks. I get what he’s been going for, and there are things that I’ve loved about all three of the movies, such as the pre-Batman stuff in Begins, the Joker in Dark Knight, and Catwoman (yeah, she’s never named as such but dammit she’s Catwoman) in this one. But overall, I just don’t wholly jive with any of these Batfilms, and the reasons vary for each one. Since we’re just talking about TDKR, I’m going to be focusing on it’s problems.
And even though this column is called “How I’d Fix It,” I haven’t really come up with solutions to many of these movie’s problems. I know I’ve been more descriptive of issues than prescriptive of ways to “improve” movies lately. I suppose I’m only confirming the idea that critics are only good for picking things apart. Maybe these articles just need a different header.
But before I get to the issues, I want to make clear what I won’t be focusing on. Namely, “plot holes.” Now, yes, if you want to get into it, there are many, many things about the story here that are of debatable intelligence and/or questionable logic. Yeah, it’s kind of weird that Bruce Wayne gets from… wherever that pit was… to America and then back into Gotham with no explanation, but does that really break the movie? No. We weren’t playing that game nearly as much with, say, The Avengers, and yet it seems to dominate so much of the online discourse surrounding this film (from what I’ve seen, at least). Film Crit Hulk wrote a great piece on how people tend to focus on “tangible details” when they can’t articulate why they do or don’t like something, and this seems a prime example of that. Some (Many? I can’t tell) viewers didn’t take to The Dark Knight Rises, and they express this the best way they can: by focusing on the most visible problems. But pretty much no superhero movie plot really holds up when you scrutinize it this way. There’s something else here that’s bugging people.
So I’m going to try my best to get at that “something else.” Oh and SPOILERS (sorry if I spoiled that Bruce Wayne gets out of the pit and back into Gotham):
Anyone who’s followed what I write at all knows that I have a particular axe to grind against elements of films that could be removed without affecting anything else in the story. And TDKR has a big honkin’ example of that in the form of Talia al Ghul. I’m actually a bit curious to know what any non-comics-aware person was thinking of “Miranda Tate” up until the big twist about her true identity. Her love story with Bruce Wayne, the most prominent role she plays in the story, is seriously undercooked. There’s meant to be a real emotional heft when she (literally!) stabs him in the back, but it just isn’t there. The reveal also has no functional bearing on what actually happens in the climax. It could just as easily have been Bane who went to defend the bomb. So then what role does Talia have to play? If anything, her presence detracts from Bane’s potency as the villain, leaving him to a bizarrely abrupt death that feels completely out of line with everything else the movie does with him. Better to give all her screen time to Catwoman, and further develop her relationship with Batman/Bruce Wayne.
The movie as a whole is sort of feeling a dearth of good character work. All the actors are doing their best, of course, but the movie makes weird decisions like completely taking Alfred out of play early on. He gets the film’s best emotional content, so cutting him out feels like a huge disservice. I get the intent here; it’s to help us feel Batman’s increasing isolation, and to make us really get the extent to which his crusade takes away the things he loves. But nothing is put in to replace the relatable core provided by the Bruce / Alfred relationship, and the film suffers for it.
Overall, what I find the strangest thing is that the only character with a true arc in the story is John Blake. But the place he finds himself at the end is an odd one, and I’ll elaborate on that further down.
The Dark Knight got down, dirty, and relevant to the times, and many critics loved it for it. I don’t really agree with many things the movie seems to ultimately say about the post-9/11 world, but I don’t have to agree with a film’s politics to like it. With TDKR, Nolan is again tackling social ideas, this time speaking to concerns over economic issues, but it’s different in this go. Namely, because none of the political content means anything. Bane speechifies a lot about class warfare, financial inequality, and things that generally play as a right-winger’s nightmare view of what Occupy Wall Street is about, but it’s all empty. That’s just the rhetoric he uses to cover up his very simple real goal, which is the destruction of Gotham because… revenge, or something. The only possible relevant message to take from this is that bad people can exploit the masses’s outrage to nefarious ends. Which is pretty weak, since that’s true of literally every possible philosophy and social movement in existence.
The fact is that Nolan just isn’t engaged the way he was in TDK. The political content is all lip service to meaning in absence of actually saying something about the world we live in. I wouldn’t even care if the idea was one I agreed with in this case. The execution also seems to speak to a disconnect between Nolan and the cultural zeitgeist. We’re meant to be horrified as a banker goes before a mock trial and gets sent out onto the ice. Except, in real life, no banker got any kind of trial whatsoever for wrecking the economy. Sure, objectively speaking, this is terrible, but viscerally I found more than a little bit of satisfaction in that scene. It’s just weird that, with Gotham turned into a free-for-all hellhole Fox News version of socialist anarchy, the only people we see suffer are members of the one percent.
A friend of mine called TDKR “a Rocky movie,” and that’s kind of exactly what it is. But spending an hour and a half watching Bruce Wayne get back in the game, only to have him broken so that he spends another half-hour getting back back in the game, leads to some pretty whacked structure. Everything between Gotham going No Man’s Land and Bruce getting out of the pit is one big montage that the South Park guys would weep over. And that’s dramatically tone-deaf. There are so many interesting ideas in Gotham basically becoming an Escape from New York-type setting, but the movie has to rush to establish the new status quo in time for the big finale to return it to the old one.
More than a few people before me have stated that the story would have been better off without the eight-year gap, or rather without Bruce Wayne going into retirement. I don’t know if that’s an inherently better route, but something probably should have been done so that Bane breaks Batman and blows up the bridges far earlier in the plot. The first hour of this movie is an awful lot of futzing around with things that could easily be abridged, and removing the “getting back in the saddle” aspect would help in that regard. By my reckoning, the bigger issue is everything surrounding the League of Shadows’s plot to take over Wayne Enterprises. Besides being dully over-complicated, it’s pretty much rendered moot once they take the reactor core, which was their goal all along, by force.
My biggest consistent problem with Nolan’s Batman movies have always been about tone. I thought that his semi-grounded approach to this world clashed horribly with the more outlandish aspects of the stories taking place in that world. But Nolan pretty much throws that approach completely out the window here, which I did not expect at all, but found quite refreshing. However, while there is no longer any attempt at “realism” in TDKR, it’s still beset with a pervading over-seriousness. This is a deadly po-faced film, and treats the plot of a man with a metal goatse mask taking over a city and fighting a man dressed as a bat with the utmost solemnity.
Now, I’m not saying that Nolan should have abandoned the movie entirely to irony, that there should have been even a wink to the audience about how pulpy all this is. He didn’t have to go for an Avengers atmosphere. Tone is extremely tricky to nail down, but there is a balance between darkness and lightheartedness, and TDKR leans way too heavily towards the darkness. It isn’t a wholly dire affair, of course. Nolan scatters levity (which is still mostly front-loaded), but there seems to be at the center of this film a staunch refusal to acknowledge its own fundamental silliness.
For an example of perhaps what might have worked better, look no further than Bane as Tom Hardy plays him. While his walrus butler voice probably isn’t meant to be hilarious (Though it is. So, so hilarious), Hardy brings a broadness to Bane’s mannerisms that makes him a total delight to watch. His effectiveness as a villain is ultimately undercut somewhat by the limp nature of his evil plan, as well as the twist about who’s really in charge, but Hardy is mostly fun. I know when I ask for a little fun, some may take that as an invitation for Batman to somehow become like his sixties TV show incarnation, but that’s not the case at all. It’s just that so strictly limiting the sense of fun in a superhero movie feels, well, off.
I earlier said that Nolan isn’t engaged here the way he was with TDK, and I think that’s more evident here than anywhere else. Begins was about fear, TDK was about escalation; I’m not entirely sure what this movie is supposed to be about. There’s this recurring thing about “rising,” and we see Bruce Wayne learn to overcome his death wish. I suppose the idea is that this death wish is tied into the Batman identity, and that the Bruce at the beginning of the movie might have simply blown himself up, as opposed to the Bruce at the end, who allows himself to let go and have a normal life. So is there a message here that Batman is actually a negative thing?
Nolan sort of flirted with that idea before, especially in TDK. It’d actually be incredibly subversive if Nolan’s central thesis on this superhero is that he is in conception pretty screwed up. That is, of course, pretty much inherent to most superheroes, but generally we suspend that part of our disbelief in order to enjoy their movies. But I don’t think that’s the idea here, especially since Blake assuming the mantle of Batman at the end is clearly meant to be a triumphant note (as is Batman’s big reappearance in the tunnel).
So then… what is this movie about? I imagine if anything would earn me indignant, possibly condescending responses, it’s this question (assuming there are any responses to this at all). People could easily construct whatever symbolic interpretation they want for the movie, whether from what they personally want the movie to say or simply from a desire to prove that it means something. But sitting where I do now, about a week after seeing the movie, and having paid it a lot of thought, I honestly can’t find a coherent thing that this movie is about.
Is that inherently bad? It actually isn’t, believe it or not. Plenty of movies do just fine without it. Here’s the problem: The Dark Knight Rises acts like it’s about something, and something really big. It’s incredibly dramatic and loud and tries its damnedest to feel “epic,” but it’s all sound and fury, to use an incredibly tired turn of phrase. It’s empty spectacle. It’s entertaining spectacle, to be sure, but I felt nothing for this movie. I didn’t love Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but those films engaged me on some level. Coming out of The Dark Knight Rises, I couldn’t figure out whether I liked it or not, and at first thought that was a sure sign that I didn’t like it. But now I realize that it simply meant that I was apathetic to it. Which might be a negative, in a way. I never expected that I’d ever feel this way about a Christopher Nolan movie. But here we are.