Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Diatribes

"On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: how many good third movies in a franchise can people name?" 
~Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight Rises is not a great film. It is not a great Batman film, nor is it a great summer blockbuster. It is not a bad film, by any stretch, nor even a mediocre film; we may generously even call it "good" if we allow the whole to amount to more than the sum quality of its parts. But shrouded in the shadow of what I might with only minor hesitation call the two greatest superhero films of all time, the latter of which is probably the masterwork of Nolan's career to date, TDKR cannot help but be a disappointment. 

Where to begin? Perhaps it is best to take the worst of the pain from the outset: TDKR is in many ways a sloppy, haphazard, and bloated film from a director (Nolan the Elder, Christopher) and screenwriter (Nolan the Younger, Jonathan) I have often praised for attention to the finer details of the craft and a general coherence of vision, both of which are sorely lacking on display here. The first half of the film in particular is the worst kind of drudgery, reminiscent of nothing more than the Wachowski brothers in its endless, self-important exposition full of sound and fury but signifying nothing; it aches to watch J. Nolan striving for such profundity with every line, hoping desperately to achieve aphorism of grand philosophical portent and instead landing upon grandiosity. TDKR desperately, crudely longs to be Wagnerian but achieves only the Shatnerian; I can think of no closer analog to the failure than that of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and the two films share more in common both structurally and thematically than I am comfortable examining, but I will momentarily force myself to do so anyhow.

At their worst moments here the Nolans achieve near-Schumacher levels of absurdity. The clumsiness is often staggering to the point of camp: when Bane's (Tom Hardy) pet physicist began tinkering with Wayne's Unobtainium Reactor and a single jump-cut later declared "This is now a four megaton NUCLEAR BOMB!" I along with half the theater burst into unrestrained, un-welcomed laughter that would time and again re-emerge at each bout of similarly contrived nonsense. TDKR is no more intellectually insulting than your average Big Summer Movie, but these sorts of hokey hijinks have less place in the moral or physical universe of Nolan's Batman than they do in a Roger Moore Bond film. If Tom Hardy's mustache had been accessible through his oxygen mask as Bane he would certainly have twirled it with impunity, but alas that he is forced to limit himself to faux-Victorian posturing complete with the two-handed "Moriarty Grip" on his upper jacket lining at all times, from which I half expected him to pull a snuff box and monocle at any moment. At Hardy's most restrained he is reasonably intimidating as a faithfully intellectual Frankenstein's monster, but it is impossible to take him seriously when he is tossing quips like "Ask for the devil and he shall appear," "BEHOLD your liberation," and "I AM GOTHAM'S RECKONING!" along with literally dozens of other such Miltonian bon mots on a practically per-line basis, none of which serve to make him even fractionally as frightening as Ledger's Joker at his most banal. Alfred Pennyworth is the next worst offender, and even the incomparable Michael Caine is incapable of convincing us of the sincerity behind his ludicrously over-scripted lectures and lamentations this time around. Beyond that, the less said about Selina Kyle's (Anne Hathaway's) purring pontifications, the better, though the script does at least afford her Catwoman a few crowning moments of confidence in her cracks. 

TDKR's script is overloaded near to the breaking with enough textbook examples of Telling over Showing to give a high school creative writing teacher an aneurism. I've already heard it argued that the interminable exposition is justified by the expansive number of characters dealt with in the narrative, but that argument fails to hold much water when one considers how much more effectively that same challenge was overcome in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight through establishing imagery and just generally more effective filmmaking, which seems to have been a secondary concern for Nolan this time around the block. The film also fails against its predecessors on a more thematic level in its thoroughly confused philosophy and general disregard for consequences and characters. The more that is revealed of Bane's scheme and motivations, the less they make any coherent sense, especially where a particularly jarring "revelation" is concerned in the final act.

In making TDKR as blatant an Important Message film as it was clearly intended to be, the Nolans manage to subvert the very essence of The Dark Knight's core motifs, taking the basic hope in humanity offered in the Joker's ideological defeat by the conscience of everyday citizens and turning it on its head in a Randian anti-populist diatribe that shows those same Gothamites reduced to mindless mobs in service of Bane's amusement, absent any legitimate behavioral justification beyond the demands of the plot and Nolan's overwhelming desire to evoke Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. It's as bad an example of world-building as it is incongruous with the film's own established moral universe, and that message commitment to a set piece over the concerns of the film's soul muddles Bruce Wayne/Batman's (Christian Bale) own character arc to the point of incomprehension, however hard the screenplay tries to substitute unearned epiphanies for genuine development (going so far in breaking the rules of the world as to introduce crucial plot information otherwise unknown to Wayne through what is immediately established as a hallucination). This kind of writing is as lackadaisical as it is lazy, and the knowledge that J. Nolan is capable of so much better only makes it all the more devastating in its actualization.

I have been harder on the film than it deserves in focusing so intently on its flaws; granted, they are legion, far more abundant than I have outlined here, but for all of them TDKR still retains enough craft to commend it. Its sequences of action, though much sparser and of smaller consequence than their operatic accompaniment tricks us into believing, are as visceral and entertaining as any in the trilogy, and Nolan must still be commended for his commitment to practical – and powerful – effects over typical Hollywood CGI saturation. Most of the actors do quality work given the shortcomings of the script – need I even speak of Gary Oldman's unwavering dedication? –  and if the editing is shoddy it at least serves to showcase their commitment even in the film's excesses. Zimmer does nothing new or interesting with his musical reprisals, but his spartan score is as functionally effective as ever, even if I do wish Nolan had relied less on its shrill, throbbing strings to establish the stakes of the climax.

Though TDKR – loud and proud in its portents as it is – closes with a literal bang, it resonates as scarcely more than a cinematic whimper. Those of us with adoration for its progenitors owe it some measure of respect as a not-disastrous end to the trilogy, I suppose, but I suspect non-fans with less stake in its success will ultimately get more enjoyment from the serviceable final product than those of us with an emotional investment in its endeavors.

Grade: B- (and it feels generous; I am overriding my gut reaction in bumping it above a C letter level)


  1. You should not have overridden your gut. This is a C letter level movie.

  2. So let's get this straight, one of the best films to come out this year, by a director that actually knows what the hell he is doing and you spent the last few paragraphs saying that it was a pile of complete shit with some good action sequences.

    Either this is an obvious grab for attention, being the oh so original hipster you are, or you genuinely hate movies, in which case you don't deserve to review them. I'd like to see how you would rate, previous batman films, im sure a jpeg of a turd is all i would find. To think i thought Empire was unnecessarily harsh on certain films, but you take the biscuit.


  3. Anonymous 1: You are probably right, and it's likely I will live to regret not sticking to my guns.

    Anonymous 2: If you had actually read my review you probably would have noticed passages such as the following:

    "But shrouded in the shadow of what I would without much hesitation call the two greatest superhero films of all time, the latter of which is almost indisputably the masterwork of Nolan's career to date, TKDR cannot help but be a disappointment. "

    Batman Begins was fantastic, and The Dark Knight would make my shortlist for the greatest films of my generation. As for previous Batman films, I have a fondness for Burton's hijinks and a deep affection for Mask of Phantasm and Return of the Joker. I just so happened not to think much of TKDR, and no one is stopping you from holding a different opinion on the subject.