Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Fire Rises

(Before getting into THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, I should admit that I'm a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Batman. It is one of my indulgent weaknesses next to what I hope is a more balanced cinephilia. I'm not even close to being objective when it comes to Nolan's Batman movies, which I honestly consider a dream come true for this life-long Batman devotee. So, take everything I say with a grain of salt and forgive the hyperbole if you can).

I loved reading your TDKR thoughts, Brandon. I'm stoked and relieved that you had a similar reaction to the film as I did. I think you and I are in the minority in thinking that this film is better than its predecessor, but I also think you and I are in the right. Jim Emerson, who John loves to reference for their shared THE DARK KNIGHT bashing, agrees with us that the film is an improvement on TDK. In his article, he says, "I haven't read other full reviews yet, but I've seen indications that people who really loved "The Dark Knight" are less satisfied with "TDKR" than those who found much to fault in the first two. I could see how that would be. I mean, if you already feel that "TDK" must be "the best movie of all time" or some such thing, what could compete ? I think "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" are mediocre movies, and "TDKR" represents a small but measurable improvement in several respects. So, yeah, if you're looking for the *like*/*dislike*: I think that, in comparison to its predecessors, it's the better of the three."

Though I disagree with Emerson that TDK is mediocre, I'd have to agree with him and you that BATMAN BEGINS is quite mediocre (I re-watched it last week, and it's just not that good), and that TDKR is the best film of the three. It's just a much tighter film then the first two and much better written. Some of the writing in TDK is awkward, especially in the dialogue between characters. A lot of it comes across as weird, forced, and unnatural. Also, some of the action can seem clunky/incomprehensible, and some of the acting is just downright hammy. With TDKR, I really think Nolan did a better job handling scenes of dialogue between characters. The writing is sharper, the acting more fluent, and the overall tone more organic. The action in the film is more focused, easier to follow, and I think more exciting. Also, he was able to wrangle better performances from just about everyone involved. Again, credit to Nolan and his team for crafting a better screenplay and to him for directing his actors better. Like I said in my last post, TDKR doesn't have Ledger's Joker, but it is a better film on every other level.

All right, I really would like to respond to a lot of what you wrote, and to do so I really gotta let the spoilers fly. SO IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM AND WANT TO, STOP READING NOW. Let's chat:

I think everything you wrote about the themes of TDKR and the common threads holding the entire series together is great and spot-on. I couldn't have said it better myself. You essentially got right to the heart of who Bruce Wayne is, what he embodies as Batman, and what is enemies try to destroy. Each villain in the series has served as a test for Bruce Wayne's commitment to the people of Gotham, and more largely, his belief in society as a whole. Bane is definitely an amalgamation of Ra's Al Ghul and The Joker. His plan is to both flat-out destroy Gotham (via nuclear bomb), but to get the people of Gotham to tear each other to pieces before it goes off (via manipulating class warfare). He's an admirable foe for Batman, both on a spiritual and physical level.

A friend of mine who saw the film wrote online that he thought the film sacrificed intimacy for explosions, and I think he's dead wrong. This is a very intimate story arch for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Like you wrote, he is really relegated to his lowest points in this film both at the beginning (crushed spirit, wounded body) and towards the ending (annihilated body) unlike we have never seen before. Bane provides a relentless force of pure nihilism that really pushes Bruce Wayne/Batman to his limits. I heard someone complain that the film didn't feature enough Batman, but that is because it focuses very heavily on the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman. To me, it is a highly personal story for both because it deals with the very soul of both characters. That is why I found the ending so moving. I thought the pay-off was beautifully orchestrated. A lot of times Nolan's penchant for repeating phrases and images can come across as trying to be too clever (as John would argue), but for me, the call back to Alfred's cafe dream seemed perfect and I was completely caught in its emotional sweep. For one, because Alfred's dream came true, and more importantly because Bruce Wayne was finally able to sacrifice Batman for a life of peace. Batman's work is done. He saved the city he has fearlessly defended for so long and sacrificed himself in the process. He can die giving everything to Gotham. And the Bruce Wayne "playboy billionaire" persona can die too, leaving only the real Bruce Wayne to finally live a life of emotional freedom that was taken away from him the moment his parents were killed. I'm all for bleak endings, but I thought Nolan's ending was smarter, more satisfying, and ultimately more triumphant than merely ending on a tragic note. Left with the new Batman (or just Robin, I guess) in JGL and Bruce Wayne living peacefully with Selina Kyle, I felt overjoyed.

I mentioned Bane a little bit there, so I should definitely say that I found him to be a terrific force working within this film. I, like you, loved Hardy's decision to speak in a higher, more expressive voice. It always belies the cold stare of his eyes and his purely brute frame. As a complete package it makes him into a terrifying villain. He is coldblooded, calculating, and above all insanely intimidating. I agree that he's scarier without motivation, and that his love for Talia Al Ghul suddenly makes him appear sheepish, but before those moments, he is a fucking monster and I got excited/anxious every time he appeared on screen. I thought Hardy was (not surprisingly) fantastic in the role, and the character smartly handled by Nolan.

I'm glad you mentioned your appreciation for Selina Kyle and Anne Hathaway. I thought she gave a wonderful performance, and that the character was expertly delineated. Hathaway adds such charm and loveability to the role, and the character provides much needed sobriety amongst all the sociopolitical ambiguity. She is someone to root for, and I too was very glad of her inclusion and her depiction. Honestly, as a Batman fan (and a film fan), I think they nailed her characterization and the interplay she has with Wayne/Batman. Well done to all involved.

It's hard not to bring up the political and social ramifications of the film, especially the Occupy movement, if only because the story of class division and revolution is so pertinent in today's world. I honestly don't think Nolan had any intention of criticizing the Occupy movement nor in suggesting that it could lead to violent anarchy. In an interview he said, "We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open." I think this is precisely what he's trying to do with TDKR and what he did with TDK. He is putting the ideas of these fictional comic book characters within a very realistic, zeitgeist-y setting, exploring where they would fit into the existing social framework. Batman is a force of order, so of course he would be aligned with the police and the military. Bane is a force of disorder and destruction, so he is going to be in a sort of Stalin or Pol Pot position of manipulating others to achieve his own ends. I think Nolan deliberately tries to blur the lines between heroes and villains in these films so that questions are raised over their roles in society and no real definitive answer is given. And to be completely fair to Chris Nolan and his brother, they have said that they came up with the idea for the film in the summer 0f 2008, right when TDK was coming out and right before the big economic collapse in this country. They have both mentioned being largely inspired to make the film by A TALE OF TWO CITIES. I think this places the film more in a historical context instead of just a commentary on our current economic climate. I think comparisons to the French Revolution are more apt than to the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement has been about nothing but peaceful protest whereas the French Revolution quickly turned into violent game of paranoia and manipulation (what Bane tries to do to the people of Gotham).

Brandon, I'm really glad you mentioned the idea of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES being conservative entertainment because I've seen this mentioned elsewhere. I want to make something clear, and it is not directed at you, but just anyone who feels the need to specifically politicize Batman while ignoring the sociopolitical themes of other superheroes. To single out THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as uniquely conservative entertainment would be to overlook the fact that just about every superhero film (not to mention, just about every film about fighting crime, period) valorizes the preservation of order against a swell of chaos/anarchy/radical change. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The Avengers–they all share a common goal, and that is to conserve the status quo against external threats of destruction. Since the arch of all these superheroes is to eradicate disorder, we of course are being told to side with the strength of order. Because Batman has no true superpowers, his story is told very much in a realistic setting where he has to interact with police and other levels of bureaucracy. In BATMAN BEGINS, he serves as a surrogate police force; in THE DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, he serves as an ancillary one. His connection to the police is obvious because he has to work with them either as a precarious ally or a scapegoat. In Superman or Spider-Man, the police are irrelevant next to superhuman ability so you don't see them all that much, but these superheroes still have the same goals as the police, just different uniforms. If you want to criticize the conservative values of Batman, that is fine, but you should probably go ahead and criticize the entire idea of superheroism while you are at it. They are all basically preservers of an existing order (i.e. all express conservative values in a way). Again, this isn't directed at you Brandon, just anyone who is terribly inconsistent in his/her criticism.

(But, to continue to be fair to Nolan [or perhaps biased towards him], I don't think the film is purely conservative because it doesn't glorify the status quo. Batman tries to prevent the disorder and destruction Bane presents, but the order of Gotham before Bane comes is HEAVILY criticized in the film. That's why John Blake and Selina Kyle are there. Both serve as critiques to the greed and apathy of the wealthy in Gotham. So the film isn't praising the current social order and decrying change; if anything, the film is critical of the status quo, of radical change, and any form society can imitate. That's why I called it grim. It's a really fun, exciting, suspenseful film, but it is a very bleak look at our world and the structures within it).

This isn't directed at you Brandon, but speaking of people who are inconsistent in their criticisms (as I did above), I've read a lot of negative comments about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES from people who absolutely loved THE DARK KNIGHT. A majority of their gripes are over shit they had no problem overlooking in TDK but inexplicably can't forgive in TDKR (e.g. plot holes, continuity errors, changes from the comics, etc.). Listen, I love THE DARK KNIGHT, but I would be the first to admit that that film is riddled with errors, holes, and downright bad moments. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES itself is not perfect and certainly has its share of problems. But, ultimately with both films I was able to overlook those smaller problems and focus on what I consider terrific overall achievements. And like Jim Emerson, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES I found less holes, less moments to criticize because it is a better constructed and executed film. I think if you are going to tear apart TDKR for shit you ignore in TDK, then you need to just admit that you are not thinking about the film in any rational manner but are merely brokenhearted that Nolan didn't make the exact same film as TDK.

Okay, I've written and ranted a lot already, so I'll just leave it at that. Good talk!

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