Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Warlock's Review: The Dark Knight Rises

When our weekly game group went to see Avengers in May, I could hardly believe my eyes.  Walking from the theater, all I could think of was the magnitude of what I had just seen.  As a film experience, Avengers was simply mind-blowing:  a four-panel blowout translated seamlessly onto the screen.

The question looming, however, was "How could The Dark Knight Rises possibly measure up?"  With huge shoes to fill in terms of its predecessor, TDKR now would suffer comparison to its massively successful Marvel competitor as well.  So, how did it do?

It pains me to say this.  The Dark Knight Rises just isn't as good as The Dark Knight.  It's not even as good as Batman Begins.  While it's far from being a bad movie--it's still head and shoulders over dreck like Daredevil or Green Lantern--it's just not a good movie either.  This was supposed to be Christopher Nolan's "piece de resistance," but The Dark Knight Rises collapses under its own bulk, entangled in a bloated, unwieldy plot.

The Dark Knight Rises
An unsatisfying ending to
Christopher Nolan's genre-defining run.
TDKR begins eight years following the events of The Dark Knight.  After the death of Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has vanished from the public eye and has retired the Batman mantle.  When rumors of a mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) begin emerging, coupled with links to the League of Shadows, Wayne takes up his cape and cowl once more to investigate the motives behind Bane's activities.  However, as he does so, Wayne's company teeters on the edge of default as a new technologies firm run by Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) appears on the verge of takeover.  Cotillard's performance may be the weakest out of the cast, as she vacillates between being a canny entrepreneur and a piece of arm candy for Bruce Wayne, only truly showing her true colors (in an incredibly unsatisfying manner) in the last ten minutes of the film

Bane's appearance is concurrent with that of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an intensely skilled burglar--never once called Catwoman--who steals Bruce Wayne's fingerprints in exchange for a chance at wiping her criminal record clean.  Hathaway's Kyle is truly the brightest spot in this movie, using her femininity for manipulation and lethality while simultaneously providing a vulnerable, sympathetic viewpoint.  It'd be a revelatory performance...if Scarlett Johansson didn't already play these same cards as Black Widow in The Avengers

Also joining the story is John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a beat cop-turned-detective who has somehow deduced Batman's identity--it's never stated or shown how--and who pushes Wayne into action.  While Blake's character is meant to be an uncompromising idealist and a point of entry for the viewer, he seems to just stumble across major clues haphazardly which, when exposed, advance the plot. 

If The Dark Knight was based in part on Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween, TDKR pulls primarily from the Knightfall and No Man's Land arcs.  Without spoiling too much, if you've read Knightfall and know the basic premise of Bane's character, you can anticipate exactly what happens to our cowled hero.  But, the scene in question occurs less than halfway through the film, just after Wayne "learns how to be Batman again"....resulting in an entire second hour of Batman doing the same thing he just did, just in a different setting! 

With Batman out of the way after said incident, Bane and his allies are free to establish martial law in Gotham City, stealing the fuel core from a Wayne Enterprises nuclear fusion reactor and using it as extortion fuel against the surrounding government.  "What about the police?", you might ask.  Well, Bane has them trapped in a warren of tunnels beneath the city, yet for some reason keeps them alive with regular shipments of food and water.  The city descends into chaos absent their protectors, holding kangaroo courts to exterminate the city's entitled elite.

Unfortunately, this is where the plot bogs down.  Why does Bane keep the police alive?  So that we can have a climactic police-vs.-anarchist beatdown scene in the third act, of course!  Bane and his lackeys know that their fuel core-turned-bomb can be shut down by reattaching it to the reactor, but the reactor has a flood control to prevent meltdowns.  Why not just trigger the flood control and prevent the possibility in the first place?  For that matter, why extort the populace in the first place?  The plot simply breaks down upon cursory examination, with both villains and heroes taking actions directly contradictory to their own motives and even logic itself! 

The Dark Knight Rises further suffers from a core storytelling flaw of "telling" rather than "showing".  Rather than acting through or physically demonstrating his frustration with Bruce Wayne, Alfred (Michael Caine) goes on a literal three minute diatribe directly into the camera, telling Bruce why his retreat from the world was so wrong.  Rather than show romantic interest in Bruce Wayne, we merely hear from other characters that Miranda Tate is interested in Bruce Wayne romantically, which makes a love scene between the two halfway through the film seem totally unrealistic.  Rather than demonstrating the decadence and corruption of Gotham's elite, we merely hear speeches from Bane, culminating in a stolen speech from Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) that went undelivered in the first act.  Bane's attack on a Wall Street-esque investment area made good progress in this regard, but the focus shifts almost immediately from Bane's mysterious motives to the police's erroneous pursuit of Batman.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, the element that separated The Dark Knight from the majority of genre-movies out there was its willingness to address greater ethical and philosophical questions.  We didn't simply deal with Batman and The Joker--we examined the fundamental flaws with moral absolutism and addressed the depths to which men and women would sink in order to preserve their status quo.  These sociological and philosophical questions arise in The Dark Knight Rises, but as quick as the questions arise, they are simultaneously backhanded back down. won! 
You got exactlywhat you wanted!
What more are you trying to accomplish?
Case in point, Bane's fundamental plan for Gotham.  Bane encourages the populace to rise up against their upper-class oppressors, distributing arms to any willing takers.  CEOs and socialites are put on trial and exterminated while Bane himself simply stands by and lets the people do their thing.  However, even as thousands flock to Bane's cause, he still plans to detonate the fuel core, destroying Gotham City entirely!  Why?  Well, it's never really explained.  His goal worked.  He was successful!  Why destroy the fruits of your labors?  It simply doesn't make sense. 

I almost want to give The Dark Knight Rises a pass, simply because of the massive steps it had to follow in. The basic flaws in storytelling, editing, and scene structure found here really are uncharacteristic of Nolan's work and of the series in general.  But, at the end of the day, I'm left with one defining decision that sums it all up for me:

When I left the theater after The Avengers, I immediately thought to myself, "This is awesome!  I need to see this again!  I need to get this on Blu-Ray/DVD!"  I'm even contemplating shelling out for the massive 10 disc ultimate edition.

When I left the theater after The Dark Knight Rises, I felt let down.  I might ask for it as a Christmas present on DVD, but I don't want to shell out to buy this myself.  And, certainly, I don't care to see it again in a theater.  It's a servicable, if unsatisfying ending, but it's not the magnum opus we were all hoping for. 


  1. Anonymous8:20 PM

    You seemed to have missed what Bane and Talia were going for, which is easy to do since Bane gives all the exposition while talking like Yakov Smirnoff in a Darth Vadar mask. The whole purpose of holding Gotham hostage for so long and then blowing it up was to complete Ra's Al Ghul's vision of having the most corrupt city in the world destroy itself, and to punish Batman for stopping Ra's' plan, decimating the League of Shadows, and letting Ra's die in the first place.

    Just like in the Knightfall story you mentioned, Bane breaks Batman both physically and mentally (though in reverse order, and in a much more hands-on approach in the movie). Gotham had gotten better in the 8 years since TDK, because the people had Harvey Dent to look up to as a hero, and his death led to new legislation to keep prisoners behind bars and keep the streets safer. But by exposing the lies that peace was built on, Bane was proving to a crippled Batman that nothing has really changed, and Gotham needs to be wiped off the map, like Ra's tried to do in Begins. Batman's physically broken, financially ruined, and now he's trapped in a prison hole forced to watch all the work he's sacrificed everything for get destroyed.

    Since you brought up villains' motives and comparisons to The Avengers, let's compare the two.

    Bane - acts out of blind love for Talia, follows her orders.
    Talia - wants to destroy everything Batman has built and complete Ra's plans, doing everything to deal with her daddy issues.
    Catwoman - not really much of a villain, more of a Robin Hood vigilante/hooker with a heart of gold.

    Loki - dealing with daddy issues, that Odin loved Thor more and wasnt his real father.
    Unnamed aliens - no motive given?
    Galactus - ultimate villain revealed after the credits. Again, no motive actually given for why he arranged all this.

    But damn, those Avengers battles were flashy and colorful!

    TDKR isn't without its flaws. Bane is hard to understand and sounds rather Russian for a hispanic character, the romance between Bruce and Selina felt forced (I can buy him having sex with Talia, he'd just lost his fortune and needed comfort sex), and there hasn't been this little "Batman" screen time in a Batman franchise since the Birds of Prey tv show. But saying lack of plot and motivation is a problem, especially compared to the 2-dimensional characters in Avengers, shows you went into the movie expecting to be disappointed and didn't want to put the thought into how complex the movie really is.

    The fact that you can't even complement the part you liked, Hathaway's Catwoman portrayal, without complaining that you've already seen this in Avengers proves that you're complaining just to complain. She does a great job in the role, "still sucks compared to Black Widow." Had she played it any other way, you'd complain it was too campy or too over-sexed.

  2. If Bane's plan (along with that of the League of Shadows) is to have Gotham City destroy itself, Bane accomplished that much half-way through the film. The people of Gotham reveled in kangaroo courts, exterminating the wealthy and elite, with Scarecrow as their chosen judge. Doing more simply undermines his own plot. Anyone can blow up a city--the whole point was for the city to descend into anarchy. By trying to blow up Gotham, Bane literally subverted his own goal. His actions don't make sense.

    The only comparison that I made to Avengers was at the very beginning and ending, in terms of overall impressions (i.e. I wanted to see Avengers multiple times and own it on DVD, while I could not say the same of TDKR). The whole point of Avengers is that it doesn't hinge on its villain--it's a character study of disparate heroic philosophies clashing in the sight of a faceless evil (Loki's army). Oh, and it's Thanos (not Galactus, as you said) at the end of Avengers--if you're going to try to geek-school me, please get your facts straight first.

    I get the impression that you really didn't look too deeply at my review, as I was pretty thorough in pointing out some of the numerous plot holes (keeping the police alive, Bane's immediate switch on his plan, the numerous "tell-don't-show" moments, the seemingly random love scene with Talia/Miranda). But, then again, you point out just as many flaws yourself in your second-to-last paragraph.

    I'm also a little shocked at the backhanded attack on Avengers, regarding characterizations. The entire point of the second act of that movie was to allow for inter-character bonding and demonstration of depth. Banner's relationship with Stark, for instance, or Cap's continued arguments with Iron Man, provide for great depth and insight. Black Widow's interrogation of Loki give us insight into not just her background, but also her ruthless efficiency in literally out-tricking the God of Mischief himself. Those are the sorts of character-driven moments that aren't found in TDKR. We're told that Blake is the "idealistic cop" but we never really see it. We see that he found out Batman's identity, but it's never explained how and we don't see him piecing it together...we're simply told that it's so.

    While I did enjoy Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, I just felt that her performance didn't add anything. In all seriousness--what did her character do that another character could not? Lead Batman to Bane? Why couldn't Miranda Tate have done that--it would have made her a more interesting character and would have revealed her true identity earlier, leading to higher tension. Shoot the truck at the end? Why not Blake or Gordon?

    Even as is, I lauded Hathaway's performance as "the brightest spot in this movie, using her femininity for manipulation and lethality while simultaneously providing a vulnerable, sympathetic viewpoint." When the most enjoyable character in a film is utterly expendable, that's a major storytelling flaw.

    Trust me when I say that I *wanted* this movie to be fantastic. Its predecessor is second among my favorite comic book movies, and held the top spot on my list prior to this May.

    Finally, you accuse me of "complaining to complain". Well, this is a review! It's my opinion. I went in with high expectations--which were due, given my enjoyment of Nolan's prior Bat-films and "Inception"--and I didn't enjoy myself, primarily due to sloppy storytelling technique, numerous plot holes, and characters that were more deeply wrapped up in exposition than demonstration.

    You're welcome to disagree with my review--plenty of people have, though plenty of others are noting many of the same problem I noted. But don't try to criticize the fact that I have a dissenting opinion. That's the entire point of writing a review.

    Thanks for the comment, regardless.

  3. Good review A.P. This is a very brave piece of work here given by Christopher Nolan and he shows that he can pull-off a near-perfect trilogy, even if a lot of people don’t want to see him go. Hopefully, this means he’s off to doing more original pieces of work like Inception or The Prestige.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Dan O.

    I really enjoyed Inception and would love to see Nolan move towards more properties in that vein. I'm actually a little worried about what "Man of Steel" is going to bring, as Nolan's hallmarks of introspection and psychological conflict, while Zak Snyder focuses more on visceral action and effects. We'll see what comes, though!

  5. Chris S.5:37 PM

    Nice review but I will throw my two cents in for you.

    I told my friends as we were waiting that this will either be the best movie ever or it will fail. For me it wasn't the best movie ever which is mostly the fault of the amazingness of Dark Knight. It didn't fail like I thought it would but Avengers was better in my opinion. I did like it better than Batman Begins. For whatever reason I don't care for Begins that much anymore. Probably Dark Knights fault as well.

    For the record they did explain how "John Blake" knew who Batman was during his visit to the new Wayne Manor (sidenote: I really didn't care for the new wayne manor other than piano and the batcave).

    As I remember it from the midnight showing, Blake saw Bruce Wayne at the orphanage that Blake grew up in and he could see the emotions in his face that showed bruce was batman. I believe it was also mentioned in that talk that he saw him as Batman as well (I think it could have been a lot clearer and a 5 second flashback would have done more good than harm).

    One thing I don't remember that you seem to remember is that Bane is keeping the police alive. I don't remember seeing that or hearing that. I left the theater thinking that it was Blake keeping the police alive and informed with his yoyo and notes and such.

    The reason I think that Bane didn't flood the system was because Taila was the only bad gal who knew the flood system and how to work it and she didn't show her full colors until the ending. had they flooded it sooner the results probably would have been the same but bats, cats, and blake would have had less hope of fixing everything

    One question for you A.P. what did you think of the part Commissioner Gordon played? - for me he made the movie even though he was in the background for the most part.

    Also Christopher Judge's part wasn't long enough for me but then again it was pretty cool to see him in TDKR!

    By the ending did you want another movie even though Nolan said no more batman?

  6. Ahoy, Chris!

    Just a few responses for you:

    The police were given food shipments regularly by Bane--there was at least one scene of the police underground unpacking the shipments. It seems silly, though, to keep a literal army of adversaries alive simply for them to bite you in the ass laster.

    I felt like the "John Blake finds out" conversation epitomized many of the problems with the movie--we don't see Blake investigating Batman. We don't see him being a great detective--we just get told "Oh, hey--I figured it out."

    I realize that Talia was the only one who knew about the flood controls, but she's supposed to be working alongside Bane, right? Why not spread the word and eliminate the possibility. You wouldn't have to broadcast that you did it--just have Blake/Bats/etc. show up with the bomb...only to find a totally flooded spillway and no way to access the reactor. That's loss of hope for ya!

    I concur that TDKR suffered from its fantastic predecessor, but it had a lot of flaws on its own, which didn't help. The Chris Judge cameo was a good one, and Gary Oldman's performance was up to par, but I really don't care to see another Nolan Batman film. He's done his part--let's move on to a new series or hero.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Anonymous5:41 PM

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