12 September 2012

Gotham's Reckoning: My Own Personal "Return of the Jedi"

Editor's Note: I started this response to TDKR two months ago, and then I had a baby. So anyways...

There were two opinions from the time of my childhood that I was shocked to learn late in life: first, that not everyone loved President Reagan; second, that many people considered Return of the Jedi to be the worst of the Star Wars movies. Living in an affluent suburb and having (at the time) a fairly conservative father and teachers, I thought Ronald Reagan was the cat's pajamas - charismatic, reassuring, grandfatherly. I was 8 in the 80s, so political discourse was for the most part a long, long way away from me. So too was any narrative criteria from my movie-going experience. Certain facts had a stronger influence on me than the storytelling in Return of the Jedi. For example, that it had debuted in my accessible memory, and included such bad-assery as a black-clad Luke and enormous set pieces.

My perspective on these weighty issues changed, but not simply as a result of growing up. I also had to hear from other people, and experience other cultural influences. I didn't read Frank Miller's seminal comicbook, The Dark Knight Returns, until I was eighteen, and even then I was a little shocked to see someone so openly satirizing two of my long-assumed heroes: Superman and Ronald Reagan. It probably wasn't until I had worked at a few theaters that I connected the dots to realize that Reagan was a republican, and that typically I wasn't terribly aligned with that side of the aisle's perspective. Then of course I read more about his term in office, and found a better understanding of why his love of jelly beans didn't have a tremendous influence on the opinion of people who hated his civil and economic policies.

I should probably be more ashamed to admit that my grounding realization about the relative quality of the second of the Star Wars sequels took even longer. I don't think it was until on the cusp of my 30s that I managed to see those movies with a fresh pair of eyes and realize - all personal bias aside - that Return of the Jedi was a weak successor. I don't hate it; how could I? If there are any bitter feelings toward a film, they are 1) a result of misplaced priorities, and 2) usually a response to the supposed promise of its predecessors. And make no mistake: No one promised us as an audience anything but to do their best to entertain us for a couple of hours.

Or two hours and forty-five minutes, as the case may be.

So, I do not hate The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, there is much that I appreciate about it. I saw it a couple of months ago (not in IMAX, which I understand is the preferred format this time around) and, fortunately for me, with a friend. So the moments that would have been crushing were instead fun, their misery shared. Because, in confession: I believed in Harvey Dent, and I believed in the promise that I interpreted in The Dark Knight for its sequel.

In summary, I think the movie wanted to be big, enormous, but with too little at stake creatively to justify its excesses. The seeds of its downfall were sown in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but they found better balance in those movies, not blossoming fully until the budget got bigger than the impetus to make the movies. But I'll flesh out this argument after some nerdery. Skip to the final paragraph if you are of low nerd tolerance.


  • The acting. This may seem a silly point, but dang it if this ensemble isn't amazing. I'm not even in love with Bale's interpretation of his character(s), but I'm impressed as hell with his consistency and how well he's heeded a character arc through three epic and vastly different movies. TDKR would have been truly unbearable if it didn't have such an engaging and serious cast. Loved Hathaway's approach, and thought Hardy did all he could; and maybe then-some. I believed his unwavering love for Talia at the end - and God knows Nolan's style isn't exactly conducive to empathy.
  • The design and cinematography. I mean: Come on. That's plainly a big priority for every Nolan movie. It was visually beautiful, with some genuinely inspired moments, such as the use of a stepwell for the base of the pit (there's something about water imagery in the movie - haven't quite put my finger on it yet) or the way the camera enhanced Batman's weakness and Bane's dominance in their first fight. These movies always feel nice and tangible, thanks in no small part to a careful aesthetic balance between form and function.
  • John Blake. It might've been very easy for me to hate this character, yet I didn't. Even leaving his surprise identity aside for a moment, he functioned nicely as a person who represented the next generation of Gothamites, someone whom Batman literally inspired through his example. His arc, too, was a satisfying journey through the moral ambiguities of Batman's world. I loved watching his response to shooting a couple of baddies (insane ricochet shots aside) and thinking to myself, "Uhp. He'll never do that again."
  • The eight-year gap. This was a good - if not great - idea, in spite of what the fanboys may complain. It made complete sense for the character as the movies have developed him (even if it means he was only a fully-formed Batman for maybe six-months-to-a-year before "retiring"). I wanted to see Batman fighting cops as badly as the next guy, but this choice was dramatically interesting, bold and surprising, and in keeping with the battered, traumatized, overly-selfless man we left in TDK. Plus it has the bonus of meeting the audience halfway in our wait for the movie and our need to join with Batman on his struggle to return.
  • The grandiose civil unrest. I thought it would play out somewhat differently, but overall basing the story on A Tale of Two Cities was bold, thematically appropriate to the entire trilogy, and weirdly, wildly relevant. There's something very observant going on in these scripts, and it's important to remember that the Nolans are observing America from the outside. The panicked crowd in the narrows in Batman Begins were not unlike we terrorized, war-hungry citizens of the time, and in addition to providing a crisp clue about Harvey Dent, the ferry-boat paradox of The Dark Knight was awfully reminiscent of a country defined by intense ideological dichotomy. In addition to echoing the Occupy Movement, civil unrest was a great backdrop for a vigilante who is ostensibly trying to save the people he's fighting. Problems arise (har har) with the unrest used specifically as a backdrop, but those are for the next section.
  • Bat "EMP." How apt is it to give your billionaire creature-of-the-night vigilante a device that enshrouds him in a radial darkness? Science be damned! That was a cool idea.
  • Strategic, explosive concrete. Science be damned, I say! Effective, because it visually (and blockbusterly) echoed the notion of the rebellion coming from the very infrastructure of the city, or society. Maybe Ra's al Ghul was right. Maybe Gotham wants to be destroyed.
  • The dénouement. Yes, okay, it was the super-happy ending, with fairly predictable "twist" fodder. Still. I can pretend Alfred's encounter was a cinematic suggestion of what he wanted to see, not what happened, and if I do that the rest of it's pretty fantastic for this fan boy. Good graveside scene. Nice idea about what Bruce's legacy would be, plus I love the implication that someone else can and will take up the mantle. Even if it is ersatz Robin. I can get down with a Robin (or Nightwing?) starting as an adult. Plus, that gives us our only ultimately satisfying character story in this movie, really - Blake's whole progress leads him to belonging in the Batcave.
  • Disregard of Unity. Wholly insubstantial narrative, Batman. If you dislike Nolan's films in general, this is a standard reason. They very much play with the rules of narrative unity. But see, I like that. I get and dig it. I am just that meta and po-mo, and I still found this film to be a hot mess of time and space. Batman Begins was well-served in its anachronistic unrolling, keeping us off-kilter even as it laid out an insistently linear plot. The Dark Knight was all about chaos and uncontrollable momentum - what we did not know - and the editing and plotting worked together to make the whole experience herky-jerky in a synchronous way. This editing style does not translate to broad-spectrum plots such as the one in TDKR, especially when it's only being used for the purpose of cramming in as much stuff as possible. Add to that a few incomprehensible story fractures (Batman falls how many times before he learns to pick himself back up? Your constant need to remind us that five months are going to transpire doesn't give you just a little hint that maybe you need to rethink that particular choice?) and you have got one anti-Aristotelian gumbo on your hands.
  • The grandiose civil unrest...as backdrop. IF your story is going to address economic disparity and civil rebellion, it would be wise to have something to say about it. It might also be wise to clearly delineate the specifics of that something to say. It might also be wise to avoid muddying the issues so God-blessed thoroughly that at the climax we seriously have to wonder if we actually care about anyone involved. The cops, who are established to be corrupt throughout all three movies, said corruption reinforced by some callous conversation in this movie's introduction? The civilians who embrace Bane and a puppet court? The civilians who hide in their apartments and do nothing? The wealthy? The bad wealthy? Who profit from the powerless and but wait, then stick around in a building, not fleeing...because they're helping? Or they can't flee? Or, aurghh, GUHHHHHH. All that, plus it's all incidental to what is essentially just a hostage plot. Completely incidental.
  • The ol' switcheroo. Do we ever trust Miranda Tate? Certainly not. And when the protagonist hands a weapon to someone with instructions to guard his or her back, and we are not granted even a single shot of that person's face in that moment (do we even see her HAND?), do we come to expect a reversal? Why, yes. It is called the ol' switcheroo for a reason, and we are tired of it. Especially when it happens at a point at which there is no mystery, and nothing critical to the story about the impending revelation.
  • So much murder. I had enough difficulty with the line in the first film, "I won't kill you. But I don't have to save you." Yeah, OK Hollywood, we'll keep your morality tropes in place, since you gave us such a nice Batman movie this time around. But in TDKR, I lost track of how many times Batman slaps Catwoman (sorry: Selina Kyle) on the wrist for the murdering she does. But, listen: Maybe the murder thing is just not a big deal, you know? Maybe it just tends to get a little played up, what with the very genesis of Bruce Wayne's quest and fractured, obsessive personality resulting from the gun-murder of his parents in front of his little eight-year-old face. So I have to imagine that the excessively dangerous and punishing hand-to-hand combat in which he constantly engages is mostly for bravado's sake. 'Cuz he has guns on ALL his vehicles. And when Ca-, er, Selina Kyle not only straight-up cannons Bane to death with one, but is glib about it, Bruce decides he'd like to take her on a Mediterranean trip. So, to recap: Gun violence and murders - not a big deal to Batman, at all.
  • And hey, on the issue of guns: What, the trapped police officers went underground unarmed? They spent all their bullets hunting rats? They didn't want to use them on civilians, despite being faced with a couple of tanks? But logic clearly has no place in this movie, and I really do hate when people lean on that in their criticisms of superhero movies. Even if said movies are claiming to be "grounded" ones.
  • Orphans. Jeebus Cripes. Really? Okay. But really? A bit on-the-nosey, Nolan. Maybe more forgivable, had they not been used for our sole emotional hook in the climax (did not work, BTW). Oh and hey: Why were they the only people on the only bridge that wasn't blown in this epic conclusion? And why was there a bridge not blown? And if so, why hadn't the military...sorry. See above. (Sorry.)
  • Energy source "solutions." I don't care. In the movies, I really don't care. Let this hot-button issue go, Hollywood. It is terrible, and I would rather have a Maltese Falcon, please and thank you.
  • This:
Thanks to Midtown Comics.
  • Aerial shots of New York. Don't do that. Just...don't. Automatic not-Gotham.
But enough already. I have gone on too long about the details. There are more. (Oh, are there more.) But listen: I didn't hate it. It was just the Return of the Jedi of the series. Most well-funded and anticipated, most lacking in innovation or fulfillment.

If you'll bear with me for a very fan-boy summing up, I have an observation about how an element of these movies neatly parallels their various strengths and weaknesses. That element is the vehicles. Observe.

Batman Begins
Vehicle: Batmobile (the Tumbler)
Here is a movie that does a remarkable job revamping and intricately reconnecting us with a well-worn story. It takes identifiable elements and, with the influence of all the innovative comicbooks in recent memory, updates them with an eye on keeping them connected to tangible reality. The movie itself is good as a movie, not just a "superhero" movie, and arguably does its best work when it leaves well enough alone to focus on character and plot. When it gets into action, or set pieces, it quickly becomes overwrought. It's not excessive all the time, and you can forgive some excess because it's grounded in the character work and often for the sake of something really cool. And the Tumbler is great! It takes the tank concept from Miller's Dark Knight Returns, but tones it into a rather viable street vehicle. They casually justify the signature jet engine, there's a really cool yet accessible notion of the seat adjusting for combat mode, and they even own it enough to call it something unique from the comics. It just, you know, occasionally does something like driving over what looks to be century-old rooftops, off of a jump with no ramp. But, I can forgive it that, just like I can forgive the movie its overwrought elevated train climax. Because it's a good vehicle.

The Dark Knight
Vehicle: Batcycle (the Batpod)
The Dark Knight surprised just about everyone by turning out to be a vastly superior sequel to a movie that had already been widely enjoyed and rather well reviewed. It came out of nowhere, in a  way, writing a check for its follow-up even as it played encores in the fall after its release. Gotham itself went from elaborate, ornately Gothic, to stripped-down, recognizably urban even as the story presented itself more like a Michael Mann thriller than a comicbook stock play. Everything in the movie seemed to interconnect with less effort than the first, and this included connecting the characters to the action. So when the Tumbler is seemingly destroyed, only to burst forth with a vulnerable, but fast and agile-as-hell motorcycle that the rider hugs close, similar to the posture he has in the car's combat mode...well. You may laugh at how it all goes, but you'll also cheer, and part of your laughter will come out of how complete it all is. By creating something simpler and more connected to the character, the designers made a vehicle that was in many ways more unique and self-sustaining than its source inspiration.

The Dark Knight Rises
Vehicle: Batgyro (the Bat)
Well, perhaps I've gone on enough about the problems with this movie, and I should just focus on the vehicle. The connections may be clear enough. It should be a fantastic creation. It's the next logical escalation of transport, pragmatically connected with Batman's return to Wayne Manor and his need for utter mobility. The designers created something technically very unique, opting for a sort of inverted, militaristic design based on one of the very earliest elaborate vehicles from the comics. It's possible that the fans (no pun intended [swear]) would have complained if they hadn't gotten what they asked for for Bat-Christmas. However: "the Bat" is emblematic of creating something huge and technically gratifying, but without any true originality or expressive urgency. Even the name - presumably aiming for simplicity - comes out simplistic instead. It's not even that the vehicle is hard to believe (it is), it's that it's unsatisfying, for all its wizardry. It creates a hero who is distant, removed, over-equipped and uninteresting in action. Someone should have the good sense to ground that bat. Perhaps, say, with a comically over-sized revolver.

My mantra with regard to the first movie of this series was that it wasn't the movie I was hoping for, but in this context few movies could have been. The Dark Knight was that movie, improbably, and I can not complain about having gotten what I wanted out of one in a trilogy. Plus, you know I'll be buying The Dark Knight Rises - but perhaps that money will go toward a return-to-form for Mr. Nolan. I hope so. I don't believe his heart was in this movie. And that's okay! That's okay.

So long as he doesn't go back and add CGI to Memento.

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