Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Tale of Two Gothams

The Dark Knight Rises
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (characters created by Bob Kane)
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine, Ben Mendelsohn, and Nestor Campbell.
Director of Photography: Wally Pfister, Editor: Lee Smith, Production Designer: Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh, Original Music: Hans Zimmer

            The idea of “superhero movie fatigue” has been an issue raised by film critics again and again for the last few years. Another Spider-Man? An X-Men spinoff? More? Nevermind that we had three Maltese Falcon adaptations in less than ten years, but outside the point of all this yawning of superheroes, sometimes it’s forgotten why they exist in culture at all. Superheroes are myth stories. The Greeks had Achilles. Medieval times had Beowulf. And we have Superman. Sure, when you wait only three years between a film, perhaps not much changes in our perception and meaning of this myth. But the point is that a superhero can mean something different depending on time and circumstances. This is what Christopher Nolan believes. Unfortunately, I don’t know if he knows what his heroes want to stand for.

            It’s hard not to know that this weekend sees the release of The Dark Knight Rises, the third (and final) “chapter” in Nolan’s vision of the Batman myth. Such hype and speculation has fueled the world since the release of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a box office bonanza that attempted to not only take superheroes seriously, but to extract as much “super”-ness as possible. And with Inception out of the way, Nolan, writing the script with his brother Jonathan, has returned to make something of an epic in the Charles Dickens sense. The Dark Knight Rises is truly a big film—three hours long, with a good portion of the film shot on IMAX cameras, and featuring at least 10 plots that somehow mesh together at the end. It’s also a total mess of conflicting ideas and emotions and flat filmmaking, marred by it’s desire to simply do too much. But it kept me glued to my seat while watching it nonetheless.

            Who exactly does this Nolan guy think he is? His films are large-scale Hollywood epics that are unlike any other mold at their scale. His films have ideas, but they are “ideas,” the thing certain circles like to point to, even if they spent a minute examining those “ideas,” they might realize the fallacy of those. And there are a lot of “ideas” running through Nolan’s #OccupyGotham fairy tale. Where to begins with what goes on in this movie? We’re eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, and since Harvey Dent’s death, a new law called The Patriot Act The Dent Act has put countless criminals in jail. Bruce Wayne has all but retired, leaving both his bat suit, and all reality behind. Then there’s Selina Kyle, played by a frisky Anne Hathaway doing her best to make Catwoman into a real femme fatale. Plus let’s also follow Marion Cotillard as an investor attempting to get close to Bruce in order to restart a sustainable fusion energy source (Chekov’s Plutonium). And don’t forget Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young, go-get em’ cop who believes in the Batman myth. Plus, all your old favorites—caretaker Alfred, machine expert Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon, (and more, but that would be spoilers!)—are all back for another round.

            Something’s amuck in Gotham after eight years of peace, which brings us our latest villain to this series—Bane, played by Warrior and Bronson muscle man Tom Hardy. A towering blub of pure muscle, kept together by a mask and a (still slightly incomprehensible) East European accent, Bane has come to Gotham to destroy it once in for all, and force the Batman to watch his city fall into chaos. Hardy makes the most of the role—it’s kind of difficult to emote when we never see his entire face—and Bane presents a real challenge to the Batman. As we learn, he’s a force born in nihilism, driven by pain and giving it to others in an all-consuming fascist dictatorship.

            But Bane’s role in The Dark Knight Rises is cluttered by the fact that while he presents a physical challenge to Batman, his thematic presence is more questionable. He and his minions (the 99%) take over and cause carnage on a Wall Street trading floor. He forces citizens to take from the rich and force them to murder each other. Why? A late film twist finally clears the motivations for Bane, but it makes his rhetoric pointless and a bit silly when Nolan is clearly trying to make some sort of a political allegory.

            The Dark Knight Rises often feels like five movies at once, all stuck and strung together (I’m now imagining Nolan could have made a trilogy of films just out of the one he made here). Gone are the city streets of Chicago—Rises is clearly a New York set tale of chaos and rising up against the tyranny of those who have everything (and like The Dark Knight, the film may in the end suggest more of a right wing justification for our Post-9/11, and now Post-Financial Crises actions than question it). Nolan wants to make something big and he has—the film never drags too badly, and by the time he gets to his huge climax, he really goes for big and bold and had me on the edge of my seat. His action scene continuity has slightly improved—I still found a few sequences baffling in terms of narrative space, but they were much easier to follow than in any of his other films.

            But there are issues that continue to stand that constantly make me question his status as the great filmmaker of our time (he is the one we want, but not the one we need). Despite working on such an epic scale, his visual compositions continue to be flat and lifeless (Nolan evokes Mann without ever understanding his use of negative space). He has a great production designer that has created a sleek and realistic Gotham, but his lack of expressive filmmaking gives the film a dull palette, and even the gadgets are made with utility in mind. Only one sequence—easily the best in the film—reaches something of pure cinematic pleasure, as a character finds himself trapped in a Middle Eastern prison, and must escape not by physical strength, by facing a fear of death.

            But that’s just about twenty minutes, and there’s so much more in The Dark Knight Rises—not just in its exposition-filled narrative (which is still confusing) but also thematically: Capitalism Vs. the little guy, body vs. soul, symbols vs. heroes...all to fill those bounds and bounds of PhD dissertations. But despite the lousy visuals, the slight ideas, and the overbearing Hans Zimmer score filled with intense chanting, there’s something in The Dark Knight Rises to commend, though I’m just not sure what exactly. When The Avengers got to its third act, I felt ready to head out—everything felt so inconsequential, so small. The stakes at the heart of The Dark Knight Rises, and Bruce Wayne’s journey from man to legend, somehow got to me, and I never felt like I could take my eyes of that screen. There was the sly smirk of Selina, the bitter tears in Alfred, the first shot of Bruce reclaiming his spot in Gotham’s eye. I don’t know what to make of The Dark Knight Rises, and what Nolan means for Hollywood filmmaking in general. But I know I want more of it. I want more not because I think it is good, but because it wants so badly to be good. And one of these days, someone will come along and truly give our superheroes the legends they deserve. 

No comments: