Sunday, 22 July 2012
The Dark Knight Rises
Knight My Fire
The Dark Knight Rises 2012 USA
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Playing at UK cinemas now
Warning: This warning is pretty simple people... there will be major spoilers in here because I want to talk about my relationship to Batman over the years. You really won’t want to read this if you haven’t seen the movie or are interested in seeing it at some point. It also has some spoilers for The Prestige thrown in for good measure, to make a point. For those of you who are not worried about such stuff... please proceed.
Okay then. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that when I first review a movie or a book with a character who I’ve had a lifelong relationship with over the years, I like to first contextualise the review by explaining my relationship to that character. So, for the record... here’s what the Batman character means to me.
When I was about 2 years old I learned to read by my parents giving me Superman comics. Starting reading by thrilling to the exploits of the four colour superheroes really put me way ahead in terms of reading and writing when it came time for me to start infants school. As well as Superman, I also used to like Spiderman, The Original Captain Marvel (SHAZAM!), The Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Justice League of America and, of course, Batman. Now I can’t pinpoint when I started reading Batman but it was either from an issue of Justice League of America or it was from, and I’ve managed to track it down on-line, Worlds Finest Issue 207 from 1971 (pictured above). On the cover, Superman is dead (yeah, right) through the intervention of magic and Batman is trapped in some netting and about to be machine gunned to death. This was exciting stuff for a... well it would have been a hand-me-down from my uncle so I would have been about three years old by the time I read that issue. After that, the Batman was on my “hit list” for sure, although I didn’t have that many comics and the trips to the comic stall in Silver Street in Edmonton where, if I was lucky, my dad would be able to afford to buy me a new comic, and the trips to my Uncle where I might also require some new reading material, weren’t all that frequent to be honest... at least not in my memory at any rate.
I remember first seeing the Adam West TV show on television repeats (we had a black and white set right until the 1980s so I never even imagined these had been made in colour when I was a kid) and really getting into them and really loving the Batgirl outfit. Batman was a really big deal for me and I also loved the movie version spin off from this TV show. Of course, at that age I didn’t realise they were “camp” classics... to me they were as serious and sombre as the dark strips in the Batman Annual (or sometimes it was called the Batman Bumper Book) that my parents bought me once a year at Christmas. For any readers outside of the UK, unlike the US “annuals” which were just thick comics, UK annuals were actually hard bound books of reprints and accompanying features which would be published every year just in time for Christmas... and they were a big deal to us UK kids.
I used to watch The Super Friends cartoon series specifically because I like Batman and ditto for that other wretched cartoon series, I don’t remember what it was called exactly, but it featured a character called BatMite which really de-clawed the show.
Jumping further on a large number of years, I remember when Tim Burton’s first Batman movie came out in 1989. It was a big event movie. Not nearly as big as the original Star Wars movie had been in 1977 (and its first two sequels in 1980 and 1983 respectively), for sure, but big enough that I remember being in a very long and winding queue for a cold Saturday midnight screening of the movie outside Barnet ODEON. Unlike a lot of overhyped blockbusters these days, that new Batman movie really was a movie you could go back and watch again and again.
The sequel, Batman Returns, was also a big deal and, again, lived up to its promise. The casting of Michael Keaton (which had inflamed the Batman community prior to the first film's release but calmed down instantly once everyone saw how good he was in the role) was already accepted big time in the title role and his on screen chemistry with the new Catwoman, as played by Michelle Pfeiffer, took everything to new heights. Even Danny Elfman managed to top his already amazing score to the first movie with a beautiful, wintry choral feel and a tie in song, which really did subtly tie into the main Batman melody in the movies, performed by Siouxee And The Banshees. I actually preferred this sequel, with it’s less than subtle nods to both German Expressionism and the Max Fleischer studios, to the first one.
And then came Joel Schumacher and the bomb of two, less than mediocre sequels to the Burton films with Val Kilmer donning the cowl for Batman Forever and George Clooney taking over for Batman And Robin. I hated these two movies at the time (it didn’t help that Billy Dee Williams was replaced by Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent, after he’d done such a good job as the character in Burton’s version) and I couldn’t believe a Batman movie could be this bad... twice over. Seriously, the only good thing about these two movies were the absolutely superb scores by esteemed composer Elliot Goldenthal. They had a completely different feel to Elfman’s scores... like Carl Stalling on acid, and as a stand alone listen away from the horrible movies, they’re good music to get excited about.
There was a break of about 8 years then, before Christopher Nolan’s first attempt to bring the character to life. I think it was in this time that I first got to see the two original Batman theatrical serials from the forties. These were pretty cool as I’ve always been a fan of movie serials from the 30s, 40s and 50s... my childhood was filled with TV repeats of the three Flash Gordon serials, Buck Rogers, King Of The Rocket Men, Undersea Kingdom, Daredevils Of The Red Circle and Hawk Of The Wilderness. The first Batman serial from 1943, only four years after the Batman’s first appearance in a 1939 issue of Detective Comics (which is what the company name DC actually means... which is why referring to them as DC Comics is as silly as referring to AC Current), is actually pretty cool. The villains left for the police are marked with little bats in their foreheads, if memory serves, and it’s a great little serial all round.
Unfortunately the second serial, Batman And Robin from 1949, has a completely different cast and is a bit of a lacklustre affair compared to the first serial. Columbia, who produced these, weren’t exactly known for their vigour and energy in their serials (I much prefer Universal and Republic serials, truth be told) and that first one seems to have been a bit of a flash in the pan. Still, it’s not terrible and a fun watch. Both serials are going to be revisited again in my future, I’m sure.
Oh... and while we’re at it. I was reading a lot of Batman comics in the 80s. My favourites were The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Cult and a whole raft of DC Elseworlds incarnations of Batman (my favourite one being Gotham By Gaslight where a Victorian era Batman tracks Jack The Ripper). These comics were better than any movie version made so far, it has to be said. Non comics readers underestimate just how subtle and how great and “uncensored” (when dealing with edgy issues a movie wouldn't touch for commercial reasons) comics can be. Some of them are truly great literary experiences and, if you know which ones to read, you should certainly check out the whole host of great literature in the comics world (and do yourself a favour and start by reading The Ballad Of Halo Jones).
So, okay. Then came Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins... a movie I went in to, to be fair, with high expectations. It would be fair to say those expectations were not met.
I’d been hoping for a Batman closer to the gritty yet noble splendour of the original 30s and 40s comics. Instead we had... something else with extremely confusingly edited... to my eyes... action sequences. At first I thought it was just me but when, a week later at the regular Camden Film Fair, I asked a bunch of stallholders what they had thought of the movie... it turned out that the general feeling was of disappointment. People, including myself, were likening it to the Schumacher movies. Now, to be fair, when I was in a position when I had to rewatch Batman Begins a few years ago, I actually enjoyed it a whole lot more than I had the previous time... so I’m guessing if I go back and look at it again now (which I intend to do just before this new movie is released on DVD) I will probably wonder why I ever hated it so much. One of the things I hated about the movie was this though. How could you have the Ras Al Ghul character in the storyline without even mentioning his daughter Talia (pictured above), who had meant so much to the Batman in the 70s in the classic storylines by the likes of Neal Adams (I hope I’m remembering the right artist for that era). This really annoyed me at the time but... more on her later. ;-)
Okay, so I wasn’t exactly dragged to the cinema to see Nolan’s sequel, The Dark Knight, when it came out. It’s my business, since he helped me learn to read after all, to watch all of the Batman movies. But I didn’t rush to see it either... leaving it a week or two into its run to muster up the courage to see how Batman was going to let me down this time. What I saw surprised me greatly. Here we had a very long movie which was... frankly... an absolutely fantastic addition to the Batman movie universe. Possibly the best Batman movie to date, I think. It whizzed by and I saw it a few more times before it finished its run. I was really into it. Nolan finally made a good movie (I don’t have a good track record with liking Nolan, especially after Inception - shudder). It’s a movie which, I think, will be one of those truly iconic classics that will be looked back on in fifty years time and still thought of as a great movie. I truly believe this.
But, after the disappointment of the first movie in the sequence, and the fact that the villain touted for the new one was Bane who had appeared as a character just after I stopped reading the comics but who had, I remembered, been one of the terrible villains in Schumacher’s Batman And Robin, well... I think it would be safe to say that I wasn’t exactly expecting anything other than more disappointment from the new movie. I’d heard the reviews of it were all pretty negative in their verdict. Added to that, the day I saw it was on its opening night, and I’d just heard news a few hours before of the awful massacre of innocent cinemagoers by a guy dressed as Bane in Denver. So I was also a bit wary of going to an opening night performance, even in my country, to be sure.
But I went anyway and you know what? Despite what the critics say, and I think some of them do have a point in that there are a few little problems in this one, I’d have to say that The Dark Knight Rises is a pretty good little movie. Not as great as The Dark Knight, I would have to say, but certainly a worthy sequel which concludes the dramatic arc set up by the first movies in a logical manner.
The plot is dark... Batman has not been seen in 8 years, following the events depicted in the previous movie, and his alter ego Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. But then Bane surfaces and shuts off Gotham from the world with the threat of a nuclear bomb in a city seized and controlled by him. Like an extreme social experiment, he is going to destroy the city anyway, because he is a follower of Ras Al Ghul from the first movie. Like the character did in the original Knightfall story in the comics (which I confess I haven’t read), he breaks Batman's back and, in this version, imprisons him in an inescapable prison (only one person ever escaped before and the movie implies it was Bane who did this... but as you’ll find at the end of the movie, it wasn’t Bane it was the person who he is the real mastermind behind the whole dastardly plot). While fixing his back and building himself up in “the pit”, Bruce Wayne has a ghostly vision of Ras Al Ghul (played again by Liam Neeson) who gives him some more of the back story, but not the whole thing. Then, with the majority of the police force trapped under ground for a month and with only hours remaining before the bomb goes off... the Batman returns to Gotham allied with Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Fox (Morgan Shepherd) and someone called Miranda (Marion Cotillard) who, it turns out, it not what she seems.
It’s a nice piece of moviemaking. Clichéd as hell, to be sure, but exciting and intriguing... which is not bad for a Batman movie where, frankly, Batman is hardly in it. It’s a sleek, powerful tent peg movie and it won’t let the studio down. It should easily make its money back and then some as its easily the best superhero movie of the year (even if Batman has never, technically, been a superhero).
However, like I said... I do have some problems with it.
One of the things about Nolan, and his The Prestige demonstrates this to it’s detriment, is that he always somehow manages to telegraph any twists coming a half an hour, or even over an hour, before they actually happen. This is not a film-maker who knows how to take his audience by surprise... which is a shame because The Prestige could have been a great movie if he’d not given you the solutions to all the twists right at the start of the movie, before it was even apparent there were any twists (for example, showing you the obvious side effect to Tesla’s later invention right at the start of the film and having two Christian Bales together a lot of the time... no use trying to disguise him in the shots, he’s there).
Similarly, it seemed fairly obvious by the time we meet Marion Cotillard’s character a second time in The Dark Knight Rises, quite early in the film, that she’s probably playing a villainess. Nolan tries to throw us off the scent a little by having a blatant female "bad girl" character in the film, Catwoman, to distract us... and to be fair, Anne Hathaway can be quite distracting, she plays it beautifully... but it just doesn’t serve to throw the audience off the scent. And, of course, as soon as the characters start talking about the legacy of Ras Al Ghul and the The League Of Shadows, it doesn’t take much to figure out that Cotillard is actually playing Talia, the character I’d complained about not being in Batman Begins. She is the one who escaped from “the pit” and she is the one who sleeps with Bruce Wayne but then stabs him near the end of the movie. Now I love Cottilard normally. Been keeping an eye on her since the original French Taxi movies (I especially liked her as the vengeful assassin in Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement) but I don’t think she does such an epic character as Talia justice here.
Now it’s probably not her fault, to be fair. The script is such that she is, I suspect, supposed to be some kind of surprise... but the Talia I remember of old was more of a “Caroline Munro in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad” exotic type (in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the original drawings were based on her) and this is just not the way Cottilard is presented in this movie. But... it’s a minor criticism since, after all, the Alfred Pennyworth portrayed in the Nolan trilogy (and played brilliantly by Michael Caine as an ex-military butler) is absolutely nothing like the character as he appeared in the comics either... another “in name only” version but, to be fair, Caine’s creation of him is a good addition.
But what about Alfred?
He’s not in this one much because he leaves Bruce Wayne. Quits on him. Alfred would never have done that in the comics but, since it’s not really the same Alfred, I guess I can forgive Nolan the use of the character to give a dramatic twist of the knife and add more gravitas to the proceedings. So well played on that front. And you mustn’t completely give up on Alfred on this one because one of the stories he tells is of the time when Bruce Wayne had left Gotham in the first movie, to find himself and train to become Batman. The story is of Alfred’s holiday/vacations and his fantasies of seeing Bruce Wayne and his girlfriend alive and well and not going back to Gotham... you’ll need that information for the end of the movie.
Another thing I have a problem with is about various characters knowing more than they possibly could. If Ras Al Ghul is merely a hallucination from a recovering invalid, how can he tell him the full backstory (to be fair, he could have got this finally from another prisoner but this little hole is left unexplained). Similarly, when Batman finally returns to Gotham, how does he know how many hours they have left until the bomb explodes. I suppose Bane could have told him... but, really?
And Nolan also resorts to dragging out time in a manner which doesn’t work. Showing a time bomb ticking down intercut with action sequences and then cutting back to find either not many seconds have actually passed during that part of the action or, conversely, too much time has passed. This is an attempt to ramp up suspense while the audience are supposed to be “lost in the action” but it rarely ever works when that kind of tactic is employed in film and it certainly doesn’t here.
It’s small details like this that drag the movie down a little under its own weight. Some of these things may well have been answered in the rough cut and edited out for length (it’s currently almost a 3 hour running time) but it makes the difference sometimes between a great movie, which this is not, and a really good one... which this kinda is, actually.
Having said that though... there’s a lot of positive stuff in this film. The relationship between James Gordon and Blake, the future Robin in this story arc, is really great stuff and even minor characters who start off bad or misguided actually do have a built in progression to them. Mistakes are admitted. Allegiances change. Just like people in real life. This movie, like the previous two, embraces the traits and personalities that live in the grey area... it’s not so much a series about dark and light, good and evil, but shades of grey. That’s what makes the characters matter to the audience. Because even the villains can be empathised with... to a certain extent.
There’s also the nice device of setting up a neat solution to the “saving of the city” only to have that solution snatched away only minutes before it’s too late. This is a nice Nolan trick which really works here.
Make no mistake, this is an exciting and dramatic story, solidly backed up with Hans Zimmer’s excellent score. James Newton Howard did not collaborate with him on this third part and it’s not as good a score as the last one... but it’s still pretty gorgeous sounding to my tin ears. And it all leads up to the point, once battle is done, to the rising foreshadowed in the film’s title. Red herring time again because the Rise of the Dark Knight is not Bruce Wayne climbing his way to freedom from “the pit” and saving Gotham. The rising here is a biblical metaphor.
Because Batman dies.
Except he doesn’t... only to the world.
He tows the atomic bomb which can now not be aborted out into the ocean and saves Gotham and dies in the process... leaving Bruce Wayne’s estate to his former butler, Alfred... who is racked with shame for not fulfilling his promise of taking care of young master Bruce to his dead parents. But by this time, the very inclusion of this scene at the funeral will be enough to tip most people off that the dark knight is, indeed, about to rise.
There’s a little thing about the discovery that the flying batwing actually did get the autopilot fixed six months prior to the events at the end of the film. And evidence suggests that it was Bruce Wayne who figured out how to fix it. Which means he knew he could leave his aircraft on autopilot. To quote Adam West’s incarnation of the character from the 1966 movie... “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” Except, if you fix the autopilot... sometimes you can and stage your own “retirement death” in the process.
Which is where Alfred’s story about his time spent on vacation comes into play... and which he will finally see fulfilled at the end of the movie with Bruce Wayne and his new girlfriend Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman).
And as I said earlier in the article... we also have the set up for Robin. It’s a nice little touch to know that Blake will carry on the fight against the crime in Gotham, but there is also a little tinge of regret in my heart.
This film is almost set up for a sequel. But they’ve said it’s definitely the final installment of this trilogy, which will be a shame. I would like to see what happens to these characters ten years down the line. A new super threat facing Gotham, Robin attempting to put things right and failing... he needs help... enter Batman and Catwoman (now Batgirl) coming out of retirement as the three fight fire and save Gotham once again. I doubt it’s a movie that would ever get made... but it would have been nice to see it.
If you’ve read this far I’m assuming you’ve already seen this movie... so you know by now that you either liked it or didn’t. It would get a fairly positive recommendation from me but, like i said, you’ve already seen it, right? But if you liked it as much as me, of course... there’s no reason why you can’t go and see it again. Same bat time... same bat channel!