Monday, 23 July 2012

My problem(s) with Dark Knight Rises (spoilers)

Starting, perhaps predictably, with a caveat...I really enjoyed watching the Dark Knight Rises at the cinema, it's a great movie well executed. Not perfect, but very, very good. It's not on the other hand a great Batman movie, I feel. In fact the more I reflect the more I see it as disappointing, and a missed opportunity.

First, let me say, there were good things.

Anne Hathaway's portrayal of Catwoman felt perhaps like the most true to the modern comics than any other characterisation made so far.

The twist of Talia al Ghul was (for me) completely out of the blue. Perhaps because of the detractions from the world I know of Batman in the comics, I'd allowed myself to consider that Nolan would make Bane the son of Ra's al Ghul. I should have guessed it earlier (and no doubt many a bat fan would), but it was a well crafted twist...perhaps more so because of the way the pre-screening media was involved in selling the dummy.

Showing the intelligence of Bane; the path of the previous Batman movies did a great disservice to the only character to truly break the Batman. This Bane was almost everything that he needed to be.

Also, in general, the costume design, the soundtrack, the work that was done on the environment, the locational work...basically the actual filmmaking...was all fantastic. This is the main reason that it'll always be a great movie.

It's the story and the characters other than above that make it disappointing.

The film itself seems to take inspiration from two main stories...though it doesn't take more than a few of the elements that make those stories great. The stories are Knightfall and No Man's Land, arguably the two most defining stories of the 90s for Batman.

The trouble is that Knightfall is a character study in Batman losing all hope and being unable to reach out for help when the odds start to become insurmountable. It's a story of Batman believing that he can get through everything on his own. But in order to do this Batman is beaten down, kept too active and involved in crime fighting super-villains.

This is Bane's plan, to wear Batman down so that when he comes to fight him, it will be a Batman of broken wills and concentration. The film, by contrast, does the opposite and portrays Batman coming from the other direction...with plenty of spirit and a slowly improving (though not peak) physical condition.

The interaction between Bane and Batman, therefore, seems entirely consequential. That the plan is to have Bruce Wayne watch Gotham destroyed as Ra's would have intended seems almost tacked on.

Furthermore the interesting thing about Knightfall is what happens next. Bruce decides to retire as Batman under largely happy circumstances, but only because there is another Batman to take his place, that he has an understanding of, and trusts to do the job. Interestingly Alfred also leaves Bruce during this time as he doesn't want to see him damage his body any more.

Bruce would later come back to retake the cowl, when his replacement goes somewhat crazy and starts endangering the public and taking punishment to a new level.

The film cut this opportunity off, by 'killing' Bruce Wayne off (though it doesn't really explain how Bruce Wayne is perceived in the public eye after the ending) who would be there to come back?

Then there is No Man's Land, perhaps my favourite Bat story of all time, where an earthquake has left Gotham largely destroyed, with criminality running rife as Ra's al Ghul (Bane acting as his proxy in the film) has previously released everyone from the maximum security prison after trying to release a virus around Gotham (Batman Begins, essentially Batman Year One meets Contagion as story lines...I digress). As a result the federal government deciding it has to cut Gotham off from the rest of the country.

The story showcases perfectly Batman's abilities to act as a strategist. With several allies around the city in the form of police, other vigilantes and even former foes, Batman regains control of Gotham enough over time to allow the government to stop their blockade of Gotham.

Is any of this present in the film? Of course not. Batman miraculously recovers from his 'broken', or more likely dislocated, back and makes it back to Gotham (with no money) just in time to stop the city from being destroyed.

No strategy, no organisation, no intelligence.

And maybe this is what bothers me about the film as a bat film...Batman wasn't recognisable in it as the character we know. He pleads and bargains more than he growls and commands, he starts off severely injured and out of the game for 8 years, without any good reason

Batman started to stop criminals, not just super criminals...those like the man that killed his parents. The film already says that crime isn't abolished in Gotham, so why would Batman stop just because organised crime was curtailed?

The Batman I know and love would have, by the time he was 10 years in to life after donning the cape and cowl, become a master detective and be finding his prowess in being a 'war general' of sorts. This Batman is a damp squib, almost emo in personality. While Batman in the comics may use his personal loss and possible depressive outlook to drive him to clean the city up, the film's Batman doesn't use it at all.

In fact the greatest loss in Batman's life in the comics is that of his sidekick Jason Todd, the second Robin. We know from this that Batman's reaction to the loss of someone by the Joker is rage and determination, not depression as happened in the aftermath of Rachel's death. The key is that Batman shouldn't stop doing what he intended to do when he started.

It does make him less keen to trust people with his identity, and getting close to him though, which is what makes he film's portrayal even more confusing as he seems to readily hand over the mantle to 'John Blake' without really knowing much about him and his ability to not get killed the first time he faces danger.

But then Nolan is clearly trying to wrap up his Trilogy, and he does it in style (albeit of questionable physics). But from the initial niggles in Batman Begins of allowing Ra's al Ghul to die (as much as that character can, and having guns on his vehicles ) the concerns only grow. Dent/Two Face killed readily in the Dark Knight, then Talia and Bane killed in the Dark Knight Returns. The obsession with killing off villains seems to have grown and grown.

And then there is letting everyone know or find out his identity so easily; He talks about why he wears his mask in the film, yet does everything he can to ensure people know it is Bruce Wayne underneath it.

This might all sound like I'm being overly critical, and perhaps I am. As I said at the top of this post, I enjoyed the film a lot for what it was and it genuinely entertained me. I just also see from my previous knowledge of the stories a lot of missed opportunities, fundamental mistakes with the character that I'm surprised DC signed off, and avenues cut off for potentially keeping this particular universe going.

But then given how this character of Batman was left, not my Batman but someone else's that had the privilege to bring him to the big screen, I'm not sure that I would particularly want to see any more of 'The Dark Knight' Batman anyway.

Roll on the 'reboot', as long as it's not another origin story!