Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Dark Knight Rises – Higher Comic Book, Lower Noir

Few films I anticipated with as much eagerness as The Dark Knight Rises. The first trailers appeared exactly a year before; a scene was reportedly shot in Newark (I couldn’t tell). The new Batman was long the subject of talk with my comic book reader friends – who happen not to be exclusively male, but it seems the few comic book fluent women I know were all born after I graduated college! – and with good reason, the previous The Dark Knight was an exceptional film, as was Batman Begins, heralding a new era of Batman, and as the Marvel Blockbuster machine hit a new stride with Iron Man>Avengers, super hero films in general have become a bona fide genre, certainly comparable to the best of Sci Fi. One still hopes for a DC cinema universe that equals that of Marvel (the Marvel films are wonderful, but I prefer DC) and the cultural mythologies DC once engendered become realized in film. Superman Returns was a disgraceful film, more so than the post Tim Burton, pre-Nolan, Batmans. But Nolan’s Batman has been, so far, a game changer.

Nolan gave cinephiles and comic book lovers hope by instilling a noir ethos into his Batman re-boot… well, the first two installments at least.

Nolan, a noir-centric director – he is a scholar on the genre in addition to making that neo-noir masterpiece, Memento and the near-classic, Insomnia – saw the noir elements in the original Bob Kane character. Noir started essentially as “crime” fiction, a reaction against the who-dunnit machinations that lay the bedrock for the genre. James Cain made the criminals more interesting but as multi-dimensional and recognizable as the crime solvers, the Sherlocks. In doing so, the genre delved deeper into social realism, and in fact, can be seen as the pulpy off-shoot of social realism that had become a mainstay of American literature since Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser. This realism and believability inspired Albert Camus to write The Stranger. Batman was a masked vigilante, but like Sam Spade, he was peculiar, individualistic, and embodied a universal wish-fulfillment as any of the tragic criminals of James Cain.

Nolan’s noir insight for the comic book film was to add a level of realism, an insistence on the plausible. Tim Bourton’s Batman used these same elements, but he never avoided the fantastic (e.g., the Joker’s killer joy buzzer). That’s why when we were waiting for Nolan’s 3rdinstallment, we knew we would never see a Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy, not only would Nolan’s hyper realistic comic book world never countenance supernatural or meta-human powers, but also super-science. There could be no one-of-a-kind freeze gun in Nolan’s universe, much less accelerated plant growth powers. The trade off is a more limited, but more believable Gotham City.
The Dark Knight is a brilliant film. The outrageous Joker, a haunting performance by Heath Ledger, will amaze film watchers as long as there is cinema. It is one of the greatest films of the 21st century and has staked out a new territory for Noir. Reality reigns in this sequel to the re-telling of the Batman origin, and just as the comic book evolved, the disturbing persona and psyche of The Batman began to attract like-minded foes (such as the Mad Monk), and Nolan’s re-imagining of Batman’s greatest nemesis showed how comic books can satisfyingly be translated into the medium of film without even an iota of camp (Jack Nicholson). Sure, it seemed somewhat (but only somewhat) implausible, but not impossible, that the Joker, supposedly a hit-man, was able to hire a criminal network able to steal the DNA of policemen, plant it at crime scene or infiltrate the mayor’s office to spray poison on his favorite whiskey glass. Nolan’s Joker would never use a lethal gas that would leave victims literarily laughing to death, because while an awesome weapon, how can its invention and production are explained? Within this ultra-realism realm is the theme of the story, a man with no motive beyond his own madness, his own desire “to see the world burn,” and within the context of the story, the relationship between this motive and the man, who witnessing his parent’s murder, adopts the personae of a bat because the bat is the source of his biggest fear, which he wants the criminals of Gotham “to feel.”

The second Nolan Batman of course was tainted by the tragedy of Ledger, and you can’t help but wonder if the intensity of his performance was a contributing factor to the actor’s death, apparently from an accidental prescription drug overdose. The third one had its one tragedy of course, the mass shooting at an early screening in Aurora Colorado. I went to see this film as a protest against senseless violence. I always go to a movie that I really want to see as soon as possible after it opens, which often means on opening day and I had been planning to do this with DKR for a week or longer and when the news of the shooting dominated headlines I felt that I had to go, a kind of if not than the terrorists would have mentality. I was wrong. The incident was too major, and the film too filled with automatic weapons fire, that I was distracted and soon realized I was unable to fairly assess the movie, and with Newtown shootings happening around the same time as the DVD release, the associations could not abate.

I didn’t like the movie as much as DK but I could not figure out why, or at least be sure of the objectivity of my opinion. It’s unfair that these films are associated with tragedy beyond their control, and DKR is not the only film where unexpected violence occurred in a theater. If I didn’t like the movie, I needed to not to like it for reasons other than and unrelated to the real world violence.

DKR is a good movie, supremely well crafted, well acted and entertaining. This is not a fan-boy screed, some over the top spoiler alert. I have no axe to grind. Here’s my gripe: Nolan, having infused the Batman myth with the social realism of 20th century noir, by making sure this impossible story is entirely plausible; he reverses the strategy in the final installment. In effect, he made a comic book movie, but he seems to not have realized that this is not in keeping with the noir, reality-based universe he created with the first two films. I have to wonder if the Joker was to play a role in the last film – although Harvey Dent is mentioned, the Joker is not –even though the Joker is clearly alive at the end of DK. Did Ledger’s death ruin Nolan’s final vision, and his compromise position was bringing back the League of Shadows as the reason Goth man is under anarchy? This is my speculation, and regardless of the cause, the effect is a film that overcomes its implausibility splendidly, but nonetheless runs contrary to the vision of reality that made Batman Begins really good, and The Dark Knight, undeniably great.

What implausibilities you say?

1) Eight years. Why this length of time, why not three? Eight years, two presidential terms, is a long time for Batman to go on the lam and Bruce Wayne to be a recluse – and to still walk with a cane?

2) No crime. Okay, so the Dent law locks up the crime syndicate – apparently everybody, so nobody from any crew is left to take over. How far up – or down – the chain does it go? Where the poppy fields that made Gotham’s heroin also eradicated? Did the syndicate control the entire supply chain of drugs, and if not, wouldn’t suppliers look for new sellers, as would the users? No other criminals in Gotham aside from the Mafia related? WTF? Also, Batman need to fight crime and one of the existential issues Batman/Bruce Wayne deals with his identity, and if beating up on bad guys makes him a bad guy? These issues Nolan’s Wayne is not interested in, made possible only by the implausible notion that removing the crime syndicate and Joker instantly eliminates all crime, allowing for an 8-year hiatus for a limping Batman.


3) During the 8-years, does Bruce still train? Go to a gym? If not, why hasn’t he put on weight? How does he keep up his skills? Maybe that’s why Bane kicks his ass, but Bruce does hold his own for a while. Bruce walks with a cane, one assumes for eight years, so has been training aside from the persistent limp and discomfort, or as implied, given up on everything. If that was the case, wouldn’t he lumpy and out of shape to such an extent to not even consider hand to hand combat?

4) The Bane fight –where’s the damn utility belt? At one point, he uses fire crackers to distract Bane, but distractions are not effective against the “uninitiated”. Batman doesn’t use guns, we get that. He also knows he’s losing the fight. Isn’t there a Taser or some other useful weapon or tool that he can use?

5) So, Alfred and Bruce break up before the ass kicking by Bane. Bruce is in a prison in some third world country, never clear if its South America, North Africa or Eurasia, but it is without doubt, not in our hemisphere. Bruce has also lost Wayne Enterprises and his fortune, and one assumes all the other perks of wealth. In Batman Begins, Bruce embarks on a lose thy self to gain thy self journey, where at the end, Alfred, presumably summoned, shows up with a private jet to take him home. In DKR, Bruce also has 48 hours to get home and save Gotham. The prison he escapes from seems no where near a pay phone. Now, he may have more than 48 hours, that is my guess, after a few viewings; it is never clear although it is not as long as a week. Now, I’m not so upset, be it poetic license or screen writing lapse, that fails to specify the exact time, when he finally does arrive in Gotham it’s 18 hours (I think) until the bomb goes off. As a movie goer, I accept that he will be in Gotham in time, but my question is how, without Alfred’s help. He has no ID and even if he has some secret way of accessing enough money for to pay for a flight – and get a passport! – to fly commercial, then the time constraint becomes more of an inescapable plot impediment. Of course, a call to Alfred would mean there would be no problem. But there is no reunion apparent in the film, nor any alternative to Alfred explanation for Bruce getting away from a foreign land and close enough to sneak into Gotham, which is under Bane’s occupation. In a comic book movie, one shrugs these concerns off as just part of the genre, but for a realistic noir, this should have been explained and could have been in a way surprising to the audience – that Bruce always has a card up his sleeve – and one hoped that card would be Alfred. In the Batman mythology, these two would never break up. In noir reality of the trilogy, Alfred is the only way Bruce could save Gotham in time. Nolan keeps this resolution off-screen and unexplained, which weakens the film and betrays his original vision.

6) So, even if we accept that Bruce is able to get back to America within about six hours from the third world prison, how does he get into Gotham? And, why not, later as Batman, suggest using a reverse trip through this route to get more people to safety?

7) Where is Alfred during the Bane occupation of Gotham, is he still in the city? What happens to Wayne Manor, which is in the“heights” but within the city limits during the occupation? Gotham appears to be an island, connected by bridges that are blown up or the one that is intact, which is guarded by police and national guard to prevent anyone from escaping Gotham. Is Wayne Manor, which is on a palatial estate, within these city limits – when leaving Gotham, must they take a bridge? If yes, is it under Mercenary control, was it looted with the rest of the wealthy – there are scenes of Gotham’s Park Avenue being ransacked by a mob – did the mob make it out to the manor? Bane knows who Bruce is, Rahs Au Ghual (Liam Nelson), burned down Wayne Manor – wouldn’t Bane and his henchmen go into Wayne Manor, steal a bat mobile, get other stuff, or let some of the criminals in on the secret? A cameo by Eric Roberts, how could Nolan resist, dang!

8) Speaking of the ransack, why only the townhouses, why not stores and such? Why didn’t the mob go a looting city-wide? In one of the chase scenes, a Saks Fifth Avenue store looms large in the background. Did this product placement deal prevent looting scenes?

9) Is the mob just criminals from Black Gate, or the good people of Gotham, or just criminals from the entire city – the very criminals Batman has ignored for eight years because he only goes after crime lords, not the types who might kill during a robbery, leaving two parents dead a plucky lad orphaned?

10) How many henchmen are there? Dozens, hundreds? Is the level of devotion as intense as the guy who willingly dies on the plane in the opening scene – the cement workers seem more like hired guys, while the dark skinned guy who was going to shoot Blake seems more true believer. Is the benefit of being occupiers purely satisfaction that their faith in the League of Shadows reciprocated? There seems to be no other plus, like women or luxuries – they don’t plunder the town, they just encourage ransacking – yet for their faith they get to be automatic weapon toting cops, which has got to be boring since there’s no apparent insurrection against the occupiers. They are referred to as mercenaries throughout the third act, and they do let trucks in for food supplies, but there doesn’t seem to be hordes of citizens lining up, or getting shot by mercenaries. How are they enforcing Marshall law? Is there a curfew? Do people still go to work? Are drug shipments, legal and illegal, allowed? At a certain point, ATM’s run out of currency. What is happening to the banks, were they all ransacked too? Are schools opened, hospitals? Do people still pay rent? Do their food stamps still work? Does the Gotham PSE&G cut electrify off for non payment? Gotham is under Bane for about five months, but after the initial ransack – which only seems to involve maybe two dozen or so – what about the rest of the population? Are they living on rationed food? Do the mercenaries turn a blind eye to smuggling? When the food truck arrives with the special forces, they enter an empty store and only a handful of people seem to be lingering, waiting their arrival. One assumes Gotham has millions of people –it is referred to by the U.S. president as our greatest city – but there is only a sense that this one store and one truck with the undercover soldiers is all that is needed.

11) What happens to the vesting team and fans at the football game? Is there some kind of system to allow people off the island of Gotham City who don’t live there? What about people in town for the day? I don’t expect 8 million stories to be told about this fictional Naked City, but Nolan ignores all the details of the premise he creates, a weakness he did not succumb to in in the first two films, which set the tone and expectations for DKR.

12) During the final clash between the police and the mercenaries, where is the rest of the citizenry? They do not seem to be watching, are they still trying to escape? After Cat Woman blows up the debris blocking the tunnel, are people using it, the whole purpose was for an escape route, but on one is near the tunnel, no one is notified to lead an exodus, no one is putting out the fire Cat Woman has caused.

13) Before Batman flies the nuclear bomb into Gotham bay, he reveals to Gordon that Batman is Bruce Wayne by reminding Gordon that he put his coat over his shoulders after his parents were slain. Gordon finally realizes who he is – duh! – what a cracker jack detective. But this is after that the Bane occupation was a few months old and aided by the vehicles stolen from Wayne Enterprises. The vehicles look and work exactly like the Bat Mobile, although they are in camouflage, not black. Can’t this man put two and two together, or at least wonder, haven’t I seen these cars before?
I keep going back to the eight years of no crime fighting –the fatal flaw in this film by which Nolan’s noir realism collapses – and the pinning of Dent’s murder on The Batman. Two story points mitigate this unquestioned pinning of the murder – Two Face – Dent’s brutal alter ego – is responsible for at least two murders, one an ex cop, and there are witnesses – Eric Roberts for one. Two Face escaped from the exploding hospital on his own, not by the school bus evacuation, and even if his murder spree was covered up, how is explained to the press and the judiciary how he went from the hospital to the roof where he was pushed (?) by The Batman? Jim Gordon’s family is there, how is that explained? And, what is the motivation for Batman to kill Dent? Before this incident, Batman apprehends the Joker – Why would Batman catch the bad guy then kill the good guy? Motive aside, why isn’t Batman given cred for nabbing the joker?

I have no problem with the police pursuing The Batman at the conclusion of DK, he is a vigilante. But as Gordon invokes the idea that Goth man gets the hero it needs, The Dark Knight, I find no implication that The Batman would go into exile, especially for most a decade. To accept this, we must believe, Batman is only interested in mob bosses not all criminals (like the kind who killed his parents!) and/or that locking up mob bosses, stopped all crime and police corruption. In terms of character (former) and plot (latter), this is a stemming of disbelief that the social realism of Noir by definition prevents, but is part and parcel of the super hero comic books (or, a-hem, graphic novels).

More to the point, I have to wonder if this was always Nolan’s intention for the final installment. I wonder if Ledger’s death pushed Nolan’s original vision off its rails. In some Batman versions – such as Frank Miller –the Joker plays the victim card on television, claims that he was driven to madness by Batman’s masked vigilantism, only of course to come back and wreak more lethal havoc. Unlike Burton’s Batman, the Joker does not die in DK – does the fact neither this criminal nor his fate are even mentioned in DKR indicate a need to entirely avoid the original third installment that included Joker involvement? Pure speculation on my part, but what we do know is that the realism intrinsic to Nolan’s Batman was utterly abandoned by III, and one has to wonder why. In addition, the fate of the Joker was left unresolved.

If I was a Gotham City citizen, eight years after the joker made terroristic videos, murdered several policemen and blew up a hospital; I might remember that criminal more than I would the District Attorney.

While still a very good movie (and film), DKR is the weak sister of the trilogy. I’ve watched DK several times, and repeated viewings are rewarded. Case in Point, the climatic scene where the “hostages are the clowns,”in DK, some critics accused to be incoherent. You have Batman, the swat team, Joker’s henchmen, the hostages (uzis fastened to their hands by duct tape) and the Joker, all converging on a skyscraper. Quick cuts galore, frames are switching from night light to infra red. Who is who, and where you are in the action? After repeated views, you see that the action is totally coherent, superbly –if rapidly structured – a real master work of editing and fight-choreography that leaves the viewer with a sense of awe. As a set-piece created through editing, this scene stands alongside the helicopter attacks in Apocalypse Now or the final battle to blow up the Death Star in Star Wars.

The comparable scene in DKR is the final show down between the cops and the mercenaries, falls short of this admittedly high standard. With this clash, Batman and Bane face off. A very exciting scene, and well-edited, the action has a relentless flow. But, unlike the aforementioned scene in DK, repeated viewings are not rewarded. The fake acting fights become so apparent, you see the punches being pulled, the chins being turned. Bad guys are pausing, the jumping with Batman’s fist, like Indians in B-Westerns running into bullets.

In DK, the climatic scene becomes more real, but in DKR, it becomes more Hollywood.

Let me reiterate, I liked Dark Knight Rises. It was one of the best films of 2012. Nolan produces the new Superman, which looks fantastic and I can’t wait to see it. What I’m wondering though, will it be more realistic or more fantastical. In other words, has Nolan completely abandoned his previous commitment to the plausible? I’m not sure which approach will serve the material best, and with Superman, there’s a lot more traditional disbelief required for the story to be told than there is with Batman.

What gives me hope in DKR that Nolan will make the transition – from pure realism to a believable yet fantastic comic book film –is Cat Woman. Anne Hathaway steals DKR. It’s as if she is the only one who realizes she is in a comic book movie. She quips as she performs barely plausible stunts, like breaking the prisoner’s wrists when she enters lock-up. A subtle yet broad performance, she’s rarely this much fun to watch. You believe her action, but that action occurs within a larger,more fantastic universe, than the more narrow world of noir realism. It’s a sign that Nolan conveys believability without being enslaved to creating the reality shared by the audience. With Cat Woman, he is creating a comic book reality that deliberately replaces the noir world of BB and DK. This attitude may not be consistent throughout DKR, but it bodes well for Man of Steel.


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