Monday, July 30, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises": a review

[A word to the wise: this review contains spoilers.]

"The Dark Knight Rises" (DK3) owes an enormous creative debt to the work of Frank Miller, whose 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns serves as the inspiration for many of the crucial scenes in Christopher Nolan's swan song to his Dark Knight trilogy. Miller's ghost appears in DK3's story structure; it's also visible in Batman's physical encounter with Bane, and in other small, on-screen flourishes. The movie works equally well on its own terms, often referencing the two previous films in the series. The midair rescue of Bane, this film's main villain, serves as a malign counterpoint to Batman's heroic "Skyhook" extraction of Lau the nefarious-but-cowardly accountant from his Hong Kong aerie, and numerous flashbacks to the first and second movies give us a sense of historical perspective.

The story begins in Gotham, where Commissioner Gordon is giving the keynote speech at an event, held at the now-refurbished Wayne Manor, to celebrate Harvey Dent Day. You'll recall Dent, a.k.a., Two-Face, from the previous movie: a do-gooder district attorney gone bad, driven insane by the Joker. Dent's final deeds were covered up by Batman and Gordon in an effort to give Gotham hope for the future, with Batman taking the fall for Dent's deeds. Over the past eight years, the Dent Act has helped put away a thousand people involved in organized and major crimes; if the truth about Dent were ever to come out, all those arrests would be invalidated and chaos would ensue. Gordon comes close to revealing Dent's ugly secrets, but decides not to.

We then move to the rescue of Bane, a mysterious, muscular cult figure who fights for an unknown cause. Bane is being transferred along with a Russian nuclear scientist, Pavel, who has been instrumental in developing a device that produces energy through nuclear fusion. Bane's extraction team arrives in an aircraft even larger than the prison craft he's in; the team takes out Bane's guards and frees Bane himself. Bane siphons off a bit of Dr. Pavel's blood to leave DNA traces in the prison plane, then the prison plane, de-winged and stripped to its fuselage, is allowed to free-fall to earth with one of Bane's self-sacrificing henchmen inside. Pavel is presumed by authorities to have died in the crash.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has become a crippled recluse, a Batman in retirement: a Wayne with a cane. He stands in the shadows and morosely watches the Dent Day proceedings, then shuffles inside his manor, sad and unshaven, to have his dinner. Wayne quickly discovers that a member of the serving staff is not who she appears to be: she has managed to crack a supposedly uncrackable safe, and has stolen a necklace belonging to Wayne's mother. This cat burglar makes good her escape, and Wayne, his interest piqued, tracks her down and discovers she is Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a thief who has angered all the wrong people. The theft of Mrs. Wayne's necklace is a diversion, however: Kyle's real purpose in Wayne Manor is to obtain Bruce's fingerprints to sell on the black market.

That's only the initial setup. DK3 is a mass of tightly braided subplots, and is sometimes hard to follow. Bruce Wayne's relationship with Selena Kyle, in whom he sees a core of goodness, is one such subplot. Other subplots include an exploration of Bane's origins, Bane's mastery of Gotham City and the revelation of his ultimate purpose there, Bruce Wayne's evolving relationship with billionaire philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), his deteriorating relationship with his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and his escape from an inescapable prison in "a more ancient part of the world."

I went into the movie curious to know whether Bane would indeed break Batman's back and render him a cripple, per the 1990s comic book storyline. Suffice it to say that Bane comes close, and then throws Bruce Wayne into the aforementioned prison, where Wayne convalesces while being tortured by TV views of Gotham in chaos. Wayne's eventual escape from the prison is arguably the centerpiece of the film: it's the "Rises" in the movie's title. During his incarceration, Wayne befriends two prisoners: one a kind, talkative old man (a nearly unrecognizable Tom Conti) who charitably punches Bruce's protruding vertebra back into alignment, the other a morphine-addicted ex-doctor with whom Bruce discusses the virtues of fearing death. The doctor convinces Bruce that fear of death gives one energy and impetus to accomplish impossible tasks, such as escaping from their prison; he recommends that Bruce make the attempt without the aid of a safety rope.

Bruce's talks with the ex-doctor aren't the only instances of dialogue in the film. DK3 is extremely talky: there is much telling, not showing. I told my buddy Dr. Steve that the movie often felt like an extended episode of "24," a show rife with expository dialogue. This impression was confirmed by the presence of several "24" cast members in the movie, including William Devane (Seasons 4, 5, and 6) as the US president, and David Dayan Fisher ("24," Season 5) as one of Bane's henchmen.

While a solid contribution to Christopher Nolan's trilogy, DK3 is also the weakest entry. Its labyrinthine plot is one problem, and the fact that Bane isn't Batman's diametrical opposite in quite the way that the Joker was is another. Bane is closer to being Batman's evil cousin: they trained under the same dark master, after all-- Ra's al Ghul of the League of Shadows (Liam Neeson). (Though excommunicated from the League, Bane sees himself as the keeper of its flame.) A third problem is the weird use of a common action movie trope: a bomb's timer. When we first learn about the timer, we realize that it's been set for five months. How convenient: this is the amount of time that the imprisoned Bruce Wayne will need to recover from his injuries, escape confinement, and return to Gotham. We also learn that the bomb can be triggered before the timer ticks to zero, which confuses the audience's sense of suspense.

While the complex plot, the lack of a diametrically opposed enemy, and the absence of old-school suspense are weaknesses of the film, DK3 also provides amusing parallels for fans of Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Miller's novel takes place in America's near future, with an embittered, 55-year-old Bruce Wayne (still massively muscled) racing cars as if he has a death wish. The first of four chapters has Bruce inspired to put on the Batsuit once again. He shaves his mustache, girds himself, and faces off against a surgically "cured" Harvey Dent, whose facial symmetry has been restored. Batman defeats Dent, who is still Two-Face at heart.

In the second chapter of the novel, Batman is pitted against the Mutants, a murderous gang that terrorizes Gotham and is led by the Mutant leader, a muscular brute with long, filed teeth. Batman is initially defeated by the Mutant leader and is barely saved by the arrival of tiny little Carrie Kelly, a high school gymnast who fancies herself the new Robin. Batman reevaluates his tactics against the Mutants, and challenges the leader to a rematch, mentally noting that his mistake, in the first fight, was to fight like a young man-- savagely, with no holds barred. Batman doesn't make that mistake the second time around, and he systematically cripples the Mutant leader, popping all of his major joints and leaving him lying, disgraced and impotent, in the mud.

The third chapter of The Dark Knight Returns has Batman facing the Joker, who claims to have been cured during his time at Arkham Asylum. The Joker is invited to appear on the David Endochrine Show (a thinly veiled reference to David Letterman), where he promptly kills his own therapist and gasses the entire audience-- hundreds of people-- to death. Batman catches up to the Joker in an amusement park, where the Joker has just poisoned dozens of children and shot several other park-goers. The chase leads, ironically, into the Tunnel of Love, where the Joker repeatedly gut-stabs Batman until Batman breaks the Joker's neck, although he doesn't twist the Joker's neck far enough to kill him. The Joker's final act is to mock Batman's lack of nerve, even in extremis, and then the Joker twists his own neck the rest of the way, killing himself and leaving Batman to look like a murderer. The police, led by a young, angry female commissioner, chase the wounded Batman, who manages to get away.

The final chapter of Miller's saga has Batman facing the ultimate enemy: Superman. Batman and Superman have never seen eye-to-eye regarding the nature of justice. Superman is content to be an arm of the US government, often performing dirty clandestine missions for it and acting as the enforcer of the government's restrictions on superhero activity (it's implied that Superman ripped off the maverick Green Arrow's bowstring arm). Batman, meanwhile, sees justice as functioning outside the strictures and structures of law. "The world only makes sense when you force it to," he says. Bruce Wayne prepares well for his confrontation with Superman-- who has been ordered by the President to put Batman down-- building a special combat suit that gives him a significant fraction of Superman's power. With the suit plus a few other tricks (including synthesized kryptonite), Batman does the impossible: he physically defeats Superman. But at the last moment, when his hand is on Superman's throat, Bruce Wayne suffers a heart attack and dies. At the burial, however, Superman, with his acute hearing, picks up the sound of Bruce Wayne's heart coming back to life: the heart attack had been chemically faked. Wayne and Superman have an understanding, then: Wayne will continue his clandestine activities, and Superman will no longer interfere with him. The Dark Knight Returns ends in the Batcave, with Bruce Wayne planning to build an army of do-gooder vigilantes, satisfied that he has chosen a good life-- good enough.

The above summary of Frank Miller's magnum opus should make clear to a viewer of DK3 that there are several parallels. DK3 begins with Batman in retirement. Bruce Wayne quickly loses his mustache, and ultimately faces off against a brutal villain who has much in common with Miller's Mutant leader. As in The Dark Knight Returns, there's a moment in the movie in which a knowing older cop tells a fresh-faced younger cop to get ready "for a show" as Batman is about to do his thing. In the first confrontation between Bane and Batman, Bane notes that Batman has fought like a young man, "holding nothing back." The second confrontation tilts Batman's way, as he is able to punch loose some of the tubes of Bane's analgesic gas mask, without which Bane suffers crippling agony. The movie, like the graphic novel, features a Gotham in near-total chaos. And as in Miller's work, Nolan's Batman is presumed dead near the end of the film. While the film contains many dissimilarites with Miller's book, it's obvious to me that Nolan owes Miller a significant creative debt.

All in all, I found DK3 watchable. The acting was fine; Anne Hathaway's curvaceous ass stole every scene in which it appeared; Michael Caine was appropriately sentimental as an aging Alfred who feels he has failed in his duty to protect the Wayne family; the normally shrimpy Tom Hardy was pumped-up and sinister as Bane, his voice altered into a resonant, Patrick-Stewart-does-Darth-Vader timbre; Christian Bale exuded the right amount of gravitas. But the movie wasn't perfect, either: it was too long, too complicated, and despite a surprising plot twist near the end, not compelling enough. This was a cerebral, talky film; even the ghost (Liam Neeson channeling Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn) had plenty to say.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, but perhaps only for one viewing. Watching DK3 required a bit of effort on my part, especially as I tried to keep track of who was doing what, and where. Still, it's an entertaining ride with solid performances and sly references both to previous films and to other works, especially the work of Frank Miller. I'm not sure I'd label DK3 a fitting end to the Batman trilogy, but at the very least it's a good end. Good enough.



Bratfink said...

As always, I am very impressed with the way you review movies. There aren't a lot of movies I would even bother doing this type of review on--I guess I just don't have the passion.

I'll be curious to see what Sheldon says about this--if anything. I've sent him the link but it might get lost amongst all his porn emails.

Let's just say he was VERY unhappy with DK3.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for taking the time to read this review! It's a long one, I realize.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting review, Kevin. I'm glad you take comic-book superheroes seriously.

I liked the film more than you did, partly for all the talking. I think that it fits the film, an older, twice-crippled, reluctant, and reflective Wayne/Batman. I watched twice.

One point that I might clarify is this: "When we first learn about the timer, we realize that it's been set for five months." You wonder why a convenient five months.

The timer is set to ensure that the bomb go off at a time of the antagonist's choosing, and the bad guys enjoy holding the city (and thereby the US) hostage and giving them hope as they torture Wayne/Batman psychologically.

Why five months and no longer? The fusion core is unstable and will explode on its own after going critical after five months. But maybe you understood all this already, for one could still wonder why not just one month?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Charles said...

I agree that DKR was the weakest of the trilogy, but I still enjoyed it. I also agree that Anne Hathaway is scrumptious in leather, but I think it is a bit of a disservice not to mention that she actually did a fantastic job in the role of Selina Kyle.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks. I think that movies-- pop culture, really-- provide those of us of an interdisciplinary bent with the opportunity to hold forth on several levels: subtextual, metatextual, intertextual, etc.

Yes, I did clearly understand why the bomb was set for five months. Still, the fact that the bomb could have been set off at any time by the "trigger man" left me wondering how seriously to take the timer, and thus how much suspense I was supposed to feel.

The movie covers about a year of fictional time; as I recall, a later reference is made to the plane crash at the beginning of the film happening "six months ago," and then the timer adds another five months: eleven months total. It's a grand, LOTR-scale story, with time's passage being somewhat rubbery-- now slow, now fast.


re: Anne Hathaway's acting

Your criticism of my criticism is noted, even though my review included everything except the kitchen sink. Also interesting to note is that other critics have mentioned that Hathaway seemed to be the only principal cast member trying to have fun with her role. I'd have to agree. The gravitas was so thick you could cut it with a couteau.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What I meant to say was that the fusion reactor began to deteriorate once its core was removed, and that it would go critical and explode after five months without being set. Since the bad guys wanted control over each step, they then set it to go off in five months at a moment of their own choosing.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

...and the emergency flood that Lucius Fox barely escaped prevented the core from being reconnected to the machine to restabilize it... gotcha.

I seenk vee ah bohss undah-shtanding, yah?