Batman Ends… But Probably Begins Again
[I decline to comment on the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Such weighty ruminations are best left for other forums.]
Warning: Spoilers Below!
Here we are again at the end of a road. We’ve traveled back in time to witness the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader; we’ve trudged to Mordor and back; we’ve watched Neo surrender to self-destruction in order to nullify his greatest enemy; we’ve seen Indiana Jones—bad ass supreme—play mentor to his petulant child and marry his now middle-aged sweetheart; we’ve bid farewell to Harry Potter, surrendering him to the trinue doom of graduation, maturation, and procreation. Now, arriving with that same bittersweet combination of anticipation and disappointment, we’ve come to the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Some sing praises; some cry foul; others just scratch their heads. My intention, in this little survey of where we’ve been with Christopher Nolan is to celebrate what he’s done right, to expose where he’s mis-stepped, and to make a few humble suggestions to the powers-that-be in Hollywood concerning further outings for the Dark Knight.
Full disclosure: from the beginning, I’ve been an enormous fan of Nolan’s take on the franchise. I loved Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film as much as everyone else did, but even as early as 1994, when I saw The Crow, I was telling my friends that I’d like to see a Batman movie that looked like that. A Batman movie where Gotham City looked like someplace people actually lived (albeit a scary one) instead of a giant gothy Blade Runner cast-off, and wherein Batman did things that he would realistically have to do in order to prosecute his war against crime. I wanted to see him training; I wanted to see him using his detective skills; I wanted to know just where all his crazy toys came from, and just what his method was for monitoring the city and deciding what crimes to foil (while, presumably, letting hundreds of others go because, hey—he can’t be everywhere at once). After the debacle of Joel Schumacher’s two Crayola-colored Batman films, I was even more determined: please, Dear God, would someone make a Batman film that was just a little grounded? At least as grounded and meaty as a comic book film can be? When Batman Begins arrived in 2005, my prayers were answered.
Batman Begins works beautifully because Nolan respects his character’s comic book origins but leaps on every opportunity to give Batman’s pulpy mythology a grounded, real-world equivalent; a determination to re-invent the character, his world, and his rogues gallery by stripping these elements down to their essentials, then rebuilding them in a svelte, stunning, thoroughly grounded fashion (at least, as grounded as a world of costumed crime fighters, ninjas, and clown-painted urban terrorists gets, anyway). Like Frank Miller—whose touchstone comic book reinventions of Batman, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, similarly shattered then reassembled the caped crusader’s origins, motivations, and environs to stunning effect—Christopher Nolan set out to tell a Batman story in which we did not simply witness his genesis and thrill to his adventures—we often paused to ask why such a person should exist in the first place. Why vigilante justice? Why the costume? Why the secret identity? Thankfully, Nolan balanced all of these existential considerations by getting wonderful, humane performances out of his cast, treating us to some fantastic action set pieces, and grounding things with some genuine warmth and moments of levity (usually via the interaction between Bruce Wayne and his twin father figures, Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox). Now that we have an entire trilogy of films before us, I contend that Batman Begins holds up the best because of this deft balancing act: to be sure, it’s a more serious Batman film than we’ve ever seen before, but it never descends into dreariness or pure depressive neuroticism (the dreariness and depressive neuroticism that one might have expected if a one-note sourpuss like Darren Aronofsky had gotten his hands on the franchise, as he almost did). Batman Begins was a huge commercial and critical success, Nolan was called back to helm a second safari through Gotham’s mean streets… and that’s where that deft balancing act teetered dangerously toward collapse.
In case you didn’t know—maybe you live under a rock or something—2008’s The Dark Knight made a fuckload of money (in metric terms, that’s even bigger than a truckload, a boatload, or a shitload). Couple that astounding commercial success with near-universal critical acclaim (I say ‘near’ because the movie had a number of very vocal detractors), and someone who hasn’t seen The Dark Knight might assume that it must be a near-perfect film. After all, how do you get that many people to buy movie tickets to a film that critics also sung the praises of? That never happens, right?
The fact is that The Dark Knight is not a perfect film (though I’ll contend that it’s still a damn good one). Although many of the themes introduced in Batman Begins are herein deepened and explored, although the performances remain solid and the action set-pieces wowza, The Dark Knight very nearly contracts gangrene by shooting itself in the foot with an excess of portentousness, a noticeable absence of levity or humor, and a third act that strains credulity, pummels us with its pedantic earnestness, and completely wastes a potentially awesome villain when it drops Harvey Dent/Two-Face off an unfinished building to fall, Disney-like, to his death below. (There’s also Christian Bale’s bizarre, overwrought Batman voice. Seriously, Newsie—what was that about…?) A lesser film might have alienated a larger portion of its audience, blundering along like this and often threatening to spend all the good will it engendered in its first two thirds (indeed, these blunders are the deal-breakers for a lot of Dark Knight haters). But, from this viewer’s point of view, The Dark Knight’s virtues far outweigh its sins. It might threaten to collapse under its own weight in that third act… it may be over-earnest and sometimes defy logic… but at the end of the day, how often do we get comic book films that are so ambitious, so polished, or so grand? Compared to the vaudeville operetta of superhero movies, The Dark Knight is Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk (look it up, learn something). As such, I can forgive it a few false notes and narrative excesses. Unfortunately, when given the opportunity to wrap up his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan failed to learn from his previous mistakes and strike the elemental balance so necessary for success. Instead, Nolan seized upon all of the elements that threatened to sink or derail The Dark Knight, and brazenly doubled down.
The Dark Knight Rises stumbles right out of the gate. It’s been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight. Gotham has established Harvey Dent Day (huh?) to celebrate the Harvey Dent Act (what?) in the wake of Harvey Dent’s (alleged) murder by the Batman. Batman hasn’t been seen for eight years, and Bruce Wayne’s retreated into the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor, a virtual recluse since the events of the previous film. (And what’s up with the rebuilt Wayne Manor, less than a decade old, but still looking all goth and moldy?) Right away, we’re scratching our heads. Batman/Bruce Wayne has effectively ‘retired’ in shame and grief, so broken up by the death of Rachel Dawes—a childhood crush and b.f.f. who he never actually established a romantic relationship with? Really? I could’ve sworn this guy once vacationed in Bhutanese prisons to try out his mixed martial arts on his fellow inmates; that he’s climbed glaciers just to go to ninja camp, then fucked up all his ninja trainers single-handed over due process disagreements. And didn’t he once go speeding through the city on an armed motorcycle, blowing up private citizens’ parked cars and flipping semis topsy-turvy in the streets, just to apprehend a single troublesome criminal? Call me silly, but eight years of grief-stricken inactivity seems a tad out of character for such a go-getter. I could sooner believe that his grief drove him postal and he’s been waging a savage, unfocused war on crime for the past eight years that targeted everyone from mob bosses to jay-walkers and double-parkers.
But no, we’re handed a passive, shoe-shuffling Bruce Wayne who only comes out of hiding and gets ‘back in the game’ when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals his mother’s pearl necklace and Bruce’s own fingerprints. Nice one, Caped Crusader: ignore the crime and villainy at work on Gotham’s means streets for the better part of a decade, then swing back into action when you’re the victim of possible identity theft. Is it me, or is this Batman less-than-heroic? And dear God—the movie’s just started! I expect this sort of thing from the Edward Cullens of the world, but not one of my most revered superheroes. From that inauspicious beginning, things only get worse. I only spend so much time on this particular, mind-boggling narrative brain-fart because, for me, Batman’s 8 year abdication of his vigilance committee duties epitomizes the unfocused storytelling, stuffy pedantry, and wackadoodle plotting that make The Dark Knight Rises so inferior to its predecessors.
Don’t get me wrong—this closing chapter of Nolan’s Bat trilogy isn’t a complete loss. There are still some fine moments (Batman’s beat-down courtesy of Tom Hardy’s ripped and mumbly Bane), wonderful performances (Michael Caine), bad-ass action set-pieces (the opening airplane hijacking, the closing aircraft chase) and delightful surprises. But, unfortunately, those fleeting moments of lucidity are lost in a morass of unnecessary complexity (something about futures trades, nuclear fusion, and Turkish prison pits), dilated chronology (the story takes place over the course of months, but most Hollywood films, afraid of losing momentum, hate to even acknowledge such long passages of time), and ham-handed soap-boxing. Herein, Christopher Nolan—a filmmaker whose work normally appeals to me for its cerebral elegance and chilly precision—exhibits the very everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mentality so prevalent in Hollywood that I usually go to his films to avoid. Once, I held out hope that Nolan would finally prove that a smart and talented filmmaker could make a balls-to-the-wall awesome third film in a big popcorn franchise. I maintain that Nolan is better than this film—way better—so the fact that this is how he chose to cap off his trilogy indicates a serious breach of trust with his very loyal, very eager audience. Alas, even Nolan is subject to the curse of unchecked hubris and Hollywood bloat. He says he’s done with the franchise now, and I think that’s a good thing. Perhaps what Batman needs next is not a continuation of this particular iteration (unnervingly plausible given the film’s ending and the fact that it will probably make a shitload—if not quite a fuckload—of money), but a fresh start. Pray that a fresh start is what we get, because Nolan and Warner Brothers have, with The Dark Knight Rises, killed what could have been a Golden Goose.
My advice to Warner Brothers? They’ve given us three iterations of the Caped Crusader, all at wild extremes: Burton’s stylized goth-punk; Schumacher’s colorful camp; Nolan’s stripped-down hyper-realism. The next time around (and we all know there will be a next time, be it a spur of this franchise or a clean reboot), aim for something that balances the extremes—a more classic, accessible Batman. By all means, make Gotham shadowy and darksome—but also make it look like a place where regular people live and work (because if decent people don’t live there, just who is Batman fighting for?). By all means, remind us that Bruce Wayne is driven by grief and rage, his transformation into an agent of justice triggered by murder; but you need not pummel us with this point, and make what should be a thrilling journey to the frontlines of vigilante justice a solemn meditation on violence, fascism, entropy and evil. By all means, give Batman the same fantastic rogues gallery of villains and miscreants that he’s amassed in the comics all these many decades—the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Scarecrow, Two-Face, R’as al-Ghul, the Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus, Bane and Azrael—but never, ever forget, the movie must be about Batman, centered on Batman, concerned with Batman—not just a vehicle for colorful creeps with Batman making a cameo as an erstwhile antagonist. Finally, avoid bloat: aim for something akin to the James Bond franchise (at its best, that is), where Batman returns every couple of years in a new, tight, slick adventure, but where each new adventure doesn’t have to be a giant, apocalyptic showdown that leaves Gotham city so scarred and ruined that future adventures seem illogical or impossible.
In short, Warner Brothers: prep for a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll be guaranteed the happy viewers, gracious critics, and fuckloads of money that you so hungrily covet.