Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bad Faith: The Dark Knight Rises

As fans of superhero pictures (and that’s most of the world, evidently) know, the Batman series divides into three categories. There are the Tim Burtons, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), with their magnificent, High Romantic Anton Furst designs and Michael Keaton as a brooding, mysterious Bruce Wayne – a portrayal that, in a better world, would have made him an actor to be cherished forever. Burton put a premium on character and let the stories unravel like fairy tales. The Joel Schumacher entries, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), were extravagantly (but not wittily) overdesigned; they were like arcades, or gay roller discos, and they underused their stars, Val Kilmer and George Clooney respectively, so that afterwards you couldn't remember anything they’d done.

Then Christopher Nolan took over the franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, which he also co-wrote with Davis G. Goyer. Nolan brought art-house credentials (Memento, a wildly overrated puzzle picture that didn’t make basic plot sense) and a grim relentlessness that I would have said was precisely the wrong kind of approach for a comic-book adventure. And the concept was misconceived. Bruce (Christian Bale), like the character Michael Keaton played in the Burton pictures, has never been able to move past the pointless deaths of his parents, before his eyes, at the hands of a mugger, but it isn’t grief that motivates this Bruce; it’s guilt. As a boy, Bruce was so terrified of bats as a result of falling down a well on his dad’s estate that, when his parents took him to see the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat), the prop bats on stage distressed him and he asked to be taken home early. They encountered the mugger on a deserted street outside the opera house; if Bruce had only been able to control his phobia, his parents might be alive today. So when, years later, returning to a Gotham City overrun with gangsters and all manner of corruption, he chooses to disguise himself as a bat, it’s his way of conquering those childhood fears and doing penance for the fact that his inability to handle them led his parents to their deaths. (The real corruption – or at least stupidity of a monumental order – must have been at Warner Brothers, where this plot premise made it past the pitch stage.) But first there’s a long sequence at a Tibetan monastery, which seems to belong in some other movie altogether, where Wayne is trained in martial arts by mystics (the westerner among them is Ra’s Al Ghul, played by Liam Neeson, whose goatee is more expressive than his performance) who turn out to be the League of Shadows, fanatics with a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah God complex, dedicated to wiping out cities overrun with evil, like Gotham. So Bruce has to defeat them – temporarily, at least – and stage an escape before he can return to battle the more homegrown evil in his own hometown.

Bruce Wayne and his murdered parents in Batman Begins 

The chief villain in Batman Begins, though, is the sinister Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who, as The Scarecrow, poisons his victims with a psychotropic aerosol that maddens them and projects their worst fears onto his burlap mask. Perhaps I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but I consider it a sign of bad faith in a director of a comic-book movie that he thinks nothing of putting his audience through the same misery as the characters entrapped in their cruelest fantasies – like the maggots foisted on a screaming Katie Holmes (as Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now an ADA of impressive moral fiber and courage). By the time Crane had pumped enough aerosol in the streets of Gotham in the climax to send paranoid zombies after Rachel and some unfortunate little boy, I was looking around for something to throw at the screen.

Despite its sadism and unvaried tone, however, Batman Begins was an enormous hit, and its sequel, The Dark Knight (2008), which Nolan wrote with his brother Jonathan, was a bigger one. But it’s an even worse movie than its predecessor: more ponderous, less imaginative, with a more monotonous array of car smash-ups and explosions. There isn’t a moment of genuine beauty or wit or feeling in the entire two and a half hours; the only scene I enjoyed was a brief interlude in which Wayne’s business partner, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), laughs a would-be blackmailer out of his office. The movie pits Batman against The Joker (Heath Ledger, in his final performance), who’s dedicated himself to undermining the plans of Gotham’s new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), to banish the city’s ruling mobsters. Everyone seemed to be knocked out by how “dark” the movie is, but surely that word should imply not just violence and a general overlay of unpleasantness (e.g., the unidentified man Joker has, apparently randomly, tied to a pyre of wads of cash before setting it aflame), but a consistent vision, and The Dark Knight has no such thing. It’s visually dark, that is, underlit, as if Nolan and his cinematographer, Wally Pfister, felt they had to warn us in every shot that they were delving into the netherworld of human behavior. 

Isn’t that the worst kind of Mickey Mouse thinking? You used to get it (and still do occasionally) in indie pictures by inexperienced filmmakers who used the cheap look and squint-inducing lighting to symbolize the low-life conduct of the characters.The Dark Knight doesn’t look cheap, of course, but most of the money has gone into the scenes of destruction, as if that were the element that determined the quality of an adventure movie. And since contemporary movies force us to be connoisseurs of explosions and car smash-ups, I must report that I’ve seen a lot better. (Last year some clever dude posted a hilarious shot-by-shot analysis on YouTube of one the chases that reveals how sloppily constructed it is; Nolan isn’t even consistent about the number of vehicles which are in the chase.) The appropriate adjective for the film is murky, not dark. In the last forty-five minutes, when Nolan is cutting back and forth among several high-stakes scenarios, the ostentatious, accelerated editing obscures the action. In Inception (2010), the movie he made between The Dark Knight and the third part of the trilogy, the current The Dark Knight Rises, the dream sequences are just expensive action scenes because he doesn't comprehend surrealism, but the real joke is that they’re dreadful because he doesn’t understand how to film action scenes.

Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs 
Nolan puts the viewer through even more unpleasantness in The Dark Knight than in Batman Begins, and he thinks he’s justified it because he’s making something profound. But even a director who deals with legitimately serious issues has to have tact and restraint (Spielberg in Schindler’s List, Polanski in The Pianist), and it’s a delusion on Nolan’s part that what he’s turned out is more than a mere entertainment. (The fact that he’s hoodwinked audiences and many critics into buying his pretensions shouldn’t let him off the hook.) The sociopathic Joker is supposed to represent the spirit of nihilism; the Nolans have deliberately skirted the issue of his psychological motivation (which is very clear in Burton’s Batman, where Jack Nicholson plays the role) by having him provide contradictory stories of how he wound up with a razor-carved smile like that of the Conrad Veidt character in the great Paul Leni 1928 silent The Man Who Laughs

Joker has a dual purpose in the story. He wants to force Batman to unmask himself, threatening to kill more people every day until the masked crusader complies, and his targets include some of Gotham’s most important citizens. But his real aim is to show that good can’t prosper, and to that ends he sets out not just to defeat Dent, Gotham’s new hope, but to turn him inside out. So he has him and Rachel (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), whom he wants to marry, kidnapped and strapped to bombs in separate locations while in constant communication with each other; the Joker knows that Batman won’t be able to get to both of them on time so one of them will have to listen to the other one die. Dent is rescued but the left side of his face is badly burned; Rachel is killed. To punish himself for surviving, Dent refuses both drugs for his pain and reconstructive surgery and turns into the avenging Two-Face, who goes after everyone he deems responsible for Rachel’s death and tosses a coin to determine each one’s fate. 

For some reason, though, he takes a different tack when it comes to Police Chief Gordon (Gary Oldman, whose muted, effective performance in all three Dark Knight pictures is one of their few pleasures). Two-Face kidnaps not only Gordon but his wife and two little kids and makes him squirm helplessly while he decides which one’s death would cause Gordon the most agony. (Who expected to find bits from both No Country for Old Men and Sophie’s Choice in a comic-book movie? How pseudo-deep!) The Joker’s point, as he articulates to Batman, is that Dent started out as a moral exemplar, the best of Gotham’s citizens, so he had to be the one Joker delivered to the dark side. But the Joker doesn’t have telepathic powers, so how would he know that Batman would rush to Dent first and not Rachel? More significantly, Dent’s character arc doesn’t make sense – a man who’s devoted himself to cleaning up his city isn’t likely to respond to the murder of his girl friend by threatening to murder little boys. Meanwhile The Joker has equipped two ferries in the harbor – one containing commuters, the other convicts being transported to prison – with detonators and encouraged the passengers to blow each other up. He’s disappointed; in the end, both sets of travelers behave admirably. Against this show of civic responsibility, Dent’s disintegration into a terrorist seems to come from some other moral universe altogether. The scene where Dent almost kills Gordon’s young son is the most venal kind of emotional manipulation; it made me hate Christopher Nolan. You don’t get to put an audience through that kind of anguish and then palm it off as an attempt to delve into “dark” material; surely there are others like me who recognize that as opportunistic bullshit, and Nolan as neither an artist nor an entertainer, but the worst kind of exploitation filmmaker.

Is The Dark Knight Rises, also written by the Nolan brothers, worse than The Dark Knight? Possibly not, but it’s even longer (two hours and forty-five agonizing minutes) and it bothers even less with basic narrative concerns. In the last picture Nolan forgot to give The Joker an exit. In this one Bruce Wayne escapes from a prison that appears to be located somewhere in the Middle East and shows up shortly after in Gotham in time to save it from a nuclear bomb, and as far as we know he walked all the way. Gotham cops trapped by the monstrous Bane (Tom Hardy) in a tunnel for apparently weeks survive somehow, and when a surprise villain stabs Batman he recovers even more rapidly than Jack Bauer did when his heart stopped in the second season of 24. There are dozens of smaller glitches, too. The plot is dense, but dense like glue – needlessly complicated, with new characters generated in almost every episode, then killed off unceremoniously or simply dropped from the movie for a while, or for good. (Alfred has a falling-out with Bruce and disappears for almost the whole second half.) 

Christian Bale & Anne Hathaway

The premise is that, eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has been demonized for killing the city’s hero, Harvey Dent – to save Gordon’s family, but the truth has been, through a pact between Batman and Gordon, kept from the public.Wayne has withdrawn completely form public life and retreated so deep within himself that he doesn't realize that the charities his foundation used to support, like a Catholic orphanage, have had to founder without its help because the Wayne Corporation is no longer making any money. Through Alfred’s and Fox’s encouragement, he joins forces with a philanthropist named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to back a nuclear reactor with the capability to provide sustainable energy for the future of the planet. The idea is to keep it out of the hands of a greedy Wall Street capitalist named Stryver (Burn Gorman) who wants to turn it into a bomb and sell it to the highest bidder. Stryver manages a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises by hiring a jewel thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, to lift his fingerprints (as well as a valuable necklace) from his safe; by hacking into his accounts; and by having his hired thug, Bane, a man of extraordinary physical strength who wears a mask around his mouth and nose – part leather, part metal, and the metal part looks like a centipede – and whose preferred mode of homicide is to twist his victims’ necks, stage a raid on Wall Street. Eventually Stryver bankrupts Bruce and terrorizes Fox and Miranda into giving up the reactor. 

At this point Bane eliminates Stryver and puts his own evil plan into effect: he holds all of Gotham hostage, isolating it from the outside world by blocking off its bridges and threatening to bomb the city via the converted reactor if anyone enters it from outside. He convinces the people that he’s helping them to liberate themselves from the rule of the rich and corrupt – a group that includes all previous city officials, including Gordon, who has to go underground – and setting up a kangaroo court to try them for their offenses and execute them, mixing up ideas from the French Revolution and the Third Reich. (Somehow the Robespierre who pronounces sentence turns out to be the unexpectedly resurfaced Scarecrow, though the character Cillian Murphy plays in these scenes seems to be so disconnected from the one he played in Batman Begins that I had no idea he was recreating his old role until I read the credits.) And after nearly taking Batman apart, Bane throws him in the prison where he himself rotted for years.

Nolan doesn’t understand the difference between a comic-book villain (like Doc Ock or Lizard in the Spider-Man movies or Burton’s version of The Joker) and a horror-movie one. Bane is obviously meant to make you think of Hannibal Lecter, and Hardy’s ugly one-note performance is enough to give you a headache if the somber, self-serious tone, the relentless violence, the monolithic action scenes that seem meant to batter you into submission and the labyrinthine narrative haven’t already had that effect. (It’s also a challenge to make out Hardy’s lines since his mouth is blocked up by that damn mask.) And Bane, like The Joker in The Dark Knight, has, God help us, a philosophy. His scheme to destroy Gotham, which he forces Batman to watch through news reports on a wide-screen TV, is not just to blow it up but to seduce its citizens into thinking that there’s a chance for them to survive – though I confess that by the time he announced it I was so exhausted from the effort of following the plot that I missed some of the key points. Something to do with giving the detonator to one of the people of Gotham (an idea that reworks the ferry episode from The Dark Knight) and meanwhile making them believe that they’re freeing themselves from the tyranny of the rich. Clearly the Nolans believe they’re tapping into the anger and frustration that fueled the Occupy movement (Catwoman is an anarchist who rails against the wealthy), though it’s not so clear what we’re supposed to make of the fact that the movie’s villain is manipulating those feelings. Nolan presents the people of Gotham as both dupes and slaves, though the movie’s time frame – there’s less than a month between Bane’s taking over the city and the date he plans to explode the bomb – scarcely allows time for them to move from one to the other. (And not to labor a point, but who in hell made Scarecrow the people’s hanging judge?)

Batman meets Bane.

This has to be the gabbiest, the most didactic comic-book movie ever made. Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), the heroic cop who becomes Gordon’s trusted right-hand detective and the heart of the resistance movement against Bane’s reign of terror, gives Wayne a big speech early in which he explains that he figured out Wayne was Batman because he identified with the look of banked anger in his eyes (or something like that). Alfred lectures Wayne about his decision to retire from the world, Miranda lectures him on his lack of commitment, Selina lectures him on class (and later he counters by lecturing her on morality) and Bane lectures him on hope and despair. That’s the subject on which the movie clearly thinks it’s making a profound commentary, but in drama ideas only have meaning if they’re thought through and dramatized; it’s not enough to hand the characters microphones. 

Needless to say all this speechifying hamstrings the actors, though among his other shortcomings Nolan isn’t good with actors anyway. Dozens of recognizable faces show up, including Matthew Modine, Juno Temple, Daniel Sunjata, Tom Conti, William Devane (as the President), Liam Neeson (in a hallucination as Ra’s Al Ghul), Brent Briscoe, Will Estes from TV’s Blue Bloods and Reggie Lee from Grimm, but you can barely keep track of whom most of them are playing, let alone what their fates are. In The Dark Knight Nolan won the questionable honor of being the first director to get a mediocre performance out of Maggie Gyllenhaal; here he does the same with Marion Cotillard. Bale is colorless, as in the first two movies, and he’s still using that unfortunate lisping barrel voice for Batman. Freeman manages to lighten his few scenes, Levitt has one good moment (of shock when Blake discovers that a construction crew is making explosives), and Michael Caine has a marvelous one when Alfred tells his beloved Bruce Wayne his fantasy of meeting him at a Florence cafĂ© someday with a wife and kids by his side. Unfortunately the script gives him not one but two weeping scenes, and they undermine him. Only Oldman and Anne Hathaway, who lends her line readings a sexy ironic lilt, are consistently good. (Levitt’s not bad, just wasted.)

Comic-strip movies and other sorts of fantasies have the potential to get at compelling ideas fairly trenchantly by creating metaphors for them. Brian De Palma did it in Carrie and The Fury, Joss Whedon did it on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Peter Jackson did it in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam Raimi did it in Spider-Man and especially Spider-Man 2, and Marc Webb pulls off the same feat in The Amazing Spider-Man. And Tim Burton did it in Batman. But it requires a light hand, a generous spirit, narrative ingenuity, imagination, and a talent for channeling the feelings of real people. There’s hardly a moment in any of the three Dark Knight pictures when a character behaves in a recognizably human way. Nolan bullies us with portentous story lines and mean, sadistic violence and ties them to false, tangled ideas. He’s the most loathsome kind of director, a carnival shill passing himself off as an artist.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this article, I wish I could shake Steve Vineberg's hand. What a great, insightful piece of writing. It's high time Christopher Nolan got his comeuppance. Thanks, Steve.