Sunday, August 19, 2012

“The Dark Knight Rises” – It only shines on the surface, but it is a bright shine.

As my wife and I left the theater after seeing The Dark Knight Rises, we had two different opinions. I thought the movie was really good; she thought the movie was disappointing. We sat down for lunch and spent the next hour discussing the film. I should mention my wife has a film degree, while I do not, and is really good at recognizing the good and bad elements of a film before most peoples’ eyes adjust when the lights come back on. By the end of the discussion, my wife had made her case, and it was painfully clear that not only was the movie inferior to its two predecessors in the Batman trilogy, it was also a fairly sloppy movie in the story and screenplay department. It is also a movie that is almost universally praised by fans and critics, which makes the film ideal for an in-depth story and screenplay analysis. I’m not going to get into the acting (which was good), the special effects (which were great), or the level of annoyance I felt trying to understand Bane’s muffled, accented words (I’d say medium). What I am going to do is make a case as to why this film falls below its brethren by calling attention to the sloppiness mentioned above.

So, if you have no interest in reading a lengthy deconstruction of a film that, even with its flaws, is still better than almost every film you’ll see this year, you can skip to the rating at the bottom or just stop reading altogether. And just in case you’re one of the six people who haven’t seen the movie yet, lengthy deconstruction means spoilers, including how this movie ends.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it seems like it was rushed, which is hard to do with a running time of almost three hours (2:45). My wife’s biggest complaint was that it should have been two movies, which would have allowed better story and character development – and ultimately, better audience engagement. Where Batman Begins and The Dark Knight took great pains to develop characters and storylines, TDKR does no such thing, instead asking the audience to make several leaps of faith throughout. Stranger still, the film has several characters and scenes that add no value to the film, rendering the missing development even more obvious. What we got was a bunch of new characters and their stories crammed together with the fall of Bruce Wayne, the capture of Gotham City, the return of the League of Shadows, and the impending climax to all of these things. What we SHOULD have gotten was a movie with new character development and the fall of Bruce Wayne – followed by another movie with the rest of that stuff. I know this doesn’t mean much yet, but I promise it soon will.

The Title
Perhaps the first sign should have been the movie’s title, which itself is somewhat lazy, simply tacking ‘Rises’ onto the end of the previous film’s title. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the film and doesn’t follow the pattern set by its predecessors. I submit that The Caped Crusader would have been a much better title and fit the movie better since Batman was a fugitive for eight years.

The Villain
The film begins with a scene that only serves to try outdo the opening scene of The Dark Knight (and it fails). Bane (Thomas Hardy) and his henchman stage an elaborate, in-flight kidnapping of a nuclear scientist involving ropes being attached from a C-130 to a CIA jet and the CIA jet being torn to pieces just as Bane and his men escape the jet with the scientist in tow. Sure, it looked cool, but the entire scene makes no sense. If Bane knew where the scientist was, why not just snatch him on the ground? When the ropes were being attached to the jet, why didn’t the pilot just punch the throttle to outrun the lumbering, prop-driven cargo plane? Worst of all, the jet is pulled vertical so that its entire top surface is facing the wind, causing its wings to eventually snap off. I’m no physicist, but wouldn’t that have caused the C-130 to crash as well, considering the amount of drag being generated? This whole scene was pure silliness meant only to dazzle the audience while introducing Bane as the villain of the story.

The Evil Plot
Cut to Gotham City, where we catch up with events eight years after the conclusion of the last film. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is racked with guilt over the cover-up involving Batman and Harvey Dent’s crimes (from the end of the previous film) and is ready to confess the whole thing. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, vanished from the public eye and retired as Batman. In fact, his only activity is investing heavily in a fusion reactor project of a woman named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), but shuttering the project after becoming afraid it could be used as a weapon. Naturally, the reactor is already fully constructed and Wayne keeps it locked in a chamber under a river instead of destroying it. Here are the reasons why this is arguably the worst part of the story. 1. Why not destroy it if Wayne is afraid of it becoming a weapon? 2. Why not destroy it if it’s never going to be turned on? 3. Why did it take him so long to realize he was building something with the word fusion in its name? 4. If he’s smart enough to build a fusion reactor (something the real world has yet to figure out), why isn’t he smart enough to design it in such a way that it can’t be turned into a weapon?

Considering this is obviously going to be the centerpiece of the evil plot (we already know Bane has a nuclear scientist), it seems to exist solely to be part of the evil plot. Plus, it’s essentially the same plot point as that of Batman Begins - Wayne Enterprises contraption to be used to destroy city. Not only is this lazy, but it’s not even original.

Characters, Characters Everywhere…and Not a Drop of Depth
Next, we get a couple of character introductions in Salina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cat burglar and police officer, respectively. They are also inferred to be Catwoman and Robin, respectively, though the film never uses the term Catwoman and Blake’s first name is only revealed to be Robin at the very end of the film. An argument can be made that neither of these characters was necessary since there was no development of either one of them. Blake is elevated to detective after Gordon is shot and does whatever Gordon needs, though nothing of any real importance. My biggest problem with Blake is when he first meets Bruce Wayne he says “I know you’re Batman. I knew from the first time I saw you.” Really? He just KNOWS? Bite me. It would have been much cooler if he had been the boy in Batman Begins who Batman gives his goggles to and later rescues from Crane. On the other hand, Salina Kyle at least serves a purpose, stealing Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, luring him to Bane’s trap, and helping him out in some fight scenes. But, like Blake, we knowing next to nothing about her other than she is stealing for one of Bane’s employers in order to get a piece of software that will clear her record and her crime is never revealed. Yeah, it’s as silly as it sounds. Incidentally, Wayne gives her that software (naturally, he created it) near the end to entice her to help him in the final battle (just another example of how convoluted this movie got). Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Wayne’s fingerprints are needed by a rival of Wayne who wants to take over Wayne Enterprises. The plan, which is just as ridiculous as the opening scene, is for Bane to bust into the stock exchange and use the fingerprints, do something stock-y...causing Wayne to lose all of his money – and it works. I think I had a harder time accepting this than the airplane scene because it makes even less sense. For one thing, they are asking us to believe that Wayne is stupid enough to tie up every last penny (yes, they actually tell us this) in company stock. They also want us to believe that the stock trade would be valid “until they figure things out.” That was a direct quote and is absurd. If there was a break-in at a stock exchange and the time of the trade was the same as the heist, especially for billions of dollars, this would have been fixed almost instantaneously. Adding insult to injury, they tow away Wayne’s Lamborghini, because billionaires always finance cars. After more confusion and Wayne trusting in Tate (read: having sex with her. Seriously.), Tate takes over Wayne Enterprises.

Finally, We’re Getting Somewhere…Sort of
Now that all of that is done, we get to the real meat of the movie – Bane reveals himself to have taken over the League of Shadows to finish what Ra’s al Ghul started by destroying Gotham City. After trapping Batman and breaking Batman’s back, he dumps Wayne in a prison is some foreign country in which the only way out is to heal and climb out of a pit. Bane returns to Gotham and blows up every bridge – wait, not EVERY bridge (I promise, this is exactly what happened and my wife and I were just as confused as you) – a football field, and a bunch of sewers (and trapping nearly every cop down there). He also gets his hands on the fusion reactor and just happens to know where Batman’s arsenal is (another leap for the audience), breaking in from below and arming his army with all of Batman’s stuff. His nuclear scientist has no problem modifying a piece of technology he’s never seen into a weapon, in less than an hour no less. Bane tells the rest of the world that Gotham is now a city-state and he will destroy it if anyone tries to get in or out. Of course, his real plan is to blow up the city anyway, but apparently wants to play king for a few months. (Yes, months.) With the exception of taking over the city, everything in this paragraph was completely unnecessary. If the plan is to destroy the city, just do it. Plus, it’s pretty much already done anyway, so why the need for the bomb other than because ‘he’s really, really evil; we promise’ and to make sure Batman has a time to save everyone? I can’t say it enough; this plot is too convoluted and is all too common to other lesser action films to belong in this trilogy.

The prison scene is another that could have been completely lifted from the film (or used as a Bruce Wayne character device in a better, more well-developed separate film), since we know Wayne is going to escape or this movie ends badly. While rehabbing a broken back with no medical treatment (egads!), we get the back story of Bane, sort of. We learn that al Ghul’s family was imprisoned there and that his child is the one only to ever escape. As it turns out, the big reveal is that Tate is al Ghul’s child and Bane was just protecting her in the prison. While she is escaping, Bane is beaten nearly to death; showing why he has the face mask, but not explaining why he needs it. At some point in the future, she gets him out of prison and they take over the League of Shadows. The problem here is that the timing is never explained, especially considering we’re told Bane was tossed out of the League by al Ghul. So, when do they take over the League? Who was running the League after al Ghul was killed? How old is Bane? These are things we all want to know and would have loved to see in a separate movie.

Sweating the Small Stuff
Wrapping things up, there are a couple of smaller things that were annoying. One was Batman getting beat up by Bane. Batman wears fricking body armor that stops bullets and knives; Bane is not going to hurt him by punching him anywhere but the face. Another was Alfred leaving Bruce because he can’t support him being Batman any more, which was just lame. A third was that in order to make a jump in the pit, Bruce had to be afraid to die. Forget about the fact that a child made the jump; Bruce needs fear. Yikes. A fourth is that Wayne has a mysterious limp that he never bothered to get fixed. We don’t know why, but he fixes it with some crazy bionic contraption that never plays into the movie again. I expected this to be the difference maker in the final fight with Bane, since they show us his new ability to kick through concrete, but it never appears again. So why not just get rid of the limp altogether? I don’t know either.

Finally, the end, where Batman is seemingly blown up by the bomb while flying it out over the ocean, only to turn up in Venice with Salina Kyle as his apparent girlfriend. If any part of the movie actually sucked, that was it. Killing Batman would have been fine, especially since we see Blake discover the Bat-cave, presumably taking over the mantle as Batman (without all the money, but that’s another issue). This ending was a cop-out, I’m guessing to placate the studios. My wife disagrees – she thinks the ending was perfectly fine…IF it had been the ending of a more developed, thought-out, and engaging story.

Whew! If you made it through all of that, thank you for indulging me. My intention here is not to prove that the movie was bad, but that it was ordinary, if not typical of all other average action movies. The first two movies were so great that maybe this drop-off was inevitable. Either way, it’s not the “masterpiece” that some people are calling it and it definitely is the third best of the trilogy. I just hope that you noticed some of these things too or at least agree that they exist. If anything, we can agree that I sure can talk a lot.

Rating: After all that, I still don’t think you should ask for any money back. Where it fails in the story department, it makes up for in other movie elements.

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