I saw The Dark Knight Rises last week, and was disappointed to say the least. I’m not exactly sure what went wrong. Part of me thinks Nolan must have had some much better plans for the third movie in his trilogy that got ruined by Heath Ledger’s death. But this may have been a case of failing because you tried to do something that was impossible in the first place.
I’m not exactly sure when the movie first lost me… honestly, it may have been in a very early scene, where we discover Bane’s minions are all perfect fanatics who Bane can order to their deaths on a whim. Where did Bane get such wonderfully fanatical minions? Well, in this version of the story he is head of what’s supposed to be the League of Shadows (the villains from Batman Begins). Though they look like ordinary mercenaries, not ninjas, and nothing we see on screen explains what makes them so wonderfully loyal to Bane.
Compare Heath Ledger’s joker: from literally the first scene of Dark Knight, we see him manipulating people by appealing to quite ordinary human impulses, mainly self interest. The stunts he pulls off may not be 100% plausible, but Ledger’s performance is charismatic enough that you can see people thinking, “Oh crap, we don’t have a choice but to go along with this nutcase!” Tom Hardy’s Bane comes off as more of a cheap Darth Vader knockoff.
Then there’s the part where Alfred reveals that Bane was excommunicated from the League of Shadows. How did Alfred know this? I exactly don’t remember, but it went by fast enough to make clear that Nolan didn’t care about having a coherent excuse to give us that bit of background. But apparently the super-secret organization of ninjas makes its excommunication records public or something.
Then there’s a fact that at the beginning of the movie, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse who needs a cane to walk. At one point, we even get to hear a doctor telling Bruce just how bad his injuries are. Great! Score one for the realistic portrayal of the toll crime fighting would take on a man’s body! Except… he apparently retired from being Batman the night Harvey Dent died. So he was fighting the Joker with the injuries that now make him barely able to walk?
All of these three points come up fairly early in the movie, and they ruined my suspension of disbelief through the rest of it. The treatment of Batman’s injuries just gets worse through the movie. As he’s getting ready to take up the Batman mantle again, there’s a brief scene of him putting on some kind of super-leg brace, which was an interesting idea: using technology to compensate for physical decline.
Then Bane breaks Batman’s back, and imprisons him in a giant hole in the ground in some vaguely Middle Eastern locale. Except apparently, unlike the comics, it was just a dislocated vertebra, because an old doctor who’s also been imprisoned in the giant hole manages to fix Bruce Wayne’s back in a few seconds using his bare hands.
And then Bruce walks fine for the rest of the movie. He even makes a near-impossible escape from the giant hole. In spite of the fact that while in the giant hole he had clearly been stripped of his Batsuit, so he had no super-leg brace helping him there.
While it doesn’t even rank as one of the worst things about the movie, I feel like I should say something about the movie’s politics. It’s been called fascist, but if it is, is a very accidental fascism.
You see, while Bruce Wayne is in the giant hole, Bane takes over Gotham. The piece I just linked has an apt description of the rhetoric Bane uses during his takeover: “Bane’s agenda is that of the Occupy movement as seen by people who don’t know anything about the Occupy movement.” But secretly, Bane just wants to blow up Gotham with a fusion bomb after making Bruce Wayne watch the city suffer (on TV!) for awhile.
Not that the movie is totally down on poor people. Selina Kyle gets in some good lines, like “you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” (She’s never referred to as Catwoman, though we get a brief glimpse of a newspaper heading referring to her as “The Cat,” her name in her first comic book appearance.) We see that she feels she has no choice but to do what she does, and really just wants a magic computer program (what? hold on…) that will let her start her life over again.
Taking all this together, if you tried to read a coherent political message into the movie, it would go something like this, “it’s totally understandable if you want to overthrow the rich, but if you do your work will just end up being co-opted by a nutcase who wants to kill everyone, and you’ll need a rich guy to come along and save you.” Not that I think that political message was intended. I just think Nolan thought it would be hip to include some vaguely-political dialog, and did so without any thought as to what he was really saying.
Oh, did I mention a fusion bomb? And a magic computer program? Yup, the movie has those things, along with a bizarre flying contraption called “the Bat,” another magic computer program that steals all of Bruce Wayne’s money, and probably something else that I’ve forgotten. The technology of the previous movies was never 100% plausible, but Rises really shoves the implausibilities in your face.
One final problem with this movie: there’s a difference between foreshadowing and telegraphic every major plot twist, a difference which Nolan clearly doesn’t understand. For example: when Selina decides to get the hell out of Gotham before Bane can blow it up, Batman tells her she’ll be back. Which is obvious, the rules of the story require it. But did you have to announce it in the fucking script?
Worse… SUPER SECRET DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT WARNING!
The movie beats us over the head with the possibility that Batman could die. Mainly through Alfred’s dialog, but there’s also a point near the climax where Batman solemnly tells Selina he hasn’t given everything for Gotham yet. So when Batman flies off in the Bat to get the fusion bomb away from Gotham before it explodes, I’m not wondering if he’s going to make it out alive somehow. I’m thinking, “Oh, Nolan decided that now the trilogy’s done, he can kill Batman off. Good for him.”
Contrast the climax of The Avengers where Iron Man similarly needs to save New York from a nuke. Logically, you know that even though Joss Whedon loves killing off characters, the execs involved would never let him do it because they need Tony alive for Iron Man 3. Yet there’s still a lot of genuine dramatic tension there. Not so when Batman flies off in Dark Knight Rises.
Except! It turns out that Bruce fixed the Bat’s autopilot, and somehow bailed out so he could run away and start a new life with Selina. It may sound ridiculous, but it could have been a cool twist… if everything in the movie up til that point hand’t been conspiring to make me not care.
Now it may seem unfair for me to complain about all of the movie’s suspension-of-disbelief ruining moments. After all, while I don’t think they were perfect, I didn’t make that complaint against Thor or Avengers or Amazing Spider-Man. The difference, though is that those movies embrace the implausibilities as part of the premise. They take them home and pet them and call them George.
Christopher Nolan’s franchise, on the other hand, pretended it was showing us how Batman could exist in the real world. Not really. Batman Begins assumed that ninja training could make you into the ultimate badass, and checking Wikipedia’s summary, I remember there was something about a “Microwave Emitter” super-weapon. But it was close enough to make for a satisfying movie.
Rises goes way, way beyond that. And it had to Nolan had to finish his trilogy off with a bang, with a threat on the order of “super-villain plans to blow up Gotham with a fusion bomb.” But there’s no remotely realistic way to have a plot like that happen.
Ultimately, I think the Dark Knight saga may be best seen as the story of a man who put forth an incredible effort, came so very close to his goal, and in the end failed only because what he was trying to do was impossible. I’m talking about Nolan, of course, not Bruce Wayne. Nolan’s achievement here is to show that the idea of a real-world superhero just doesn’t work.
And why would it? Being blatantly unrealistic is the whole point of superhero stories. A really realistic “superhero” story won’t be a superhero story at all, it’ll be a dark parody of superhero stories, like Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (the comic, not the movie). That’s what makes the blatantly unrealistic Marvel films we’ve been seeing enjoyable.
And speaking of Kick-Ass, I liked it enough to read all of Kick-Ass 2, but Mark Millar did a much better take-down of the “superhero without powers” concept with the Defenders side-plot in Ultimates 2. The idea is sufficiently silly that even devoting a miniseries like Kick-Ass to it is overkill. The idea of a superhero who’s just an ordinary human being is a contradiction in terms.
So, as much fun as it is to come up with reasons why an ordinary human could totally beat Superman, the concept doesn’t really work in the end. Yeah, I said it: the concept of Batman just doesn’t work. Here’s looking forward to lots more Marvel movies. And if we’re very lucky, who knows? Maybe Zack Synder’s Superman movie will actually be good.