Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Chokes

There's a scene in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises in which Commissioner Gordon explains to young idealist detective John Blake that he had agreed with Batman to lie about the circumstances of Harvey Dent's death for the greater good and Blake insists that he had become corrupt by doing so. It was a very powerful scene and I fear that it is a suiting metaphor for the fans' reaction to the movie.

I saw a midnight showing of this movie right when it came out, following showings of the previous two movies. I was really ready to be blown away by it and I wasn't alone. As soon as the DC logo appeared on the screen, someone in the front of the theater shouted, "Fuck Iron Man!" After the whole audience in unison urged him to shut up, he paused for a second and added, "Avengers what?" I actually understand this loud idiot's enthusiasm for a movie that he hadn't seen, unless he actually meant that the DC logo itself was more impressive than The Avengers, which would be pretty cold. With the hype leading up to the movie, I knew that people had convinced themselves that it was going to be great no matter what. I was ready for all of the "Best movie ever!" posts that immediately cropped up on every social networking site. What I wasn't ready for was not liking the movie, which is what happened.

It is so hard to say that I didn't like the movie, because it wasn't an unforgivably bad movie, just very disappointing. The level of disappointment is completely relative, though, because it depends on what you are comparing it to, and this movie's weight class is extremely hard to determine. For a superhero movie, it's all right. For a big budget summer action movie, it's not shabby. For a high-profile work of a cinema auteur, it's passable (certainly, Quentin Tarantino has done clunkier movies). For a Christopher Nolan movie, it's terrible. That is not as harsh as it sounds; before watching this movie, I had no idea that Nolan was capable of making a movie that I liked only about as much as Tim Burton's Batman movies. For a superhero movie released in the summer of 2012, it's far from the best. That last one is a completely unfair comparison, but an inevitable one. You would think that The Dark Knight Rises would not be on the same playing field as The Avengers, because the latter was marketed as nothing more than escapist fantasy while the former aspired to more. Despite its aspirations, though, The Dark Knight Rises really did amount to escapist fantasy, it just wasn't very good at it. Be ready to hear comparisons made over and over. Batman fans, be ready to hear that The Dark Knight Rises is not as inspiring, as enjoyable, nor as beautiful as The Avengers.

Despite the movie falling so far short of the mark set by the previous two Batman movies, I watched all of the fans asserting, "The best Batman movie yet!" or "Nolan's done it again!" and I thought back to that scene from the movie. I couldn't help but think that perhaps these fans were, like Jim Gordon did for Harvey Dent, lionizing this movie so that they could have their white knight, their shining example of perfection, the one unblemished superhero franchise. If that is the case, I must remind them that they are doing the film no service. At worst they are setting others up for disappointment, and at best they are setting a standard of an ideal of a movie that no actual movie could ever hope to attain. It's also possible that these people are unaware of the movie's faults, in which case I expect that this will go the same way that it goes every time I read a Grant Morrison comic, where I explain why I didn't like it and the Internet calls me a retard.

Spoilers follow, but if you haven't seen the movie, then I really don't care why you think I was wrong about it.

The biggest problem that the movie runs into is tedium, which was something I never would have thought to be the case. I like movies that take their time, that linger on real, human moments, that examine things in depth. Those are the sort of things that some people call boring, but make for an engaging and profound story. It also wasn't what this movie did. The Dark Knight Rises instead is boring in the way that the Transformers movies are boring. A lot of explosions and big stupid action scenes happen and I don't care that they're happening. They don't contribute much if at all to the story. I know that the previous two movies also had big stupid action sequences, but those were woven into the intelligent character work. I cared about the characters, so it wasn't a chore to sit through their fights and explosions. The movie was way longer than it needed to be anyway, and I would have preferred the extraneous time be cut or used to advance the story that the movie was setting up but never got around to actually telling.

The Dark Knight Rises is not entirely a stupid movie, but it has so many stupid little details that grate on me. The example that immediately comes to mind is toward the end, when the film flashes back to the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce is a child in a police station after his parents were shot and Gordon lends him his coat. It's a weird detail for Bruce to suddenly recall, but I understand how every detail and every little pain and every little comfort from the day his entire life changed completely would remain with him. What made it weirder was that Bruce expected Gordon to also remember that detail, and what made it ridiculous was that Gordon actually did. I didn't remember the scene, and I had just watched it a few hours ago. For Gordon, this was thirty years ago and nothing life changing happened to him on that day. In his career, how many homicide cases do you think he's had? How many times do you think he has gone out of his way to be kind to victims' families, to the inclusion of lending someone his coat? Why would he immediately make the connection to the Wayne murders? The reason is as simple as it is stupid: This is Bruce Wayne's story. What is going on in the lives of other characters is disregarded so that we can focus on Bruce Wayne and what is important to him.

The biggest casualty of the relentless, unwarranted focus on Bruce has to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Levitt is a superb actor and he did an exemplary job playing Tim Drake. This was an interesting and likable character who, to me at least, came off as way more heroic than Bruce Wayne. This movie should have been his story. Bruce Wayne himself had said since Batman Begins that though Bruce was just a man, Batman was a symbol. In The Dark Knight Rises, the point was made no fewer than four times (just in case you weren't paying attention) that Batman could be anyone. Why couldn't Joseph Gordon-Levitt have been Batman? Over the course of the movie, Drake goes from fighting crime as a detective to continuing his fight outside of the police force, all the while using the Batman symbols copiously. I really thought that the "Dark Knight" rising in this movie was going to be Drake. Starting when Batman was paralyzed and then taken out of Gotham, I was sure that the rest of the story would be about Drake saving Gotham covertly, from the shadows. By trying to keep people's hope alive about the return of Batman, he would unknowingly fulfill his own prophecy because he would become Batman. Then, of course, he would save Bruce Wayne, but Bruce would be paralyzed and could only act as an Oracle-like mentor for Tim. Thus, the story of Bruce Wayne as Batman would be over, but the legend of Batman would continue.

About the time Bruce started training for his attempted escape from his imprisonment, it started sinking in that the story of legends and legacies and the resilience of the human spirit that I thought for sure Nolan was trying to tell was going to be abandoned in favour of a lame story about how awesome Bruce Wayne is. The effect was a complete refutation of the series' messages that they spent so much time hammering into us about how men can be broken, but Batman is stronger because he's a symbol and can be anybody. That's complete bullshit. Of course, Bruce Wayne is the only person with the resources to do what Batman needs to do, which is why Tim Drake's story of saving Gotham, perhaps not as cleanly or easily, without those resources would have been so much more powerful and resounding, but as the movie stands, he still needed Bruce Wayne to come back and save the day. More importantly, only Bruce Wayne can shrug off losing all the cartilage in his leg with only minor help from a magic leg brace. Only Bruce Wayne could escape the prison through his rock climbing abilities because only Bruce Wayne could recover from a broken spine and in a few days be stronger than he was before. In short, only Bruce Wayne can be Batman because everyone else has to deal with the consequences of his actions, but everything up to and including his own death just washes off of Bruce Wayne.

Before you correct me on the name of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, let me assure you that I was merely correcting a typo in the script that was never corrected. That is the only explanation for Tim Drake being called John Blake, isn't it? This was a character who had the same back story and all of the defining personality traits of Tim Drake. The only people who wouldn't know who "John Blake" was supposed to be were people who didn't know who Tim Drake was, and you would be concealing his identity just as well from them if you called him Tim Drake from the beginning. The real reason he needed an unfamiliar name was for a "twist" at the end where it turned out that "John" wasn't his first name, which was completely unnecessary because it didn't change a thing about the character. The "John Blake" fake out was pointless, but at least it came out of nowhere and quickly returned there. At least it was consistent with the established characters, which is more than I can say for the Miranda Tate twist.

To be honest, I did not see it coming that Miranda Tate would turn out to be Talia. Despite the fact that when Ra's al-Ghul's child was mentioned, I immediately thought, "Talia's going to be in this movie?" I didn't think she was going to be Miranda. I wasn't immediately deceived by the misdirection involving Ra's al-Ghul's child's protector because I knew that if they were going to bring up this character but not give us any information at all about him, then his identity would turn out to be important. That's Chekhov's gun at work. Still, I didn't think that Miranda would turn out to be Talia, because that didn't make any damn sense. First of all, why would she go by Miranda? The name Talia wouldn't have meant anything to any character in the movie. There was no need for her to use a fake name. Still, I guess it doesn't hurt to be cautious. There is a larger problem. Talia knew Bruce Wayne was Batman. She knew that Bruce Wayne killed her father. She knew that she was going to kill Bruce Wayne. Knowing all that, why, for the love of God, would she fuck him? If your strategy for revenge involves getting your target laid, then you really need to rethink your motives. I know that some women, even in real life, use sex as leverage, but that's when they don't already have more leverage than they'll ever need. She was already Bruce's friend. Bruce trusted her (at least as much as she needed him to). They were already business partners. She was already providing him with money that he badly needed. She didn't gain a damn thing by boinking him. Did she really think he would say, "I'm sorry, but we can't work together unless I can stick my dick in you"? If so, what did she think was the nature of his relationship with Lucius Fox? I am well aware that Talia and Bruce had sex in the comics. The difference was that Talia wasn't trying to kill Bruce in the comics. Sure, she worked for Ra's al-Ghul, but her ultimate goal was to settle down with Bruce and start a family, and in that context, sex makes perfect sense. In the story presented in the movie, however, this is a sad male power fantasy (Even the chicks who want to kill him want to fuck him!). Remaining superficially true to the comic book source material was a detriment not just to Talia, but to the only other female character in the movie.

I think it's a shame that everyone is talking about "Anne Hathaway's Catwoman," because Catwoman was perhaps the biggest disappointment in the movie. The fact is that Anne Hathaway does as good a job with the character as she could have. It wasn't her fault that the character was a loathsome, selfish, obnoxious, unfunny, dull, cliched femme fatale. I've written before about how overwhelmingly phallocentric Batman is as a franchise and in this movie as usual, Catwoman is the living embodiment of Bob Kane's gynophobia. This is especially sad considering that Christopher Nolan's Batman movies had mostly avoided the misogynistic pitfalls of the character. Sure, in Batman Begins, there was only one notable female character, but she was not actively trying to kill Batman nor inadvertently getting Batman killed through her own incompetence, which in a Batman story is a huge feminist achievement. In The Dark Knight, the only female character is killed, but she's also played by a good actor, so that's kind of a wash. Then comes The Dark Knight Rises, in which one of the women is trying to kill Batman and the other is motherfucking Catwoman.

I knew from the first scene between Selina and Bruce that I was going to have problems with this character, and not just because of her godawful dialogue. I know it's subjective whether you think her action movie one-liners were clever, but you're wrong; they're not. As we see in the movie, Bruce can sneak into the room, take out a bow, nock an arrow, and fire before she realizes he's there. As is confirmed later in the movie, he is perfectly capable of taking down an assailant even with a bad leg. Were he not interested in fucking around, he could have snuck up on Selina, subdued her, taken back the pearls she had stolen, and handed her over to the police, removing her from the rest of the movie. Instead, he opted to flirt with her. What the fuck? For everyone who accused me of homophobia for the entry I linked to in the previous paragraph, let me make this clear: This is why I don't like a heterosexual Batman. I'm not saying that Batman has to be gay - he could be asexual, bisexual, or only turned on by justice (I don't think there's a word for that). However, when you have to make the point that this Batman is straight, you end up with a hero whose kryptonite is estrogen. He's a ladies' man who is only good with women when there aren't any in his life, because when he has to deal with them, he completely loses his shit.

To understand how disgusted I am with Bruce's reaction to Selina, you have to go back to Bruce's origin story. If you remember from Batman Begins, Joe Chill was robbing Thomas and Martha Wayne and when the situation escalated, he killed them in front of Bruce. Bruce was so enraged that ten years later when Joe was up for parole, Bruce brought a loaded gun to his parole hearing with the intent of murdering Joe if he were released. Rachel Dawes was so upset by this that she slapped the shit out of Bruce. She explained that due to economic realities, new Joe Chills were being made all the time. In case you don't get where I'm going with this, Selina Kyle was one of those Joe Chills. She was driven to crime by economic pressures. In fact, the first time you see her, she is stealing the same string of pearls that Chill was trying to steal when he killed the Waynes. Actually, Selina is way worse than Joe Chill. She is easily more violent and destructive and unlike Joe, who resorted to using a gun once and then immediately regretted it, Selina regrets nothing. Selina is not the breed of criminal that Batman was created to combat, but the sort of person that Batman would have been terrified that criminals would become. She is also whom were supposed to be rooting for Batman to end up together with. To put this in perspective, some people watching Batman Begins were disturbed to see Bruce Wayne intending to murder someone, which is anathema to the moral code that Batman would develop. In this movie, we're asked to accept that if Joe Chill were hotter and wore a sexy black dress that Bruce, instead of wanting to kill him, would have instead made out with him. I am not okay with this.

This just goes to show how far any social, political, or economic commentary had degenerated by the third movie. That is why it's so insane that anyone is discussing how timely this movie's commentary on today's economic climate is. This movie doesn't say anything at all about the current political or economic situation. Sure, this movie is set in a situation with a vast and troublesome economic divide, but the similarities between their world and ours end there. Bane does present himself as a champion of The People, but keep in mind that in reality, his goal is to destroy Gotham City. Even if he did genuinely give a shit about the economically downtrodden, he would still come off as disingenuous, because this isn't his battle. Bane wasn't from America, let alone Gotham. You can't be a champion of The People if you aren't even one of The People. Bane is not the 99%. He didn't even consult The People before taking over Gotham. To the movie's credit, The People aren't shown to even support Bane. The only people who are unequivocally on Bane's side are the prisoners he released, who cannot be considered representative of the common man. This is nice, because it fails to show anything contrary to the thinking of real people. Believe it or not, the people in this country, even the really poor people, do not resent the rich just for being rich. If they did, then our most popular superhero wouldn't be Batman. We may want justice, but we don't want someone to take the police off the streets so that we can take what we want from rich people. In fact, that would kind of be the opposite of justice, because in such a situation, the people most victimized would be the most defenseless, not the richest. Bane's message is complete bullshit, but he is the only character that even has a message. People are quick to point out that Selina has some dialogue on the subject of social justice, but are slow to realize just how self-serving her message is. Her motivation boils down to nothing more than self-interest, and you would have to be extremely out of touch with economic realities to think that the voice of The People would be an Objectivist.

In short, The Dark Knight Returns is a deeply flawed and often poorly thought out movie. I hope that once the hype dies down, it will be okay to say that on the Internet.