Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wherein I Ramble About The Dark Knight Rises

So, I just returned from seeing The Dark Knight Rises, and I want to talk about it. I want to further my enjoyment of it. But I don't have any pseudo-philosophical stuff to say about it, this film does not lend itself to that as well as the previous film did, so I'm just going to make a series of critical remarks about what I loved and what I hated. Maybe after the film simmers in my mind I can try writing something of substance, for now I am just writing because I am compelled to speak about the movie.

All of these should be read in the context of the judgment that this was a good movie. Also, Spoilers.

  • Bane was an awesome villain. He was something we have not really seen yet in Nolan's films: a rival for Batman. Because Bane had physical strength and brutality, which Joker, Two-Face, and Scarecrow lacked (Ra's al Ghul had some of that, but Batman was always more physically imposing). Bane was a symbol of a new order, which he established through fear and power, just like Batman established a new order opposed to the mobs through fear and power; the Joker was about anarchy, Two-Face was about perverse fairness and revenge, and Ra's al Ghul was about righteous destruction. Even in the seemingly superficial details Bane is similar to Batman: he is masked, his voice is obscured, he has an underground dwelling where he prepares for his above ground activities, he's at home in the shadows and in obscurity. Bane was not Batman's antithesis, Bane was cut from the same cloth, and was perhaps in some ways the superior between the two.
  • But everything that was so great about Bane was ruined at the end when Talia al Ghul came into the picture. I spent that entire movie waiting to watch Batman prevail over Bane; I wanted to watch Batman display superiority over his mirror image, and we never got to see that. Batman damaged his mask, had about a minute of superiority over him, and then was overcome by Talia. At this point, Bane takes on the role of a high-ranking goon, and is dispatched with about that much concern when Catwoman blasts him away with the Batpod.
  • The ending felt like a cop-out, but it wasn't. It has the initial appearance of a cop-out, because you become emotionally prepared for Bruce Wayne to die. You realize that this is a gritty, 'realistic' Batman film, and that means that if Bruce has to sacrifice himself to save Gotham, he will, and nothing will change that fact.

    But this is not the case. It would be wrong for Bruce Wayne to die in the explosion. Only Batman should die. This is the only proper ending for a Batman universe: Bruce Wayne and Gotham moving beyond Batman. This, coupled with Catwoman's redemption arc make it the best aesthetic choice. However, it will continue feeling like a cop-out, because we are distrustful of heroes who do not really accomplish what they appear to accomplish. 
  • This movie addressed what so many fans failed to address at the end of The Dark Knight, which is that lying to Gotham about Harvey Dent was not heroic. The fact that Gordon was taken to task for that, and that he has struggled with it for years, pleased me.
  • This film was necessary to tie Batman Begins and The Dark Knight together. It's closer to Batman Begins, but ending on that note sort of ties the whole thing together. BB showed how Batman came to be and why Gotham needed him. TDK showed that Batman could become hazardous by inspiring madness and insanity. TDKR completed this arc by letting Batman do what he was needed to do, and then leave upon fulfilling it, avoiding the deficit of no Batman and the excess of Batman bringing out insanity.
  • Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle's romance was handled perfectly. It was unrealistic and utterly undeveloped. This is how Batman and Catwoman's relationships should be: they shouldn't be explored, there should be something raw and unintelligible to them. 
  • Revealing that John Blake's real name is "Robin" provided a brief fanboy thrill. A brief one. It dissipates quickly and you're left realizing that it was probably not an improvement on the film. He certainly isn't going to go out using his real name, therefore he isn't Robin the sidekick. Maybe it just highlights the role John Blake plays, but I somehow get the impression that this was a misstep.
  • Bane and Talia's motivations aren't interesting in this film. The Joker was interesting because his motivation (if he even really had one) was unusual and fascinating. Catwoman was interesting because she was trying to find redemption through greater sin, and her quest became Bruce's quest. Bane wanted... destruction? But also for the citizens to retake their city. Although that was just because Talia wanted Gotham to suffer, she wanted to destroy it slowly over the course of five months. So, the entire part of the film where Bane acts as a revolutionary feels... pointless. Sure, he did it so that Gotham and Bruce would feel more pain before the bomb went off, but he didn't believe in any of it. And that was the interesting part of his character. Destroying Gotham to help Talia get revenge on Batman and fulfill her father's legacy is too trite.
  • The falling out between Bruce and Alfred cost too much in character revision for too little payout. Bruce and Alfred have been through too much, it was out of character for Alfred to walk away like that, even if he had "intervention"-like motivations.
  • I know Nolan was criticized for having predominantly male characters in the Batman movies, and for failing to make compelling or strong female characters. I wonder if this is why Talia was shoehorned in as the main villain?
  • If I had my way, all fight scenes would play out like the fight between Batman and Bane. The music would turn off, and the characters would punch and kick each other in a somewhat labored, painful, and decisive way. I prefer fight choreography that makes fake fights look like real fights, as opposed to fight choreography that makes fake fights look like interpretive dance.
  • When Bane spoke, I thought of Sean Connery. Am I alone in this?
  • My biggest disappointment is the way Bane fizzled out at the end. He was not as interesting as the Joker, but he was shaping up to be iconic in his own way. A different motive, and the nixing of the last minute demotion to sidekick, and the movie would be at least 15% greater!
My personal rule of thumb when critiquing a movie is to ask what could have been done differently. For example, with Inception, some people complained about the technology in the film never being explained. So I ask myself if this is something that could have been fixed, and I conclude that it could not. Any change made in this area would have made an inferior film. Is that the case with The Dark Knight Rises? No, there are improving changes that could have been made.

What I Would Have Done

Bane should have been resentful toward the League of Shadows, instead of remaining loyal to their cause of destroying excessively wicked and decadent cities and civilizations. Whereas the League of Shadows was a moralistic organization, Bane should have been an amoral monster who got his kicks from dominating things weaker than him; his role as a member of the League of Shadows was just a place in the world that allowed him to act out these impulses. He was expelled from the League of Shadows for being overly brutal in the course of dishing out punishment, the exact opposite reason for Bruce Wayne's falling out.

To avoid making Bane into too much of a two-dimensional movie monster, references should be made to his being born in prison. He was born into a dog-eat-dog, state-of-nature, nasty, brutish, and short world. He escaped from the prison, but could not change the sort of man his environment made him. Whereas Bruce escaped Gotham and returned to make Gotham better; Bane escaped the Pit and left to make the world worse. These little mirror images will make Batman and Bane's confrontation more compelling.

Brief (very brief, no lectures) remarks could be made by Bane about the importance of nature, evolution, and the strong devouring the weak. Bane has evolved since his expulsion from the League of Shadows: he no longer acts cruelly solely for his own enjoyment, he acts cruelly because he believes only through cruelty can order be brought about. Only through strict hierarchy and fear can humanity stave off destruction. Bane returns to Gotham to prove his personal and ideological superiority over both Batman and Ra's al Ghul by making Gotham the first location to fall to his rule.

But, unlike the Joker, Bane should be a more human character, much like Batman is. Keep the story about Ra's al Ghul's child being born in the prison, and keep it as Talia, but make Bane a friend of Talia and her mother. Bane could grow up trying to protect the two, becoming like a surrogate son to Talia's mother. At the age of, say, ten, Bane is held back while his adoptive mother is beaten to death in front of both he and Talia. They only have each other to rely on. It is here that Bane begins training and building his body, and at his young age begins trying to climb out of the pit. Year after year, he fails to make the climb, gaining more and more scars as the rocks of the pit damage his body each time he loses his grip.

At the age of sixteen, there is a riot, and Bane fights a group of three men. He holds his own, but is soon overpowered and beaten. They move to attack Talia, stating that they will kill her like they killed her mother, but she is saved when a separate group of rioters attacks the first. Within two weeks, Bane attempts to climb the pit without the rope, and almost succeeds, successfully clearing the jump that most others fail at. As he nears the top, Ra's al Ghul invades with a small army of assassins. Bane is knocked to the ground during the initial invasion, breaking his back.

When Talia vouches for him, the League takes him to their temple. He is unable to even feed himself he is so thoroughly injured. He grows bitter because of his powerlessness. He begins a regimen of pain killers, intense training, and steroids, growing strong enough to become part of the League. But he remains driven by that feeling of powerlessness, and must commit acts of cruelty to reassure himself of his own strength and power.

All this should be communicated in an obscured way. Brief stories told by other prisoners, "legends" and rumors circulated among Gotham's citizens picked up from Bane's army. No heavy-handed exposition, brief scenes, especially during moments where Bane is triumphant, to highlight where he is now opposed to where he was.

Talia will remain loyal to her father's vision, but should be in love with who Bane was. Talia was in Gotham as her father's failsafe. When he failed to destroy the city, she began searching for a new way of destroying the city. But because of Batman's activity's and the Dent Act, the city ceased to be filthy and corrupt, and therefore she could not destroy the city because it no longer warranted destruction. Instead, she began investing in the energy reactor as a back-up plan, to be utilized in the event that Gotham fell into old habits. When Bane comes to Gotham, announces himself a leader and a revolutionary, and coerces Gotham into following him, Talia now has cause to destroy the city.

What she did not anticipate was that Bane himself would know about the reactor and would use it to stave off the United States government long enough to solidify his power. With the reactor in Bane's power (also, with the "time-bomb" aspect of the reactor removed), Talia alternately portrays herself as Miranda to those loyal to the old ways, and Talia to Bane, so as to get closer to the detonator and the location of the bomb.

In the climax of the film, Batman has his confrontation with Bane, wherein he prevails by damaging Bane's mask. Bane, utterly defeated and brought down by Batman, will refuse to tell until Talia enters the room and reveals who she is. Both Batman and Bane will discover that she was not loyal to either of them, but that she was working toward Gotham's destruction. Both of them can plead with her not to detonate it, but she can (in Ozymandias fashion for no other reason than because any villain looks that much more determined when they execute a plan prior to talking about it) reveal that she triggered the detonation process ten minutes prior.

Batman can have his suicide flight at that point. Bane will remain alive, but the citizens of Gotham will rise up against him. He will be thrown into Blackgate prison, where he is finally in an environment that suits him. Perhaps the end could show him smiling as three prisoners try to gain credibility by threatening him.

Why proceed in this way? Because giving Bane a vision of the world is more compelling than having him try to fulfill Ra's al Ghul's vision. And because making him self-motivated is more compelling than having him be Talia's obedient lackey. And giving Bane an insecurity that fuels his worldview draws more of an emotional investment than just saying he's a very philosophical guy who just happens to believe very strongly in his point of view. And because giving Gotham back to the citizens has more room for discussion and contemplation if it is done as part of Bane's fascist vision than because Gotham should be killed slowly. And, it allows for a climactic final fight between Batman and Bane where Batman gets the decisive victory that we long for and Bane gets the glorious defeat that his character deserves.

But, then, I'm sure a lot of people have their theories on what should have been changed. Nolan did a pretty damn good job, I think his villains needed work, but the time spent on Batman was beautiful. Nolan succeeded.

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