Friday, July 27, 2012

How To Invalidate Your Own Story: The Dark Knight's Downfall


When I walked into the theater to watch "The Dark Knight Rises," I went in with blind faith in Christopher Nolan's ability to masterfully craft a story, to make it empathetic, riveting, and amazingly satisfying. With his track record, he had earned that blind faith from me. Anybody who can pull off "Memento," "Inception," and "The Dark Knight" earns a bit of leeway.

Unfortunately, only parts of DKR lived up to my expectations. And maybe that's part of where the problem lies. When you set yourself up as Christopher Goddamned Nolan, people are going to expect a Christopher Goddamned Nolan movie from you. Once that happens, even the slightest misstep is a grievous error. So with that as part of the context, these errors made the movie less than I'd expected from Christopher Goddamned Nolan, but still a superb movie compared to other filmmakers.

The first thing I figured out early on was that Miranda Tate was a baddie. The moment Bruce Wayne ceded power of Wayne Enterprises to somebody else, it was a dead giveaway that something was amiss in the Wayne Universe. The world's greatest detective doesn't give up anything unless he's been tricked into it, and trickster myths from any/every culture include the trickster taking control of what the victim gives up. So I knew at that moment that Tate was going to be a big reveal later in the movie. I was largely okay with this, because I care about the execution more than the surprise, and really, how many people would have figured out the Trickster bit? Not many, I'm guessing.

But when Bruce was in The Pit and had his hallucination (that's what it was, right? A hallucination? Because if we're suddenly starting to introduce phantasms into the Nolan Universe that's based so greatly in reality, that was a BIG misstep) of Ras al-Ghul, I knew she was Talia. That one, again, I'm okay with. Anyone familiar with Batman canon knows that Ras only had one child, and it was a daughter. Okay, so, I know Miranda Tate is bad, and I know she's Talia al-Ghul now. So much for those surprises.

As for Blake being Robin, that was kind of a gimme. Not even going to address that.

That was the smallest problem I had with the movie. From here on out, it's bigger stuff.

Bane is supposed to be bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, BETTER than Bats. Batman's fights with Bane are supposed to be the result of being forced into a situation he knows he's going to lose, and he does it anyway. And that was where the movie was pointing us. Batman's fight with Bane was a sacrifice he made for the people of Gotham, where he showed that he was willing to give himself up to protect the city, or has to pull some ace out of his sleeve with which to surprise the villain and beat him. And his surprise weapon is...punching? Seriously? The world's greatest detective, a technological genius, billionaire, crime-fighting superhero just wants to punch a guy? The only "gadget" he uses is some kind of smoke pellet thing that doesn't do anything, and he tries to melt into the shadows so he can...PUNCH! Wooooooow. I mean, it's not like you have sedative-lased Batarangs or anything. Clearly the ones you use in the later parts of the movie are new things that you couldn't possibly have used before. That's just bad logic consistency.

Also, Bane's mask. The cool part: It symbolically made Bane the antithesis of Batman, as he is supposed to be. Get it? He's the BANE of BATMAN'S existence! Ohhhhhh. So yeah, that was cool. Bane's mask covered his mouth only, while Bats' mask covers everything but his mouth. That was a cool bit of visual storytelling. Problem was, it didn't look like it actually did anything. There was no tank of sedatives it was hooked up to, so how exactly did it keep him numbed up on morphine? That's a physical substance that takes physical space. You can't just have some tubes on his mouthpiece hooked up to nothing, the world doesn't work that way. But if I was fighting a guy with a mask over his mouth, call me crazy, I'd go right for it the first time. Not way later, by accident. But I'll come back to that later, after...

Bruce Wayne is in The Pit, doing sit-ups after failing yet another attempt to climb out of the prison. The Mystic Doctor tells him that he can't be afraid, and he says, "I'm not afraid. I'm angry."

Wait, what? That's it? That's the key to the story? You get angry? That's kind of a fucked up moral. Look at me, I got angry and could jump farther and higher and do more and push myself harder because LOOK AT ME I'M ANGRY! Batman's solution is literally to go "HULK SMASH!" So he gets angry (presumably this is because of the suffering of Gotham, and not because he simply lost a fight), jumps farther because he's angry, manages to get back to Gotham from some prison in the middle of nowhere because he's angry, and decides to fight Bane again because he's angry. Everything that happens after that moment of dialogue is due to the fact that Bruce Wayne/Batman got angry. That goes against everything that he had done up to that point, and everything that he did after that point. At no point do we see his anger again, it's just there and gone. Something to push him through one moment and then create a huge inconsistency through the rest of the story. So not only is it a poor choice as a moral, it's illogical from a narrative stance.

Batman gets his Deus Ex Machina flying machine and frees the cops with it. Cool. Robin "gave him an army." And he uses that army (who suddenly trust him with their lives) to march down one street. In formation. This scene made no narrative, logical, or tactical sense. These cops would be trained in ways to enter buildings and clear them of bad guys, the could have easily surrounded the main force of bad guys in a ring, or from rooftops, or come up out of the tunnels, or...well, anything else, really. Marching like infantry in medieval battle made no sense. What made even less sense was that both armies had guns, but fought each other in melee combat. Why? No, really, why? This served no purpose except to get Batman back to..

Batman has now gotten angry, gotten an army, and is ready to get even. He's so ready in fact, that he charges up and starts...punching again. Only this time he gets lucky and accidentally hits Bane's mask, causing him immediate pain. Because, y'know, there's no withdrawal period from sedatives or painkillers. The moment you stop getting exposed to them, you start feeling pain. Riiiiiiight.

Oh, wait, NO. That makes no sense!

And Bane won anyway. Not in that he beat the Bat, but he did what Joker couldn't: He made Batman willing to kill. Maybe you didn't catch that, but Batman used Bane's line against him. "Then you have my permission to die." Subtext: I won't save you. Congratulations, Bane, you made Batman go against his own moral code. Well fucking done, sir! Batman is now no longer Batman, he is truly a vigilante in pursuit of vengeance and not justice. Remember that, that's important in a little bit here.

Except that before Batman can win, he's stabbed by Talia al-Ghul, who then begins...

Holy shit this movie is full of it. One almost flows right into the next during the entire movie. Alfred, Blake, Batman, Gordon, Bane, Talia, Lucius, I think everybody here has at least one monologue. Alfred's was so long it actually needed a flashback to show some action. (Flashbacks and hallucinations/visions, two things introduced in DKR that we never saw in BB or TDK.) Oof.

But perhaps my two biggest problems were with the ending.

The whole ending sequence was so unbelievably neat that it shocked me out of the movie. Everybody got an ending. In a world meticulously constructed to be gritty, dirty, morally ambiguous, full of grey zones, and realistic, we got a little piece of everybody's storyline ending. Loose ends? What loose ends? We're gonna tie everything up. Even the Bat gets his storyline tied up with a giant...

Okay. Seriously. Batman needed to die. No, really, he needed to, in order to protect the integrity of the story. In this movie, Batman fell victim to his anger, using it as a weapon, led people into a fight where they were sure to die, and became willing to kill an enemy. These are three things that Batman simply does not do. He has compromised himself so greatly that by the end of the film the only thing left that he can do is sacrifice himself. That, plus all the talk about how Batman was a symbol, how he was more than the suit, and how in previous movies he was always working towards the end goal of not being the Batman anymore. Everything for three movies was all pointing to a sacrificial ending. AND WE GOT IT! Holy shit, Batman flew a nuclear bomb out of Gotham and showed the city what a true hero does in the face of unbeatable odds. That was pretty goddamned brave.

Except that by pulling that whole bit at the end where he's sitting with Selina Kyle at the cafe, it was no longer about the sacrifice. The three movies we spent engaged and watching for the inevitable end of the Bat suddenly turned into "I got away with it, too!" The audience was robbed of the moment of sacrifice and instead given a wink and a nod from the film, showing that everything was alright. Somehow, Bruce Wayne was able to live with himself after having compromised everything he devoted himself to, causing unknown casualties in his battle with Bane, and ultimately even losing his own moral compass so badly he was willing to become the villain. In TDK, Harvey and Batman both say "you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain." Remember that? Clearly the movie didn't. Though, to be fair, I suspect that may be Warner Brothers' influence on the story. Nolan may have wanted to kill his character.

Also, there's the "how" of it. How exactly did he manage to get far enough away? Did we simply not see him eject from the Deus Ex Machina machine? Did he have Indiana Jones' lead-lined fridge in there? What exactly happened? We saw him close his eyes and we saw the bomb go off, but unless he put the auto pilot on during a point where he was still over land...there's just some logistics missing here. Including, how did Selina and he hook up afterwards? But really, that's secondary to the "why" for me.

So yeah. Lots of great things in the first half of the movie. The second half? Not so much.

But I also realized something.
Batman = Neo
Lucius = Morpheus
Rachel Dawes/Selina Kyle = Trinity
Ras al-Ghul = Agent Smith
Alfred = The Oracle
Robin = the kid at the end of Matrix3
Gordon = Tank/Dozer/other guy who jacks them into the Matrix

Think about it. The two storylines share an awful lot.

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