Another week, another post unrelated to crime fiction by Jay Stringer
Now that a safe amount of time has passed since the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I thought I'd offer up my thoughts on it. Still, if you're someone who has yet to see it and doesn't like the idea of spoilers, give this post a miss, eh?
How to solve a problem like The Dark Knight?
That's a question that must have given Christopher Nolan more than a few sleepless nights. The 'problem' here being that the 2008 film -even with it's rough edges and flaws the reveal themselves over repeat viewings- set a superhuman standard for comic book films. How to follow it? Should it be followed? How to cope with the tragic loss of that film's main asset?
None of these questioned troubled me all that much. Despite Nolan's insistence on only planning one film at a time, and The Dark Knight's looming shadow, it always felt to me like the middle act of a story. And I had utmost faith that the man at the helm would finish out that trilogy by hitting all the right notes.
Did he succeed?
No. Not for me, anyway, though you'll find numerous glowing reviews elsewhere. And also, it should be said, not for lack of trying. None of the problems with The Dark Knight Rises are down to a lack of ambition or effort. It's a film that reaches for the stars, and it should be applauded for that, just as it also deserves fair criticism for stumbling in the attempt.
But first, let's talk about some positives. The film looks amazing. I can think of few films that have been so masterfully shot, with such total control over the screen. There are also passages in the film that are just about the most immersive experience Nolan has ever crafted, which is no mean feat for a director often noted for creating cold and clinical worlds. Two of the actors -Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt- put in perfectly human performances that carry the film through many of it's roughest patches. A third performance of note is put in by Anne Hathaway. Her Selina Kyle may never be as convincingly human and real as the other two, but who manages to sell us completely on the idea of the words most famous comic-book cat burglar. It's a performance from a slightly different film to Oldman and Gordon-Levitt, but it's a very strong one nonetheless.
And Tom Hardy's Bane is interesting. I wouldn't say he ever convinced me that he was a character who was actually in the film with everyone else, but he did interesting things that managed to stay on just the right side of hamming it up. And he had probably the hardest challenge of everyone in the film; how do you follow Heath Ledger's Joker? Answer, as Hardy showed, is that you don't. Don't even try to. Just use the time you're given on screen to try new things and try to be interesting. He succeeded on that level.
I don't want to criticise Christian Bale's performance, because he did superb work with what he was given, but so many of the films flaws revolve around things relating to his character that he can't help but come off looking weaker than some of his supporting cast. And Michael Caine? Well, at least this film reminded us that he can cry. A lot.
And this is where the film started to trip up over itself.
The story is a combination of some of the most un-filmable Batman stories of the past thirty years. It starts off with a large chunk of Knightfall before transitioning into a truncated version of No Mans Land by way of including a few elements of Contagion, Legacy and Cataclysm. It's bookended by beats lifted straight out of The Dark Knight Returns. And it seems to me that this is the basis of the problem. The film is too self conscious about all of this- it's too busy priding itself on how ambitious it is, to stop and work on a few basic moments of storytelling.
Character arcs whimper and die, three (or four, or five) act structure goes out of the window, and themes begin to eat their own tails.
Something that has become increasingly apparent in Nolan's films as his resources have increased has been the diminishing returns of subtext. One of the few (I still insist) flaws in The Dark Knight is that too much wasn't left unsaid. Take a moment to think how much shorter and more economical that film could have been if all the unnecessary monologues were taken out. We would still have gotten the point, because that's what our brains do when we're watching a film. This problem has reached breaking point with The Dark Knight Rises. The film has no subtext, because everything is on screen, given to us in dialogue, by actors who looked like they were cringing as they delivered the lines. There are times when Checkov's gun is not so much loaded as built right in front of us. But this apparent knowledge of how to structure and foreshadow is undercut by moments that go the other way, when really obvious and important elements of act one are forgotten about by act three.
The strangest thing I can say about this Batman movie is that there was probably a great film in here that didn't have Batman in it. The version of the film we got, though, with Batman in it, falls short.
My hope is that the film marks a crossroad in Christopher Nolan's film making. Thus far he has given us several different versions of the same basic story. He's returned to Captain Ahab over and over, each time with a different lick of paint and a different level on of insight. In my opinion his career so far reached it's peak with The Prestige, a wonderful puzzle box of a film, and he followed it with the exceptional The Dark Knight. But he's taken the driven, obsessive, ambitious protagonist as far as he can. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises saw one character step out from under that shadow, while another man, more mature and well-adjusted, stepped into the role. It was a hopeful ending it it's way, and I hope this was the directors farewell to that era of his life. He's a filmmaker of rare ambition, and seemingly with the even rarer ability to sometimes realise those ambitions, and I would love to see him move onto a new story.
As for Batman, the big screen will get another one in a few years. There will be another actor and director to take up the mantle and no doubt it will be with a studio mandate to veer a little closer to the super-heroics of The Avengers, which was a much more cohesive film. In fact, a certain director by the name of Joss Whedon pitched his own Batman film to Warner Bros just before they green lit Nolan's vision for Batman Begins, so I wouldn't be surprised to see fate crack another fun little joke. But my time with Batman ends here, I had decided that the completion on Nolan's trilogy would be a good spot to mark my closure with the character, so whatever big screen fun comes from Gotham next will be for another generation of super hero fans.
If films were judged by ambition alone, The Dark Knight Rises would be one of the best we've ever seen. And we should salute that. There are too many filmmakers in mainstream cinema today who have craft without ambition. But ambition and ideas go hand in hand with failure more often than success. It's not how you fly the plane that counts, it's how you land it, and unfortunately Nolan doesn't quite manage to land The Dark Knight Rises.