More on The Dark Knight Rises (Spoilers)
Since Friday morning, I’ve been contemplating my reaction to The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s something that I’m still not fully settled on. I’m not as excited about the film as some seem to be, but I’m not nearly as disappointed as others seem to be. One thing, however, has been bothering me as I read negative reviews of the film: they are penalizing it for its “comic-bookness.” It’s a trap that I was falling into when I wrote about my problems with Bruce and Selina’s “romance” and Blake’s cheesy speech to Bruce Wayne about faking smiles to the world. I didn’t like how Selina wanted Bruce to leave Gotham with her or how he trusted her because he mysteriously sees something good in her. Some of the dialogue is on-the-nose, and some of the character moves are questionable at best. Later, I realized, “Wait. This is a Batman movie.” Of course you’re going to get some of that. And I don’t understand why some critics (professional and otherwise) are holding it to this unfair standard of realism. (For those of you who haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled by anything, it’s probably best to stop reading now.). I’m hearing people say, “How did Bruce return to Gotham so quickly after escaping a prison halfway around the world? How did he fly to Gotham if he didn’t have a dime to his name?” To those questions, I would answer, “It’s a Batman movie.” They’re saying, “Why did Bane want to destroy a city at peace whereas Ra’s Al Ghul wanted to destroy a corrupt city infested by crime?” “How did the police survive underground for months?” Critiques like this are akin to analyzing the exact science involved in the Batsuit or The Tumbler or The Bat or that nuclear reactor or whatever it is. Critiques like this are akin to asking how Batman could fit all of those things in a utility belt in the Animated Series. They’re like asking if fear toxin in Batman Begins would really have that effect or if one could survive with half of a face burnt by acid. These questions are ridiculous because all comic-book movies are kind of ridiculous. It’s not fair to hold a big-budget blockbuster to a standard like this. Yes, it asks for suspension of disbelief, as all the movies have. Yes, its political atmosphere and connection to Occupy Wall Street could have been more fleshed out. Yes, even its themes could have been more deeply developed. But this is not a movie about politics. It’s a movie about Batman. And if you’re expecting something other than slightly cloying shots of kids looking out a school-bus window as their caped crusader flies a bomb to the ocean to save the city, then you’ve bought a ticket for the wrong movie. If you’re expecting something other than a physically impossible, larger-than-life introduction to the central villain, then you’ve bought a ticket for the wrong movie. Nolan has not created a realistic universe, just a more realistic one than what we’ve seen before. People need to realize that they’re tearing apart what is essentially a summer popcorn movie on incongruous grounds.
This might be where some people are starting to say, “Hold on. Back up a little.” Don’t these films want to be judged on the same terms as others are? Aren’t they trying to break out of their comic-book trappings and rise to the level of art? Aren’t they purposefully making doom, gloom, tragedy, darkness, and seriousness their calling cards? Well, yes and no, and that’s kind of the point. Batman and Robin, for example, is a ridiculous film. Batman Begins, on the other hand, is not a ridiculous film. It takes its protagonist seriously, and it fashions a world where some of these things could conceivably happen. The Dark Knight is admittedly a dark movie, and it leaves our protagonist in a difficult place. It trades in the richly thematic and the politically atmospheric. But this is not to say that any of these movies completely abandon the “comic-bookness” of the character. You still have big plots on Gotham that may or may not make a whole lot of sense, and you still have a degree of levity that equalizes the mood. The amazing thing about this trilogy is that it can excel in both of these areas. Some people complained that The Dark Knight was too dark and depressing, and now they’re complaining that The Dark Knight Rises is too light. I don’t want to paint this latest installment with too broad of a brush, because it is certainly a serious film. It further dramatizes the volatile relationship between Bruce and Alfred. It likes to talk about the rich enjoying their feasts as the the poor steal for scraps. It transforms Bruce from a billionaire to a beggar. It features a villain that speaks to the fear of terrorism with almost as much bite as The Joker did. And it puts a broken Bruce in a prison where only one person has escaped. He has to once again embrace his fear and cling to what made him Batman in the first place. So this isn’t quite The Avengers. But it’s not exactly Million Dollar Baby, either.
Here’s my point: there’s a degree of silliness to The Dark Knight Rises, and that’s not a bad thing. You have Lucius Fox showing Bruce his new toys and a callback to the “Does it come in black?” line. You have Selina stealing Bruce’s car and a jab from Alfred after he has to pick him up. You have Blake realizing that Bruce is Batman because he recognizes the false smile that Bruce shows the world. You have him trying to rescue boys from a home when there’s nothing he can do for them anyway. You have Gordon finding out that Bruce is Batman months after it seems to be common knowledge. You have Selina kissing Bruce before he flies off with a nuclear bomb. You have lines like “You shouldn’t have” before Selina hops on the Batcycle and, of course, instantly knows how it operates. And after Selina saves the day by killing Bane, of course you’re going to get a line about how she’s not as anti-guns as Bruce is. This is a Batman movie. You’re going to have a sentimental speech here and a contrived reveal there and an inscrutable plot against Gotham and whatnot. But these things shouldn’t really be listed as criticisms, because they’re fun. It’s fun to see Batman easily evade every cop in the city. It’s fun to see Bane’s ludicrous introduction. It’s fun to see Selina jump in The Bat and jest that she was told not to get into cars with strange men. These things are comic-book bread-and-butter, and they’re entertaining. And the other movies certainly had these aspects as well.
That, I’ve now concluded, is what makes Nolan so great for this trilogy and what makes the trilogy so great for cinema as a whole. He can have it both ways. He has the nerve to “kill” Bruce but the sentiment to mysteriously make him appear again, as if the mythos is so great that he can’t actually be dead even if science/reality dictates he must. Nolan’s even-handedness can be frustrating to some viewers, but the guy is self-admittedly a crowd-pleaser, and you can’t begrudge him for that. He makes mostly PG-13 movies that take themselves seriously without failing to entertain the average Joe. He makes them think, but not too much. Does anyone want to see a totally gritty, academically astute, entirely joyless Batman movie, anyway? Probably not. Some movies (to list recent ones: Blue Valentine, Shame, Another Year, Rabbit Hole, We Need to Talk About Kevin) are dramatically compelling but not the easiest to watch. Others, like Avengers, are loud, fun, and not at all taxing on the brain. Nolan’s Batman can be both. So critics screaming “Too dark!” seem to be missing some cheesy, fun moments and critics screaming “Too light!” seem to be missing how seriously the film takes Bruce Wayne’s trajectory and notion that evil will continue to exist no matter who’s fighting it. The Dark Knight Rises, then, is a big-budget blockbuster that manages to be fun, entertaining, dramatic, and relatively deep all at once. It’s still not The Dark Knight, but maybe I’ve been too hard on a film that needs to be judged according to what it is rather than what some would like it to be. If the potential downside of “dramatic” is “depressing,” the potential downside of “thematic” is “boring,” and the potential downside of “entertaining” is “cheesy” then The Dark Knight Rises mostly succeeds at not tipping the scales.