I didn’t see Dark Knight Rises in the theater when it first came out. The timing wasn’t right and the logistics just weren’t right. Now I’m actually kinda glad, because the whole thing was rather disappointing. And I’m saying this as someone who went in with expectations set very low. I knew this was not going to be The Dark Knight – I red the reviews. But alas, I gave Christopher Nolan the benefit of the doubt. He has never failed me before that. And probably because of that, I can’t help but feel cheated.
I can’t help but feel that Nolan completely phoned it in on Dark Knight Rises. He was done with this multi-billion franchise after the last installment and it shows. Just like his older, more weary, retired Bruce Wayne, Nolan did not have another bat movie in him. And yet, he has an obligation – a duty to his paymasters, and to his fans who want more bat on the screen.
Nolan is Wayne. Wayne is Nolan. Both pick up their mantle unwillingly to fulfill their last duty – to make their last big appearance – last big show. And with their final act, they both kill Batman and move on.
Broken Like Wayne’s Back
The movie is structurally broken. When Bane breaks Batman’s back, the plot fractures as well. There are two stories that Nolan is trying to tell here but they cannot be reconciled.
The first part of the story (before Wayne has the free style chiropractic spine readjustment courtesy of the man in the mask) is about what happens to a superhero when he is no longer needed. Batman has won, and his victory has made him obsolete. Wayne puts down the cape, but is unable to fully move on. He locks himself in his manor living a life of a recluse, slowly wasting away. When Gotham citizens find themselves in danger, he is all too happy and to eager to jump back into action.
But as soon as he is back on the streets, he realizes he has grown soft, slow and sloppy. Batman is past his prime. Still formidable force against common thugs, but not a match against a guy who got kicked out of the League of Shadows for being too much of a bad-ass. So the first half of the movie is about Wayne trying to find his groove back.
Eventually an epic beat-down ensues and the bad is toughly defeated and humiliated.
This is where the story breaks, because the second part of the movie is nearly identical to the first only the stakes are ramped up higher. Once again Wayne is back in the gutter and has to pick up the pieces and put himself together again. Cue in a training montage with The Eye of the Tiger in the background, will you?
The Dark Knight returns in a classic Rocky Balboa style. After an epic defeat, he gets some training on, does some soul searching and jumps back into the ring, and throws the same punches as before. But this time he has plot armor – he is a protagonist and it is the third act, and so he cannot lose. He takes the younger, stronger, more physically menacing Bane on in a fair fight and this time beats him senseless.
Why? Because plot, that’s why. What did Wayne learn during his time in the pit? That fear of death is a powerful motivator? That’s what allowed him to physically overpower super-steroid-meat-truck Bane? Really?
This just does not work. This is broken. This is not Nolan grade material. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this structure all night and I honestly cant figure out what the hell did the director try to accomplish there.
He rises, he falls, he rises again
The problem with the much anticipated confrontation between Batman and Bane is that it is in no way epic. It is actually quite sad. In the first act Nolan establishes that Wayne is barely holding it together physically. His multiple injuries sustained during his career as the caped crusader have taken a heavy toll on his body. He cannot walk without a leg brace, and he is woefully out of shape by his own standards. Bane slaps him around like a lifeless rag doll.
Seeing Batman beaten down like this while he was in his prime – now that would have been epic. That would have been something to behold. Here stands Gotham’s greatest hero and this new guy breaks him in half like a twig.
In the comics, Batman’s greatest asset is not his martial superiority, not his gadgets. It’s his detective instincts. He is one of the few masked vigilantes with no super-powers, in a universe full of supers villains. He can take on criminal that overpower him physically because he can outwit them, and leverage the fight to be in his favor. Nolan’s Batman was never much of a thinker – he was mostly muscle and gadgets. Heath Ledger’s joker played him like a fiddle running laps around him at every step.
It would be interesting to see Nonan’s Wayne hitting a physical brick wall – a foe he cannot intimidate, or physically overpower the way he usually does. It would be a new kind of foe – one whose main asset is the physical presence. One who can be used as area denial, as anti-Batman countermeasure forcing the Caped Crusader to play it smart.
But we don’t see that. In the final showdown between these two men we see Batman bray like an animal and punch ever so harder Rocky Balboa style. It was dumb. It was embarrassing. It was badly choreographed.
I mean, I get what Nolan was doing. I get why he set it up like this. But it does not change the fact that Batman vs Bane fights just don’t work. The first one is a big guy beating down on a cripple. The second one is a cripple coming back for more, having learned nothing. It makes Wayne look stupid. What exactly made him think he could beat Bane in one-on-one fist fight this time?
My Stunt-Fu is stronger!
Speaking of fights, I want to know who choreographed them. I actually went through the movie credits with tooth and comb and found out that there isn’t a single name explicitly credited with fight choreography. The closest I got was Buster Reeves who was credited as “fight arranger” which doesn’t seem to be the same thing.
Reeves is certainly an accomplished martial artist, but most of his film credits are as stunt performed. He did do fight choreography for The Clash of the Titans but… Well, for the same move he is also credited with about six other roles such as “additional photography”, and being a stunt double for at least two actors. I’m getting the sense that Mr. Reeves does not have an extensive experience in actually choreographing fights punch by punch, and it shows.
Let me make this clear – I’m saying nothing about the Keysi combat style that was being showcased in all Nolan movies. Given the limitations of the costume, and the setting, the careful, grounded, street style it seems like a reasonable choice for the hero. I’m talking how it was implemented.
In the previous two movies, the fight scenes were not the main focus of the film. There were fight choreography in there too, but they were mostly masked by good camera work, lighting and smart editing. Some folks complained that it made the fights seem choppy, but I didn’t care.
In Dark Knight Rises the two confrontations between Batman and Bane however are important plot developments. It is important for Nolan to establish Bane as a formidable martial artist, and then to show Batman physically picked apart by a more formidable opponents. Thus the fights are filmed with more care – the shots are longer, more deliberate, lingering. And that’s where the choreography fails.
A good fight choreographer knows how to work with the director, the camera crew and the stuntmen in order to make a fight look real. These fights do not look real. There were dozens(!) of times I have seen punches missing by a mile, or elbows that completely failed to connect.
I would like to point out that I have very little expertise in martial arts or stunt coordination. Most of the time I don’t even notice such things. If a guy gets knocked out by an imaginary shock-wave of a blatantly pulled punch once, I’m more than willing to overlook that. If this happens six or seven times during what is supposed to be an epic confrontation between Batman and Bane, we have a problem.
Too much, too big, too flashy
Dark Knight Rises is the third installment of one of the most successful comic book franchise reboots in history. Nolan’s first movie was the pivotal event that started the super-hero fad that has taken Hollywood by storm.
It was also a superhero movie coming out after Marvel/Disney have accomplished one of the boldest, most daring moves in history of Hollywood to date – The Avengers and the six movies that lead up to it, and built the shared continuity. This movie had to be big, bold, spectacular and flashy to stand up to the competition.
But there is big and bold, and there is immersion breaking ridiculousness. Bane’s scheme to hold the entire city hostage using a magical neutron bomb was just hilariously out of place in the world of gritty realism established by the last two movies.
The previous movie had almost a noir vibe to it. It was somber, visceral, captivating and oh-so quotable. It hit all the right notes: it wasn’t a typical superhero romp, it wasn’t typical action movie – it was something else entirely.
For the grand finale, Nolan chose to raise the stakes much much higher. He pulled away from the dark realism, and back into the realm of superhero fantasy. But he overshot the target. The very concept of Gotham city tuning to a self-contained enclave ruled by a warlord is laughable. The idea of trapping all of city policemen in the underground tunnels is incredibly silly. The final showdown between the freed policemen and armed mercenaries isn’t epic – it is just beyond silly.
Almost as silly as cat-woman’s flip up cat-ear googles. Almost as silly as Bane’s accent, which seems dubbed on (most likely because it is considering it had to be processed to sound this metallic).
Everything in this movie is just overblown to the point of being silly. This includes the final scene in which the neutron bomb detonates harmlessly a few miles off the shore without causing a massive tidal wave, causing radioactive fallout and poisoning the sea water around the city.
It’s like Nolan forgot about willing suspension of disbelief. There is only so much ridiculousness you can pile onto your move before the viewer’s brain just quits. It is all about framing – if you frame your universe as a fantastic, no-holds-barred place then you can get away with just about anything (like Joss Whedon did in Avengers). If your universe has been established as gritty, dark and realistic you have much less space to work with.
In Dark Knight Rises the silliness piles up until the breaking point. For me this breaking point occurred around the point when Bane trapped all of Gotham’s police underground, and then brought the nuclear physicist to the reactor room and told him to make Wayne’s magical fusion reactor into a super-bomb.
The chief theme in the movie is change. Bruce Wayne’s developmental arc has him stuck and unable to move on with his life at the beginning of the film. He hung up the cape, but he cannot stop being Batman. Wayne’s identity and self image is still wrapped up in that persona. He still yearns for justice and vengeance. He gave up on ever having normal life long time ago, and his failure save his girlfriend and prevent Harvey Den’t from becoming a monster only solidified his resolve. Batman doesn’t fear death – he welcomes it, he expects it. At some level Wayne seems to yearn for it.
This was always his strength – Batman could do things other men could not date because he had nothing to lose. He threw himself at danger with reckless abandon, refusing to give up but hoping against hope that one day he will be put out of his misery.
The encounter with Bane shows him that this attitude was also his greatest weakness. In the pit, Wayne learns about motivation. You fight harder if you have something to lose. If you do not fear death, if you accept it as inevitability then you are not motivated as much as someone who wants to live. In order to defeat Bane, Bruce has to finally see life past Batman. He has to find a reason to go on, not as a symbol, but as a person. And it is all the more tragic when he has to give up on that newly found dream and sacrifice himself to save the city.
Other characters have similar arcs – they all move past something. Albert quits his job as a butler and finds a new life after Bruce Wayne. Commissioner Gordon works his way through guilt and regret, and finds new calling when Batman is finally recognized as a hero. Officer whatshisface quits the force to become Robin. For cat woman, finding a new life away from her past is the central motivation.
This entire movie is a statement. Nolan is done with the Batman franchise. He has checked out. He said all there is to say. He is moving on to bigger and better projects.
The last scene of the movie is particularly telling. Albert catches a glimpse of Bruce Wayne at a restaurant and is gripped by powerful emotions: his former master is not only alive, but also seems to have moved on, and found a new life past Batman. To long time fans of the comics, this may come of as a betrayal. The quintessential character trait of Batman is precisely his inability to move on – his drive, determination, unquenchable thirst for vengeance, and the internal darkness. To cure him – to make him better seems line an affront an an antithesis to the very concept the hero was built on.
It would be much more poignant to leave him dead. Why does Nolan show him alive and happy? Make no mistake, this is not an opening for a sequel. This is a closing statement. He is clearly telling the viewers that Bruce Wayne no longer has any Batman in him… And neither does Christopher Nolan.