Bat-Mortem: The End Of Nolan's Trilogy, The Balls That Were Dropped And The Psychology Behind The Devotion
* I'll play this close to the vest, but If you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises and want to go in totally pure, maybe don't read this right now?
I liked The Dark Knight Rises. I didn't love The Dark Knight Rises. A cursory glance at Facebook says I'm in a very small club on that.
I'm not a huge fan of Batman Begins. Nolan did a lot of things right (Applied Sciences division, Batman is a ninja, Gary Oldman), but a lot of things didn't fly for me. See: The bat-growl, Katie Holmes, Nolan's inability to shoot a fight scene, Ra's al Ghul's dumb plan (which amounted to the League of Shadows destroying Gotham because they didn't like it, or something). I also have one other huge problem with the movie, which I'll get to in a bit.
I'm also in a very small minority of people who doesn't worship at the throne of The Dark Knight. Sometimes it's a very good movie, but it's never truly great. I don't buy Harvey Dent's turn to the dark side, the end is heavy-handed, there's a lot of bloat, and Rachel Dawes is less a character, and more a plot device. Yes, Heath Ledger is iconic, but the mystique of his performance and death did that film a very big favor.
Then, the final installment. Right off the bat (ha), The Dark Knight Rises starts on an absurd notion--that a city as corrupt as Gotham is crime-free for eight years because of some vague law. And Bruce Wayne as a mopey recluse?! Given the drive that they established for this character, the events at the end of the second film don't seem like enough to make him quit.
There are other problems. Bane's plan is dumb; it's an awful lot of effort to make Batman sad. The bat-growl is still ridiculous. There's still a lot of bloat (Matthew Modine, why were you in this movie?). The fight scenes are still incoherent. The movie reaches for a political statement that it never grasps. The ending is a cop out that jettisons theme and character arc in favor of crowd-pleasing nonsense.
Not to say I didn't enjoy it (crazy, right?). There were a lot of good things: Nolan built an incredible cast, and nobody disappoints. Despite the incoherence of the plan and the stupid countdown clock, I really enjoyed the siege of Gotham. Nolan has created a universe that feels oddly comfortable. I like that they played with the idea of Batman as a symbol. The first fight between Bane and Batman was delightfully brutal. Bane sounded like Sean Connery talking through a box fan, but coupled with his size and ferocity, there was a creepy cognitive dissonance to his voice. Anne Hathaway was great. And there was a cameo by Thomas Lennon!
So it wasn't a bad movie, but The Avengers still wins my vote as the best comic-to-film experience of this year. And I was a DC guy growing up. But as a longtime fan of Batman, I'm not satisfied. Nolan's trilogy was a better-than-average interpretation of the character, and miles better than the Schumacher debacle, but with two huge missteps that I can't get past.
Batman doesn't quit, doesn't kill
As the movie opens Batman is out of the game for eight years. Which is bullshit. My Batman, the one I know from the comics and the animated series and Dennis O'Neil's novelization of the Knightfall storyline (yes, I am a threat-level nerd) wouldn't quit. His drive is so intense that Bruce Wayne ceases to exist, except as a mask to facilitate Batman. To take eight whole years off doesn't sit right.
Within the realm of Nolan's trilogy, it doesn't even feel earned. Nolan is clearly playing with the psychological implications that drive Bruce Wayne to be Batman. So this whole "we told a lie and now we're sad" thing with him and Gordon doesn't feel organic. It's more a point of storytelling convenience.
The other thing, a problem created in Batman Begins that continues to bother me, is that Batman lets Ra's al Ghul die.
Batman doesn't kill, and he doesn't let people die. The Batman from the comics, from nearly any other piece of source material, would have saved Ra's. He would have paid for it down the line, but he would have done it. It's a quality written into his DNA. Batman has refused to kill the Joker a million times, even when any rational human being would consider it necessary. The Joker killed Jason Todd and paralyzed Barbara Gordon and committed so many other terrible acts that if Batman snapped his neck, we wouldn't really blame him for it.
But Batman has a code. And for a man who dresses up like a bat and jumps out of shadows and beats the shit out of people, for a man with that much darkness inside him, a code is important. It's not just something that keeps him human, it's something we, as the readers and viewers, can admire. Because the darkness doesn't win. There's a reason Batman is beloved and characters like The Punisher aren't.
So yes, one of the reasons I'm not gaga over Nolan's trilogy is because I feel like he dropped the ball on two major aspects of the character.
But, writing this and hashing out my feelings does bring up an interesting point, and I think it's one worth discussing: Is there such a thing as a correct interpretation?
Who has the best Batman?
We've established that Nolan's Batman isn't my Batman. But Bob Kane created Batman in 1939, which means nearly everyone alive has grown up with some iteration of the character. For someone who grew up during the 60s, maybe their ideal interpretation is the Adam West show, and they bemoan the loss of Shark Repellent Bat-Spray.
Who decides on the ultimate interpretation of a character with such rich and diverse source material? Batman is widely applauded and recognized for being anti-gun, but in his early adventures he carried a gun. If we equate true authenticity with character's roots, does that mean the most appropriate interpretation of Batman would have him carrying a gun?
Look at Superman. What's his most iconic ability? Certainly not his ability to throw a cellophane shield off his chest. It's his ability to fly. But Superman couldn't fly in his first appearance. He just jumped really, really high. So would a more legitimate interpretation of Superman involve him hopping around everywhere?
When there were rumors that the newest Spider-man movie would muck with Uncle Ben's death, I was very wary. That's a big risk (as it turns out, they didn't do anything drastic). But Spider-man isn't Spider-man unless Uncle Ben dies as a result of his inaction.
There are certain points that need to be hit to maintain the qualities that have made these characters so enduring. Superman isn't Superman unless he flies. Batman isn't Batman if he's letting people die.
At the same time, I would have loved to see Donald Glover cast as Spider-man, so I'm not a complete stickler for cannon. The reason for that is, Peter Parker being white has nothing to do with the character or his journey--the only requirement is that Peter Parker needs to be a kid who comes to learn that with great power comes great responsibility. If he's black or white or Asian, it's the message that matters.
Just like Batman's "no killing, never give up" quality matters to that character.
I thought maybe being a card-carrying comic nerd boxed me in on my expectations, but the more I think about it, the less I think that's true. The complaints I have about Nolan's trilogy are storytelling complaints--things that aren't earned within the world he created.
At the same time, there are spots where I'm willing to overlook the flaws, and give Nolan credit for committing to a vision of the character and using it to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Despite the crowd-pleasing stuff at the end, there is a feeling of completion to this story.
So, at the end of things, that's my ultimate assessment. They're good films, they're not great, and while they're an interesting take on the Batman mythos, and much better than previous takes, it still doesn't get all the way there for me.
And yet, I'm in a minority. Leading up to the film's release, it was amazing watching people talk on Facebook and Twitter like the release of The Dark Knight Rises was going to be some kind of landmark achievement in cinema. My eyes still hurt from rolling them so much. And I just don't get it.
What is it about these movies that's so appealing? Sure, Batman is a badass, and we all love a badass, but he's the 1 percent of heroes. He may not have any powers, but being a billionaire is essentially a superpower. Just like I can't be bitten by a radioactive spider and do anything other than probably die, I will never have enough money to buy a tank and paint it black and keep it in the cave under my mansion.
And yet, people treated these movies as something so intensely personal, to a point of fundamentalism. People were verbally harassing critics who dared to express lukewarm views on the movie. Some people made death threats. This is before these people even saw the film. Rotten Tomatoes had to shut down comments, because they didn't have the resources to moderate them.
I don't believe anyone was actually drafting a kill-list of internet critics, because anonymity makes people feel like they're wearing big-boy pants, but the discourse around this film got pretty scary.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about fan ownership, in relation to George R.R. Martin. I believe a lot of people feel a level of ownership over his characters, and that's why they get so pissed off about having to wait between books. I think people feel ownership over Batman, too. But the vitriol on display when the reviews started rolling out went deeper than that.
Batman was created when Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered in front of him, so maybe there's something to be said about empathy. Many of us have experienced loss. Maybe not on that scale, but everyone feels powerless at some point, and the feeling can go a very long way toward shaping our views. Batman is the ultimate response to that feeling of powerlessness. But it's more than that, I think.
Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest has taken a huge amount of flack, both before and after his review of the film. He's also an authority on film and comics, so I asked him about what it is that inspires this kind of crazy passion:
Comic books and comic book characters have historically been children's entertainment. For fans this is frustrating, because since the 1980s we have seen very mature, very smart takes on the medium and on established characters. Nolan's films are seen as 'serious' takes on the Batman character, and they tend to be respected by the larger establishment in a way that THE AVENGERS or SPIDER-MAN are not. As a result, the hardcore fan's self-worth gets wrapped up in the thing - 'Here is a property that validates my enthusiasm for these characters/comics/sorts of movies, and any assault on that - however slight - is an assault on me personally. By saying THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn't that good you're saying I'M not that good.'
We are, after all, defined by the things we like. At least, that's how we like to define ourselves. Otherwise we wouldn't spend so much time curating our Facebook profiles.
One of the greatest things about being a fan of something is sharing that feeling with other people. When that happens, you are validated--the thing you like is liked by other people, so it must be good. That's especially true with comic book fans. When I was a kid, my comic book collection didn't win me friends. So when I met someone who also read comics, it was exciting. And it was also disappointing when said person didn't like the same comics I did.
It's natural to want to defend the things we love, and to put on our armor when those things are attacked.
Equally important, something I think earned the film way more credit than it deserved (which Devin also alluded to), is the fact that these films took a character considered to be in the realm of children and gritted it up for an adult audience.
Gritty doesn't equal good
Let's talk about the Harry Potter books for a hot second. As they progressed, people would praise them because they were getting so much more dark and gritty. I heard this all the time. But just because something's dark and gritty doesn't mean it's good, right? Prometheus is a dark and gritty movie. It's also terrible. The Avengers, meanwhile, is the antithesis of the "dark and gritty" ideal--and it was fantastic.
Still, many people seem to equate gritty to good. That something needs to be dark so that we can enjoy it and still feel like fancy adults.
Batman has never seen this realistic a take in film. The Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series (for my money, the quintessential take on Batman), while dark at times, was still a cartoon. The Schumacher movies were a neon disco fever dream, carrying zero thematic weight, impossible to be taken seriously.
But Nolan's films touches on politics and psychology and philosophy. The cast has something like 900 Oscars between them. Everyone is very serious all the time. The ideas on display are more complex than good versus evil. (Those are all good things, but it also, at times, made the movies feel self-important and confused about their own themes.)
These films are not just a reflection on us and our own self-worth, but they're something we've earned, something that we're allowed to enjoy because they're "for adults".
For a generation living in a state of arrested development, this is an exciting proposition. Most of us probably met Batman as kids, and through these movies, we can hold tight to him without feeling immature, like we're giving too much weight to childish things.
Which is fine. It's nice to see Batman treated seriously. But when it comes to comic books on film, I am totally in the tank for Marvel right now, and not very interested in anything DC has coming up.
Although, actually, that Superman trailer does look kinda cool...
What do you think?
Let's discuss. Tell us what you thought of The Dark Knight Rises. What are your thoughts on Nolan's trilogy, and his interpretation of Batman?
And what do you make of the fervor surrounding these movies, and the idea of validation?
* I'm hesitant to include this note, but I feel like it'll save us a lot of frustration: The shooting in Aurora, while tragic, has nothing to do with a critical discussion of the film and the trilogy. Let's save that discussion for a more appropriate venue.
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