Villains, Violence, and “The Dark Knight Rises”

Posted: July 23, 2012 in Comics, Film
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My review  of The Dark Knight Rises (minor to moderate spoilers therein) is up over at Modern Primate.  Chris rightly held off on publishing it due to what happened in Aurora, but I did write it immediately after seeing the film on Friday and still feeling the initial shock of the whole situation.  I posted some thoughts on that and the inevitable, irresponsible media coverage in my last entry here.

So, I’m still thinking about those who died, were wounded, or lost loved ones, and I’m very unhappy with the way the media is turning the shooter into a role model for future spree murderers and seeking to profit off tragedy.  Despite all this, I do still want to discuss specifics about the film itself, as separate as possible from the killings.

Spoilers abound below the cut

My nutshell position in the Modern Primate review is:

The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy final chapter in the series that should please both casual fans and comics readers like myself. While I would argue it is the least successful of the three films . . . it is still extremely well-put together as we’ve come to expect from Nolan, and it ties up the trilogy neatly (but not too neatly).

As I walked out of the theater, I was very impressed overall, but I also knew right away that it did not surpass either The Dark Knight or Batman Begins.  Why?  Well, first, I doubt anyone would rate it above TDK, for obvious reasons.  But I still believe that Batman Begins is a better film than most people give it credit for; part of its lesser status is no doubt bound to Ledger’s performance in the second film and the difference in media (yes, the pervasiveness of the internet) when the two were released.  BB actually does a lot more with developing a believable Bruce/Batman and Batman mythos than does TDK, and the first film deserves a ton of respect because origin stories are very difficult to do well.  I rank both of the first two films about equally, for different reasons.  I’m willing to debate that if you are so inclined.

So, as with any film, there are various weaknesses in this (alleged) last chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and slashfilm has a nice little roundup of those, which I mostly agree with.  However, it is the next-to-last of their nitpicks that really gets at why TDKR is the weakest film in the series:

Most of the Hand-To-Hand Combat Is Terrible – Do you remember how in those old Asian martial arts movies, a group of baddies would attack the protagonist one at a time?  Do you remember how unintentionally comical that looked? That’s how I feel whenever Batman fights anyone in this film (exception: his fights with Bane, which I thought were appropriately raw and intense). For the most part, all the bad guys have guns and none of them use them. Each one just waits there turn to get their ass-kicked by Batman. Now I know why Nolan shoots all the action up-close and nearly indecipherable: because if you had a wide angle shot, seeing armed thugs stand idly by would look absolutely ridiculous.  (/film 4)

This is dead-on, especially given they excepted the fights with Bane.  The early fight with Bane where we get the Knightfall broken bat scene and the tossing of the cowl was incredibly well-done to the point it was hard to watch (this kind of violence borders on upping the rating from PG-13 to R, I’m guessing).  But too much of the action in the film is hand-to-hand and not very well executed/staged, which is just a part of a broader weakness in the film: the reliance on physicality rather than mental acuity on both good and bad sides.

The best villains in Batman comics are always those with clever deceptions and strategies for the hero to unravel–he is the world’s greatest detective, after all.  And we get a lot more of that in the first two films, from Crane/Scarecrow’s League of Shadows-backed poisoning of Gotham with crazy gas to Joker’s elaborate, chaotic bomb plots.  However, in the third installment we get a Batman who is more typically an action hero, slugging it out with bad guys a la the weaker Batman comics (obviously this is a pretty huge generalization, but it works for the bulk of the Batman canon I’ve read).  I’d place a lot of the responsibility for this squarely on having Bane as the primary antagonist, especially in the way he is written here.

Hardy’s Bane is a hulking presence and has a scary mask (which makes him hard to hear and sound a bit silly), and he proves physically superior to Bale’s Batman.  So what?  As I wrote in my review, “Bane’s degree of menace is too assumed . . . rather than proven by his actions.  He doesn’t exude danger the way Ledger’s Joker did.”  This I think gets at the heart of it, and it points to the film’s over-reliance on physicality.  While he is a cold killer, Bane’s go-to move is the absurd neck-twist-instant-death, which is lame and just reminds us he’s a big, strong guy.  Recall Joker making a pencil disappear?  Making Gamble’s henchmen fight with broken pool cues?  Scarecrow’s intimidation and gassing of Carmine Falcone?  There’s no comparison in my mind between those and what Bane does in terms of menace, and a talented filmmaker like Nolan should know that brute physicality isn’t enough for an engaging Batman villain.

But wait, there’s the awful “death versus exile” kangaroo court scenes, right?  Those are awfully menacing.  But they are presided over by Scarecrow and not directly attached to Bane (though he obviously has a hand in them happening); the real horror in them is that citizens seem to be going along with the process and buying into the notion of Bane’s henchmen as liberators who are leveling the economic playing field.

Even when it becomes clear that Bane is not the mastermind, and that a newly-revealed Talia al Ghul is actually behind the plot to destroy Gotham, it is a bit late and not enough to save the film from a lackluster antagonist.  Talia’s reveal is not all that well done (though I’m glad she shows up and think the League/Ra’s al Ghul storyline helped the film tremendously).  She isn’t particularly menacing either, which is one of those moments where I had to reflect on all the great female villains in comics compared to the lack of the same in comic films.  There’s a lot of sexism in comics, but they do often allow for powerful women characters in both the good and bad columns.   All-in-all, the lack of a villain who is strong beyond just being strong hurts TDKR and is the reason I’d rank it third despite liking it overall.

To reiterate, I think there’s a lot of things done very well in this film, and it is probably the strongest third installment in any comic book film trilogy.  But the choice of Bane was suspect from the moment it was announced, and fans’ concerns ended up being right for once.

That said, I’m kind of excited that it looks like there will be more to come in this well-developed Gotham (though, somewhat rhetorically, I have to ask, why’d they make Blake’s given name Robin instead of Dick?)

  1. Josh M says:

    I’m still processing the film (just saw it last night), but a lot of your commentary here jibes with my own immediate reactions. I’ll respond more in-depth when I’ve had more of a chance to reflect. I will say this — after watching “Returns” when it hit the theaters several years ago, I was ready to run back to the box office and get another ticket on the spot. I saw it in the theater twice, and would have been willing to go for a third round; it was, in my opinion, a perfectly Jacobean revenge play. I’m not sure I need to see “Rises” again before it hits video. Right now, I’m viewing it as an acceptable conclusion to the Nolan trilogy, but one that missed a lot of opportunities to really shine.

  2. sarahsss says:

    As usual, your criticisms smartly point out flaws I hadn’t thought of. For me, I’m even more intrigued/puzzled/irritated/flustered about the schizophrenic politics of the whole series, which rose to new heights in this (final?) installment. Hope to post my own soon and would love to hear thoughts.

  3. nightwork says:

    Looking forward to your take on it. I saw it a second time on Saturday and, time permitting, may follow up with some revisions to my initial responses.

    As for the politics of the whole trilogy, that’s a huge topic that is also embedded in a lot of questions about the politics of comic books. I may make some general claims, but I feel like doing a comprehensive analysis would be like writing another dissertation. For now, I’m just critical of how people are trying to frame/use this film to support their own politics, especially when taken as a single thing not enmeshed with other films and a ~75 year history of the main characters.