The Ever Risable Dark Knight
In the set piece that opens The Dark Knight Rises, a CIA operative screams at three hooded captives, “The flight plan I just filed with the Agency lists me, my men, Dr. Pavel here, but only one—of you!” He then starts pretending to toss them out of his airplane, only to be interrupted by the masked terrorist Bane, who has seen through his deceit (“Perhaps he’s wondering why someone would shoot a man … before throwing him out of a plane!”). Menacing banter ensues, after which Bane gains control of the aircraft and prepares to crash it. Grabbing Dr. Pavel, he commands an underling to remain on board, because “they expect one of us in the wreckage, brother!”
This is the kind of exchange Christopher Nolan thinks clever, when really it makes no sense. The plane was riddled with bullets, its wings torn away, its tail end blown off by explosives. Obviously somebody attacked it—so who cares if the bodies in the wreckage match the flight plan? What’s more, the CIA man wasn’t telling the truth about throwing them out—Bane even commented on that—so why trust his line about the flight plan?
These might seem like nitpicking, geeky griping over plot holes. But this exchange illustrates so much of what’s so wrong with Nolan’s movies.
For one thing, his characters never shut up.
Christopher Nolan still believes that the best way, if not the only way, to communicate information in a film is through dialogue. In The Dark Knight Rises, just like in Inception, just like in Batman Begins, just like in Memento, the characters talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, to the point of over-narration.
Here’s but one example. We cut from Bane’s introduction to a Harvey Dent Day celebration at Wayne Manor. The Mayor, giving his speech, says:
I want to thank the Wayne Foundation for hosting this event. I’m told Mr. Wayne couldn’t be here tonight. I’m sure he’s with us in spirit.
After that we cut to two minor characters, acting as a temporary Greek chorus:
Congressman: “Have you ever laid eyes on Wayne at one of these events?”
Deputy Commissioner Foley: “No one has. Not in years.”
You might think this particular plot point now established (“Bruce Wayne no longer gets out much”), but some don’t trust elected government officials. So next we cut inside, to a trio of maids:
Maid 1: “Did you see the guy who owns the house?”
Maid 2: “No, no, I heard he never leaves the East Wing.”
Maid 1: “You know, I heard he had an accident. Yeah, that he’s disfigured.”
Fans of Downton Abbey are now up to speed. But still this is not enough for Nolan. So next we we cut to Michael Caine, playing Alfred, and explaining to Marion Cotillard:
“I’m sorry, Miss Tate, I tried, but he won’t see you.”
They’re interrupted by the nefarious John Daggett:
“You know, you mustn’t take it personally. Everyone knows that Wayne’s holed up in there with eight-inch nails, peeing into Mason jars.”
That makes four exchanges, across four scenes, dedicated to establishing a single piece of exposition—and one that’s soon moot, since twenty minutes later, Bruce Wayne rejoins society, and then resumes being the Batman. (In other words, this movie is not about his seclusion.) But only now is Nolan apparently satisfied, and willing to move on to … delivering other exposition.
Lest you think this entire post will be nothing but me ragging on Christopher Nolan, I’m happy to admit that there were moments in this new movie that I admired. For instance, I enjoyed when Selina Kyle, posing as one of those maids, revealed herself to be Catwoman—kicking the crutch out from under Bruce Wayne, backflipping out the window. Moments like that really stood out in the flood of redundant verbosity.
After catching The Dark Knight Rises in a North Philly cineplex, I downloaded a cam version, which I watched a few times through, but mostly listened to. Because I found it possible—easy, even—to follow the film just by listening to it on headphones.
So I commend Mr. Nolan for making a film for the blind. But at the same time, if you’re going to write what amounts to a glorified radio play, where the image track is at best redundant reinforcement, shouldn’t you take pains to ensure that the dialogue isn’t, well, totally fucking awful? Here’s Alfred, telling Bruce Wayne a tidbit about Bane:
“‘E’s a mercenary. No other known names. ‘Im ‘en ‘is men were behin’ a coup in Wes’ Africa!”
Which narrows it down to somewhere roundabout here:
And here’s some crack banter between the hyper-educated and cosmopolitan antagonist and protagonist:
Bane: “So you came back to die with your city?”
Batman: “No. I came here to stop you.”
Both men having been trained by the League of Shadows, they prize indirection and deception.
We’re subjected to so much talk in this film, and so much amounts to filler—syllables intended, perhaps, to compete with the audience’s cell phone chatter?
A federal soldier captain of some kind sneaks into Gotham, despite Bane having cut it off from the rest of the States. He meets and talks with Commissioner Gordon, who tells him to talk with the cop John Blake, who tells him to talk with Miranda Tate and Lucius Fox. Talk they certainly do:
Fox: “It was built as a fusion reactor, the first of its kind. Bane turned the core into a bomb and removed it from the reactor.”
Blake: “There’s the important part.”
Fox: “As the device’s fuel cells deteriorate, it becomes increasingly unstable, to the point of detonation.”
Blake: “This bomb is a time bomb.”
Fox: “And it will go off in 23 days, regardless of Bane’s revolution, or what we and the outside world choose to do.”
Blake: “So your appeasement plan may not be as practical as you thought.”
What makes this awkward exchange even more insufferable is that it—as well as the entire subplot involving the anonymous ninja captain—doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Dr. Pavel already explained all of this to Bane and Fox and Tate—and therefore us:
Dr. Pavel: “It’s done! It is now a four megaton nuclear bomb!”
Bane: “Pull the core out of the reactor.”
Dr. Pavel: “No! You cannot! This is the only power source capable of sustaining it. If you move it, the core will decay in a matter of months!”
Bane: “Five, by my calculations.”
Dr. Pavel: “No! It will go off!”
Bane: “As you say to your children, Dr. Pavel: ‘Indeed, I hope it does!'”
So what’s the point of repeating this information, 30 minutes later? (Was Nolan worried we’d forget?) Frustrating things further is the fact that the captain and his men get gunned down in the very next scene; there’s no payoff to their subplot, and no purpose.
The central problem, as I think all of the above examples illustrate, is that Nolan doesn’t write dramatic dialogue so much as he writes little lines, factoids and witticisms that he wants to pass on to his viewers. He types them up and distributes them, seemingly at random, to his characters. The most important points he makes sure get repeated lots of times. Bruce Wayne is a recluse! This bomb is a time bomb!
And yet he still finds other ways to clumsily overwrite. Close to the movie’s end, we watch Officer John Blake throw away his badge. That shot, coupled with his later spelunking in the Batcave, should be enough—if the director credited us with any intelligence—for us to understand John Blake’s new life pursuit.
But Nolan doesn’t trust communicating information visually. So one scene later, Commissioner Gordon asks Blake: “Can I change your mind about quitting the force?”
Even here, “Can I change your mind?” would do perfectly fine, but someone in the audience might have been digging around in the depths of a popcorn bag, and not know what’s up. Remember, those of you who think these movies sophisticated: Nolan makes his pictures for Popcorn Guy.
One more example of just how badly written this stuff is. (There are just so many to choose from!) The mighty Bane detonates his secret concrete explosives, trapping every frigging member of Gotham City’s strangely all-white, all-male police force underground:
This prompts Matthew Modine to shout, in consternated fashion (his brow furrows alarmedly), into his walkie-talkie:
“Jesus, Blake! Every cop in the city is down in those tunnels!”
Now, you know how sometimes, you’ll be listening to a pop song, and the lyrics set up a wholly cliched rhyme, leading you to mentally intone the rhyme’s completion moments before the singer sings it?
Office John Blake: “Not every cop.”
Mercifully, the next minute of the film is (mostly) dialogue-free.
Dialogue’s hardly a bad thing; it’s just a tool. Among the services it can provide is to establish that different characters have different personalities. Don Quixote speaks differently than Sancho Panza. The Beast speaks differently than Cyclops, who speaks differently than Wolverine.
Nolan pulled this off relatively well in The Dark Knight (which was in every way a better movie than Rises). There, Heath Ledger’s Joker uttered lines that we couldn’t imagine coming out of the mouth of Harvey Dent, or Rachel Dawes:
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just … do things.”
In Rises, however, with the sole exception of Bane, and sometimes Selina Kyle, the characters all sound much the same. (Not coincidentally, Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway are the only two actors who don’t look constipated.) Bruce Wayne, Batman, John Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox, Talia al Ghul, Alfred, and others—they all walk around, grim and sober, expositing and pontificating, occasionally mouthing faux-poesy (which makes them sound like they’re auditioning for The Tree of Life).
Bruce Wayne: “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
This tonal similarity is most apparent when characters engage in what I’ll call “the Hive Mind.” Frequently in Christopher Nolan’s films, characters collectively seize upon a word or an expression, and start repeating it. The most obvious instance in Rises is the word “rise”:
- Bane tells his henchman, early on, “The fire rises.”
- Commissioner Gordon, delirious in his hospital bed, whispers at Bruce, “Now there is evil … rising … from where we tried to bury it.”
- Alfred, having somehow done some research about Bane, informs Bruce Wayne: “There is a prison in a more ancient part of the world, a pit where men are thrown to suffer and die. But sometimes a man rises from the darkness. Sometimes the pit sends something back.” (Did he compare notes with Commissioner Gordon?)
- Bruce Wayne himself gets thrown in that prison, where his fellow inmates chant, “OshKosh B’gosh.” Which another inmate translates for us as … “Rise!” (Did Bane coach them? This is getting pretty silly.)
- Commissioner Gordon, delivering Bruce Wayne’s eulogy, reads from A Tale of Two Cities: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people … rising from this abyss.” (Yes, he even pauses for emphasis!)
What the Dickens?
One often hears Nolan’s take on the Batman “realistic.” Me, I find it incessantly contrived.
In Batman Begins, you’ll recall, characters endlessly intoned, “Why do we fall?” This was no less cloying, but at least it made sense as some kind of Wayne family catchphrase. Here, I can’t fathom how or why all these folks started speaking with such restricted vocabularies.
But Nolan loves contrivance, and authorial intrusion. Once again: the easiest way to do something in a movie is to just have some character declare it.
What does Nolan think the repetition of “rise” is accomplishing here? OK, he’s bridging Batman Begins with Rises, making some artistic hay out of rising and falling. (When Bruce Wayne falls while attempting the climb out of the prison, Nolan actually cuts to the shot of his father descending on a rope, intoning, “Why do we fall?”)
Why do we fall? Why, to establish a theme! A paltry, heavy-handed theme, to be sure—but a theme. Ten points for artistic vision and coherence!
But the execution is so god-awful clumsy. And it brings with it real costs. For starters, Nolan sacrifices verisimilitude. The exact repetitions in language make it harder for us to believe that Bane, Gordon, and Alfred have separate minds, let alone minds separate from Nolan’s.
Mayhap it’s the Gotham City zeitgeist?
Here’s another anti-mimetic, action movie contrivance: the preponderance of weak one-liners. (I should stress that I myself don’t consider mimesis necessarily any better than its opposite. But it has been my understanding that part of what makes Nolan’s take on Batman so brilliant, supposedly, is how much it differs from past adaptations, and other Hollywood superhero pictures. Being grim and gritty and post-9/11 and adult—this is what I have heard.)
Back to one-liners. In Die Hard, crack wise was what John McClane did; it was how he handled the stress of his extremely stressful situation. His quips were pure comic relief, yes, but they also did other work (“establishing character”), and they mostly worked because they never felt obligatory. In The Dark Knight Rises, however, everyone’s a comic:
- Kyle: “I like having someone around who can open doors for me.”
- Kyle: “Keep some pressure on that, sweetheart.”
- Foley: “Then he’s as dumb as he dresses.” (?)
- Foley: “Like a rat in a trap, gentlemen!”
- Anonymous Cop: “You might have the wrong animal there, sir!”
- Blake [after Batman escapes]: “You sure it was him?”
- Kyle: “Be careful what you wish for.”
- Kyle: “Cat got your tongue?”
- Kyle: “Where’s the fun in that?”
- Kyle: “My mother warned me about getting into cars with strange men.”
- Batman: “This isn’t a car.”
- Batman: “So that’s what that feels like.”
- Bruce Wayne: “I hope you didn’t like me for my money!”
- Blake: “Not every cop!”
- Kyle: “About the whole no guns thing. I don’t know if I feel as strongly about it as you do.”
- Fox: “Nothing like a little air superiority.”
Now, I can buy Selina Kyle making jokes; there’s a long tradition of Catwoman prefurring to play with her words:
But what about the rest? For instance, what do we make of Lucius Fox’s limp quip, made when he takes Miranda Tate to see the fusion reactor:
“Please keep hands and feet inside the car at all times.”
In my version of the movie, this stale joke prompts Ms. Tate to turn to Fox, one eyebrow raised, as she rapidly reevaluates her business rival’s IQ.
And how, pray tell, does the presence of these stupid jokes distinguish Nolan’s film from, say, Batman & Robin?
Or do we not even notice such formulaic witticisms any more? Do they just wash past us?
The best-written Batman film, at least in terms of dialogue, remains Batman Returns; none of the others come close to matching the delight it takes in language:
But in Nolan’s hands, dialogue becomes a thing reduced, predictable. When his actors open their mouths, it’s to do only one of two things: relate a burst of exposition, or make a joke.
The exposition often proves as extraneous as the jokes; sometimes a character actually describes exactly what the camera is pointing at. And so, for instance, we see the nuclear bomb-thing-device explode out over Gotham Bay, then cut to some military schlub who excitedly cries: “That’s detonation!”
At other times, we instead get inserted footage, depicting what a character is saying. This footage is usually unnecessary, if not downright insulting.
Thus, in the prison, Bane makes sure that Bruce Wayne is put into a cell with Knowledgeable Doctor Who Conveniently Speaks English & Sets Broken Backs. That character at once starts serving his function, punching Wayne in the back while cluing all of us in. “A child made the climb,” he solemnly declares. As he does so, we cut to: a child making the climb.
Here’s an even cruder (!) example. Alfred tells Bruce Wayne about a fantasy of his, of running into his master at a Florentine café. This dream meant so much to him that he made a short film to illustrate it. Nolan politely included Alfred’s film. [Cue footage of Caine sitting down at a table on a generically European set.]
That was very nice of Nolan, but I want to argue that it’s totally wrong for the movie to show us that footage. At least in the prison, the focus of the scene is purely expository—it’s establishing that “a child made the climb,” which helps us believe that Bruce Wayne himself can do it, as well as set up the later Bane/Talia fake-out. (Said fake-out is far from crucial, but whatever; it provides some mild entertainment.)
But in the Florence Fantasy Exposition Scene, the primary focus is Michael Caine’s performance—Alfred’s teary-eyed distress. Michael Caine is called upon to cry in damn near every scene in this movie, but he’s such a great actor, he pulls it off. (Indeed, I’d pick Alfred as the richest character, psychologically speaking, in the whole thing—too bad he disappears halfway through.) Convince is what Michael Caine does, and that’s why one hires him. So why cut away from his tears?
What’s more, wouldn’t it make the ultimate reunion that much more powerful if it were the first time we saw the café? Wouldn’t it feel more spontaneous? As it stands now, I’ve seen some fans and critics take issue with the ending, disbelieving that Bruce Wayne would know which café to go find Alfred in. (Stock answer: “He’s Batman.”) Our seeing what amounts to the same footage twice heightens this sense of coincidence, and disrupts plausibility.
But that’s Christopher Nolan for you: contrive, intrude. Communicate it in dialogue. And if a character says something, cut to it, show it!
Permit me but one more example of this tendency. Batman pauses to talk with Commissioner Gordon, despite having in his possession a nuclear bomb with roughly one minute on its timer, and therefore in desperate need of disposal:
Batman: “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” [Departs.]
[Cue inserted footage—a clip from Batman Begins—of Commissioner Gordon placing his coat around young Bruce Wayne’s shoulders.]
Commissioner Gordon [finally getting a clue]: “Bruce Wayne?”
Good thing Gordon only ever put his coat around one little boy’s shoulders!
You know, the first time that I saw this movie, I didn’t understand why Matthew Modine and all the other cops suddenly hated Gordon. But by the end I understood: he’s the only guy in Gotham who couldn’t figure that Bruce Wayne was the Batman.
… Actually, our Temporary Chorus explains this reversal of fortune, early on, at the Harvey Dent party. Commissioner Gordon chats with the two men, then walks off, prompting this discussion:
Congressman: “Didn’t anyone show him the crime stats?”
Deputy Commissioner Foley: “He goes by his gut. And it continues to bother him no matter what the numbers.”
Congressman: “Must be popular with his wife.”
Foley: “Not really. She took the kids and left for Cleveland.”
Congressman: “They’ll have plenty of time for visits. The mayor’s going to dump him next spring.”
Congressman: “Mm hmm.”
Foley: “But he’s a hero.”
Congressman: “A war hero. This is peace time.”
This peace/war distinction proves a minor theme, which the Hive Mind later regurgitates:
Blake: “When you and Dent cleaned up the streets, you cleaned them good. Pretty soon we’ll be chasing down, um, overdue library books.”
Blake: “And yet, here you are, like we’re still at war.”
And then later the war becomes a storm, and then … well, the theme peters out. Guess Nolan couldn’t think of any more lines surrounding this one.
Perhaps this relentless overemphasizing is needed because the whole movie is so overstuffed? For one thing—and as many others have observed—why is Matthew Modine even in this thing? Why do we have to watch scenes in which he loses his nerve, then argues with Commissioner Gordon about said lost nerve, then ultimately puts back on his parade uniform only to get run over by a Tumbler? Why do we need the inclusion of this short film, “The Fear and Eventual Redemption of Matthew Modine”? I came to see a Batman movie, dammit!
In the last one, The Dark Knight, you’ll recall there was that business about some Wayne Enterprises employee who figured out that his boss was Batman. That, too, was similarly unnecessary in a similarly overlong movie, but at least there, Nolan got that fun scene with Lucius Fox out of it:
And, later, when the employee went on TV, Nolan was able to tie it back into the larger plot, by having the Joker call in and threaten to blow up a hospital unless someone shot the guy dead.
All narratives are arbitrary and “unnecessary,” binding together different bits of disparate material. What prevents them from feeling that way (arbitrary, unnecessary) is the synergistic connections authors. For instance, using the employee inadvertently become part of the Joker’s schemes. Or how his name, “Mr. Reese,” hints toward him later becoming the Riddler. That’s cute; that helps justify things.
Less luck in Rises.
But it’s not all awful. Nolan does certain things well, and although I may seem like a total hater, I’d rather give credit where credit is due.
The film critic David Bordwell recently posted some speculation about what Nolan’s artistic innovations might be. He examined the man’s whole film career, and found some parts worth admiration; in particular, he noted how Nolan’s professed interest in subjectivity has led him to make minor innovations in narrative structure, especially in Following, Memento, The Prestige, and Inception.
Fair enough. But what if we focus on just the Batman movies? Because they are, in contrast, relatively straightforward omniscient narratives. So what is Nolan’s accomplishment there?
I think there’s a very clear answer: the real significance of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has been to bring a very particular aesthetic to the Batman franchise.
Now, of course, other directors have put their stamp on that material. Tim Burton, aided by production designer Anton Furst, brought to Batman and Batman Returns his Art Deco-by-way-of-Edward Gorey design. Joel Schumacher subsequently reinvented the franchise as something much kitschier and campier (and homoerotic).
What distinguishes Nolan’s vision is that it is, perhaps, less intuitive than his predecessors’. Burton’s and Schumacher’s takes, as idiosyncratic as they were, remained “comic-booky.” But Nolan’s hasn’t been—indeed, at its most successful, it’s been the opposite of what we find in most superhero comics: namely, practical and mundane.
At first I thought it a failure of the imagination that Nolan’s Gotham looked so identical with Chicago and Pittsburgh (the cities where he filmed); now I realize that this was precisely what Nolan wanted. (He went so far as to secure the actual Pittsburgh Steelers as Gotham’s football team.) Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise has been, somewhat perversely, to defamiliarize it by debasing it, by removing it from it its fantastical or supernatural trappings, situating it in our plausible, everyday reality. Hence his elimination of Bane’s Venom drug, his refusal to call Selina Kyle Catwoman, his emphasis on the physical toll being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne (prompting the character’s eventual need, much unlike the comic-book version, for retirement).
All of this is palpable and good; there’s a lot that feels fresh in Nolan’s “down-to-earth” versions of characters like Scarecrow and the Joker. (Nolan wisely borrowed much from Frank Miller’s 1980s Batman comics, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One—perhaps too much. I suspect the reason why he included Matthew Modine was because he felt the need to somehow include Commissioner Yindel.)
But, here, too, I find problems. Already I’ve discussed at length how Nolan’s use of language is entirely contrived and overdone, disrupting any sense of verisimilitude. Its anti-mimetic nature spars with Nolan’s inspired concepts and designs. Why spend so much energy reinventing the stuff if you won’t let it really change the story you’re going to tell, or how you will tell it?
Furthermore, of our three most recent Batman live-action directors, Nolan strikes me as having the least to say about the real world.
For starters, there’s his (mis-)use of politics. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and his colleagues at MUBI have argued, the best one can say here is that Nolan seems very confused:
The Dark Knight Rises is even more self-contradictory. The images of this film are constantly cancelling each other out. There is Bane’s attack on the stock exchange, while plays out as an Occupy-era revenge fantasy—and yet, of course, Bane is the bad guy. Group solidarity is celebrated (the marching policemen, for example) and many jabs are taken at wealth and business, yet the hero is a lone billionaire. Batman operates outside the law, yet law enforcement is fetishized. Scarecrow’s revolutionary court is presented as a sort of nightmare—yet it rightly convicts a slimy villain. You have the suggestion (which I actually think is a smart move on Nolan’s part) that The Dark Knight‘s “print the legend” ending was a bad idea—and yet when the Joseph Gordon Levitt character essentially repeats the same “lie to give them hope” move late in the film (to a busload of orphans, no less!), it’s presented as the right thing to do. Every image seems charged for maximum political impact—with references to the images and words of the French Revolution, fascist Italy, the Bush administration, the War on Terror, the Occupy movement—but there is nothing like a coherent ideology. Nolan strikes me as either apathetic—using whatever ideology fits for any given scene—or politically schizophrenic.
David Bordwell also criticizes this tendency (in that blog post I already linked to), noting how, in Hollywood films, “Thematic murkiness and confusion are the norm, and the movie’s inconsistencies may reflect nothing more than the makers’ adroit scavenging.”
Something more ominous can be said regarding his treatment of female characters. It’s apparent by now that one of Nolan’s favorite plot devices is fridging, or murdering his male protagonists’ lovers in order to spark them into action. To date we’ve been given:
- Leonard’s Wife in Memento (she didn’t even get a name, although she also turned out to be imaginary);
- Sammy’s Wife in Memento (also perhaps imaginary? but mentioned);
- Angier’s wife Julia in The Prestige;
- Harvey Dent’s fiance Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight (who was also Bruce Wayne’s ex);
- Cobb’s wife Mal in
- And now the unnamed mother of Talia in The Dark Knight Rises (who was also mentioned in passing by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins).
This actually comes to the fore in The Dark Knight Rises, like the return of the repressed: Bruce Wayne’s conflict with Alfred reaches its breaking point when Alfred reveals having burnt Rachel Dawes’s letter, in which she revealed her plan to marry Harvey Dent. “How dare you use Rachel,” Bruce Wayne whispers, “to try to stop me.”
Silly Alfred. In the Nolanverse, dead women never stop men. They die to get men going.
Me, I find this, uh, sickeningly cavalier attitude toward women far more upsetting than any indifference toward politics. (And is this, too, part of Nolan’s realist agenda?)
So why make a Batman movie that looks, on the one hand, a whole lot like the real world, but then turns out to be such a shallow reflection of it? Is this a sign of some fundamental immaturity in Nolan? Yes, I think it most certainly is. But does that therefore preclude there being any artistry in his films?
Well, allow me to put it this way. I think the best thing you can say about Nolan is that he truly loves his aesthetic. Every inch of his Batman productions is obviously labored over, and no less fetishized than Burton and Furst’s cramped, claustrophobic Gotham—
—or Schumacher’s fascination with idealized human forms:
Just like those two directors, Christopher Nolan is absolutely terrific at production design. In fact, rather like Burton and Schumacher, he strikes me as being obsessed with designing a memorably stylized world, but then having no idea, really, to do with it—being unable for the life of him use it to tell a story that’s equally well thought out.
For instance, Tom Hardy’s Bane is delightful, a clever take on the genteel villain archetype, not to mention some bizarre amalgamation of Yoda and Darth Vader. It’s no surprise that he’s proven such an immediate hit:
Bane encapsulates Nolan’s best skills as a director:
- Obsessing over production details like costuming, and
- Casting great actors, then prompting stellar line readings from them (unlike another stand-around-and talk director I could mention).
Bane’s at his best when Tom Hardy struts around, saying ominously polite things. He’s at his worst when he’s forced to take a backseat to the contrivances of the plot. I suspect that what so many have found unsatisfying about his death is not the fact that he gets shot—that’s Nolan’s desire to debase the material—but rather the way in which he becomes Just Another Villain toward the end, with little to do but talk long enough to give Selina Kyle enough time to ride up.
Though he does sound great talking. And the sound design has been aces all throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. When I think of Nolan’s Batman, I’ll think first and foremost of the noise that the Tumbler’s tires made when they skittered. (And I myself actually like Bale’s Batman Voice. It’s goofy, sure, but it’s also odd and menacing—and goofy and odd and menacing is Batman in a nutshell.)
Was there anything else that I liked? Sure. The shot of all those police cars chasing Batman through the streets at night sure was pretty, and reminiscent of one of the best moments in The Dark Knight:
… that having been one of the few “extraneous” shots in any of these films, included purely for its own pleasure. (More on this in a moment.)
I also liked the sequence where Batman followed Selina Kyle down into the tunnels, looking for Bane. For once, Nolan told the story visually, rather than verbally. And the last few minutes of the film also worked—mostly worked—along those same lines.
If Nolan can continue finding ways to cinematically unite and present what’s best in his design, I might eventually end up liking some of his movies.
But here, once again, we are left with bat-paradoxes, and bat-contradictions. Does Nolan really want us to admire his movie’s productions? It doesn’t seem that way, given the way he shoots and edits them.
Many critics have spent the past two years detailing how incoherent Nolan’s style renders his films. For but a few examples, see:
- Jim Emerson on spatial and temporal incoherence in The Dark Knight;
- David Bordwell on Nolan’s rote use of contemporary film style;
- and myself of that very same issue, as well as on Nolan’s lack of stylistic economy in Inception (here, here, here, and here).
These critiques are no less valid regarding Dark Knight Rises. It’s possible that the spatial coherence has gotten better—perhaps—but the film still remains a total mess. Scenes pile up upon scenes without any real logical or formal motivation. Even people who don’t know much about film art can sense this; they articulate it in complaints like, “the whole thing feels overlong,” or “the first 40 minutes are laborious.” Viewers have also commented on the movie’s temporal slipperiness:
- How/why does Bane go from Gotham to the prison, then back to Gotham?
- How does Bruce Wayne sneak back into Gotham without any money or papers or equipment?
- How does Batman have time to make a giant flaming bat signal on a bridge?
At least in Inception, one could kinda-sorta justify the temporal confusion, and the way scenes piled up. Nolan included, you’ll recall, that bit in the street-side café, which we cut to without the benefit of a transition, and where Cobb points out to Ariadne that they’re dreaming. He notes that, in dreams, you just appear somewhere, never remembering how you got there. And so the lack of transitions made a certain sense in that film, the whole thing being, I imagine, a dream of Cobb’s.
But The Dark Knight Rises finds Nolan doing the exact same thing, smashing scenes together by means of just sound bridges. So I guess this is something he just does, regardless of the movie? Because it’s just another maneuver in his formulaic approach?
All of this is to argue that even if there are winning aspects of Nolan’s aesthetic, his ability to direct is contradictory, even self-defeating. For instance, if his whole goal with Batman was to get away from the “comic booky,” from fantastical serial melodrama, then why does this movie end like it does, with Batman racing against a timer on a bomb? (A humongous four megaton nuclear bomb, at that.) Because as Sight & Sound critic Kim Newman notes, that’s almost exactly the same way the 1966 movie version ended:
Whither realism? (The two films even share a “Batman may have exploded” fake-out. Holy heart failure!) What’s more, man vs. bomb is the same way the much more cartoonish The Avengers also ended—is this now the only way that Hollywood movies can end? (Is this how The Hobbit will end?)
And even then, when everyone was dashing after the bomb, they still wouldn’t shut up. Just like in The Dark Knight, Morgan Freeman kept staring at some magical screen, and shouting instructions to Bruce Wayne. Whatever he mercifully left unsaid got said by Talia al Ghul. After Commissioner Gordon’s device prevents her from triggering the bomb, she sneeringly tells Bruce Wayne, “No matter—he’s bought Gotham eleven minutes.” This prompts a cut to the digital readout, displaying 11:35.
Two minutes and ten seconds later, we catch a glimpse of the timer, now at 11:07 (movie magic!). Talia, pulling up alongside the truck, solemnly announces, “Eleven.”
How on earth does she know this? Did she download an app for her iPhone?
Then, later, seated in the bomb truck, she picks up a phone and declares, “They’re pushing us to the entrance of the reactor! They’re going to try to reconnect the core!” Who on earth is she speaking to?
I know exactly who it is. Just like Guy Pearce’s character Leonard in Memento, sitting alone in his hotel room, talking so urgently over the telephone—Talia al Ghul is speaking to the audience.
Ultimately, Nolan’s take on the source material isn’t epic, and it isn’t realistic. It is hackneyed and formulaic, and while it contains moments of cleverness—indeed, brilliance—it lacks any overall mastery.
But what I find worst about it, and all the man’s movies so far, is how perfunctory they are. His flicks are narrow and obsessive and little fun.
Just the other day I watched Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating, an movie that’s unfortunately obscure. Despite its modest means, it’s extraordinarily broad in its techniques, and in its understanding of what language and writing can do. It should—one of its primary influences is Lewis Carroll.
Another influence was the French silent serial Les Vampires (1915–6), which formed part of the pulp-primordial soup from which Batman later evolved. Indeed, there’s a scene where Celine and Julie dress up in matching black catsuits, in order to sneak into a library:
So there’s one reason to watch Celine and Julie, Batman fans (as well as Les Vampires, which you can watch online here.) (Many French filmmakers have paid tributes to Les Vampires. The best known is probably Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996) which very cleverly comments on Batman Returns. Pop culture is endlessly self-referential.)
As for Celine and Julie, and its language: its characters exchange bits of exposition, it is true, and they also crack wise at times, c’est vrais. But they also flirt, and lie, and ask strange questions that lack easy answers, and play with language in a multitude of ways, and also set aside time for just plain acting silly.
For instance, that catsuited raid on the library. And another: late in the film, they use the books that they’ve
stolen borrowed to brew a magic potion (yes!). And although this is a pretty climactic moment—Celine and Julie are preparing for what amounts to a final assault on their enemies’ mansion—the film chooses not to hurry, preferring to observe the two women getting drunk on their concoction, and sitting around in their matching white bathrooms, goofing off, enjoying one another’s company. They even pause to feed some of the potion to their pet fish, Harold, then watch how he reacts. The whole bit has the feeling of having been made up on the spot:
Because there’s no rush. Instead, Rivette—a true artist, who always appears to have an easy command of his craft—provides time for observation, and digression, and spontaneity.
Why so serious, Mr. Nolan?
So the grim gritty realistic epic has finally come to an end. Will the Dark Knight ever rise again?
But of course. The IMDb already lists, in Bob Kane’s filmography, “Untitled Batman Reboot.” (The year for this reboot is currently “????”, but the project has been announced.)
This will shock utterly no one. The past 27 years have given us:
- 1989: Batman
- 1992: Batman Returns
- 1995: Batman Forever
- 1997: Batman & Robin
- 2005: Batman Begins
- 2008: The Dark Knight
- 2012: The Dark Knight Rises
That’s a Batman movie in the theaters roughly every 3 years, despite Schumacher’s Stumble. And every single one of these films was ridiculously profitable.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation was recently expanded into a trilogy. Hollywood has a new business model: bring some director in to make three films, and then … reboot! That way, every decade or so can have its own version of each tentpole property. And if ten years proves too quick (folks have grumbled “too soon” in regards to the new Spider-Man), then—fine—make it every thirteen years or so!
This reboot model will constantly retell origin stories, all done with different designs. The stories and forms will broadly be the same, and Entertainment Weekly will try to sell us on what’s different this time about the concept art, or the production design. Spider-Man is emo this time. Batman is grim and gritty. Superman is in The Tree of Life.
And this new business model will work wonderfully; it’s a wonderful way to provide a bit of différance without really changing anything. Because what Hollywood desires above all else is a safe return on investment. You yourself may eventually get bored of seeing Batman Begin and Begin and Begin, all Sisyphus-like—but so what? You’ll pay to see it done once, pay to see it done twice, pay to see it done a third time, then yawn and move on—but that third time will be intended for those not yet jaded, your successors in the eternally renewing 18–34-year old demographic.
We shall inherit the world we deserve.
The movie’s end credits looked really lousy, being presented at a resolution far lower than the preceding film. And that really pissed me off.
Tags: Anton Furst, Batman, Batman Begins, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Christopher Nolan, David Bordwell, Die Hard, Frank Miller, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Inception, Irma Vep, Jacques Rivette, Jim Emerson, Joel Schumacher, Kim Newman, Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade, Memento, MUBI, Musidora, Olivier Assayas, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, The Tree of Life, tim burton