Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How a severe lack of 'cause and effect' undoes all that is good about The Dark Knight Rises, and why its alleged political underpinnings are merely a smokescreen.

It's not the plot holes or periodically silly coincidences.  This will not be a list of 'things that don't work in The Dark Knight Rises' but rather an old-fashioned essay (shocker!) concerning what I feel are the overall screenwriting flaws that tear down and ultimately destroy what otherwise is a technically fine motion picture.  Obviously it's pure unapologetic spoilers after the jump, so tread no further if you don't want to know.  But the short version is that, aside from certain logic issues, almost nothing that occurs during the first 150 minutes of the film truly matters in regards to how the story ends.  And moreover, the unwillingness to focus on the people actually being affected by the (mostly off screen) chaos renders the film's token topicality not only politically irrelevant but dangerously close to exploitation.  To wit...

In the end, my big problem with the film was the genuine lack of connective tissue.  From a plot standpoint, nothing that happens in the first 70 minutes matters.  The time spent by Bruce, Gordon, and Blake trying to deduce the mystery comes to little, and in fact aids Bane in trapping all of the police officers when Bane finally strikes. Since Bane goes about his plans in exactly the way he planned to all along right at the moment he chose to do so, nothing our heroes do has any effect on the outcome of the first half of the film.  But even if you allow for that, I can still admit that the first half of the film is completely entertaining and contains most of the best scenes in the film.  But even acknowledging that the first half provides some wonderful character beats and most of the superior Selina Kyle/Catwoman beats, this narrative irrelevance continues right up until the end of the film.  As we learn painfully late in the game (because everyone with a brain correctly predicted it two years ago), Miranda Tate, high ranking member of the Wayne Enterprises board, is actually the secret arch-villain (Talia Al Ghul) and that Bane is working for her the whole time.

Okay, fine, but that also renders Bane's entire takeover of Gotham as a giant sideshow, a distraction, and a needless one to boot.  So Talia and Bane want to blow up Gotham with a neutron bomb?  Tate works for the very company that has the bomb, with the high clearance and built-up trust that would allow her to access it.  Unless I'm missing something, all Miranda has to do is take the scientist that Bane captured in the prologue and have him activate the bomb, be it on a brief timer or (if Bane and/or Miranda are willing to sacrifice themselves) immediately.  Boom, Gotham is ashes and the bad guys win, end of story.  Thus, anything Batman might have done earlier to stop Bane would have made any difference in the grand scheme of things, since Tate was just waiting in the wings to blow up the city.

But even from a character point of view, much of what occurs doesn't really matter.  The big revelation that Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes yields not a single real reaction aside from a personal confrontation between Blake and Gordon.  We see not a single Gothamite reacting to this seemingly devastating revelation.  The whole 'Clean Slate' program that Selina Kyle so desperately seeks ends up functioning as a giant McGuffin, even as she engages in behavior that not only aids Bane in eventually wrecking the city but bankrupting one of the few people whom Gotham might have turned to in order to help repair the damage after the fact (IE - does she really deserve a fresh start?).  Speaking of which, what exactly is the point of Bruce Wayne going bankrupt in the first place?  Never mind that Wayne never bothers to say "I didn't make those transactions, and maybe they might have gone down during the very public stock market robbery/homicide yesterday".  From a character standpoint, Bruce Wayne being broke doesn't affect the story line in any real way. Wayne didn't need to be financially humbled, nor does his new-found poverty make his various tasks any harder (he still escaped from a Middle East prison pit and somehow made it back to America and snuck into a heavily-fortified Gotham).

The only potential symbolic reason for this thread is the idea that Bruce Wayne couldn't be 'one of the good guys' as long as he was stinking rich, which flies in the face of the entire point of Batman Begins.  In short, Ala A Christmas Carol, Batman Begins argues a kind of 'compassionate conservatism' which preaches that the richest among us are morally responsible for using their riches for the benefit of all in a manner that creates a sustainable society.  The Dark Knight Rises seemingly argues that Bruce Wayne's immense wealth is by default a character flaw.  For practical purposes, all it does is leave Gotham City without the immense Wayne fortune that could help rebuild the city while also leaving large chunks of Gotham City now unemployed (I hope Fox had a slush fund).  The film has Alfred broach the idea that Bruce Wayne, not Batman, can be the positive force that can help Gotham City, before utterly ignoring that tangible concept after the first act.

The entire first-half buildup to Bruce Wayne becoming Batman again is rendered moot as, at the hour or so mark, Bane beats him to a pulp and renders him mentally and physically broken all over again, forcing Bruce to build himself up for a second time for a near identical rematch (hence the Rocky III comparison).  And considering how the finale is staged, Batman's defeat of Bane, even the whole 'cops vs. prisoners' war, is proved irrelevant by the fact that, again, Miranda Tate was waiting in the wings to reveal herself and her evil intentions.  Much of the inconsequential nature of the film is arguably due to the last-minute revelation regarding Miranda Tate.  Remove her character (or at least her duplicitous nature) and at least you still have the notion that Batman needs to build himself back up in order to defeat Bane and secure the location of the detonator before Gotham blows up.

Ironically, in the end, Bane's role in The Dark Knight Rises is little different than his role in Batman & Robin, the unquestioning lapdog of a more powerful female villain.  That in itself isn't a problem, and arguably even the 'big reveal' would have been more successful had it been revealed earlier in the narrative, in a manner similar to The World Is Not Enough (anytime Lucius Fox and Miranda Tate were together, I waited in fear for Tate to reveal herself by killing Fox).  It's ironic, considering Nolan's hardcore 007-fandom, that any number of elements from The Dark Knight Rises feels lazily borrowed from a James Bond film.  We've got the doomsday weapon that will slowly count down to destruction, the villain who is actually the henchman, the escapable death trap, the hero arbitrarily bedding a female cast member whom he barely knows, the constant monologuing, etc., etc.  The grafting of these pulpy elements into what is attempting to be a somewhat grounded superhero drama, while also telling the most comic book-ish narrative of the series, creates what can generously be called an odd hybrid stew.

This lack of consequence to the various major plot turns also fatally harms any attempts for the film to be politically or socially relevant.  For the record, there is no law saying that, just because The Dark Knight operated as a powerful parable for post-9/11 fear and moral panic, The Dark Knight Rises has to be a similar 'commentary of our time'.  But even putting aside whether the film leans one way or another, the film sacrifices its chance to be about anything grand at all.  Instead of using its 165-minute running time to at least somewhat shine a light on the regular citizens of Gotham City and how they feel about Bane's schemes and the destruction/social disorder that it causes, the film skirts the seemingly obvious side-effects (trash still gets picked up, there is no rioting, general social services still seem to be in order, etc.) while using its main characters to represent certain facets of Gotham.  Instead of focusing on the poor in Gotham City, it has Selina Kyle act as a stand in for all those who are economically downtrodden, even as Kyle looks like the least impoverished 'have not' you've probably ever seen.

Instead of showing the various wealthy Gotham elites, we see only how Bane's scheme affects the Wayne Enterprises board members, who were specifically targeted.  We are told that Bane has recruited homeless people, but all we see are escaped prisoners from Blackgate doing what escaped prisoners are wont to do when given the opportunity.  We see the rich thrown from their homes, but we don't see Gotham's poor living in those homes nor do we see upper/middle class Gothamites newly impoverished.  Even the one moment when a '1%-er' is sentenced to die via Gotham's frozen lake, the victim is a known associate of the villainous John Daggett as opposed (for example) to a wealthy citizen who is murdered for the crime of being rich while his family looks on in horror.  We are told that Bane has unleashed some kind of terror campaign fraudulently using the very-real concerns of the '99%', but all we see is a masked terrorist taking over the city by armed force and employing escaped convicts as his personal army. 

I don't have any problem with The Dark Knight Rises being apolitical Ala Batman Begins or The Avengers.  But the use of such obvious political text as basically bacon bits on an overstuffed salad is tantamount to exploitation.  Just as Bane uses the language of economic revolution to rile up Gotham City as a smokescreen for complete destruction, I'd argue that Chris Nolan and friends use the words and imagery now associated with the current economic class war as a smokescreen to give what is basically a 'big scary bad guy takes over the city and plans to nuke it while only the hero can save everyone' story an alleged deeper meaning. We see absolutely no evidence of the middle class taking any stock in Bane's ideas, and the threat of nuclear destruction negates any possible ideological discussion.  Quite simply, I'm certainly sympathetic to the ideas of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, but I wouldn't be the least bit sympathetic if someone espousing said ideology look over my city by violent force and based 'final judgement' on me and everyone in a six mile vicinity.

Instead of merely having Bane take over the city and indeed attempting to pit Gothamite against Gothamite, the nuclear peril both negates any deeper ideology while also defusing much of the actual suspense.  In short, there was a genuine possibility that one of the two rigged ferry boats were going to blow the other one up in the finale of The Dark Knight, so there was real tension as we watched regular citizens try to cope with morality in an impossible situation.  This time around, it's pretty clear that Gotham City is not going to get vaporized, and Nolan seemingly knows this via refusing to show a single regular citizen reacting to seemingly inevitable demise.  Again I don't have a problem with The Dark Knight Rises being apolitical or lacking any deeper meaning beyond Joseph Campellian theology.  But I do have a token issue with Nolan and company using somewhat crude approximations of genuine real-world political issues to dress up his inherently goofy super hero adventure under a guise of self-serious prestige that is unearned.

When the film focuses on character, be it Alfred's farewell to Bruce Wayne or Batman's tear-jerking final gift to Jim Gordon (basically telling him 'You are *my* hero, Jim.'), the picture works like gangbusters.  And the ending works despite a few logic issues, as Nolan ends up having his cake and eating it too.  To paraphrase Michale Caine in The Prestige, it's not enough to kill Batman, the trick is to bring him back.  Considering that most of the speculation concluded that either Batman would die or that Bruce Wayne would die while Batman the symbol would survive, kudos to Nolan for doing the one unexpected play (Batman dies, Bruce lives).  And considering how I've complained of late about films and television using shocking deaths as de-facto plot twists, how nice for the shocking ending to involve our lead character choosing life over death, in a manner not unlike the proactive choice made by Woody at the end of Toy Story 3.

In closing, The Dark Knight Rises is a mediocre, but not anywhere near terrible, film that uses large-scale production values and above-reproach acting to disguise a fundamentally sloppy screenplay.  What's frustrating is how the film's narrative was grounded in basic storytelling flaws almost from the get-go. Like any number of big-budget tent-poles, it is a triumph of style over substance, special effects over script, and production values over thematic content.  It's inexplicable story that constantly doubles-back on itself and eventually reveals the vast majority of its narrative to be a giant smokescreen undermines an unquestionably ambitious production.  I was not expecting a film as good as The Dark Knight or even Batman Begins.  I just wanted a rock-solid Batman drama.  Alas, what's missing is what seemingly should have been the basic ingredient: a good story, well told.

Scott Mendelson    


corysims said...

Your analysis of the film is missing a key element that you overlooked. Talia's plan with Bane is essentially a character breakdown of Wayne. Everything they do in this film is all about taking Wayne apart piece by piece.

As she says at the end of the film, this is all about revenge...using everything that Wayne is and uses as the Batman against him to completely and utterly destroy his soul...as he watches helplessly in the Pit.

From minute one, this is totally a character piece, through and through.

I'll agree with you about the Dent revelation not having an effect on the proceedings of the film, but it's not like Gotham wasn't occupied by the League and criminals that Bane unleashed in the city because of said revelation.

Scott Mendelson said...

The problem with that idea is that Bruce Wayne is clearly already defeated in mind/soul/body at the outset of the new film. This is a similar situation to The Bone Collector (SPOILER for a 13 year old potboiler) where the villain is revealed to be the doctor in the opening scene, who was trying to get revenge on Denzel Washington. But said doctor was there in the opening scenes to help Washington commit suicide, so the whole revenge plot is basically trying to break a man who is already completely broken. All said plot does is revive Bruce Wayne (and Washington) and bring him back to life/relevance, or exactly the opposite intention of Miranda Tate. In this case, it's a clear 'Why bother? We already won! The Joker (shh... don't say his name aloud) has already done it for us'.

corysims said...

But if no one has seen him, especially Tate, how do they know he's broken? Him being broken isn't inconsistent to what Nolan set up in the Dark Knight.

There are rumors but nothing concrete. And if he's actually not needed in Gotham because of the Dent Act, why would they assume that he's broken?

Kyle Leaman said...

Scott, I basically agree with your article and much of what you bring up is essentially what I think I will be putting in my review under the negatives of the film.

However, there is one idea from the film that seems to give a somewhat answer to our frustrations. I agree that by the end, all of the political and social commentary seems as nothing but a smokescreen, and even after all the Bane buildup, he is diminished by the end as well. This seems to me though an actual point of the film. As much as Bane USED these social and political issues, in the end his motivations are personal (Love for Talia). As much as Talie USED the social and political issues to say she wanted to blow up Gotham, in the end it seems her prime motivation is personal (You killed my father). As much as Batman USES the idea of saving Gotham and fighting injustice, it seems that his prime motivation (to get out of prison, to stop Bane) isn't just the generic idea of doing good, but the more personal idea of a future life (with Selina I should think).

In this way, I think that Nolan is saying that no matter what the grand issues are that we take one or use, they all seem to act like MASKS (for Bane, for Batman, for Talia), hiding our true and more personal intent. In fact, (like on Inception) the film then acts as a mirror for what Nolan himself is doing. No matter that Nolan is using comic book characters and outlandish plot lines, this is essentially a personal movie that reveals what he wants to do (you are correct in pointing out how 007 this film is).

It doesn't make the deflation of the final hour any less, but if I had to venture an argument, I think Nolan might argue back with something like this

Oliver said...

Scott, great article, just wanted to point out a few typos:
-In the first paragraph: "the unwillingness to focus on the people actually being effected by the..." I think you meant to say: affected instead of effected.
-In the last sentence of the second paragraph: "Thus, anything Batman might have done earlier to stop Bane would have made any difference in the grand scheme of things..." I think you meant to say wouldn't.
Sorry to bother you.

Eric said...

Why bother? It all goes back to revenge. It doesn't necessarily make a difference if Wayne is broken or not; Bane and Talia want to be the ones to break him. If they accept that the Joker already broke Batman (which is far from evident, as Wayne is in hiding) then they cannot inflict that punishment. While it's true that many of the elements of the film are 007-esque, as you pointed out, this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I think your review fails to show an understanding of revenge as a motivating factor.

Ziserwahn said...

awesome essay. exactly how I feel.

Nishaan Moodley said...

One aspect that the analysis is missing, is Bane's (and presumably Talia's) idea, that to truly destroy a person, or city, they must feel hopeful that they can survive and still win all the way till they are destroyed. In batman's case, it works well, giving him hope that he can still save his city, and over 5 months watching it destroy itself until finally it is wiped out. This would be truly torturous to batman. In the case of Gotham, it is less effective. The idea that a corrupt city can rework itself, into a more egalitarian state, and thus atone for its massive social inequality and corrupt actions only to have the state still destroyed, unable to redeem itself from its corrupt nature, I believe is what Bane was going for. But how effective this is is a debate for another time. For this essay it is relevant because it gives a motive for why Talia didn't just blow Gotham sky high from the start.


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