Wednesday 18 July 2012

It's only a movie: "The Dark Knight Rises"

After two reviews that took Christopher Nolan's Batman reboots to task for their morbid pedantry, it may be time not to revise my position, exactly - The Dark Knight Rises is still onerously long-winded and self-serious for a film about a man in a cape who goes around punching people - but to pursue a different line of inquiry. (This is one of the problems a critic faces with all this rebooting: one ends up writing more or less the same words about the exact same characters, and risks becoming entrenched in either gushing enthusiasm or toxic scepticism.) So - in the hope of generating new insights, and a spirit of détente - let's start with what I admire about these new Batman films, and what I suspect those who've booked out the IMAX round the clock this weekend must like about them, too.

Having checked out of this particular universe around ten or so minutes into The Dark Knight - when it became clear Nolan was holding to the same tactics that irked me in Batman Begins - it was even easier for me to spot (and concede) the technical brilliance on display in TDKR, by which I mean both the high-end craft (affordable, when your predecessor took over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office) and its director's near-unrivalled facility with storytelling. The Dark Knight Rises' mythology is complex to a degree rarely encountered in latter-day event movies, where the us-versus-them simplicity of Battleship or Avengers Assemble has become the norm. I counted five parallel plotlines going on here: the re-emergence of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) from the broken-hearted seclusion the events of the last film left him in; the emergence of not one but two new villains - Anne Hathaway's jewel thief Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, and Tom Hardy's burly rabble-rouser Bane - hoping to surpass the impact of Heath Ledger's Joker; the rise of a young beat cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) through the ranks of Gotham's crimefighters; and a boardroom intrigue at Wayne Enterprises that eventually leads to the takeover of Gotham City itself.

"We can't have loose ends," one character insists early on, and Nolan appears to have taken this as his mission statement for this final part of the trilogy: scripting with his brother Jonathan, he does astonishingly nimble work establishing, threading and dovetailing these various strands along the way to the film's resonant finale. What I'd previously seen as cluttered lines, blocked arteries, may just be interpreted as a rare and encouraging show of faith in the mainstream audience's intelligence, if you're of a mind to keep track of these endlessly shifting connections and allegiances. You may have shown up just because the trailer looks cool, but Nolan trusts that you have the smarts (and, I suppose, the patience) to keep up with what's going on - and yet still he's able to surprise and sucker-punch you at regular intervals.

There's something equally heartening in the way this director continues to refute the virtual in favour of the real. Rooted in recognisable New York locations, TDKR ushers on no flimsy CGI monsters for its concluding act, which elevates it above Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man. Nolan continues to prefer to work with actors, whose presence means more to him than a saleable name on a poster. The newcomers - Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard as society belle Miranda Tate, Matthew Modine as a police chief, Ben Mendelsohn as a nefarious corporate player (call it the Murdoch effect: as in Prometheus, an Australian actor is cast as a petty tyrant with acquisition on his mind) - are mostly faultless casting choices; Michael Caine's faithful butler Alfred emerges as the weightiest and most touching of the actor's late roles, here coaxing his employer/charge out of the darkness and back into the light; and there is no Chris Evans, which can only ever be a good thing.

I remain unsold, however, on these films' skewed idea of heroism. Although introduced hobbling both physically and emotionally, Bale's Bruce Wayne remains an all-American alpha, or enough of same to have both Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard batting their eyelashes at him. The romantic outsider figure I recall from the comics and earlier Batfilms has been repurposed as a privileged insider - a process that mirrors the way fanboys (Batfans?) with disposable income and rooms full of gadgets have become central to the studios' vision of the cinematic experience. (If there's still any resistance to the theory that the nerds and the geeks have taken over mainstream film culture, look at Comic-Con, which is essentially Expo in riper, more colourful suits.)

Nolan's philosophy in this trilogy, underlined by its conclusion, is that "Batman" is only a symbol, one that could be embodied by anyone - so again I'd like to ask why it has to be this dick, who doesn't need (and in Bale's dour, uningratiating performance, evidently doesn't want) us to cheer for him? (Is it that we live in an age where people are prepared to tune in repeatedly for the wit and wisdom of celebrity businessmen Simon Cowell and Alan Sugar?) This pimped-out Bruce Wayne is crucial to the trilogy's centralising of money - which may now be the only way to give our jaded studio executives a boner. Even so, one senses the movies are running out of novel, interesting or cheering things to do with cold, hard cash: you'd need a Forbes subscription to get caught up in the takeover of Wayne Enterprises, and Bane's laying siege to Wall Street was accomplished, a good deal more briskly, by Jeremy Irons and his crew in Die Hard with a Vengeance a decade-and-a-half ago.

Of course this Batman is only too willing to help put down a run on the banks - that's where his personal fortune resides - but money matters here extend far beyond the boardroom. When Wayne is wrapped up in a hearthrug with Miranda, it's all he can think to talk about. "I thought your family was wealthy," he ventures, at which point any red-blooded male in the audience will be thinking: good God, man, you're in bed with Marion Cotillard, not running a background check for Debrett's. The relationship between the film's women and money is particularly complicated, and not a little bit troubling. After that Halle Berry movie, you might think it impossible for anyone to take Catwoman seriously, but Nolan does, and so Hathaway's Selina Kyle has been reconceived as a social-climbing cat burglar who, with her feral sister (Juno Temple), prey on men with money and gadgets to lose. I wonder how much Nolan realises he's playing into the hands of that fanboy misogyny that allows the dumped and immature to hate any woman who thinks themselves above their own station, and to cheer inwardly whenever onscreen representatives of these women are punched in the face, or (in another notable case) pushed off a flyover.

In every other respect, Nolan is a very clever modern filmmaker, salting his script with such buzzwords as "revolution" and "failed state" in the hope the academics and Saturday Review crowd will bite. Yet these films remain stubbornly hermetic, playing to their own (apparently populous) demographic, and by their own rules, rather than those of the real world - which, in this instalment, allows Nolan to make superficially stirring the sight of a gathered police corps rallying to unseat those occupying Gotham's financial district. In the real world, terrorists strike at will, and are all the scarier for it; a figure like Bane, stuck in a 12A universe and most closely resembling an English Defence League treasurer in dire need of a hug, is not scary, unless you happen to sit among that unworldly, impressionable sector of the audience the studios have been reduced to courting. Those politicised readings of these movies ("oh, it's about our responses to terrorism", "oh, it's about the crisis of leadership") are the desperate stretch of individuals with too much time on their hands, and not enough real-world problems to think about. What this series has really been about - what it's been about all along - is a prodigiously gifted director making a staggering amount of money for his employers off the back of a known property and a sudden boom in comic-book movies. To return to my earlier, positive tenor, The Dark Knight Rises is as good as American mainstream moviemaking gets right now - yet that state of affairs speaks as much to the limitations of the Hollywood mindset as it does to any substantial non-financial achievements on Nolan's part.

The Dark Knight Rises opens nationwide from Friday.

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