Trouble with Comics

ADD on The Dark Knight Rises

So, The Dark Knight Rises. I had zero desire to see the movie based on the incomprehensible trailer. I had not much cared for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and felt pretty strongly that the director had failed to truly confront or address the issues he danced around in his second Batman movie, the Heath Ledger one. (Was it called The Dark Knight? I feel like it was but can’t remember for sure, and I feel like that in itself is significant in some way.) I’d spent some time evaluating reviews and deciding that Roger Ebert’s 3 and a half star review nonetheless indicated that the movie isn’t very good and doesn’t hold together well.

Oh, by the way, there will be spoilers herein.

So I had no intention at all of seeing TDKR. Then my best friend from high school, visiting from Japan, where he’s lived since the mid-1980s, says to my wife and me yesterday, “How about a movie?” The next thing I know, we are at Albany’s superb independent movie theater The Spectrum (they spell it theatre on the tickets — we were in theatre 3 in case you’re wondering) getting our tickets, me, my wife, and my best friend from high school (who was also the only person I knew in high school who read comics — we used to breathlessly discuss the wonders and merits of Miller’s Daredevil, Simonson’s Thor…but I digress).

I don’t know that it’s a smart movie — it feels quite run-of-the-mill in its intentions and execution. In their best stories, villains like Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia are motivated in the comics by fairly sophisticated ideas compared to most comic book supervillains. Bane’s drive here seems simpatico in a way with the Occupy movement, but far more violent and nihilistic, and perhaps capitalistic, since he and Selina Kyle talk about the equitable redistribution of wealth (not that they ever use that term) and the movie shows the excesses of the rich to the detriment of the poor, yet you never really get the feeling that Nolan cares much about the issue, which actually is one of the most important questions of the 21st century. He’s far more wrapped up in showing us the suffering Bruce Wayne has endured for eight years, since the death of ol’ what’s-her-name in the previous Batman movie. 

Nerdy Batman fans will inform you that Batman’s paralysis here, lovingly demonstrated through Bruce Wayne’s complete lack of knee cartilage and failure to continue funding orphanages (I wish I was kidding — and by the way, doctor, can you really walk with no cartilage in your effing knees?) demonstrate a profound failure to understand Batman as a character. But that’s understandable, since there are so few comic books about Batman. How was Nolan to know any better?

Once Catwoman starts doing her stealy thing and it quickly turns out (surprise!) she’s somehow connected to Bane (as is everyone in the universe, apparently), Bruce Wayne straps on a magic cartilage thingy on his thigh, shaves off his utterly unconvincing goatee and washes that gray right out of his hair. Then shit gets real, lots of stuff blows up, and why is Robin called John Blake? I bet someone thought that was an awesome reveal. And it might have been if he had, at some point, say, the end of the movie, come face to face with the Robin costume, say, in a big glass case. At some point costumes in the Batcave stored in big glass cases became all portentous and thrilling, so how could Nolan have dropped that particular ball?

All this is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching The Dark Knight Rises. Despite my never, ever buying into Christian Bale as Batman, despite the plot holes here and there (how did Bruce Wayne know exactly when the bomb was going to blow, upon returning from his 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness? How did he survive a nuclear explosion?), the sheer will of Nolan to end this thing, and a soundtrack that is astonishingly LOUD LOUD loud propels us to the end of the movie. And no, dear, there’s no after-credits teaser scene — that’s Marvel, honey. I know Avengers had one. No, that’s Marvel. Yes, and Amazing Spider-Man. Still Marvel. Batman’s DC. They’re different. Yes they are, believe it or not. (I was hoping for an after-credits scene with the aforementioned glass costume case revealing Robin’s duds or better yet Terry McGinnis’s, but no).

It’s more watchable than I expected. It’s longer than hell, and it’s noiser than an elephant fart to a gnat hanging on the ring of its anus, but it’s watchable and Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman always make these movies seem more important and meaningful than Nolan ever remembers to actually make them.

In the end, after three overblown and undercooked Batman movies, the only thing we’ll remember, the only thing that felt right and transcended genre, was Heath Ledger’s Joker. I hate all the goofy Batman villains like The Riddler and The Penguin and The Joker, preferring above all Ra’s Al Ghul in all his moral and ethical shades of gray. But Nolan’s Ra’s, interpreted by a poorly-chosen Liam Neeson, never did it for me. Ledger’s outsized Joker felt terrifying and awful and like chaos itself embodied in one sick, random psychopath. Ledger’s Joker made you feel something, which is the only time that happened for me at all in Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies. I like movies that make me feel things, and that honestly earn the right to make me feel those things. Maybe the next guy who directs a Batman movie will get that part of it right. Because that’s how truly classic movies, timeless storytelling, works. Nolan’s made some great and intriguing movies, and he’s also made three Batman movies, and that’s about all I can tell you.

Alan David Doane