The Dark Knight -- The thing about chaos
That + we just love anniversaries 'round here.
10 years ago Christopher Nolan raised the bar just about out of reach for all other action movies, comic book movies, and (almost) himself with 2008's The Dark Knight. The movie managed to explore a whole new dimension within a terrain that had been fairly well-mapped many times over - giving it a stylish, true-crime makeover, turning the extravagant characters and landscape we already knew and loved so well into 'realistic' and 'believable.'
Mission accomplished, though one can't help but ask, "Why so serious?"
The reasonable (and probably repetitive) observation I made in my review of The Dark Knight Rises was just that: while everyone was making comparisons to Heat and The Departed, people started to ignore the surrealistic edge of a guy in a batsuit pursuing a sociopath in clown makeup. Though then again, this is why the movie was and is so ferociously successful: it already prevails as a highly competent urban crime caper even without any of the batshit craziness. All the oddball characteristics punctuate the dark, stoic tone, as if to ask the audience... "Why so serious?"
There's a lot going on in this scene - so much so that it took however many subsequent viewings to get past the expository stuff and absorb what was really going on here. It is a pivotal scene; what transpires determines just about everything that happens in the rest of the story (Part 3 included). Though with a little bit of distance, it's a standalone monument of everything the Batman mythology holds sacred: two heavyweights of the rogues gallery meet face to face (to face) for the first time, and it's set up and played out like a DC fanboy's fantasy. In a game-changing movie, it blissfuly rides the wave of refreshing stereotypes: the Joker, fully disguised in retro nurse garb, snickers and taunts a chronically conflicted Harvey 'Two-Face' Dent, filling his head with the gospel of fire and anarchy. Armed with a nickel plated snub nose and his lucky coin, Harvey leaves the Joker's (and his own) fate to chance.
It's a stirring dialogue scene with hypnotic performances - so much so that the outrageous makeup and visual fx end up taking a backseat.
Not since Burton's Penguin and Catwoman have two villains paired so well.
The scene is pristine, but it would've been fun to see more.
I can make the very easy assessment that 'Part 3s' are a tricky bunch: Back to the Future III, Return of the Jedi, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Godfather III.
Though just as often, it's the second in a series that stumbles: Ocean's 12, European Vacation, Die Hard 2, Temple of Doom.
But you know what? Sometimes it's the first that fails: Friday the 13th, House of 1000 Corpses, Star Trek, Batman Begins.
I think the answer to this math problem is: any followup to 2008's The Dark Knight will receive an extra helping of scrutiny. The End
And so it was... But that's not some kinda George Lucas-type excuse re. good or bad vs. nostalgic expectation. After all, ever since Burton's Batman changed the entire face of pop culture back in '89, haven't we all had a lotta fun comparing and contrasting the varying quality of various Batman movies? And certainly The Dark Knight reignited that passion with people to an exuberant extent.
If you're at all like me (and I know I am), you can take one step back, and you can view Nolan's trilogy as one cohesive story with plenty of highs and a few lows. Though some of you may take two steps back, as you can check and balance every Batman film ever made along your own yardstick. Go back further, and see how one or all of them stack up in the Comic Book Movie-verse. It's all well and good and whatever works for whoever wants... My focus here is The Dark Knight Rises: the third and final movie in Christopher Nolan's trilogy, and the best motion picture made about Batman I've ever seen.
New and improved Joker products!
The last time I went this cold into a Batman film was also the first time - in 1989 - young enough and long enough ago that I can't remember if I even knew who Batman or the Joker were prior to seeing the movie(!) Though not too young to be fully aware of its reception in the world around me, and how one winged freak terrorized the face of the action genre; clearly it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to the rest of the population.
And after however many Batman (and comic book) movies since whenever (you can go all the way back to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman, or even further back still), there's very little room left for said 'surprise.'
But between the accomplishments of the film itself and my own efforts to remain ignorant to spoilers before its release, Dark Knight Rises managed to kickstart more than a bit of shock and awe in both the comic book genre, and the action genre -- and all under the shadow of its wildly popular predecessor no less!
Much like its antagonist, it was already born out of an unfair disadvantage: DKR logistically couldn't be 'The Joker Movie, Part 2.' Though even as a bigger Joker fan than Batman fan, I was prepared to move on (even if the bulk of society clearly wasn't). Even still, I'm not too embarrassed to admit that when it was announced - sometime in 2010 - that the new villain would not be one of the colorful, mainstream headliners we're used to, I was adequately disappointed. And this disappointment was only compounded with the declaration that the main rogue in this - the final installment - would be Bane: a character I'd felt was created simply to indulge wrestling fans in the early 90s. (His scenes of ridiculousness in 1997's Batman & Robin only solidified my theory).
But more than any of this, my rational apprehension grew out of my own very subjective observation that Chris Nolan has more than some difficulty with 'endings'... And what was no doubt building up to be one of the most spectacular endings in cinema history, there was that bit of a chance that it may've very well been building up to one of the most spectacular catastrophes in cinema history. That, plus the reiteration of: how do they top their Joker Movie? The dodgy title certainly wasn't the best start.
We already know how many, many, many sequels are made for the sake of sequels being made, often with a progressive deterioration in quality. And most people seem to attribute this to "making it up as they go along" -- and as I've often firmly stated, I see no correlation between the two. Case in point: The Dark Knight Trilogy - each sequel made only as an incidental result of their creators' desire to continue (and end) the story; "making it up as they go along" by definition, as though forged by the Clown Prince of Crime himself. This is the strongest difference between hack director-for-hire sequels, and artists with the passion to tell a story, and the craftsmanship to do so - and it's most evident in Part 3.
Let the games begin!
The cast and crew were never shy when it came to gushing over the "scale" of this film, and I challenge anyone to not at least gimme that.
Practical effects generally tend to look as real as they are, and I'm never not impressed; a good explosion or car crash always packs more of a punch whenever the cartoon people don't stick their noses in.
The Dark Knight (and in a couple ways, Batman Begins) certainly had its exciting/expensive set pieces: the bank robbery, the tunnel chase, the hospital explosion... But the biggest and most interesting piece of scenery in Part 2 was Heath's Joker. And in lieu of that, DKR sets us up with a roadmap of one prominent, intense, well-choreographed action sequence after another; it's the relentless pace of Die Hard, Terminator 2, Saving Private Ryan, and Speed that I immediately respond to (when it's done to my liking... apologies to 007), and that pace is laced with stunts and twists and camera tricks the likes of which I've rarely (or never) seen. The midair plane hijacking, the seizure of the stock exchange, Gordon's sewer pursuit, Selena's escape from the rooftop, and the underground 'showdown' between Bane and Batman all make for an excellent three-act story structure, but that's only the first act - and at this point in the movie I'm already exhausted.
I'm uncertain as to whatever qualms other moviegoers had with the picture (though I've heard rumors of some) but I'm curious as to what exactly they want or need from the Crusader, or from action movies altogether. But I do know what I do know: the movie (similar to the previous two) is polished with a thick glaze of moral, economical, and socio-political subtext, and I, for one, don't really care. Sure, these 'proclamations' help drive these stories, and without it they would certainly be a lot more aimless and weightless, but it's these nuances that seem to be major points of contention for critics and viewers alike (which are redundantly one in the same).
Me? I never asked for a reinvention of the wheel: I just want my Batman movies to be Batman movies! ...And that's the key to what I consider to be the camouflaged success of Nolan's series - for all his adult subject matter and hyperrealism and social commentary, he has a firm grasp of the reality that he's making comic book movies, and throughout the trilogy he stayed true to what that really really means. And the killing joke of this is that no one seemed to notice or care (though I think it's the former); everyone was so caught up and taken aback by the grittiness and mature themes that sometimes (particularly in the last movie) people completely missed all the fun that was going on.
Fuckin' A that's Batman - hauling a nuclear weapon out into the middle of the harbor with the intention of sacrificing himself for the wellbeing of Gotham City. And it takes the honesty and excitement of children to point out how shiny the nuts and bolts are that have been there all along (and to also not refer to him as "The" Batman).
What this is leading up and boiling down to is that these movies manage to transcend expectations when Batman does Batman stuff and the villains do villainous things: a colony of bats flying through the halls of Arkham, Two Face and the Joker conspiring against Batman in Gotham General, and the panel-to-screen recreation of Bane's victory over the Dark Knight are a few of the most clearly defined celebrations of the source material. But still, rarely were the movies as conscientiously reminiscent of the original DC Detective (and, without a shred of irony, the 1960s television show) as the second half of The Dark Knight Rises.
Throwing Batman completely out of commission and casting Gotham City into terrorist occupation was, for me, one of the more startling turn of events I've encountered in fiction. (Probably the way everyone else felt when the kid from The Goonies recently turned Spider-Man into hi-res confetti - or so that's the way I've heard it). But anyone familiar with Adam West and Burt Ward strapped to a deadly cliffhanger with seemingly no escape knows the tension and horror of a pessimistic outlook. And if there's anything that bogs down a superhero movie (or any piece of art for that matter) it's always gonna be predictability -- and I never predicted Batman could be so spectacularly defeated, and I certainly couldn't predict how he'd ever prevail.
That's storytelling I can't argue with.
The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
The Michael Mann-meets-Metropolis scope and tone they created set the standard for just about all the comic book adaptations that followed, but for my own taste, that flavor only really works in the crime genre (which Batman falls under) and not the scifi genre (which all other superheroes fall under). And even though the gimmick of telling these fantastical stories as straightforward cops-and-robbers adventures is what generated most of their praise, there were a few sacrifices in the way of pizazz and panache - most notably in the Batmobile, Catwoman, and the largely underwhelming character of Batman himself. And it may be unfair to blame Christian Bale - as much as it may be unfair to throw praise at other Batmen - when it clearly has more to do with the flick they inhabit, and less to do with who's inhabiting the suit. Apart from Bruce Wayne's dickhead public persona (which is a choice I'm quite fond of), there wasn't a whole lotta added dimension that we weren't already too familiar with. Of course, this could be my own misplaced anticipation - maybe I just expected too much from one of the greatest actors of a generation...
But all nitpicking aside, the authenticity largely never failed and was integral to the accomplishment that is The Dark Knight Rises - in all the obvious (and not so obvious) ways you're thinking of.
Had someone ever asked me (and no one ever did) how to go about making Robin less lame, I don't think I'd've ever come up with an answer -- he's quite distinctly left out of all the best Bat movies. But it would've never occurred to me to ditch even the idea of a costume and simply underline the persona: the younger, like-minded collaborator with the similarly tragic upbringing. I totally bought it and was overjoyed with the outcome.
But let's get really real - there's no need to Batdance around it any longer: the greatest upgrade in perhaps the entire trilogy is the reimagining of the once-ho hum 'supervillain' Bane - who previously didn't feel all that super. Till the movie, I'd lumped him in with all the other scifi rogues that were a huge drag on the franchise for me: Killer Croc, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Clayface, and anyone else who relied on magic and science instead of guns, knives, bombs, and anger. And after these movies gave us an unblemished track record of rebooted DC baddies for the modern age (even if Scarecrow and Ra's al Ghul are boring in any medium), it should've been no surprise that the towering WWF clown with the intravenous steroid tubes would evolve into something unique and iconic: a conniving cult leader with the mechanical grimace of Darth Vader and the sinister eloquence of Pinhead. For sure an extraordinary achievement in writing, costume design, and overall concept, but the strict truth is that this entire essay could've been spent discussing the brilliantly eccentric performance of Tom Hardy.
Without a doubt, if everyone was going to hold this movie up next to Dark Knight for comparison, then we were certainly going to pore over all the diversity between Bane, the Joker, and the actors who played them... But that's an apples and oranges situation and I don't need to do that for you - you can do it yourself.
What I can say is that, unlike the Joker, Bane doesn't have the sprawling frame of reference of over 70 years of evolution and several live action performances (often by Oscar winners...). Tom Hardy's interpretation of the masked man was an invention - an actor's offbeat translation pulled directly from literature, like Hannibal Lecter or Anton Chigurh.
Because of my lack of interest, I'd only ever had peripheral awareness of the character; apart from my barely-attentive single viewing of Batman & Robin, he didn't appear in my very short stack of comic books, and his episode of The Animated Series didn't stay with me. Dark Knight Rises was the much more formal introduction, and it was a brilliance I wasn't expecting: yet another surprise from a flick full of 'em.
So today I'm not too embarrassed to admit that I'm a bona fide Bane fan - and Tom Hardy fan.
At the rate these comic book adaptations are being produced, I can't imagine that we won't be seeing this adversary again, and I'll be curious to see exactly where Hardy set the bar for other actors, and just how definitive his rendition may turn out to be.
Like everything from the Nolan/DC universe, I'm guessing 'very.' 'Very definitive.' And more than that: influential. But like other 'influential' films (French Connection, Star Wars, Halloween, Animal House, Pulp Fiction, Sixth Sense) there'll be a spell of homages and ripoffs - often mediocre by comparison, and always missing that one-two punch of originality/surprise.
We're in one of these spells now I find. And as usual, no one's really upset or turned off by it. And you know what I say? It's ok. Now seems like an appropriate time for superheroes to dominate culture, and I'll allow it. I wish the quality of the films could be better (a lot better), but clearly it's not about that for most; everyone's caught up in something that's harmless and fun, and I can't poohpooh that. And like I said, it's a trend; at the end of the day, we'll have a trilogy of expertly crafted 'influential' films that we can always go back to as they stand the test of time, and we'll have dozens of campy, bubblegum time-fillers to throw on in the background so we can reminisce and say, "Hey, remember the 2010s when everyone was trying make the Dark Knight movies over and over again?"
On June 16, 1998, CBS aired a two-and-a-half hour special titled AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - a countdown of the 100 greatest American films of the then-past 100 years (1896-1996) as voted on by roughly 1,500 write-in ballots and submitted to the American Film Institute.
In partnership with Blockbuster Video, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and several other publications and Turner-owned networks, this list of 100 movies was available on posters, on the video shelves, in print form, and several honest-to-god write-in checklists so we could all play along at home.
More than just a bit of exposition, this 'mega list' - as stuffy, predictable, and conformed as it was - started a small but significant shift in my movie viewing habits (even if it was only for a brief time). As someone who was (and still kinda is) deep into cataloguing and ranking this & that, this sacred inventory of mainstream cinema came at me with the timing and precision of Luke taking out the Death Star; this was a time when Titanic - a film that was already six months old - was not only dominating every plane of pop culture, but every facet of human civilization, period. Love it or loathe it, it's hard to remember a time when a movie was the most important thing in the world to anyone not living under a rock.
As Henry Hill said, "It was a glorious time" - especially to a young man who'd spent all of his life fascinated with cinema, and now - apart from floating around in Titanic culture - had found a published and critically-endorsed trail of breadcrumbs (across an admittedly safe terrain for sure, but professionally-approved nonetheless).
I may not've sat up and paid so much attention had the list not been so firmly legitimized in my own eyes due to the inclusion of Pulp Fiction, Fargo, A Clockwork Orange, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and a handful of other 'teenage boy movies' that'd already worked their way into a space in my heart. By this rationale, I'd figured that The Apartment, It Happened One Night, Ben-Hur, The Sound of Music, and Citizen Kane must be at least of equal or greater value than, say, Dr. Stranglelove, Star Wars, Taxi Driver, and Jaws... (In some cases, yes - in others, no).
But there were, in fact, three films that very much fell into that sorta 'right place, right time' department that seemed to've already been circling my young self like the sharks of punk rock cinema that they are. With a bit of ambiguous hinting from my folks (Dad, particularly), this short list of 'must-sees' swelled in my brain as a short list of movies I must see.
A cassette tape of Midnight Cowboy had been in my parents' stash for as long as I could remember, and with some nest egg of my own cash accumulated from gifts or allowances or some place I can't remember, I'd purchased my very own brand new videotapes of Easy Rider and The Graduate.
These were the three that would define a summer - and in so many ways, my taste in film, the rest of my adolescence, and my life. But mostly, summer.
Totally separate from the exhilaration of the all-around innovative production qualities of editing, structure, cinematography, and performances (in particular the near-incomprehensible range of one Dustin Hoffman) was a more-than-refreshing step outside of the usual genre staples of a 15 year old boy in the 90s (action, violence, crime, monsters, sci/fi fantasy).
Alas, here were three films that were, genuinely, steeped in traditional (but still seemingly subjective to myself) themes of youth: freedom, alienation, sexuality, fear, courage, uncertainty, spontaneity, antiauthority, personal achievement, and catastrophic failure.
People, and institutions alike (see: American Film Institute) wax poetic about the 'power' of movies: they inhabit our dreams and transport us to magical places and sometimes manage to change our lives... for 2 hours.
What a buncha shit.
I don't know if it was a symptom of the times (when the tapes you owned + whatever HBO decided to air on any given day + whatever was available at the video store = 'never enough') or a characteristic of how passionate I once was about anything, but I used to watch certain movies in a repetitious cycle - religiously, if you will - often dominating an entire season, and sometimes even a year.
Jess, who shared this same habit around the same time calls them "obsession movies." And whenever it happened, it chiseled a unique notch in my timeline.
So, while I can go ahead and recommend these movies as a killer triple feature, it really goes above and beyond something like 'An Evening of Post-Classical Cinema From the Rock 'n Roll Generation,' or whatever... My experience with these films involved an ongoing regime and letting them dominate the rhythms and routines of my existence. And a major ingredient in succumbing to obsession movies properly is investing your non-screen time into the soundtrack albums.
Digital downloads weren't really goin' on in '98, and soundtracks to then-30-year-old movies were tough to come by on CD. But during the one stretch of time in the past century when vinyl was fucking dead as... dead, I managed to track down and acquire all three albums from flea markets and whatnot shops.
And while these movies have several fundamental similarities between them, and while I like them all for drastically different reasons, the three separate soundtracks from these three different movies feel as though they're part of one unified collection of pop/garage/psychedelia/country/folk/metal.
With modern technology, one can shuffle a digital collection of these songs and see just what I'm talkin' about here.
If you'd told me 20 years ago that I'd own these films as Criterion blu rays, I'd have said, "I don't know what any of those words mean."
But seriously, folks - now, during our holiday season (by which I mean the Barnes & Noble Criterion sale) I extend this recommendation to you; if you have none or some, get 'em all, learn 'em all, and give yourself a chance to transcend and evolve with some equality for all.