Monday, 6 August 2012

How Far Has He Risen?

A scene carried over verbatim from Nolan's earlier, aborted project, Fat Asthmatic Del Boy takes Gotham.

One thing about having waited so long to see The Dark Knight Rises is the amount of information I had available when settling down in the cinema.  Somehow I'd stayed almost completely free of spoilers, but I was already well aware of how mixed the film's reception had been.  Some love it, some hate it, and plenty more seem to have liked it, but found it inferior to its prequel.

You can count me as being in the first camp. This film is shaping up to be as underrated as its predecessor is overrated.  The Dark Knight is an entertaining mess of a movie, brought desperately off-kilter by Heath Ledger.  Like just about everyone else, I found his performance absolutely phenomenal, but the downside is that the resulting piece feels like a bunch of heroes intruding in the Joker's world.  I'd pay good money to see a film like that (try Azzarello's Joker miniseries to get a taste of what that might be like), but it doesn't work in the context of The Dark Knight specifically, in which an awful lot of time is spent on Christian Bale not being very interesting in ways that aren't very interesting.

Ledger isn't the only aspect of the film that causes problems; he's merely the most obvious and the most forgivable. But discussing his last complete performance is useful, because it brings us naturally to the aspect of the current film that, from what I can gather, is the most problematic: Bane.  Lots of people don't like Bane.  A significant subsection of those seem to actively hate him. No-one, so far as I can tell, thinks he's a patch on Ledger's Joker.

Which, to be fair, he absolutely isn't.  It's difficult to imagine anyone could be.  And if you judge a superhero movie by the quality of its villains, I can completely understand why The Dark Knight Rises disappoints.

So here's the thing: I liked Bane.  A lot of people have criticised Hardy's delivery, and again, I understand that (though contrary to popular opinion, he doesn't sound like Ian McKellen; it's David Warner through and through).  A violent anarchist with near superhuman drive and physical presence should not sound like he's presenting The Outer Limits.  The overall package is ridiculously incongruous.  You actually have to like that fact, and I do.  Because the whole premise of these films is that you can take the ludicrous idea of a man spending years being punched by ninjas until he's ready to dress up as a bat, and play it entirely straight.  There's a strong argument to make that Hardy's performance makes it difficult to maintain the latter in the light of the former.  But that's not how it worked for me.  For me it was simply one more expression of the tension these films have maintained all along.

And if you can get past Bane's voice in particular, and the idea that there's a perfect correlation between a villain's quality and that of the film entire, this is definitely a better film that what came before.  Less flabby, less confused, and far more successful in juggling its supporting cast.  Even if Anne Hathaway wasn't extraordinarily easy on the eye (a fact the film is generally classy enough to avoid exploiting, though I'm not sure I'd have included quite so many shots of her - admittedly perfect - derriere as she drives around Gotham in a low-slung motorcycle), I'm sure I'd have preferred her inclusion to that of Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, who, like almost everything else, found himself sidelined by Ledger's tour de force.

My biggest criticism of the film is that I was deeply confused as to what its political subtext was trying to tell me.  Now, the most obvious answer to that is "nothing".  This is the sort of thing I look for in almost any film I see, so I'm certainly not oblivious to the possibility that I'm struggling to interpret messages that are never even there.  Certainly the fact that I thought Dark Knight was similarly schizophrenic would support that hypothesis.  On the other hand, a film entirely put together after a global financial crash which involves more than one character either implying or outright stating that wealthy and the stock market are too powerful and too complacent, and due for a fall? It's really difficult to swallow the suggestion that there's nothing to be read into here.

If we assume there is a message, though, what can it be?  For the first third of the film, it really does seem to be that the rich are arrogant and thoughtless, and bound to be swept away by mobs baying for justice.  When Selina Kyle takes Bruce to task for ignoring the plight of the common man, the scene is structured so we're supposed to disagree because we know what Bruce is really like, not because her opinion of loaded socialites is erroneous in general.  When the shoe-shiner ignored by his snotty, besuited stock-jockey clientele proves to be a gun-wielding anarchist, the lesson to be learned is not that it's a mistake to let commoners of any kind near the ticker-tape machines.

All of which makes sense, except of course that the measures taken to sweep the corpulent felines out onto the street turn out to be disastrous.  The fact that a an angry mob can find its outrage easily enough does not mean they could locate their own arses with similar ease.  Which, again, is fine.  I've read about the Reign of Terror.  Understanding the need for change does not mean embracing every method by which that change might come about.

But if that's true, where are we putting Wayne, Fox, and Gordon?  The bourgeois?  The Scarlet Pimpernel?  The voice of moderation?  Only the last of those really works, but it's problematic to say the least to try and view a film in which a man dressed as a bat uses a helicopter shaped like a beetle to launch rockets at nuke shaped like a beach-ball controlled by a villain shaped like Tom Hardy as intended to be a comment on the importance of not taking things too far.

As I say, this isn't a problem The Dark Knight avoided either, but the obviousness of the historical analogies here makes things more difficult (not that there was no contemporary relevance to the argument about whether mass surveillance is OK so long as it's really really important).  All that said, the text is entirely absorbing enough to compensate for a muddled subtext, and that will do me.

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