Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Dark Knight trilogy


Now that the horrors of Aurora have been eclipsed by the horrors of Newtown, is it possible, one year later, to have a conversation about Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy that just discusses the films? Probably not. And that's probably as it should be. The Batman story itself was born of the gun control debate, back in the Golden Age of comics, as a nation traumatized by the rampant gangster culture of the 20s and 30s began to celebrate heroes who won their victories without guns, and whose mission was to destroy weaponized violence. Superheroes are the anti-gun, and none more so than Batman, who has no special powers to rely on to replace those guns: no X-ray vision, no superhuman strength, no resistance to pain and disease.

That debate is front-and-center in the final film in the trilogy. "About that whole no guns thing," says Selina Kyle, shooting her way to Batman's rescue. "I'm not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do." Batman himself may never touch a weapon, but there sure is an awful lot of shooting in Nolan's movies, and Batman's surrogates Catwoman and Robin are pretty comfortable slinging heat. That's just one among many sources of uneasy tension in Nolan's trilogy.

I'll be honest: I deliberately did not see these films when they came out. They looked like dark, murderous glorifications of violence, which felt like an insult to the meaning of Batman. I was also wary of the reboot for fannish reasons. I have loved comics, and the DC universe in particular, since I was a kid, and I didn't particularly want to watch some over-teched, slicked-out, hollow shell of a new incarnation. And also: Michael Keaton. What can I say, I'm loyal.



But there was plenty that I adored in Nolan's films, and plenty that only a true lover of this mythos could have produced. Let me just say Ra'sAlGhulRa'sAlGhulRa'sAlGhul!!! in a high-pitched squealy voice as many times as possible while flapping my hands, because man. Man. Did Nolan ever do justice to that villain, capturing the part of you that wants to love Ra's, wants to adore him. And doing justice by Talia — I really didn't see that one coming. Maybe I'm overly dismissive of Hollywood reboots, but part of me was surprised the writers even knew the name of Talia Al Ghul, much less the complexity of her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Every single villain was just spot-on, throughout this.

What else was awesome? The toys, of course. I realize every Batman reboot is under the technological gun to make the toys better and more exciting, but this really delivered. Nightwing said it best: the great thing about running with you, Bruce, is the toys. Gary Oldman was another gigantic slice of wonderful. His voice! I kept listening to that accent for any flaw and there never was one, not a single misstep. It was completely beautiful. He is the actor's actor, the male Meryl Streep, and anyone who said he wasn't beautiful enough to play Sirius Black should be punched in the face. (Though what is it, a law, that he has to wear that mustache alla time?)

I was less in love with some of the other parts of this trilogy. The loving attention to canon we saw with the villains was completely dispensed with when it came to Robin, and though I realize Joseph Gordon-Levitt's police officer gig was a nod to Nightwing's day job in Bludhaven, it still felt like we were creating Dick Grayson out of whole cloth instead of respecting the material. One of the biggest problems for me in any Batman reboot is its inevitable ignoring of this most basic element of the story: the push-pull tension between Batman as Lone Wolf, and Batman as family man. When he's not busy brooding on rainy rooftops and sulling in the Batcave, let us not forget the man does manage to raise four boys. That tug in two directions is the most complicated part of Batman's story, but it's not one I've ever seen handled well on the screen — well, the non-animated screen, because Under the Red Hood is the most beautiful and thorough exploration of that whole painful family dynamic out there. (No, Val Kilmer taking in Chris O'Donnell in Batman Forever did not count, because explain to me who does not take in seventeen-year-old Chris O'Donnell.)

However, on the plus side was the suggestion of "Robin" taking on the mantle of Batman after Bruce's retirement. That much is canon, and that was fun to see. But all that goodwill the film was building in me got torn down by Anne Hathaway. Don't get me wrong: she was faaaabulous. Anne Hathaway could pick salami from her teeth and I'd still watch, and she was worth it and more in this. And then. . . she kissed Bruce Wayne. I'm sorry, was there anyone sitting in the theater who believed that one? Really? Mmmkay, that woman who lives with her and whom she defends and with whom she fleeces unsuspecting guys and who was just feeling her up three scenes ago — that was her cousin, right? Because I'm sure the studio didn't just slap some heteronormative bullshit on the gayest character in comics. Least sexy kiss in all of movie history.  

Only wood here is the acting, sorry.
Of course, that could have been a way to sew up the Alfred storyline tighter than it was, because that whole thing was left hanging like a four-year-old's pants after a potty trip. No two ways about it: Bruce treated Alfred shoddily. Alfred's sobs at Bruce's graveside tore my heart because they made me hate Bruce that little bit more, right in the final minutes of the trilogy, when the film really needed me to love him. Sorry, I can't wrap my head around a Bruce who treats Alfred poorly. BUT, if when Bruce sees him at that Florentine cafe, he had gone over to him, put a hand on his shoulder, sat down and said, "Alfred, I'd like you to meet my lesbian wife" — well, I feel like that would have gone a long way to setting things right between them.

But really, I've just been kicking sand around what truly bothers me about the Nolan trilogy, and that's Christian Bale. Look. I realize the cosmic unfairness of saying to an excellent actor, "Okay, we are going to wall you in a black Kevlar fortress so you can't really move your head and neck, and the only part of your body that will show is your lips. And then we're going to shove you onto the set and stand you next to Gary Oldman and Heath Ledger and Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (and then, because we're not done kicking you in the groin like Batman in the final minutes of a hand-to-hand with Bane, next to MARION FUCKING COTILLARD) and then we're going to say, okay, ACT! And we will tilt our heads funny and make squinty faces because we're just not feeling it from you." So I recognize it's in many ways unfair to say that Bale's performance was the least exciting thing about this reboot, but there it is. Unfair to call a performance wooden when Batman is made of polished oak, but again, there it is. Bale was consistently stiff and awkward where Bruce Wayne needed to show emotion and vulnerability, and open and emotive where Bruce Wayne needed to be a closed wall. It was confusing at best.

I would like to think the plot holes are going to be resolved when Man of Steel, which Nolan is executive producing, comes out this summer. I have to say I'm with the legions of fangirls on this one: clearly, Batman was snatched from the blast radius by Superman. I know this because there is only one way to travel six miles in one minute forty-seven seconds, and that is safely tucked under Superman's well-muscled arm. It's just a commonplace of the DC universe that Batman will regularly feel the need to crash into something on a suicidal mission (a rocketship into a meteor in Public Enemies, the Watchtower into Earth in Justice League) and Superman will just as regularly rescue him, to Batman's intense annoyance. So this is how I know for a sure and certain fact that Clark Kent swooped in at the last moment to clear him from the blast radius while Bruce was shrieking, "You asshole, I'm goddamn gonna kill you!!" and Clark was sing-songing, "I'm the bigger he-ro, I'm the bigger he-ro."

Anyone around here have a measuring tape? 'Cause we
were just gonna, you know, um. . . compare some stuff. 
Hey, speaking of plot holes, how about that five-inch-wide one in Batman's ribs? You know the one, where Talia Al Ghul shoved her knife in between those armored plates and twisted that motherfucker? Yeah, it can take HOURS to die a painful death from that, and she sure looked like she knew what she was doing. That scene was exquisitely thrilling: oooh, I thought, it's going to be just like that final scene in Gladiator when evil Emperor Commodus shoves the knife under Maximus's breastplate and he has to go out there and fight while slowly bleeding out but he wins anyway even at the cost of his life because he is the goddamn Batman! Except not. Talia shoved her knife in, and that was the last we saw of that wound. Batman goes on to wrestle an armored truck and fly a nuclear bomb, because that Talia Al Ghul, she knifes like a girl. People who complain about abdominal wounds, they are just pussies I guess.

Nevertheless, my love for Nolan's vibrant re-imagining outweighs my reservations. "I loved everything about it but Bale" is as good a summary as any. Sometimes there is such a thing as being too beautiful, and finally I think that's Bale's problem. He just needs to let life punch him in the wide puppy-dog eyes a little bit more before he can sell me on Batman.

Still the prettiest, though.