The Dark Knight Rises: I would like more attention to detail, please.

This will most likely contain a fuckload of spoilers. You should probably stay away if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet.

I consume a lot of science-fiction and comics-based media. I have for pretty much my whole life – I was raised on a steady diet of the original Star Trek and its attendant sequels, as well as Reeve’s Superman. That stuff shapes a kid. My point is, I’m no stranger to the suspension of disbelief, and I’ll suspend it pretty much as high as you want me to within the context of the world you’ve built. Blue cat aliens whose hair plugs into a worldwide neural network? Fine. A Norse alien god fighting alongside a genetically enhanced super soldier? Okay! A playboy billionaire who happens to build better technology than any ten engineers put together (see what I did there)? Great! Once the rules of the world have been set, I’m there. And that’s pretty much the case with any movie – there’s always a world being built to some extent, and the film set in that world is a bargain between filmmaker and audience. We agree to suspend our disbelief, and the filmmaker agrees to make that suspension worthwhile. For our part, we try not to be too critical of the implausibilities and sometime-fictions that are embedded in the fabric of action/comic/superhero/science fiction films (no one ever gets brain injuries! getting shot ain’t no thang! everyone is cool under fire! what i’m telling you is that i enjoyed Wanted and i have no shame); for the director’s part, they agree not to push us too far.

Which brings me to my problem with The Dark Knight Rises. I willingly – indeed, with great joy – suspend my disbelief for Chris Nolan. I did it for the first two Batman films and was handsomely rewarded with some of the finest action filmmaking and one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema. So I admit my expectations were a bit high walking into Dark Knight Rises. But the balls that got dropped in terms of detail-oriented filmmaking, and the extent to which I was expected to suspend my disbelief on points almost totally unrelated to the narrative in order to make that narrative work, made it feel like Nolan no longer cared about our bargain. I will suspend my disbelief for you, Nolan, but don’t fuck with me.

Gotham City is supposed to be an analogue for New York, but it’s also sort of just Gotham City. The Dark Knight used Chicago as a stand-in, which I thought worked beautifully, but for some reason Dark Knight Rises chose to use New York itself as the setting. And when I say “chose to use,” I don’t mean they filmed a few action scenes in the street (although they did). I mean that at times it felt like half the film was gorgeous, sweeping overheads of Manhattan. You had Manhattan from the east, Manhattan from the south, Manhattan overlooking the lower East River bridges, Manhattan overlooking the 14th St. power station, pickled Manhattan, fried Manhattan, stewed Manhattan … there were a lot of aerial shots, is what I’m saying! Now, I get that all of you don’t live in the New York metro area and even those of you who do might not care about this, but I can’t think of a quicker way to cut every single wire holding my disbelief up in the air (get it? because it’s suspended?) than to completely and utterly fuck up iconic geography. And I don’t mean things like how everyone who ever enters San Francisco in a movie crosses the Golden Gate Bridge even though that makes about as much sense as everyone who enters New York coming in on a submarine. I mean things like getting rid of the Bronx and putting open ocean there. I mean things like adding ten fake bridges to the Manhattan shoreline just to show more shit blowing up. I mean things like sending people into exile/freedom by having them walk across the frozen East River in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge (and don’t even talk to me, the Queensboro Bridge has been iconic since Spider-Man 2). That’s not freedom! That’s Queens!

I get that this is a small thing. I get that it probably didn’t matter to most of you. And yes, I’ve seen tons of movies set in New York that get things wrong. Lots of things, even! I’ve seen movies that allude to my university that get things completely wrong. But I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for actual physical geography as in Dark Knight Rises. When you are using an actual iconic city and you are basically going out of your way to make it obvious what city you’re in – there’s even a shot with the Empire State Building in it, for fuck’s sake – you can’t turn around and pretend you’re somewhere else. Every time I was asked to believe increasingly insane fabrications about where I was, it was like the whole film slammed to a halt around me, over and over, and I had to reconstruct my suspension of disbelief. Eventually I sort of stopped trying. Asking me to accept that sort of nonsense for no reason other than you’re too lazy to work around it is an abrogation of the agreement between creator and audience.

This sort of broad-strokes inattention to – unconcern with? – detail is, unfortunately, a hallmark of Dark Knight Rises. For another example: they introduce the concept of a cold fusion reactor that can be turned into a bomb and make a pretty significant point about the fact that ONE GUY, ONE RUSSIAN SCIENTIST has figured out how to do that, and that the world might be at risk if someone other than this ONE RUSSIAN SCIENTIST figures out how to do it. Fine. So when the scientist is brought to the reactor (with a great deal of pomp and circumstance), how is the incredible difficulty of turning the reactor into a bomb depicted? Well, it’s … not. He’s told to get to work, and a jump cut later, he steps back and says, “It’s done.” My jaw actually dropped, I was so bemused. Really? This is … really? You couldn’t give us a montage? A cut to some other plot point? Anything to indicate that time has passed? And don’t even get me started on the prison Bane throws Batman into. I’m not clear how much of my irritation with that plot point is warranted, so I don’t want to rant about it, but suffice to say I did not like it.

Now, obviously these kinds of details have almost zero impact on the film as a whole, and it definitely feels a little unfair to judge the film as a whole based on its attention to unrelated details. But here’s the thing – that lack of attention was so massive and startling that it actively detracted from my ability to focus on the film as a whole. (It doesn’t help that the film is sprawling, full of new characters and not the easiest to track.) This is just not a tight film, for all that it’s bombastic and ambitious, and for me as a viewer, that ultimately lost my interest.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think this was a bad film by any means. There were many things I enjoyed! Hardy’s Bane in particular was an excellent villain, and while he can’t measure up to Ledger’s Joker, he does his own thing remarkably well. Chris Orr at The Atlantic put it nicely:

The credit is owed primarily to Hardy’s Bane, who, while not quite so indelible a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker (how could he be?), is one several times the size. Hardy has been big in past roles—he gained more than 40 pounds of muscle for his breakthrough role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson—but here he is almost implausibly immense, a mountain of flesh with a neck as thick as a normal person’s waist. With his volcanic physique and a voice that booms metallically from behind a tube-crossed facemask, Hardy commands nearly every scene he is in.

(I hated the voice, FWIW. I was expecting something deep and crackly, like it was being spoken down several lengths of pipe, but Bane inexplicably was given the accent of a for-real Victorian English cartoon villain. His accent brought to mind nothing so much as twirled moustaches while the speaker bellows, “Just so, old boy, just so. Tallyho good chap!”) Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (Catwoman, but who’s counting?) was effective if mostly one-dimensional, and Marion Cotillard was quite good as mysterious clean energy magnate Miranda Tate. The usual suspects of Bale (Batman), Caine (Alfred) and Freeman (Lucius Fox) were typically excellent. The production values are, obviously, sky-high. So … I don’t know. I find it really difficult to assess the film as a whole because my own experience of it was so scattershot, though I am of course very glad I saw it. I encourage you to see and assess it for yourself.

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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13 Responses to The Dark Knight Rises: I would like more attention to detail, please.

  1. Emily says:

    So, while I totally agree with how the location thing was a bit weird in this film, I’d like to point out that a) according to wikipedia, Gotham City is NOT New York, it’s somewhere off the coast of New Jersey (http://batman.wikia.com/wiki/Gotham_City#Geography) and b) what about all the people from Pittsburgh?

    MAJOR SPOILERS:
    Also, weren’t you at least slightly skeeved out by the difference in age between Anne Hathaway’s character and Batman at the end? (There’s no way she’s older than 30 and Batman is probably 38+ by now and looking much older)

    • Sara says:

      I know Gotham isn’t technically in New York, but since that’s the case, I wish they’d been less obvious about where it was shot. The sheer number of aerials was just insane for a movie that isn’t supposed to be set in New York. I think Dark Knight was a little more subtle about being in Chicago, unless I’m completely misremembering.

      I actually did not clock the Kyle/Wayne age difference =X I think Christian Bale is really young in my brain for some reason and I just didn’t notice. But you’re right, of course.

  2. enstar says:

    so i’ve been having a conversation all weekend with my friends about this film, and the trilogy as a whole–because each film, in its own way, is significantly flawed, but is also compelling for other reasons. like, batman begins has a pretty solid middle chunk that stands as a great superhero origin story, but wastes like half of its screen time (at the beginning, with a lot of unfocused weirdness, and at the end, with a really crappy villain in liam neeson’s character of the week). and the dark night is brilliant and mesmerizing, but when you can tear your eyes away from heath ledger, you realize that almost everything to do with the two-face story is really stupid.

    and the third–even above the criticisms you mention, which are absolutely spot on in every way–just does some really uncharacteristic things in its plot and pacing. i also had a problem with gotham, not because it looked too much like but not enough like new york, but because it had no real character or life to it (and it did, in both of the other films).

    but my biggest criticism of all is this: they needed to get rid of marion cotillard’s character entirely. not only is she utterly awful, and pointless, and poorly written, she also completely undercuts the character of bane, who i think could have been a much better villain than he ended up being. her massive, cliched, and awfully scripted infodump at the end was the moment that the film completely lost me–and i was awfully close to giving up on it much earlier, for other reasons too. but that was so, so bad.

    ngl though, i would buy piles of tickets to any followup movies starring jay gee-ell and anne hathaway’s leather-clad posterior. i would buy all of the tickets.

    • Darth Thulhu says:

      Pretty much have to completely disagree about Talia. On second and third viewings, her character is increasingly perfectly diabolical. The plan does not work without her. And absolutely everything she says and does is just a complete, torturous mindfuck. Knowing how the blade goes in, she spends every single scene silently sharpening the blade. It is honestly terrifying to watch, for me.

      She and Kyle are both flat-out awesome. The only disappointment for me was that Talia didn’t get any crazy combat moments, like launching into her own Bat-bike from a crippled Tumbler, or such. The final chase could have been several kinds of more over-the-top.

  3. Darth Thulhu says:

    The visuals didn’t bother me or my friends here in Flyover at all. Other than some time in Chicago suburbia twelve years ago, I’ve never been in a NE metropolis longer than an airport connection time. Gotham is not New York City, and never has been, and the scenes from the movies are all just one big blur of Chicago / soundstage / CGI city / Pittsburgh / et cetera, to me. Until I read a few complaints from NYC natives, I couldn’t have told you any of the scenes were from NYC.

    On that point, I don’t fault Nolan. My thoughts on some of your other points are more complicated. I’ll see if time favors further response tonight.

  4. Darth Thulhu says:

    So, what I felt were weak points sometimes dovetail with your other points, and sometimes don’t. For me, there were three frequent issues: 1) Time Passage Clarity, 2) Gotham’s Condition, and 3) Mediocre Action.

    1) Time-Passage Clarity: The Stock Exchange Caper goes from late-day to DARK in ten seconds. The reactor becomes a bomb in how long? When in the “five months” of fast forward did the magical spine realigning become healed enough for Wayne to resume real training? All of this is mushy and unnecessarily erratic. Bad editing or bad initial filming. Take the shots and stage the scenes to transition smoothly.

    (On this front, though, I have no problem with Bane blathering about “this one Russian scientist”. Bane lies constantly. All of his public announcements are pure manipulation. “This one Russian scientist” is just the dude who first figured out the weaponizing trick. Fox clearly knows how to reverse it. Others probably could, too. The point of “this one Russian scientist” is to say it and then immediately murder him, nothing else. As a practical matter, Pavel was probably the relevant scientist most easy for Bane to acquire. Also, without access to secret WayneCorp blueprints, any other technically capable scientist wouldn’t actually know what the specific reactor details were. Honestly, other than Fox, no other scientist probably could be counted on as “a sure thing” to be able to disarm the thing. All of which is to say, I didn’t find the “one Russian scientist” bits off-putting in the least.)

    2) Gotham-setting. The first two acts are almost a blow-by-blow Dickensian setup of A Tale of Two Cities … except we never really see the poor side. Everything Selina Kyle is telling us about her prior life of poverty, and everything Wayne and Tate talk about as far as the malign self-interest of Gotham’s elite, should set us up to see that Gotham is sliding into a new kind of profound decay. Violent, Batman-able crime may be contained through gross violations of prisoner rights, but we are being expected to believe in a French Revolution pressure cooker. We need to see more squalor. Nolan clearly intends for Kyle’s words and the orphan kids to be enough … but the filmmaking spends way too much time on swank soirées.

    Unlike Batman Begins, the poor do not seem desperate. We are told they are desperate, from multiple viewpoints, but we are never really shown.

    And conversely, the malign corruption of billionaires like Daggett is not conveyed. Tate and Wayne talk about the malign neglect of the wealthy of Gotham, but we need to see screws being put to the Mayor and the Congressman and the Police Commissioner. We need to see the rich getting away with injustice and stacking the deck. We need to see the Dent Act as not a “necessary lie” but as part of a Devil’s Deal that is slowly sending Gotham into a new Hell.

    We get *told* most of this, in one scene or another. On my third viewing, I specifically focused on places where these things get set up. Unfortunately, they are never really properly shown.

    3) Mediocre action.

    Nolan does good set-pieces (see Inception, and see the ridiculously awesome plane assault in the intro). But he is often lackluster at action if he doesn’t have a set-piece in mind. Sloppy mediocrity sets in if he doesn’t keep inserting set pieces … and unlike Batman Begins, there are very few Bat-tacular set pieces of double-plus Batman action here.

    * Worst offender: the motorcycle “chase” was utterly non-climactic. And it ended on the one moment that keeps pulling me out of this film – a motorcyclist crashing into something at 45 mph *keeps going* at 45 mph and skids one hell of a long way. He does not go “whumph” and stop.

    * Machine guns tearing into a charge *mow down* the first few ranks of people. Not one dude here or there. There should have been 100 dead policemen and policewomen bleeding out by the time it became a melee.

    * Bane and Batman and Talia are superhero-level flipping NINJAS. I would like to see that on screen, please. Talia did a bang-up job as an infiltrator, but she deserved at least one crazy piece of wire-fu. She should have been able to murder-kill Matthew Modine’s cop character with some casual blade throw, at the very least. Likewise, Bane and Batman’s second fight was the opposite of impressive. Absolutely zero zany Bat-combat moments occurred.

    As far as homage to half a dozen separate Batman comics continuties and characterization of a huge ensemble of zany people go, the movie was aces. As far as re-enacting A Tale of Two Cities (and Batman!) goes, the film meant well and thought the issue out, but it needed more showing and less telling. As far as having smooth action sequences … meh … everything outside of specific super-awesome set-pieces was servicible but mediocre.

    This could easily have been A+ work, across the board. As a character homage to 6+ Batman comics classics, it *was* A+. But as an action flick it was uneven and only B+, and as a Gotham tale it was really lacking and down in C+.

    Still a great film, as far as I’m concerned, and it makes the other two films in the trilogy better for existing. But also a film with an awful lot of missed opportunities.

  5. mike says:

    the movie was great imho. And I normally don’t mess with Chris Nolan. The only other movie I liked off his is Memento. Everything else has been a little too in love with “darkness” and trick endings. Later for that. And I hated the last Batman but its kinda crazy to go against the last Films hype, people think you are crazy or some such. But I really messed with this movie. Bruce Wayne came off human. I actually had empathy for Bane and Maria Collitards character once you got their backstory. Anne Hathaway was great and no, not cause of the catsuit. She probably needed more screen time though to flesh out the character more. the fight scenes between Bane and Batman, incredible. You are right there with those 2. No crazy editing here to confuse the fight choreography. Loved the Robin reveal etc.

    can’t remember everything but those 2hrs 45minutes flew by, which is more than i can say for The Avengers, a merely solid film.

  6. Danielle says:

    New York: I noticed it too! But I thought it was supposed to be intentional, in that recalling 9/11 and OWS kind of way. I have to admit I didn’t notice Chicago as much in Dark Knight, and at this point I’ve spent an equal amount of time in both places (scary!).

    Bane’s voice: I read somewhere that it was intentionally girly and cartoonish, in contrast to his physique. I’m not a Batman fangirl so I can’t say if this is supposed to reference what he’s like in the comics, but I thought it was intentional.

  7. CitizenE says:

    I am gonna say this here, cause I trust you not to take this personally, so I hope you don’t take umbrage. I am fed up with comic book blockbuster movies that have taken over for action movies for folks to get out of the summer swelter and into air conditioned metroplexes. FED the F*** UP. I don’t get the sturm and drang after a while; it’s atonal. When I finally saw Heath Ledger as the Joker, I thought okay, this is like Nicholson in that Stephen King movie about the haunted hotel. I liked Denzel Washington better in Training Day, but cynical over the top villainy is a goddamn cliche. B-O-R-I-N-G. Give me Ian McKellen or if we really want histrionic, Al Pacino as the hideous, hunchbacked Richard III seducing the wife and daughter of men he’s killed bragging in an audience aside about it. Knowing full well that same mofo is going down screaming “a horse, a horse, a KINGDOM for a horse.” Over the top crazy has been done now for half a millenia.

    And Christopher Nolan is such a cliched filmmaker. So overrated. It’s been decades since the first Star Wars hit the screen, the first real comic book movie of the modern era. It was fun then because no one took it seriously; it was entertainment. But these days, the serious (sorry and I do not wish to single you out here, this is an almost universal phenomenon in our culture) analysis of Batman, Batman–I was reading those comics when I was 5 years old for goodness sakes; why not do Mickey Mouse and the Beagle Boys or Archie and Veronica (Seth Rogan could die his hair and play Jughead; a young Austin Kutchner could have played Reggie–make it very serious and have Paul Rudd in it; Apitow could direct and we could have reams of critical reviews)? Sorry, I am a 66 year old, and I hope you forgive my rant.

    I can’t get to a city where a theater is, so I can’t see Beasts of the Southern Wild, but on my rec my daughter in Austin, who was a film director in college before illness derailed her career, saw it and loved it. I hope you get to see it, and write about that.

  8. DrClaw says:

    it’s Gotham City, not a literal geographical New York. As for Chicago, it was depicted as another part of Gotham that connected to the “Narrows”. The bridges and geography were altered to make both cities blend into a different universe.

  9. Jim M. says:

    Firstly, as noted by other comments, most of the filming was in Pittsburgh and a decent chunk of LA, so I don’t think the NYC imagery was particularly evident for reasons like getting rid of the Bronx. Nolan’s Gotham has always been more industrial looking than present day NYC. (Yes, I know the Loop isn’t exactly covered in factories but I think the legacy is still there with stuff like the El tracks.)

    While I don’t think The Dark Knight Rises is as good as the Dark Knight that is entirely due to near impossibility of following-up on Heath Ledger. That said, it avoids a lot of the clunky mistakes of the second movie.

    a) Nolan gets rid of much of the unnecessary expository dialogue and (ugh) voice over. That ridiculously superfluous Oldman speech at the end of The Dark Knight almost ruined it for me.
    b) Both Hathaway and Cotillard were very good to excellent, which is impressive given Nolan has demonstrated ZERO prior ability to write female characters in any of his movies not just the Batman ones.
    c) This movie was much less preachy than its predecessor. It has a much more ambiguous and realistic morality. Others seem to think it was some sort of screed against Occupy, which, even if true, isn’t an illegitimate position, just a controversial one. But I think that’s wrong. The only two things that come close to firm takeaways are: (i) unequal distributions of power help prevent chaos for better or for worse; and (ii) leveling equality is not necessarily a guarantee of freedom from oppression. Hedging on both statements is less ambitious thematically but that’s good since the ambitious themes that people read into the last one weren’t particularly well handled.

    Admittedly, all parts of (c) could be a result of my own deeply pessimistic view of human nature.

  10. My main hangup was that the plot was absurdly implausible: it all hinges on Wayne asking a very specific _stranger_ to take charge of his company after he suffers a financial reversal.

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