19 July 2012

Dark Knight and ridiculous plot

A day ago, I saw The Dark Knight Rises, the third movie in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  In brief, I thought it was decent, but not great.  For several reasons, though, I thought it was exactly like Batman Begins, and so if you really loved that movie, you'll love this one.  I didn't.

(Warning: this post contains complete plot spoilers for every aspect of all three movies  For serious.)

I'll start by praising some aspects of The Dark Knight Rises that I particularly appreciated.  First of all, Bane is an amazing villain, fully realized and compelling.  The juxtaposition between his hulking puissance and his creaking-but-cultured voice meant that he dominated every scene - even when Batman was there, Bane was the interesting person.  This was a welcome change from the truly painful Bane of Joel Schumacher's campy Batman and Robin.  That Bane was a ridiculous thug powered by super-steroids.

The new Bane is from the comics.  The uninitiated might not be aware that Bane was the a brilliant strategist of the "Knightfall" storyline in the comic.  When he sets out to defeat Batman, he does so through the most clever and obvious expedient: he simply blows open Arkham and lets loose the entire imprisoned legion of madmen within.  Batman is forced to track and capture all of his opponents, one after the other.  And finally, when Batman is weary and battered, Bane confronts him, and breaks the back of the Bat over his knee.

In the movie, it happens differently, of course, but they still try to get to that moment.  And that's when I realized that this was both the strength and weakness of The Dark Knight Rises: they were trying to portray a series of dramatic moments, but didn't quite connect them well enough.

After "Knightfall," Batman must train himself and return to Gotham.  But his confidence has been broken, and even after turning to the fearsome assassin Lady Shiva to return him to fighting strength, he is never confident enough to engage in the death-defying acrobatics necessary to swing around Gotham on a bat-line.  In particular, there is one terrible jump in the city, a straight fall from a prominent tower, where perfect timing is required to correctly grapple and swing away on an outcropping a hundred feet below.  It takes a long time before Batman is finally able to dive from a skyscraper, whip out a line, and slice through the air as he had done before.  Every aspect of the prison scene from The Dark Knight Rises was an attempt to build up to that same moment, when Batman must shed his fear and make a leap.

Another example of the attempts to seize moments and put them in the movie is the martial rule of Bane over Gotham.  This is an attempt to create the atmosphere of the long "No Man's Land" storyline, when a massive earthquake cut the city off from the rest of the country, and a few policemen and the Batman crew had to try to maintain order.  It was a desperate time.

I appreciated all of that, because I loved the long arc of the comic - Batman's defeat, his recovery, and his triumphant return.  But unfortunately, it doesn't work in the movie.  There's just not enough time to tell all of these stories, crammed into one movie.  It's why the movie feels jumbled, as it tries to shift gears rapidly.  The Dark Knight Rises tries to evoke too many things, simultaneously or in rapid sequence, and their atmospheres all conflict.

The movie might have survived this problem, though, if it hadn't been for the plot.  The plot of The Dark Knight Rises is so silly that it's almost insulting, and it's a big reason why The Dark Knight was amazing, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises are only mediocre.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne trains with a group of judgmental ninja, but eventually must fight them as they plan to destroy Gotham.  Their plan is to pour a fear-inducing chemical into the water supply for week after week, then to turn it into an aerosol with a microwave transmitter that travels through the city on the elevated train, vaporizing the water.  They try to get the transmitter to the central water station, at which point it would vaporize all the water in the whole city.  This plan, of course, is way too complicated and silly.  It would have made much more sense to simply drive the transmitter to the central water station in a van, then turn it on there.  They didn't do this because it allowed Christopher Nolan to have the cool moment where Batman flies backward off the train, leaving the transmitter and the chief ninja to die.  It's also a little silly to have a secret organization devoted to judging all the cities of the world, but whatever.

In The Dark Knight, on the other hand, the plot was enormously better.  The two villains, Two-Face and the Joker, each had simple motives.  The insane Two-Face wanted a twisted vengeance.  The Joker wanted to cause chaos and destruction.  Their plots were similarly intelligent and simple.  Two-Face kidnapped people and shot them 50% of the time.  The Joker blew people up with timed explosives.  It got a little silly near the end, with the magical cell phone technology, but even the Joker's twist with the hostages (dressing them up like clowns) is simple and clever.  Combined with Heath Ledger's amazing performance, it made this into a great movie.

In The Dark Knight Rises, things went back to the ways of Batman Begins, but just got ridiculous.  Spoilers! Talia, the daughter of the ninja from the first movie returns, intent on destroying Gotham.  She does this by becoming incredibly wealthy, and over the course of seven years invests in fusion technology with Wayne Enterprises, which builds a fusion reactor.  After seven years, her ally Bane arrives in town, and engages in a complicated robbery that reduces Bruce Wayne to penury and opens the way for Talia to take control of Wayne Enterprises.  Bane then breaks into the company basement and steals all of Batman's technology, then steals the fusion reactor's core and turns it into a five megaton nuclear bomb.  He breaks Batman's spine and sticks him in a prison, and then proceeds to take over Gotham for five months.  At the end of this time, he and Talia plan to nuke the city, finishing her father's intentions.

Now, since their goal was to destroy Gotham, why engage in this ridiculously circuitous plan?  If you're a multimillionaire with access to an elite team of ninja, wouldn't it be trivially easy to get a conventional nuclear bomb?  Five megatons isn't particularly impressive - it's about a tenth of the power of the USSR's "Tsar Bomba" bomb, which was 97% fusion.  Why do all these silly machinations that take seven years?  Just buy a nuke or steal one, and nuke the city.  It would take a week, and would be a lot less risky than forcibly capturing an experimental fusion reactor.

And what was the point of the difficult and dangerous raid on the stock market, when they were just going to steal the reactor anyway?  As far as I can tell, removing that entire sequence doesn't affect the movie at all, or their plan.

But even if you did the whole first part of the plan, why wait five months to nuke the city?  Nuke it on the first day.  It's torturing Batman really so important that you'll put your entire plan in jeopardy and draw things out for half a year?  It's not like the world is going to learn any sort of lesson from Bane's forcible rule over Gotham - there's no moral "mankind is basically evil" style of instruction involved when you free all the prisoners and give them machine guns.

None of it seems to make any sense, and that's because the plot is this flimsy thing jury-rigged out out of spit and baling wire, designed purely to carry us from artificial moment to artificial moment.  Added to these problems was Catwoman: it wasn't hard to top Halle Berry's performance, but Anne Hathaway remained woefully inferior to Michelle Pfeiffer's magnetic madness in Batman Returns.

All in all, The Dark Knight Rises was mediocre, especially when compared with its predecessor.  Sorry, folks.


  1. The point of the stock market scene was to make Wayne poor and to let that one guy take over the company so they could get to the reactor they stole anyway

  2. Dark Knight was way, way better. I agree with most of your points, but I had a few others you can check out over at http://www.traciloudin.com/2012/07/the-dark-knight-rises-movie-review.html if you're interested (there was THAT much wrong with it). I linked to this post as well. My main problems with the movie revolved around characters' motivations. A scifi site I regularly read posted an article entitled something like "Seven Reasons It's Okay Not to Like TDKR" that had a few other good points (also linked to in my blog post somewhere).

    I wanted to like this movie, which is what made the pitiful screenplay so frustrating.