Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Once More With Feeling

WARNING: Spoiler ahead. Stop reading if you haven't seen the movie.

This isn't a review and it's not a blog post picking apart The Dark Knight Rises. I'll say from the beginning that I thought it was an epic and amazing film. I was drawn in from the first frame and left breathless until the last.

That said, a lot of people really didn't like it and multiple bloggers have laid down their case either for or against on various blogs and sites around the Internet. One of the reasons I've decided to write this is that despite the many flaws of the film, I still found it to be an enthralling and entertaining experience. And so have many others. Why?

I actually think there's a great lesson for filmmakers here, one that even the best directors and writers continually fail at. I believe it's what separates great films from good ones; memorable films from forgotten ones. 

Why did I like The Dark Knight Rises so much, despite it's logic flaws, despite those things that have already been pointed out by other writers/reviewers? Why can I forgive those things? Because unlike most movies these days, The Dark Knight Rises made me feel. I connected with it on emotional level. I was left reeling when Gotham was turned upside down. I felt a collective sense of hitting bottom, wondering "how can they come back from this?"

I felt loss when Alfred left. I wondered, how on earth, we could come back from this? And I was right there with Bruce Wayne, in that prison, as he pulled himself and said "nope." I wanted him to climb that wall, I wanted him to make that leap, I wanted him to return and save Gotham.

Now of course, you're probably saying, "Well, yeah, that's what everyone wants." But for me, it's less about what I "want" and more about what I "felt." I felt it. This movie about a man dressed as a bat connected with me on an emotional level. I don't fully know why and choose not to dissect it, but it represents and executes what, in my opinion, movies are all about: that feeling of being a little kid and looking up at a giant screen and seeing a hero right there before your eyes. 

I think that, generally speaking, movies these days have become less about making you feel something and more about being cool, or showing off cool shit -- in fact, I think superhero movies are collectively the guiltiest parties. I don't care about Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk. I don't feel anything when I see them. I saw Gladiator five times in the theater because having gone through what you do watching that movie and you hit that end scene, it's just: magic. I saw Traffic five times for the same reason. It's why I can be flipping the channel and see Forrest Gump on and start bawling, even though I've seen the movie a million times.

Knowing I would be seeing The Dark Knight Rises on Sunday, I spent Saturday re-watching Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And you know what? As much as I love The Dark Knight, as much as Heath's performance as the Joker blew me away and will never be forgotten, I didn't feel anything watching it. I didn't feel loss when Rachel died, I didn't care about Gordon's kid, I didn't care about the people on the ferries. I thought it was a brilliant film, amazing on every technical level, and really cool. But I didn't feel anything watching it, nor did I watching Batman Begins (though I did find it to be a much better movie than I remembered, still a touch too fantastical, but whatever). 

And at the end, when I thought Batman had died, I not only felt loss, but I felt...okay with it. I'd like to pretend that Alfred's sighting of Bruce is really nothing more than a vision, than an idea that, while dead, perhaps Bruce has now gone to a better place, free of his demons, free of the weight he carried with him. I'd like to think that part wasn't real, that it wasn't part of some trick to make you go "Whup, look!" I'd like to think that Nolan is smarter than that. He has too much power. He could have done whatever he wanted. I very much doubt he would have tacked on a happy ending because the studio made him. (Funny enough, I was just discussing with my wife and we both thought that Alfred was going to look up, smile, but that we wouldn't cut to what he was seeing, that we would have been left wondering...in many ways, that would have been better.) I think Batman died saving the citizens of Gotham from one of the worst things imaginable -- that he gave them "everything."

I felt the same way I did when watching Gladiator for the first time. "What?! He died? How is that an ending? He came all this way and now he's just gonna -- oh! Right, the afterlife with his family, is where he wanted to be all along. I'm okay with that." I think it's the same. Think back to The Dark Knight, Harvey's quote and one of the last lines by Batman in the film: "You either die a hero or you live long enough to become the villain." Batman died a hero.

I'm sure many people will speak to the moment of realization that the auto-pilot was always working as a clue to saying "Oh, he must have jumped out (or something)." I'd take the opposite look at it: that, in fact, the auto-pilot did work, but that Batman knew he couldn't leave something like that to chance. That the only way to ensure that Gotham was safe was to do it himself, as he always had before. And that having done that, having returned and become the hero, Bruce Wayne is now in a better place. Alfred's "sighting" was just a vision, a hope, a belief that, perhaps Bruce has finally found peace.

What do you think?


  1. For the sighting with Bruce, Bruce was with "cat woman". I see it as they started a new life and wanted to give Alfred a happy feeling after the misery of of leaving then having to bury him again.

    But I also see him having jumped out of the Bat and leaving coordinates for robin as an open ending to be able to extend the series. Sure it won't be with Christopher Nolan but hey... they just need to find someone close to his acting and a script as dark as the three that just finished.

  2. Great post. But I agree with the comment above that it's his way of starting a new life.

    I could forgive the little holes in the movie too but I wasn't sure why until you nailed it. It's because I was connected to it on an emotional level.

  3. Nolan has also done here exactly what he did with Inception - given us an ending that makes perfect, 100% irrefutable sense in at least two different interpretations. Did Cobb's totem stop spinning or keep going? Did Alfred really see Bruce or did he just imagine he did?

    See, for me, I could have accepted Batman's noble sacrifice right up until we saw Alfred bawling by the Waynes' gravesides. That's when I thought 'no way could they close the trilogy on a downbeat ending after something like that - we need a glimmer of hope here.' So I think the cafe scene is reality.

    Somebody sat next to me could have thought something entirely different - the beauty of a well-crafted open ending like this is that we're BOTH right. And internet trolls searching for indisputable truth in all things be damned :P

  4. Enjoying TDKR requires messiah-like trust in Nolan that he'll eventually reward us, as long as we don't get too hung up on all the plot holes and leftover genre tropes.

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  5. Either way you look at it, (death or retirement) Bruce's journey as Batman is over. For me, that's where its power lies. Nolan has said that comic books are all second act; by which I think he means there's never any real ending because everyone has to come back next month (or next sequel). That dilutes the power. For there to be real resonance, there has to be an end.

    The likes of Kevin Smith and Harry Knowles proclaim that Batman would never retire over a woman, but worship The Dark Knight Returns, where he's been gone for a decade because he got a bit creaky. They call out the magic knee brace, but skirt around Miller's magic arm brace. They seem pissed that Rises doesn't give them the week-in, week-out Batman they know and love... But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Was Miller's Batman the one everyone knew and loved in 1986? Of course not. Nobody had dealt with him the way Miller did, and nearly thirty years later, it's become one of the touchstones.

    It's true there are a whole bunch of elements that don't really work if you give them more than scant attention, and the whole thing feels so long that I've sat down a number of times trying to figure out what I'd cut, but it's not as easy as it looks. There's nothing in there that doesn't DO something, and isn't connected to something else that would be altered irrevocably by its removal. For a 160 minute movie it's actually woven very tightly. Does every part perform the right function in the correct manner? Maybe not for you or I, but that's the nature of art, and as much as we might talk about construction and machining; this IS art.

    My initial feeling was that it's over-ambitious; on second viewing I appreciated the scale and the emotional payoff of the end of Bruce's journey much better. On the third all the flaws popped again.

    One thing's for sure; if I keep having a slightly different experience each time, I sure as hell can't argue I've not had value for money.