Thursday, July 26, 2012

Close To Home

Two fisherman trawling the bay near a large American city pull their net out of the water and bring up a dead man's body. Examining the nearby water, they see three more bodies. It's later learned that smugglers bringing in workers from China for what is apparently slave labor, and throwing sick men into the water to drown. Grim business and not, probably, a fit story to tell children. But this story did appear once in Detective Comics. In the first issue, in 1937.

A week ago, an American carried guns into the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises and fired bullets into seventy of his fellow citizens, killing a small child and eleven others. He styled himself, it is reported, after the Joker. In many theatres, but not, it is said, that particular one, a trailer for the forthcoming film Gangster Squad showed gunmen shooting from behind a cinema screen into the audience. I was watching this at very nearly the time that the Colorado shootings took place, thinking of what the filmmakers intended: To make audiences think, this violence is coming for you. To break down the barrier between art and life and emphasize, "to you."

This week, the planned sales of Batman, Inc. #3 were put on hold due to a perceived similarity between a scene in the issue, almost certainly the panel which is shown above, and the events in Colorado. There's no denying a similarity. And yet, by the standards of this long-running story, the scene is mild. Even if the gun were fired, it would still be a far cry from the face-eating scenes in 2009's Batman and Robin #5 which coincidentally preceded a face-eating attack in the real world.

Comics have long intended to represent realistic tragedies, so their heroes might face them. Lex Luthor debuted in a story that depicted a fictionalized version of the German-Polish war that soon became World War Two. That war soon became part of countless comic stories, and no one can deny that its accumulated horrors make anything happening lately seem small in comparison.

But there's a disturbing circularity in the last week's events. The shootings in Colorado happened at a Batman film, and bore some similarity to events in previous Batman fiction, and then immediately an image in the comics bore some similarity to the real event. It could have been aligned even more strikingly if, say, Batman #676's "Green Vulture" had debuted this week, with a red-dyed hack of a criminal aiming a gun at a family, shouting "Body count!" and eventually giving himself up easily. There is no shortage of older scenes one might read and wonder if they inspired some details of the real-world tragedy. So many, in fact, that the possible connections get lost in the noise. Gangster Squad didn't invent the idea of a film showing the audience of a film being shot. A berserk gunman may imitate a work of art accidentally or quite on purpose, but the tragedy is simply the act and not the style. Acts like this have been periodic events in American life since one occurred in 1949. Months after America's first spree killing, a similar tragedy unfolded some 60 miles away. Life can imitate art, and it can also imitate life.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Note: This review is structured in two distinct parts. The first part describes the film without revealing details of fact beyond what could be easily deduced from the trailers and other pre-release promotional materials. The second part includes full spoilers in a more complete review.

I. Non-Spoiler Review

Eight years have passed since the final moments of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent, his crimes hidden by a lie that Batman and Jim Gordon agreed to, has been remembered as a martyr. Some tough anti-crime legislation in his name has allowed the city to put most major crime away. Batman has not been seen since then, and as we all know very well, that absence must end when a new threat arises.

The first of the movie's many acts is stolen by Anne Cathaway as Selina Kyle. She's as confident and glamorous as any Catwoman you've imagined, without ever for a moment trying too hard. She may have been tacked to the plot as an add-on or even merchandising gimmick, but at times the gimmick exceeds the main story in worth.

Though whatever shortcomings the movie may hold, it's not for a lack of inspired performances. Tom Hardy's performance as Bane is brilliant, as is the character himself. One imagines many action casting decisions over the years where a powerfully-built brute is chosen and capable acting is sacrificed. Not here. With a megaphone-like voice emanating from his mask, Bane intimidates you in your seat in three ways at once, for his diabolical evil, his great power, and the quickness of his mind. Neither the script nor Hardy try to make this role bigger than the last movie's Joker, but there is nothing to apologize for in the choice of villain.

Christian Bale gets to play Bruce Wayne / Batman many ways in this one. As a scraggy shut-in, a man of uncertain will to live, and with - in comparison to the earlier films - more (and more comprehensible) time in the bat mask itself.

This is a film with many, many nods to comic books and graphic novels. Fans will challenge one another to see who can catch more sly references, though some of them are exceedingly obvious to anyone who knows anything about Batman. More front and center, fans may ask themselves which previous Batman opus is the most important inspiration for this plot. There is no one right answer.

For me, and I suspect for by far most viewers, this film will languish in comparison to The Dark Knight because it lacks, for the most part, that film's moral complexity. TDK, as I argued in my review, transcended the super hero genre entirely, and served as a workable crime movie of the second, if not the first, rank. The Dark Knight Rises is an action movie. Even in comparison to Batman Begins, this is a movie of the pre-Nolan genre of super hero movie, and no matter how well it carries off that task, it will have people second-guessing the Joker's line from TDK: "You've changed things. There's no going back." This is an epic story, in more ways than one. But all of the things that made Nolan's Batman remarkable were put back on the shelf. One wonders how, having earned the plaudits he did for the previous movies, he could be so willing to go back. This film might have served as a good third movie in the previous Batman series. If it had come then, no one would have complained. Coming after TDK, the appeal will have to be in just how well it does as an epic.

II. Spoiler Review. Very big spoilers follow. After a few blank lines, they begin. You were warned.

For eight years, Bruce Wayne has been shut in his home, reclusive and so beaten up from his days as Batman (perhaps just that last fall that killed Harvey Dent) that he cannot walk easily. Gotham has moved on and it thinks it's doing fine. It seems fine, but that's because nobody knows that Bane is coming. Like a freight train he's coming, and in a sharp distinction from the comics' Knightfall, he's not after Batman. He's simply after Gotham. Like R'as al-Ghul and the Joker before him, destruction is his goal, not profits. In fact, we will learn early on, he like Bruce was trained by the League of Shadows. As we learn while his plan is underway, he in fact wants to pick up precisely where R'as left off. Destroying Gotham so it may begin a renewal is his only aim. He is perfectly willing to overcome Batman when that proves to be necessary, but that is an afterthought.

In the first of many events shocking in terms of the Batman comics' mythology, Selina steals Martha Wayne's very pearl necklace right in front of Bruce's eyes. She's very skilled, morally gray (a thief, but not a destroyer), and she helps wake Bruce from his long sleep. In fact, she's working for Bane, although she doesn't appreciate the evil she's serving.

Bruce somehow manages, after years of hobbling on a cane, to rush out to challenge Bane's gang and end up escaping the police. The speed of his recovery is inexplicable; was he insufficiently motived to walk normally during the last eight years? The dialogue of the police officers is drawn right from Batman's reappearance in The Dark Knight Returns; moments later, when Selina disappears on him, he says, "So that's how that feels," a line Bruce says about Superman in Kingdom Come. So we see the homages are in full force. Even more so when we find out that Bane's first caper served simply to bankrupt Bruce.

As Bane's evil plan moves forward, Jim Gordon works through a Nolan favorite, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Detective Blake, who gets a curious amount of screentime. Bruce gets in bed with another Nolan regular, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate. Both of these serve very well all film long before escalating dramatically in importance during the final minutes.

Bane of course breaks the poorly-conditioned Bruce in a fight which is no fight at all. He keeps Bruce in custody, in a death trap that's almost impossible to escape from, which of course means that he escapes from it. The mood here has a touch of Batman, R.I.P. to it in that Bane wants Bruce to suffer psychologically, broken, and watch the harm he does to Gotham. The harm he does is brilliantly effective. Using a nuclear weapon to hold the whole city hostage indefinitely, Bane creates a city cut off from the United States, clearly a nod to No Man's Land, right down to the chalk bat-symbols written on walls.

Of course, Bruce gets back into shape, escapes his prison, and goes back to Gotham to stop Bane. It is in carrying out these obligatory steps where the film is by far the weakest. It is so formulaic that this all must happen, we wonder where the brilliance of The Dark Knight went. It is obligatory, and takes a long time in unfolding. The scenes of Bane's destructive three-month dictatorship over Gotham (with Jonathan Crane returning as a judge in a kangaroo court) come as a refreshing break between scenes of Bruce getting in shape which may as well have had the Rocky theme playing over them.

Bruce does return, and he does get the best of Bane in a fight. As soon as he threatens to kill Bane, the movie becomes something else entirely. Suddenly, Miranda (note, the wizard's daughter from Shakespeare's The Tempest) drives a dagger into Batman's ribs, and the comic fan may recall that in Bane's second attack on Gotham, he was allied with Talia. So here, where their backstories are intertwined in a bit of explication with scenes of a child whom we thought was Bane in flashback was actually Talia. Her knife attack seems fatal, and given the movie's promotional claims that the legend ends, we wonder if it might be. In fact, being bled by a woman is Robin Hood's death, and this simple act resonates with a vast web of comics (and meta-comics) lore: Alan Moore cited Robin Hood as the sort of legend that Batman ought to be, and Neil Gaiman gave Batman such a death (among several) in Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? That story comes back in yet another reference as Batman escapes the injury to lash the nuclear bomb to his flying "Bat" vehicle and soars off to sea, getting far enough that the detonation spares the city, but takes him with it, very like a sacrificial death Batman chooses in Gaiman's story. By this time, Bane and Talia are dead. The city is saved.

More twists await. While Bruce (whose secret was at last made known to Gordon) has gone, we see that Detective Blake, himself an orphan, is preparing to play a very Batman-like role which will begin in the near future. The kicker: We learn that his real name is Robin. And for the twist of twists, a la The Dark Knight Returns, we see a final sighting, real unless it's Alfred's wishful thinking, of Bruce and Selina romancing one another in Florence.

This is a movie full of wonderful elements, but for the reasons I've already noted, it sags terribly in the middle act, and aspires to something so much less than it could have been. This will not be remembered as the best movie of the series - more likely the worst, but the worst of a very good trio. And though it endures poorly, it ends well. And isn't that what a super hero story is supposed to do?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dark Knight (2008)

When a rabbit is chased by a dog, it zig-zags, making abrupt, unpredictable deviations to its path. This is good work by Nature. Dogs, with their larger stride, can run faster than a rabbit in a straight line, while the smaller rabbit has a shorter turning radius. Each turn is executed as soon as the rabbit thinks of it, but the dog has to observe the turn and react, beginning it later, then completing it more slowly. The randomness is key to the rabbit's success. If the dog could predict each turn, it would make it sooner. Unpredictability is a valuable thing for the weaker party.

This dynamic has been part of the Batman-Joker relationship since the start in 1940, except the Joker is the predator. He knows he can't win face-to-face. "You didn't think I'd risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fist fight with you?", Heath Ledger's Joker asks Batman. He notches all of his successes with the things he does when Batman's not around. He, like the Joker in Batman #1, conceals death traps so sneaky that they kill his intended victim even when the cops are standing guard nearby. He consistently plants bombs where he needs them, and when he delivers an ultimatum, he conceals reality, creating reverse appearances. His thugs are really hostages. The address where he says Rachel is being held is actually where Harvey is. His phone is a detonator.

Reversing course is built into his goals as well as his means. He twice hopes for Batman to kill him, and once puts a loaded gun to his head while someone with excellent reason to shoot him has his finger on the trigger. He accumulates a mountain of cash, then burns it. How does he get the upper hand on Batman in the locked room interrogation scene? By not minding how badly he gets beaten.
How does he walk into a room full of mobsters and walk out unharmed? With explosives under his jacket. The Joker is a suicide bomber who wants to watch the world burn. Yes, this movie was made with the September 11 attacks in mind. The Dark Knight shines in part because of the haunting performance by Ledger, who didn't live to see the film debut, giving demonic conviction to Christopher Nolan's vision of a Joker for the post-9/11 world, and to beat him, Batman has to employ the wiretapping tactics of the post-9/11 authorities, with all the moral uncertainty that Morgan Freeman voices as Lucius Fox.

But the Joker, like Batman, is a comic book character, and The Dark Knight succeeds most because it is the first comic book movie to completely cross genres into the crime thriller. There are brilliant comic book moments along the way, not least when Batman snags a criminal mastermind from a skyscraper in Hong Kong.

But for a large fraction of the film, there is no masked crimefighter or crazy clown on the screen, and in those scenes, this is not that kind of movie. When Aaron Eckhart portrays a district attorney and Gary Oldman portrays a cop, these are performances that could fit right into a Martin Scorsese film and no one would doubt the actors' or the script's or the direction's credentials. This is a good film without asking us to forgive the pandering to comic book conventions. Never better, in fact, than when Christian Bale's Batman stands on a rooftop with the aforementioned pair and brings a moment from the graphic novel The Long Halloween to the cinema and makes it work when Commissioner Gordon reacts to Batman's sudden disappearance by explaining to Harvey Dent, "He does that."

Bale succeeds again by playing Batman smart, and playing him sane. He has no wild compulsion to play Batman and is driven more than anything else to find a way to stop having to be Batman, by finding a better hero, a non-comic-book hero, in Harvey Dent, whose nickname The White Knight provides the real foil to the title. It's a heady moment when a super hero film ends with the hero telling the man with the gun, "You were the best of us." And as Batman takes the rap and flees the scene, we get a murky ending where Batman, with inspired fisticuffs and a couple of lies, won the battle for Gotham's soul, but is now on the run, and has begun a disappearance from his hero identity that will give the Nolan films an opportunity to conclude by showing us what happens when the Dark Knight returns.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman Begins (2005)

In every version of Batman, a wealthy man with almost mystical resolve and unrealistic abilities dresses up like a small winged mammal to wage a personal war on crime. All of the contradictions in fact and in tone are there in that sentence, and everyone who creates a Batman story may choose whether they want to make the tale light or dark. Both ways have worked.

Christopher Nolan has adopted a dark tone to pronounce the simplest morals that the lighter versions of Batman uphold: Overcome your fears; get up when you fall; refusing to kill is what makes the hero better than his enemies. And Bruce Wayne's erstwhile love decides from mere minutes around him that he's not the boy she once loved. As an adult, why is she still that same girl? The shallow depths of Bruce's and Rachel's missed romance portrays the contradiction at the heart of Batman Begins: Platitudes scripted for children are the take-home messages of a movie children shouldn't see.

As the title indicates, this is a fictional how-to manual for a fictional sort of man, the superhero without super powers. With some guidance from the League of Shadows, Bruce learns the methods he needs to become a legend. He doesn't wear a batsuit out of a flamboyant compulsion: His theatricality, never so evident as when he blasphemes "Swear to me!" is a calculated means to an end. This is a sane Batman, selfless and self-possessed. He is sometimes off-balance physically, but never -- in his adult life -- mentally. We see the pain it causes him to sacrifice the pleasurable life his vast means and kind heart would have allowed.

The story arc allows Batman to deliver an epic salvation that Gotham may never appreciate, that it had been scheduled for destruction on a par with Constantinople or the Great Fire of London. Co-opting actual historical catastrophes as misdeeds of the fictional R'as al-Ghul is a subtle way to add a touch of reality to the myth.

The cast of characters is largely populated with those from the comics, altering a few key relationships, but drawing directly from some of the best-regarded stories. Lucius Fox and Alfred converse with Bruce in the film's few comic moments, trading light jests that leaven the tone and remind us that Bruce still knows what a joke is. The audience knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Enthusiasts realize that super heroes have a third personality, who the hero is when he or she isn't acting, around confidantes. Christian Bale excels in his portrayals of all three of these personas, with wit as the real Bruce, pompous delight as spoiled playboy Bruce, and the intensity of a carnivore as Batman.

The Nolan series of Batman films, which culminates seven years with its third and final installment this week, forges a new continuity with numerous Easter eggs that draw upon the Batman comics tradition. And it has done something more. Just as Liam Neeson's Ducard presses Bruce Wayne to become something more than a man, a legend, the Nolan series has had the opportunity to build Batman up into something more than a three-film action character. Perhaps there is something more to Batman, a true American legend. Just as in this film an imperfect man made himself a symbol, the Nolan series has contributed to the existing quality has of Batman as something more than an action hero who dresses up like a bat to fight crime. Batman Begins is the story of a fully-actualized man, and how he got that way. So for whatever flaws, simplicity, and eccentricity it bears, it feeds the pop legend of self-improvement and self-actualization so that in our culture, a person accomplishing any victory at all may be understood if they comment with pride, "I'm Batman."