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Making a Good Movie

I am a huge comic book nerd.

I think I’ve made that clear by now.

So, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that my excitement for this summer’s crop of franchise films was rather…fervent. On the one hand, we had The Dark Knight Rises, the follow-up to the world’s most successful superhero film; on the other, The Avengers, the culmination of half a decade’s worth of planning, bringing together some of the worlds most popular superheroes.

Now, I am, admittedly, a little obsessed with the Batman family, so one might assume that I was ready to decry The Avengers as a fluffy knockoff of Christopher Nolan’s gritty masterpiece. But, of course, one would be wrong.

I’ll get it out of the way now: I don’t love Nolan’s Bat-movies. Dark Knight is a technical masterpiece, emotionally carried, not by the romantic interplay between Bruce, Harvey, and Rachel, but by the insane performance of Heath Ledger. It is an extremely well crafted film that I don’t particularly enjoy watching. +++And I f$@%ing hate Batman Begins. I’ll probably get into why later.

The Avengers as a series means less to me. The characters can be fun; I like them all abstractly, but in a passing way. I’d certainly never name my son after one of them. Well, maybe Thor. But…you know…Thor.

Point being, when you read this next sentence, you’ll know where I’m coming from.

The Avengers rocked my world, and The Dark Knight Rises was pretty much crap.

With that out of the way, you can stop reading because I’ve completely lost credibility with you, or you can continue down what will surely become a very verbose rabbit hole.

 

GIGANTIC SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, I’m not going to get into the specific failures of each film, because that’s just and pointless because I’m sure it’s been done a long time ago by other people who are paid to tear things down. No, my goal here is to explore how a film can succeed or fail not because of its flaws, but despite them.

What makes a film fun, despite being technically unsound? What makes a film unwatchable, despite being perfectly shot? It’s not the fact that Hulk smashing Loki is brilliant that makes The Avengers great, and it’s not the fact that character, theme, and plot all fall apart in TDKR that makes it terrible. Well, it’s not those things on their own. It’s how the filmmakers approach filmmaking. In the pre-production of my mind, Joss Whedon said to himself “I have these characters; what story can I tell with them?,” while Christopher Nolan thought, “I’ve got a point to make; how can I use this character to make people get it?” To mildly oversimplify, it’s a matter of the heart versus the mind. Watching The Avengers (or any of Whedon’s work, really), it’s clear that he loves his characters. His stories are based on his joy exploring who his characters are. So, it didn’t really matter that Clint’s archery form was abysmal. It didn’t matter that the finale was pretty much just Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. Because joy is infectious. I loved seeing those characters on screen. Even characters I don’t care about, like the Hulk. I freaking LOVED the Hulk. I was happy just staring at the screen, seeing these characters that someone loved enough to bring to life.

The Dark Knight Trilogy, as it has come to be called, has not these things. From the first, it has been a blunt force hammer to the skull of PSYCHOLOGY, METAPHOR, BIG IDEAS. It certainly didn’t help that it began on the back of David S Goyer, a writer with all the subtlety of an atom bomb, but it seemed like The Dark Knight managed to find just the right fridge to survive that explosion. Then TDKR happened. The Dark Knight was a testament to how magnificent a film can be when the idea behind a film comes to perfect fruition. Did the cowl look terrible? Yep. Was the Keysi Fighting Method still a ridiculous choice? Yeah. Was there any actual chemistry between the romantic leads? Of course not. But those weren’t the point of the film. The Dark Knight, like Batman Begins, had a specific point to make and focused solely on hammering that home. But unlike its predecessor,  The Dark Knight made it perfectly. Batman Begins beat us over the head with FEAR. FEAR IS GOOD/BAD/MAKES PEOPLE DRESS UP FUNNY, all while saddled with classic Goyer dialogue. TDK is about the interplay of order and chaos and society’s reaction to both. And while it is a little heavy handed, it is so meticulously formed that it becomes fantastic. Still, it is not a film of joy, but one of work.

So it is of little surprise that TDKR is a film in the same vein, joyless and full of work, both for viewer and filmmaker (and don’t confuse my reaction to the crafting of the film with the content: TDKR is actually a good deal more hopeful than The Avengers, despite its palette being darker). The problem is that the pieces don’t fit. The perfect order imposed upon The Dark Knight doesn’t exist in it’s follow-up, and without the precision of theme, the film must rely on its component parts, parts that have been lackluster throughout the series, but glaringly so in this final installment. Without the joy that comes from loving your subjects, one must rely entirely on subject matter, and when that is as haphazardly, uncaringly done as in TDKR, the film cannot be anything but a chore. Because, ultimately, movies are about the audience, and audiences are people. Trying to make a point at an audience works when your logic is a perfect force, but it is passion, not calculation, that will win people over when your puzzle pieces aren’t perfectly placed.

Arg. I totally lied. These are the things I hate about TDKR that I can remember after one viewing:

FOUL LANGUAGE AHEAD!

  • Bruce is in hiding because his not-a-girlfriend died? Bullshit. Batman was created as a reaction to people he loved being killed; it is as much his coping mechanism as his mission, and the fact that he would throw it away for that reason is insulting.
  • A cane? All his cartilage is gone? F you. You’re telling me he went from taking down an entire building full of SWAT and joker goons to completely enfeebled through the power of retirement? If that was his last night in action before disappearing, then when the hell did all this damage occur?
  • Selina seems like a pretty good thief. Why is she poor, again?
  • Magic knee brace. Does it fix him? Because if he has to wear it all the time, why the F&CK doesn’t Bane take it off of him after breaking his back?
  • So Bane is off the Venom. Meaning he’s just a normal dude trained by the same guys that trained Bruce. A normal dude with a disability. Batman get his ass kicked by just some guy. Dear Mr. Nolan, when Bruce goes up against Bane in the comics it is epic because Bane is juiced up on super strength drugs and Bats is “only” human. That’s what Batman is about, you a$$hole; a man pushing himself to accomplish incredible things. He is a man that can stand next to Superman and still give orders. You just made him a bitch.
  • So he gives up the most important thing in his life (Batman) because his girlfriend dies. For 8 years he mopes about it. Then he meets a pretty girl and jumps in bed with her on the first date? I think I’m getting the character development here…
  • Bane flies out of Gotham to throw Bruce in a pit and no one notices? No one shoots his plane down? And how freaking long did it take to get there and back?
  • ALL THE CONTINUITY ERRORS
  • Bane’s plan is to plant a bomb in Gotham and see if the citizens will set it off. Because the Joker’s version of that exact same plan was too nuanced. Furthermore, his whole anarchist, see-what-the-little-people-will-do plan sounds interesting, I guess, but in the end, I have no idea because THERE ARE NO LITTLE PEOPLE IN THE MOVIE. There is one scene where some servants (I think?) loot some stuff. Other than that, its city streets completely empty but for generic villains and cops.
  • Catwoman has no point. Take her out of the movie completely and virtually nothing changes. Actually, a lot would probably change, because Batman would actually have to do things for himself for once. Speaking of…
  • “We don’t use guns.” Really, Bruce? Then what about the GIANT GUNS ON THE BATPOD?
  • Joseph. Gordon. Levitt. Look, I like JGL, mostly. He gets a big pass on things because of Brick, and no one would turn down the last Nolan Batfilm, but F#%*(#*%(*%CK his character ruins SO MUCH. I will reveal my second bias here: Nightwing is my favorite superhero. I named my kid Grayson, for F’s sake. So I was ready to feel an extreme about his whole character. First off, naming him “Robin” is Nolan’s giant “F YOU” to fans. Remember all the intricate planning that went into The Dark Knight? Screw it, we’ll just give the masses something to grunt over. More importantly, his inclusion A) cheapens The Dark Knight and B) ruins the one possible redemptive theme in the film. How, you ask? Who am I kidding, you’ve all stopped reading by now. But that mean more swearing from me!
    • “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” Remember that funny one liner from TDK? A civilian is out risking his life to stop crime and Batman straight up mocks him for being poor? That was a good one. Except, apparently, he was being COMPLETELY SERIOUS. If TDKR is to be believed the whole plan for Batman is that “anyone could be behind the mask.” But, of course, by anyone, Bruce means anyone given a secret base, millions in equipment and a constricting cowl. This is made worse because of who Bruce says can and can’t act. Batman is supposed to be a symbol, right? So when that symbol leads people to act for the betterment of their society, Batman lays the smackdown. When JGL says he is full of barely contained rage he gets the keys to the cave. And that’s the biggest failure of the film.
    •  At the end of the second act, JGL yells at Gordon, saying that he and Batman are culpable for a number of despicable acts. He knows that that is not how heroes – or good people, even – act. And here is where the film could turn into something great. Because it is a trilogy spawned by Batman Begins. It’s there in the title. This is how Batman BEGINS. Bruce was the first. And maybe Bruce got it wrong. Maybe he began the legacy, but wasn’t good enough, wasn’t strong enough, to take the heroic path, and so we watch his rise and inevitable fall. But his successor can see his mistakes, learn from them, and Batman can grow from something mundane to something superior. So, with the end of TDKR, we see where Bruce failed, but know that Batman will continue and, more importantly, will grow. But, that’s not what we get. What we get is JGL changing his mind, realizing Gordon was right and deciding to act just like Bruce, which should, thematically, lead us in a nice, neverending circle of stagnancy. Fuck you, Chris.
  • Bruce mopes, then bones Talia, then…runs away with Selina? Have they had ANY interaction beyond hitting people? What possible reason could he have to choose her? Their shared love of tight suits?
  • The fact that it made me want to write something like this. This is not the kind of person I want to be, uncontrollably tearing something down, but it just makes me so angry. And I loved the Hulk too much to control myself.