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!