The Hardy Boys
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
Could a bat and a cat really breed? They share two of their three letters. That’s just one of many questions that doths its cap to your brain as you watch Christopher Nolan’s overwrought, overlong, sometimes disjointed third Bat-Pic. Because it doesn’t have the focus or coherence of Ledger’s requiem, the mind’s roving mic gets passed around quite a bit. Voices from cinema’s past torment you: there’s the twang of Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil talking about “easily escapable situations”, there’s Peter O’Toole in Supergirl, discussing the ascent from the phantom zone, ah yes and Michelle Pfeiffer, a siren in latex, all those years ago, saying “yes Miss Kitty, I feel so much better”, and you were so much better Michelle – you had a real part for one thing. Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle wouldn’t have settled for being a human panacea for Bruce Wayne’s woes.
In a movie with many problems: it’s a necropolis for style, the story pivots on a plot hole the size of Christian Bale’s adrenal gland (just how the hell did Wayne get from his foreign prison to a locked down Gotham with no money and no resources?), there’s none more discombobulating than Nolan’s dour realism.
It’s turned the Batman experience into something like a sexless Eyes Wide Shut party. You’re invited to join a room full of earnest types, the kind that never laughed as children – Bertrams and Belindas who’d tug at mother’s skirt and say, “ignore papa, I want a teat”, though they were 8 years old, indulging in masked horseplay. It’s oddball fetishism in a world with pretensions to reality.
Frankly, I blame 9/11. I blame it for everything from that sour look on your face to the rolling back of the imagination. It’s this idea, now sorely dated, that fantasy’s grounded and adult entertainment must have a fist up the zeitgeist. Which ridiculant decided that artifice was passé? Not a movie lover. The Dark Knight Rises, like its po-faced predecessors, courts relevance. It wants to talk about terrorism and civilisation, wealth and power. We see bankers strapped to motorcycles and the rich dragged from their homes by a baying mob. Future film historians will have no trouble marking this as a post-financial crisis blockbuster. Fine, but Bane and Catwoman talk like student revolutionaries. The content of their characters is emptier than Bruce Wayne’s safe.
All three movies experiment with the idea that flat characters can move through a film, their shallows unmarked, provided they become spokespeople for an idea. They talk about their respective preoccupations and exchange bios. Imagine the Godfather, one of many movies aped by Nolan, being made the same way: Coppola saying to Brando and Pacino, “Marlon, you represent traditional gangsterism, you know, honour amongst thieves, that flavour of bullshit, and Al, you’re a realist. No need for either of you to project any kind of inner life, just talk about your respective points of view – the audience will get the idea.”
Ignore the dressed up simplicity and you could imagine that this was the Bugatti Veyron of popular entertainment; it’s the most expensive around; but the truth is that Batman works best when the story is about his world, not ours. In the Gotham of DC comics and yes, a couple of vintage Tim Burton adaptations, Bob Kane’s characters didn’t have to apologise for their theatricality, nor adjust for credibility.
Given the hysteria around Nolan’s trilogy, though with deafening silence from fems we may need another word for it, it’s now considered heretical to say that the 1989 take on the character and his backyard was better conceived, so let’s say it. Burton’s films took place in a world framed by sets and punctuated by frames. It was grand artifice; a hyper-real noir stocked with glorious grotesques. In the movie world of Batman, it was possible to imagine an Out of the Past era Kirk Douglas occupying the same skyscraper as Jack Palance’s mob boss. Sure, the movie struggled to tell its story, like a constipated man trying to squeeze waste through uncooperative guts, but the design, the mise-en-scene, the score – all served to give this hermetically sealed world dimensionality. It’s a quality that Nolan’s flat and matter-of-fact universe lacks.
In this featureless, often boring Bat-scape, psychological depth is an illusion achieved by decking the film with real world furniture. It’s a good trick (and Jokers are wild) because it flatters critics’ intellectual vanity, allowing them to wax lyrical about comic book characters in terms usually reserved for literary ones. There’s intensity, certainly, and someone should buy Nolan a drink for refusing to saturate his frames with pixels, but the lack of shade, of life, makes the experience of these pictures like watching TV through your neighbour’s window. You just can’t get into it. Hans Zimmer’s musical foreshadowing – that’s the term used to describe a score without melodic value – is married with dramatic foreshadowing. It’s an innovative approach to realising heightened realities that should never be repeated.