Batman Back-and-Forth, Day 3: Time for Tangents, Jokes, and Obscure References

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In many ways, The Dark Knight Rises is the movie of the year, and here at Sing All Kinds we seem to have a disagreement on our hands. Chris Herrington thinks The Dark Knight is the best film in the trilogy. Greg Akers finds The Dark Knight Rises to be the superior film. This week we're hashing it out here. NOTE/WARNING: Spoilers will be flying like batarangs.

Tuesday, Herrington made a “sprawling,” “commanding,” and “entertaining” case that The Dark Knight (DK) is the best in the bunch. Yesterday, Akers wrote the War & Peace of off-the-cuff Batman blog posts in trumpeting The Dark Knight Rises (DKR). Today, Herrington is back to respond to Akers' tome:

Herrington: Fine, Greg, you win. Your post exhausted me almost as much as the opening-hour set-up stuff in Batman Begins, which, by the way, our Flyer film colleague Addison Engelking would like to point out is his favorite of the Nolan/Batman trilogy, along with asserting that he is not, in fact, “no one.” Chiming in via e-mail, Addison offers this:

For the record, I think BATMAN BEGINS is the best movie of the trilogy because it goes the furthest in answering the most interesting questions about the Batman story worth answering:

1. Why would you become a crime fighter? 

2. Where would you go to train for this, who would train you how to do this, and how would you go about fighting so many people at once? 

Still stand by my view that THE DARK KNIGHT is the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes more sense as the middle of one long 9-hour film. 

I guess I don't care quite as much about the answers to those questions as you guys or have as much interest in pondering the Batman universe. Your thoroughness in all things Batman has worn me down, Greg, and I no longer have it in me to argue over the Big Themes and plot points. You make a pretty strong case for the thematic/political/sociological aspects of DKR, but I still think it flirts with ideas and imagery of income inequality more than really dealing with it. We'll agree to disagree.

But there are some other aspects of your opus that I want to respond to, and some other side issues I want to toss out.

Nolan clearly wants to play in the Heat sandbox, but it comes at the expense of the comic book characters. Was Batman actually in DK? I can't remember. He's virtually a non-factor. I acknowledge that you probably don't see that as a negative, but since they got everyone all dressed up for a Batman movie, I wish it was a little more Batman-y.

I've got a newsflash for you: Batman — meaning Bale when he's in that kinky black rubber suit, riding around in those overblown tank-like vehicles — is the least interesting thing about these Batman movies. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne is a different matter, but Batman himself is just not that compelling an on-screen figure. More Bale, more Bane, more Dent, more Joker, more women (please), and less Batman proper is a fine recipe as far as I'm concerned.

Here are three things you wrote that I want to tie together into one point:

The elaborate set piece/sociological game Joker plays with the two ferries is awfully cute for my tastes, in addition to being awfully elaborate for a character who "doesn't make plans."

As you note, the first tussle between Bane and Batman is the best fight in the series. I think it's more than that. I'm trying to come up with a reason it's not the high point of the trilogy.

In retrospect, DK seems like a plot placeholder to explore some other stuff until Nolan got back to dealing with Batman and how he's going to end up.

I agree with you on the ferry stuff. It always felt a little unrealized. They nailed the performance and characterization of the Joker so completely in that film, but when it came time to stick him in some kind of climactic comic-book-style scenario, they didn't quite pull it off. That doesn't bother me quite so much, though, because — in these kinds of movies especially; see also the much lesser The Avengers — I care much more about the performances and characterizations than I do about the action/plot scenarios they're deployed in.

Similarly, I don't think that Batman/Bane fight scene, as good as it is, is the high point of the trilogy, because I can't imagine myself caring that much about a nine-hour trilogy where a fight scene would be the high point.

I agree that DK feels like a plot placeholder in the context of the series, which is a reason I like it best. It's a better standalone movie, comparatively unencumbered by all the mythology. (I almost did a DKR is to DK as Prometheus is to Alien/Aliens riff in my initial review based on the mythology/backstory aspect, but given our difference of opinion, or at least interest, in Prometheus, we really don't need to get sidetracked by that here. Pretend I didn't say anything about that.)

Anne Hathaway as cat burglar Selina Kyle: More, please.
  • Anne Hathaway as cat burglar Selina Kyle: More, please.

I don't want to sound inflexible, because different movies can work in different ways and because I believe in the generalist/culturally omnivorous sentiment that this blog is named after, but my favorite flimmaker is classic-Hollywood ace Howard Hawks. In his essential reference A Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic David Thomson wrote of Hawks that in his films, the principle is that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.” Meaning that Hawks prized incident, humor, performance, and bits of memorable or enjoyable business regardless of how essential those things might be to genre or plot.

What are the things DK leaves you with? I love the opening heist, but before that I'd choose every little beyond-actorly tic in Ledger's immersive performance, the Joker's pencil trick, Michael Caine's grave line reading of that juicy bit about how “some men just like to watch the world burn,” and, more than anything, this, my choice for high point of the whole trilogy, a little snippet of Ledger — not just the Joker —sticking his head into night air, the soundtrack muting for a moment:

As for my favorite things in DKR, they almost all involve Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, whom we haven't talked about nearly enough. She's a smart/sexy/resourceful foil in an otherwise boy-centric film world, a Hawksian heroine indeed. The high point of DKR, for me, comes early, when Kyle, caught snooping around in Wayne Manor, drops her innocent act and insolently knocks Bruce Wayne off his feet — and us too!

Hathaway — and give credit to Nolan and company too for a sharply sketched take on the character — supplies so much of the film's soul and wit, and in a film so consumed with origins and back-stories, I wish more attention had been paid to hers. I would rather have hung around in that little apartment with Selina and her roomie, watching them compare notes from a night of pickpocketing lecherous hedge-fund managers and seeing what kind of takeout they have in the fridge, than have watched bridges explode and Bane bellow, though that stuff was fine too. In fact, as much as I like DKR — in spite of my minor qualms, it's one of the best movies I've seen this year and I may well like it even more on an inevitable second viewing — I think I would have preferred a smaller “Batman” movie. Maybe one just about the class-stricken attempted romance between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne, maybe directed by Wong Kar-Wai. That's the kind of Batman fan-fic I would come up with.

I'll end with the ending: I find your defense very persuasive and that's one initial criticism that I'm most softening on. My first reaction was that it was too Shyamalan-y, too clever, too much a sop to the Comic-Con crowd, and I still think that about the hard-sell — SPOILER ALERT — “his name is ROBIN” bit. But the overall notion, that the symbol is more than the man, that the Batman baton would be handed off, with worn-down Wayne in retirement? Okay, I'll take it.

But that false ending, before the final set of twists? That bit with everyone racing to disarm or dispose of a ticking bomb before Batman carries it out to sea? You can't tell me it didn't remind you of this:

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