What makes the geek MD of Nolan’s final chapter?


Doc Clockwork

The following review contains spoilers.

I’ve been a Batman fan pretty much as long as I can remember, so when I learned a new Batman film was opening on my birthday, I built myself up some Bat-tacular anticipation. I even took a vacation day to make sure I could see it on opening day. I’d just watched the first two of the trilogy in the past week, and was thankfully unaware of the shooting in Colorado before I left for the theater.

The performances were very good. The music was excellent, as usual. The pacing was okay; there were parts where I was confused about how much time had past, but in general I didn’t feel the 2:45 minute runtime was excessive. I wanted to love this movie. I wanted it to be an epic conclusion. But ultimately there wasn’t one moment or scene that stood out to me as memorable. The whole thing just fell flat. I had no emotional reaction at all at the theater, and the more I thought back to it over the next couple days, the less I liked it.

I think what it is more than anything is I cannot get past this whole premise that Batman deserted his post for eight years while Gotham was being infiltrated and undermined (literally) from benneath.

Batman provides ample opportunity to develop and explore the facets of a flawed hero. Is he little obsessive? Sure. Paranoid? Absolutely. A narcissist with a martyr complex? Not my first choice, but I’m fine with it. But one thing Batman is not, is a quitter.

You can rationalize all you like about how “safe” and crime-free Gotham was said to be in the intervening years between this film and The Dark Knight, so Batman wasn’t needed. But that was ultimately a house of cards, wasn’t it? Because the whole time Gotham supposedly didn’t need Batman, there was a growing threat that would’ve been dealt with had he been vigilant and ready, and at his post where he belonged.

And the film also makes it clear that Batman didn’t quit because he wasn’t needed; he quit over a chick. He quit because he felt sorry for himself. And it was the citizens of Gotham that ultimately paid the price.

When Captain America woke up from suspended animation and found out everyone he cared about was dead – including Agent Carter, his first and only love – did he quit? Or did he say, “Where do you need me, sir?“ When Spider-Man accidentally killed Gwen Stacy – the love of his life – during a fight with the Green Goblin, did he quit?

No, they didn’t quit. Because they’re heroes. They keep. On. Fighting. That’s why it’s a “Neverending” battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, because it doesn’t end. You keep fighting, keep pushing back against the forces of darkness. That’s what it means to be a hero. That’s why we’re inspired by them. Because in the real world, we don’t have super powers and we can’t spend our nights punching out bad guys. But we can defend the defenseless. We can, in our own way, fight the good fight, and keep doing it even when it would be easier to quit.

That’s what heroes are for, to remind us how we should be. But the Batman of this film did not inspire me, and bordered on unrecognizable.

Batman is a character who plays the angles. Whether he’s successful against his foes rarely comes down to who’s stronger, faster, or more skilled. He regularly defeats opponents with super powers, because the outcome usually comes down to who’s the most prepared. Batman’s biggest super power is in his planning, his ability to take control of a situation and turn the tables on his enemies.

I should never feel, in a Batman movie, that I am ahead of the main character and just waiting for him to realize what is already patently obvious. So when he spends an entire film (at least) one step behind the villains, allowing them to control the playing field, and ultimately getting saved by his sidekick, it irks me.

The Batman of this movie is more of a reactor than a planner. He allows the League of Shadows to get a dangerous foothold in Gotham. He gives the keys to the most dangerous weapon on the planet to a woman who bats her eyes at him, without fully researching who she is, where her money comes from, and what she wants. He’s so anxious to get the responsibility out if his own hands, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Further, Batman allows surrogates of the League of Shadows to steal the entire Wayne fortune. He reacts to this by falling into a trap, where he’s beaten half to death by an enemy that knows everything about him but about whom Batman knows almost nothing (and what he does know is wrong). This all happens in one of the most forgettable, dimly-lit fight scenes in memory (except for the one shot they cribbed from a 90s comic book).

Batman is then placed in a big hole in the ground while the villain goes about his plans, harkening back to episodes of the Adam West show where the villain would leave Batman in an ill-conceived death trap and conveniently leave the room so he can escape. The only difference is, in those episodes Batman usually formulated the method of escape himself, rather than being told exactly what to do and how, which is the case here.

After escaping, Batman shows up in Gotham and again plays directly into the enemy’s hands, allowing the mastermind behind Gotham’s destruction to get close enough to incapacitate and almost defeat him with a knife.

To be fair, this Batman did do some planning of his own. He planned how to quit again, in the process putting everyone that cares about him though unnecessary guilt and grief.

He does end up saving Gotham from nuclear annihilation, but if he hadn’t quit being Batman to hole up in his castle for eight years feeling sorry for himself, the League of Shadows would never have been able to get a foothold in Gotham in the first place.

So many moments of this film were so spoon-fed, I kind of felt insulted as an audience member. How much more powerful could it have been, for example, if Bruce figured out for himself that he had to untie himself from the rope to escape the hole? Imagine if, without any dialogue, he makes the climb again, and faced with the impossible leap, closes his eyes and removes the rope. The onlookers below go silent, because no one’s ever done this. He’s sure to fall to his death. But we see him overcome his fear. He see him make the commitment, to succeed or to fall; and we see him ultimately victorious.

It could have been a powerful moment. Instead, it felt scripted and obvious. From the moment I saw the other prisoner come up short when he made the leap wearing the rope, I thought, oh, he’s got to untie himself and commit to the jump. Then I waited to Bruce to figure this out himself, which he never did. Someone told him what to do.

The other thing that really stuck with me (in a bad way) is what they did with Alfred. Alfred quits, and Bruce just lets him go?

No. Alfred, like Bruce, is incapable of quitting. His loyalty is to the marrow. He might appear to quit, but really be helping in some way behind the scenes. I kept waiting for Alfred to show back up, but no, they committed to this idea that Alfred would just leave and Bruce would just let him go. After that speech about Bruce being the person he cared about most in the world since he heard his cries as a newborn?

And Bruce lets Alfred believe he has died. There’s poor Alfred breaking down at Bruce’s empty tomb, swearing to his parents that he failed them. And that’s okay? That’s… part of the plan? So Alfred goes to his usual spot at the restaurant in Paris, and he spies Bruce and Selina from across the room, and that’s it? We are left to think that Bruce has moved on? That’s supposed to be a Happily Ever After?

The Bruce Wayne of this film treats Alfred like he’s just a servant. The Alfred I’ve always known isn’t just a servant; he’s family.

Imagine the epilogue in Paris, but instead of seeing Bruce when he looks across the restaurant, Alfred spies another doppelganger. He turns away, and there’s a hand on his shoulder. It’s Bruce and Selina. They sit down at the table together, and fade to black. It still pays off the setup of the restaurant that Alfred planted in the first act, but in way that implies that they’re back together. Because they’re family. Because there is no ending for Bruce that does not include Alfred, unless one of them is actually dead.

What really blew my reservations into full-blown criticisms was coming home and reading Batman comics. There are scenes in Scott Snyder’s New 52 series that far outreach what Nolan was going for in his film. If you want to see a fight scene with real desperation and pathos, executed brilliantly, read Snyder’s Batman #6. His hallucinogenic duel against The Talon and the Court of Owls was everything the Bane scenes should’ve been.

To say nothing of Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, which this film borrows heavy inspiration from. I started re-reading it last night, and just the first few pages are better than any representation of Batman in live-action. By far.

I actually liked where they were going with the story in The Dark Knight Rises, isolating the city and seeing it fall into mob rule. It’s the most comic-booky plot of the trilogy, and I would’ve been curious to see how The Joker would’ve played into it had Heath Ledger survived. I suspect he would’ve become an ally of Batman, because an agent of chaos needs order just as much as we do. He can’t thrive if he’s just another Mad Hatter in Wonderland.

The usual Nolan “realistic” trappings didn’t bother me, nor the clunky exposition, or that ugly costume, because I expected those things going in. The Robin reveal was another example of something that should’ve been left to the audience instead of spoon-fed and obvious. But again, that didn’t really bother me. Ultimately what did it is the fact that I can’t accept this character the way he’s portrayed here.

Its an interesting premise, and it dutifully ties up loose ends from the other films, but the way they got there undermines the character of Batman as much as the League of Shadows undermined the foundations of Gotham.

One day someone will make a live-action Batman film as good as The Dark Knight and as faithful a representation of the character and his world as Mask of the Phantasm. Until then, I’ll just have to see him in the funny papers.




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