The Dark Knight Rises: The Bane of Superhero Movies

The genre of a superhero movie is inherently restrictive. There has to be a protagonist – the one who is ready to stand against evil, the hero, and then there is the antagonist – someone who symbolizes all things wrong, the villain. The hero is responsible for saving the world by annulling the villain’s plan, thereby saving the world and winning in the end. Good wins over evil and all is hunky dory with this world. These are some of the story choices that have been pre-destined. The film-maker does not have a say in this. And these are major restrictions. Which is one of the reasons why majority of superhero movies are bubblegum movies. You enjoy them as long as they last, but once the juice runs out, you forget about them. I don’t know anyone who has ever savored the taste of a chewing gum. Some of the superhero movies do manage to provide a nice experience (mostly because of their technical finesse), but since they are essentially vacuous and seldom challenge the viewer, they rarely register their presence in cinematic pantheon. Obviously, Christopher Nolan wanted to change all of that.

When Nolan was signed on to direct Batman Begins, he would have probably admired Batman for a different set of qualities. The majority saw a towering superhero, Nolan saw a hidden vulnerability, the majority admired Batman’s fearlessness, Nolan respected his fears, the majority saw Batman’s idealism, Nolan saw Batman’s guilt. Nolan’s attempt to humanize Batman, thereby exploring his flaws in detail sets it apart from other superhero movies. And it came as no surprise that Nolan did not make yet another template superhero movie. That triggered a totally different set of expectations from this trilogy. We did not expect to watch a series of plot-points punctuated by stunning CG effects rounded up with a conveniently linear resolution. And it’s here that Nolan began upping his ante. He began giving the mainstream audience their conventional facade, but intelligently packed it with profound character motives, morally ambivalent characters, razor-sharp narrative so the viewer could not afford to lax. Also infusing the twist needed to give that ‘aha’ moment to the blockbuster famished audience. Thus making his movies both crowd-pleasing (a section of audience that reveres plot driven movies) and sagacious. He is a filmmaker that belongs neither to the crowd, nor to art cinema’s realms, yet, he surprisingly belongs to both of them in a way few film-maker can ever belong, or hope to.

The Dark Knight Rises

My reaction to The Dark Knight Rises would have been completely different had there not been a baggage of promise. And I am really not apologetic about it. Nolan is not merely a film-maker now, in these days of inane blockbusters, people don’t expect him to take the easy route. If most of the film-makers are crowd pandering hacks, then Nolan is that rare magician. There’s a very famous quote in Prestige:

Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary:…..The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and turns it into something extraordinary….But you wouldn’t clap yet….That is why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

If you look at the first two movies of the trilogy, the above quote is very apt. With the Dark Knight he did take something commonplace (the set up of a superhero movie) and turned it into something extra-ordinary. The rabbit dissapeared from the hat. But I wasn’t ready to clap. Not yet. He had to bring the damn rabbit back. The Dark Knight Rises was Nolan’s ‘prestige’.

And that is why it is difficult to comment on The Dark Knight Rises without bringing in The Dark Knight. Because both of them belong to the same family. The cinematic ambition that propelled The Dark Knight is the same that propelled almost all his movies. So the next movie in line shouldn’t be given an easy pass. It would be unfair to his filmography.

Most movies rely heavily on its central characters, conventionally, the hero. His motivation or the antagonist, although very important, can never claim the same stake as the hero. Only in a superhero movie is the villain accorded the same importance, sometimes even higher. Because it’s the villain that allows the hero to shine. By either allowing him to display his mental acuity, or his latent emotional side. And that’s where the fountainhead of this movie’s problem lies. And it is not so much of Nolan’s fault because that’s how the character is (that genre restriction again).   The challenges for Bane’s character is numerous — he’s wearing a mask so he can only emote through his eyes. So he is denied Joker’s smile, or his occasional tongue-swagger. And the most debiliating, his voice. There’s a very delicate relationship between technique and story. Or, form and content. Most of the times, the form should  aide the content, never impede it.  Obviously, it’s not a rule written in black and white, and there have been times where I have enjoyed the content via a form. But The Dark Knight rises is not that movie. Bane’s emotional impact is dissolved by his cadence bereft, automaton-like voice.  It also robs the character of its spontaneity and makes him for the most part, uni-dimensional.

Also, here Nolan is burdened too much with delivering a decent finale. And in that pursuit, goes out of the window a lot of his signature strokes. The psychological underpinning is conspicuously absent, and so is the ambiguity. Since the story is so elaborate and detailed, what we get instead is suave toy-fascination, action scenes that keep getting piled on without much emotional resonance, and a twist that is straight out of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khaakee (the last one is not a judgmental call, but just stating how things are). The Dark Knight Rises is still a mighty fine movie, but it is too genre-conforming, and hence very un-nolan like.

With The Dark Knight, Nolan pulled off “The Turn” that very few magicians would have been able to. But like any great magician, the audience expected “The Prestige” from him. The darn rabbit never returned back to the hat. And that’s the reason I am not going to clap.

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