The crop of nerdfare at the movies this summer is making me nostalgic for days past. In the spirit of talking about something I like, rather than bashing on the shit I don’t, please allow me to revisit last summer’s most divisive nerd film in order to make a point about why this summer’s helping of dreck is such an utter disappointment.
Roughly this time a year ago, Christopher Nolan finished his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Critics (typically) liked it and audiences seemed to like it too. Comics fans, however, were more divided, especially Batman fans, who felt that some of the characterization was off, and people who looked too closely at the pesky little details (like the plot).
I admit that on first knock TDKR was a bit of a let down for me. The many plot problems were grating but what comic film isn’t basically an endless series of poorly thought out pre-programmed plot points? Character wise, the film was also a bit of a failure. I could see how, from film to film, the characterization made broadly accurate but something about how the characters were portrayed (especially Batman, Jim Gordon, and Catwoman) left me let down.
I was also troubled by the ideological problems with the film. At their deepest core, all of Nolan’s Batman films are essentially fascist films (Andrew O’Hehir at Slate wrote a good piece on the fascism in Nolan’s films, as did Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry). But, at the same time, TDKR’s politics are too confused to be taken seriously in the first place. And, honestly, what Hollywood film isn’t ideologically problematic? Seriously, even Star Wars could be read as a film that espouses the need for a religious awakening (and joyful war) to remake society.
But, despite all of the plot and characterization problems, the iffy ending, and the troubling politics of the film, TDKR is a thrilling, exciting, emotional film. More importantly, the film is difficult in all of the ways that ultimately reward rewatching, unlike the overblown pomp of Man of Steel, the one-note hijinks of Pacific Rim, and the forgettable fare of Into Darkness.
It all comes down to Bane. In TDK, Heath Ledger’s Joker was captivating. He brought a terrifying electricity to his scenes. While Thomas Hardy’s Bane is no Joker, he is captivating in his own right. Whereas Joker’s scenes were fraught with a kind of “what will he do next” energy, Bane brings a sense of impending dread to every scene he’s in. Honestly, the moment he says “do you feel in control?” is one of the best moments of villainy in any film ever. Not only is he smart enough, but he is physically powerful enough to bring whatever horrid vision he has into being. Rewatching the film now, I’m STILL impressed by how utterly undefeatable he seems.
At the same time, unlike the crop of films currently littering the cinema, TDKR at least some interesting women characters. I mean, as far as female characters in movies go, Catwoman and Talia a…er…Miranda Tate are passable at best (both are saddled with ultimately unfulfilling Love Interest roles), but at least they manage to do something more than the usual “stand and gawp open-mouthed as the muscley man does muscley man things”. And, while I’d prefer films featuring interesting female leads (Hanna anyone?) I’ll settle for at what Nolan was serving.
Film-making wise, and especially in comparison to this summer’s films, TDKR is a masterpiece. The pace is perfect, the set pieces are breathtaking, and the cinematography and editing give viewers a sense of the a scene’s geography, logic, and momentum (something Man of Steel sorely lacks). The lack of pointless, over-blown CGI nonsense and fast-cuts gives the actions scenes room to breathe, lending them more impact on the big screen.
I don’t know. TDKR stands nowhere nearly as tall as TDK but, compared to the crop of shit dropped unceremoniously on the viewing public this summer, it is a masterpiece. Frankly, the films out this summer make me wonder if Hollywood’s devotion to making high quality nerd fare is ebbing. Sure, they’re dumping tons of money into them, but money doesn’t make films. Committed filmmakers, crews, and actors make films. For some reason, I feel like nobody’s heart was in the nerd films that came out this summer. So, I’m looking back with love on a difficult film and remembering the important difference between a big movie and a good movie.