Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Time Out New York critic Keith Uhlich joins freelancer Mike D'Angelo (The A/V Club, The Man Who Viewed Too Much) to discuss "The Dark Knight Rises" and other aspects of director Christopher Nolan's career. They conclude by exploring where both Batman and Nolan may wind up next.
There's no question that director Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have managed to gain the admiration of more audiences than countless other recent comic book adaptations. This may have something to do with his roots: He's known for cultivating a distinctive atmosphere and using narrative trickery rather than merely pandering to the demands of Comic Con purists. And yet much of that crowd has embraced Nolan's adaptations as well, perhaps because they appreciate the application of bonafide filmmaking techniques into an arena usually expected to be dominated by juvenile qualities.
Critics largely feel the same way: Mike, shortly before "The Dark Knight" came out, you wrote in Esquire that "Batman Begins" was "superb by the standards of the superhero franchise." How has your perception of Nolan's approach to these movies evolved over the course of the last two entries? Do you think that "The Dark Knight Rises" is a paragon of its genre -- as waves of hype have led many to believe -- or does it work outside of that genre altogether? And now that Nolan's take on the character is complete, how does it compare to the Schumacher/Burton versions?
MIKE D'ANGELO: Sorry if this throws a monkey wrench into any planned point/counterpoint structure (Keith, you ignorant slut), but despite my conviction that Nolan is the best filmmaker working in Hollywood right now, I didn't care for "The Dark Knight Rises" at all. And I'm concerned about the direction Nolan's been taking with his last few films, which have grown progressively more ponderous and ungainly. Even when he tosses in Big Ideas -- here, amounting to little more than de rigueur signifiers of the financial crisis and accompanying class war -- they feel subsidiary to his desire to wow the audience with big-budget spectacle. He's becoming the thinking man's Michael Bay, orchestrating rather than directing; I sorely miss the elegance of "The Prestige," which is more subtly heady (indeed, I missed the point altogether the first time I saw it -- certainly not possible with "Dark Knight Rises") and relies on the viewer's imagination to achieve its most potent effects.
Still, even though the trilogy concludes on a weak note, it's still far more impressive than Burton's vision of Gotham, which as I dimly recall boasts superlative production design but not much else. (As for the Schumacher films, I confess to not despising "Batman & Robin," which can be fun so long as you accept that it's pure camp. I have more affection for Uma Thurman's expertly stylized performance than for anything in "Rises" frankly.) Nolan deserves credit for elevating our notion of what a mass-appeal superhero movie can be, and the first two films achieve a much stronger balance of the intimate and the epic. In hindsight, though, I can see how crucial Heath Ledger was to the success of "Dark Knight" -- his controlled lunacy counteracted the series' growing lugubriousness, whereas Tom Hardy's hulking, Vader-inflected work as Bane only accentuates it. There was a point early on when I thought Anne Hathaway might provide a much-needed dose of rude energy, but the playfulness of her initial meeting with Bruce Wayne quickly evaporates.
I dunno, guys, I just found the whole thing less thought-provoking and entertaining than exhausting. Just me?
Despite the expectation of a throwdown whenever two critics start talking about the same thing, the point of these conversations isn't necessarily to instigate a spat. So, Mike, you aren't really throwing a monkey wrench into the ring by more or less agreeing with Keith so much as helping along the perception that, hey, it's totally fine to not care for this movie! Apparently, based on some of the wackier comments hurled at some of the early negative reviews, this is actually a radical and contemptuous idea.
KEITH UHLICH: It's not just you, Mike.
One of my favorite episodes of the '90s television series "Millennium" is the second season entry "A Room with No View." In that installment, semi-psychic protagonist Frank Black's (Lance Henriksen) occasional adversary—the devilish shape-shifter Lucy Butler (Sarah-Jane Redmond)—kidnaps impressionable teens, locks them in underground rooms, and tortures their inherent talents out of them. Her demonic goal: To make each of her victims recognize "that mediocrity is all you are" and turn an entire populace "ordinary." One of Butler's methods of torture is playing Paul Mauriat's easy-listening hit "Love is Blue" on a continuous loop, though I think "The Dark Knight Rises" would suffice as a backup.
My experience of watching the final part of Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy was very similar to my experience with "The Dark Knight": Empty engagement in the moment, by which I mean a blank-stared, slack-jawed acknowledgment that some competent, but mostly undistinguished visuals were passing before my eyes and sound at near-subwoofer-breaking levels was pounding in my ears (Zimmer!). It wasn't entirely unpleasant as it was happening, and it cast a spell in the way that any bludgeoning of one's senses and spirit by the blockbuster of the moment would. But then the lights came up, and the sensation that I'd been had (yet again) began to grow.
I am no fan of Christopher Nolan. In my review of "The Dark Knight," I called him "the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite" and I stand by that description. His movies (and I've seen all of them except for his short "Doodlebug" and his first feature "Following") are to me elaborate cons that tear back the Oz-like curtain and purport to show you their mechanistic workings, all the while distracting you from the fact that, like P.T. Barnum's "Great Unknown," there's no there there (and at least Barnum had a sense of humor about it). Nolan is a magician who wants to show you how the trick works, and he concocts step-by-step explanations for everything: These are all the elements that Batman's suit is composed of (and look at all the financial funneling we had to do to get them!); the Joker is, lest you didn't hear him those thirty times before, an agent of CHAOS!; these Batman movies, man, they're all about fear. Fear, I say, FEAR! No, let me spell it out for you. F-E-A-R.
I wish I could say that Nolan gave his characters' tendency toward expository verbosity the proper comic-book kick, so that we might imagine thought-balloons sprouting. But I feel little besides ponderous, minutely planned-out portent, and sense in just about everything he's done a distinct absence of poetry—of that intangible essence that truly great art and artists possess. Whenever Nolan stumbles upon a striking image—and there are several in this trilogy, from "Batman Begins"'s establishing shots of the Gotham L-train to that lovely shot in "The Dark Knight" of the Joker sticking his head out of the police car like an overexcited canine to "Rises"'s painterly visual of Jonathan "The Scarecrow" Crane as a Robespierre-manque atop a pile of judicial library detritus—he quickly pushes on. He never lingers, and that would be defensible if he and his collaborators had the shared capability for momentum. But I really think it's Hans Zimmer who is doing all the heavy lifting with that goddamn propulsive score (the trilogy's only truly effective element). Wally Pfister's visuals are pedestrian (so many dully lit medium-shots). The editing by Lee Smith is unbearably choppy (even in dialogue scenes, the connecting material—implied and actual—between performers often feels like its missing). And I don't think Nolan has much instinct for working with actors: The Burton Batman movies don't hold up overall, but there are distinctive character moments in each of them, and I'm inclined to agree with Mike that at least Thurman's Poison Ivy in "Batman and Robin" is a fully conceived creation, however much it might rub you the wrong way.
That's more than I can say for Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, who doesn't come within hissing distance of Michelle Pfeiffer's slinky Catwoman (that great setpiece in "Batman Returns" with the whip and the mannequins!), or Tom Hardy's Bane, who might as well have just been a John Carter-esque digital effect for all his ineffectually conveyed, Dolby-assisted pathos. As for Batman himself, I'm inclined to say that he hasn't ever been done particularly well in live-action. Bale just growls and/or alternates between one-note despondence and off-putting mock-petulance; Michael Keaton is mostly nondescript (Burton's heart really is with the villains); I guess Val Kilmer is doing something Val Kilmery, but I don't feel like checking again; and Clooney, well, we'll leave that where it is. My favorite movie version of the character is the early-'90s first-animated-series capper "Mask of the Phantasm," which is also probably the best movie version of the Batman mythos overall—pretty perfectly judged and executed from first frame to last.
On the next page: Does Christopher Nolan indulge in "avert-your-eyes sadism"?