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by Mike D'Angelo, Eric Kohn and Keith Uhlich
July 20, 2012 11:52 AM
17 Comments
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Critical Consensus: Mike D'Angelo and Keith Uhlich on 'The Dark Knight Rises,' Christopher Nolan, and Batman's Next Move

You made a case against Nolan's direction of "The Dark Knight" for his "now you see it, now you don't approach," arguing that Nolan indulged in "avert-your-eyes sadism." Is "Dark Knight Rises" equally culpable of this charge?

UHLICH: I do believe "Dark Knight Rises" is as guilty of its predecessor's "avert-your-eyes sadism," perhaps even more so. Most kills in a Nolan film seem designed around garnering a PG-13 rating (see here Bane's numerous neck breaks, always cut right before the killing twist, or Matthew Modine's death scene—now he's standing, now he's not!). The issue for me is that none of those deaths makes much of an impact—you don't necessarily have to show everything in grisly detail, but you do have to feel for it to be justified. Otherwise it's just stick figures being cut down, and I do think that's a form of sadism—a denial of feeling, of emotional suppression through blunt-force action, in which many big-budget blockbusters trade nowadays.

D'ANGELO: It's amusing that you characterize Nolan as "a magician who wants to show you how the trick works," since one of his greatest films, "The Prestige," is explicitly about magicians and ultimately concludes that there is no trick -- we just desperately desire one.  Granted, the man is no poet, but until recently he had a remarkably deft way of constructing philosophical arguments within ostensible genre pieces.  My beef with "Dark Knight Rises" is that he's no longer making an effort to encode those ideas in the movie's DNA.  They're just grafted onto the Batman mythos willy-nilly, calling undue attention to themselves.  And he's so intent on either drawing jejune current-event parallels (I AM CATWOMAN. I DO WHAT I HAVE TO TO SURVIVE. I AM THE 99%.) or creating fanboy-ready spectacle that he's forgotten how to seduce the audience, which apparently just wants to be bludgeoned anyway.  Dispiriting.

Selina Kyle's entrance gave me a glimmer of hope, actually. Hathaway isn't really playing Catwoman the way Pfeiffer did, but that initial encounter with Bruce Wayne demonstrated some of the brazen larceny-as-foreplay dynamic I love in old Hollywood movies, and I briefly thought we might have an actual movie rather than a pyrotechnics display-cum-thesis. But even that relationship speedily turned turgid.  I don't insist that a comic-book movie has to be fun, at least not in a jocular, wisecracking sense -- a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" might well be awesomely grim and depressing (and indeed I'm a "Sin City" defender).  Just give some thought to keeping me awake by a means other than Zimmer's pounding score.

I will say I'm glad I waited a day and saw the film in IMAX. Unlike 3-D, that's a bonus technology I can get behind -- even if he'd used it exclusively for establishing shots, it would have been worth the surcharge.  There's a real feeling of being engulfed by the image that rattles the lizard brain.

One of the things that's interesting about your responses so far is that you both make an effort to place Nolan's take on Batman within the context of previous movie versions of the characters. And yet I think the case could be made that "Dark Knight Rises" isn't really a Batman movie the way these earlier versions were. For much of the screen time, Batman remains (Is this a spoiler? I guess any plot information could be interpreted that way, but at this point I'll just say fuck it) off-screen. At times it feels like Nolan is making a spin-off about Gotham City in which Batman is a key character among many. It's detailed enough that one could expect to see the struggling young writer of "Following" -- which, Keith, you should definitely check out for scholarly purposes if nothing else -- because everyone in Nolan's world inhabits a version of his gloomy take on Gotham even before he took on the property.

Keith, I love that you bring up "Mask of the Phantasm" since Bruce Timm, creator of the animated series from which that television movie emerged, also created a hugely engaging environment with his Gotham (and over the course of a much longer period than all three Nolan movies combined, to boot). Timm's series (which was recently discussed in a recent video essay for Press Play) drew on film noir and other gothic traditions as much as it did on vintage Batman storylines. However, people still talk about it in terms of how it related to other takes on Batman. It seems like every conversation about one Batman must also take into account the countless other versions of him.

So how much does hype color your expectations for these films? When you went to see "The Dark Knight Rises," what kind of assumptions did you bring to the table? Have the aggressive (and apparently effective) marketing tactics for the movie ruined the possibility of a pure viewing experienced unhindered by what audiences already know about Batman and Nolan's approach to the character?

UHLICH: To Mike first: I'm fairly certain you recognize that my calling Nolan "a magician" was an intentional mention-it-without-mentioning-it invocation of "The Prestige," which many—perhaps you too?—have described as Nolan's most personal work. It certainly felt that way to me when I watched it. And I absolutely, utterly loathe that film for the conclusions it reaches, which you aptly describe as "there is no trick—we just desperately desire one." Each of us can call the "trick" what we will. For me it's related to faith and spirit, not necessarily in the Godly sense, though that theme certainly does resonate for a lapsed Catholic like myself who still maintains some level of belief (in cinema specifically and humanity overall). At the end of The Prestige I felt utterly defeated as Nolan seemed intent on pummeling the belief out of me. There is no trick. There is no God. There is no magic. Just an endless supply of self-same meat-bodies to be buried forever out of sight (I think it was Clive Barker, an artist I love, who said, and I may be paraphrasing: "We are graveyards of our former selves." I wish the final reveal in "The Prestige" had that kick.)

'At a certain point, we have to accept that none of us experiences the things we experience in exactly the same way.'

Perhaps I have to give Nolan credit for, as you say, encoding these ideas in the movie's DNA. Clearly "The Prestige" made me feel something, but I absolutely rejected those feelings because they don't correspond to what I've come to believe about movies, about people, about life. I believe in the magic of movies; Nolan, to me, denies it—trusting only in the coarsest mechanisms to make his mostly facile points. I might acknowledge him as an artist for whom I just don't share an affinity (for some reason, Michael Haneke springs to mind as an exemplifying bête noir). The larger problem is that I just don't think Nolan's very good at what he does. In every way, he's a mediocrity. I actually find it pretty hilarious that he's become a figurehead of the "shoot on celluloid" movement, when his movies (even his gargantuan IMAX frames feel small to me) are antithetical to everything celluloid can achieve. If Nolan's the ne plus ultra, then film can't die soon enough.

At a certain point, we have to accept that none of us experiences the things we experience in exactly the same way. And we have to allow for those differing responses. I wouldn't want to take this conversation in a direction where I'm actively denying the pleasure and profundity that you get, Mike, from "Memento," which I'll just pass over with a simple "didn't do it for me." (How many films do each of us have for which we are effusive in the face of others's indifference?) Similarly, though it well-nigh astonishes me that the estimable Scott Foundas ecstatically compares the final movement of "Dark Knight Rises" to the baptism murder finale of "The Godfather" in his recent Film Comment blog post, I would never call out his enjoyment of the film as being in any way false. (It's very clear that it isn't.) The same goes for any reader and/or viewer who genuinely sees artistry in Nolan's Batman trilogy, and in his filmography overall. It's the quality of the opinion and the discourse, not the slant of it, that matters.

Unfortunately, the quality of opinion is often trumped by the quantity of response. And perhaps this is a good segue into Eric's questions about hype, expectation, and assumption. I'll start by saying that Batman is my favorite superhero, has been since childhood and still is to this day. There's something about how malleable he is as an icon that appeals to me—he can be camp in the way of the Adam West TV series (and even the Joel Schumacher films), self-serious via Nolan's takes, pure darkness in the Frank Miller sense, kind of a pop-art party pooper via Burton, a tragically lonely figure in the animated series and "Mask of the Phantasm." I think my favorite Batman story remains Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke," which captures The Joker/Batman relationship with a perfect mix of unflinching horror and the-abyss-stares back ambiguousness.

All this to say that I have a history with Batman—certainly not to the extent of most comic readers (I haven't kept up past my college years), but I know I brought that experience in with me to Nolan's film. Additionally I also carried in the experience of the previous two Nolan movies, and I should mention here that I rather liked "Batman Begins" when I first saw it and retain some affection. "The Dark Knight" I thought a debacle (even Heath Ledger, whose performance is very Best Supporting Actor in its lip-smacking obviousness). I actually watched that film twice so I could examine the differences between the regular theatrical prints and the IMAX version (to the latter, about all I saw was a lot of unmotivated toggling between aspect ratios) and it was a pretty defeating two views that resulted in what I think was a strongly worded, but fair takedown. That piece occasioned a sea of vicious comments—a few posting my home address and calling for my death (I don't know if I deleted them or not as I gave up moderation after a certain point)—and a few stand-alone Internet posts from colleagues (both pro and con on the piece, all well-argued) that had me retreating into my shell.

So yeah, I gots some baggage. But I also know that I have the ability to give each movie I see a fair shot. There's no evidence I can offer other than my work and my word. It's up to each reader to determine for themselves the veracity of what I say. All these calls for objectivity make me cringe. We are all products of our subjective experience, and also of the market forces that push on us and that we allow into our lives. (I believe that Mike tends never to watch trailers and other promotional material. Myself, I seek things out—always have, potentially always will.) I don't really believe in purity of experience: To "Dark Knight Rises," I brought a knowledge and childhood love of Batman, an overall distaste for Christopher Nolan, a discomfort over the vitriolic reaction I'd received for lambasting "The Dark Knight" and which I saw happening again to several colleagues who panned the latest entry, a general curiosity that I have for each new addition to cinema (an ever-evolving art form), and a belief that all my knowledge and assumptions could be upended in surprising ways.

I can't tell you how depressing it was that I got exactly what I expected.
 

Next page: What happens to Batman now?

17 Comments

  • YESKALLAM | August 18, 2012 5:20 AMReply

    Calling pfister's DP work pedestrian is like saying Federer's serve is pedestrian.... If you are giving out some non-sense it better be supported!!! the best you got to say is "dimly lit medium shots"... Oh man if you ever attend a film photography course or have knowledge of photography(film photography) you know how stupid that statement of yours is..... One of the best things to come out of Nolan's batman films is Pfister's work as DP...

  • YESKALLAM | August 18, 2012 5:15 AMReply

    RUBBISH in every way... Thank you for wasting my time... didn't go past the first page out of fear, let me spell it out for you F-E-A-R!!!

  • trionel | July 21, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    **WARNING GIANT SPOILERS AHEAD**
    To start I am not a pure lover of Nolan films I loved the Prestige but had huge reservations with Memento and Inception found both more confusing than enjoyable. I am not a comic book reader at all (aside from a few non batman graphic novels) but enjoyed BTAS and specifically the movie Mask of the Phantasm. I also love small movies where you are NOT bludgeoned over the head unlike Nolan's Batman. But I truly love Nolan's batman films flaws (and there are large flaws) and all simply for there grand ambition, which I think is important for film makers to go to these places. Just think about what Nolan attempts to accomplish: A story about an extraordinary but still very limited guy through circumstance of having a family legacy in building and maintaining Gotham and guilt for the death of loved ones, feels the need to DO SOMETHING to help the city and chooses to do it by creating a symbol of dramatic acts. Though Nolan adds elements of Bruce's loneliness, he does not linger on it, and chooses to focus on the IMMENSE PROBLEM of CHANGING Gotham city. What is it going to take? How much will it cost him and the people around him? Are dramatic symbols the right way to go? Is it even worth it? Everyone he knows is against it (to various extents) and once he begins he faces resistance from all sides: his own company, all types of criminals, & constantly being betrayed by other justice seekers. Thus the movies are very bludgeoning because Nolan is interested in the painful reality (literally he is stabbed, shot burnt, poisoned, broken bones etc) of creating actual change for the better which I have been told my entire life is neither fun nor quick. Then there is Nolan's problem of adding the All major points from the Batman mythology (Amazing villains, Bat tech, Gotham cops, and ordinary Gotham citizens) onto his original problem plus the emotional lonely character trying to get over his parents death, and amazing stunts all in SEVEN hours. That's impossible without losing story cohesion and creating consistent fully earned emotional payoffs. Also it is arguable the Batman mythology cannot sustain the story of changing a city for the better but it definitely can sustain the story of the loneliness of a single traumatized person. But for me it is worth it. I think it is important for at least someone to try tell this story in a stylized way (not realistic but again limited) as all other painful change stories aren't as stylized and other stylized films do not have the change or limits. Personally I just connect more with the person trying to do something in the first 2 movies and understand when he cannot do it anymore for reasons to help Gotham as shown in the beginning TDKR, that his loneliness overwhelms in ugly ways (he becomes a recluse) than in Phantasm where he is able to maintain dignity. That with some help and realization of the need to live he can comeback and connect and trust completely with at least a couple people (in this case Selina and John Blake). That in the end the symbol isn't worth his life and Gotham itself has to go through these changes with the imperfect symbol they are left with. I truly love the thoughtful but unsustainable in time given plot (hopefully Nolan will learn from going past the edge), the high volume and wide variety of great moments and performances I have not seen in any film series, and when everything clicks the truly jaw opening moments I have not seen in any other film. I love them just as much as smaller more well made movies. These things to me are more important than mistakes made in technical areas (these movies are full of them) and whether the story convinces me completely (not without help from my imagination). But that's just me.

  • Fandango | July 20, 2012 7:58 PMReply

    It's nice actually to hear someone bashing Nolan's work for a change. If you want to find someone loving up Nolan's work you can find it practicaly anywhere else. This was quite refreshing to read.

  • Ed Harken | July 20, 2012 6:36 PMReply

    it is so painful to read indiewire and the "critics" and "reporters" that write for it that I dread opening an alert anytime i get one (thankfully i am doing so less and less as it gets worse and worse) - the smugness of the critics, the ineptness of the "reporters" (do they every fact check or do they solely rely on what is spoon fed to them?) - where are Hernandez and Brooks - what happened to this once credible news source?

  • thisisnotanexit | July 20, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    @STRANGELOVE Look, it's too easy to tear what you're saying to shreds because you contradict yourself in your own response to my response. I sincerely hope you are NOT a critic, as your argument construction and ability to analyze simple sentences appears to be faulty.

    "...they give us perspective by all their past knowledge of history of the art form."

    ...which is precisely why he mentions that he is knowledgable of Nolan's past works and doesn't particularly care for them. He's bringing his KNOWLEDGE of film, particularly his of viewing previous Nolan films to this particular review. So, then, you saying that because he doesn't like Nolan, he's not a "real" critic is just plain stupid. His opinion of Nolan's style is informed by his knowledge of it. Everyone is biased going into whatever film they see. People have different life experiences, viewpoints, and tastes that inevitably inform their opinions. It's IMPOSSIBLE for someone writing an editorial to be completely impartial. Do you know of some factory that's produced a film reviewing algorithm for its robot critics, or something?

    "Did you really expect they would post these conversation without thinking there would such a discussion?"

    Yet, you criticize them for having the conversation at all.

  • Strangelove | July 20, 2012 7:12 PM

    I too enjoyed 'The Dark Knight Rises' and will admit it is clunky and rushed at times due to the doubling of characters and multiple storyline. But isnt this what we want, a big film with big ideas and themes if the studios want to take our hard earned money, which I would rather spend watching an indie world cinema. Like I said before this the best we are gonna get for now. The criticism to me still feel sensationalised and someone trying to be different from the herd or even made me think they were Marvel fanboys nitpicking everything. I have always read reviews of films before I watched them, as lets face it there are a lot of garbage out there that just angers me that they are made with the budget they have. But most would agree they would rather have more Chris Nolan films than Michael Bay films (Bay might be too easy a target). But no matter all the negative or positive reviews these big budgeted films receive they will make a profit. Do critics even matter when it comes to big budget films or do we only care when they start to rile the populous? Also by the way, thanks for the compliment, its the result of growing up watching English films and TV.

  • Thisisnotanexit | July 20, 2012 6:11 PM

    First of all, I didn't criticize your English. I criticized the basis of your argument as you articulated it. I've worked with a lot of ESL students in my time and have a lot of respect for multilingual people. Your English is actually very good. I didn't read between the lines; I directly addressed specific points you raised. And your assumption that I agree with the above article is incorrect. I actually really enjoyed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, even though I think it had its faults. The difference is that I respect these critics and their opinions even if they differ from my own.

  • Strangelove | July 20, 2012 5:11 PM

    I apologise for my lack of perfectly formed sentences as English is not my first language, let alone second. Since you like reading between the line and debunking what I say by phrasing everything, I am in the impression you agreed with the above article. I said no one can call themselves a critic if they do not stand by what they say, esp when they heavily criticise a piece of work and given this particular case where as you so insightfully pointed out that its impossible to be impartial in an editorial piece, but it would definitely be a lack of journalist integrity if it was a place to take potshot as someone. Or shall we chalk that up as an opinion based on past experiences as well. The voice of the critic has changed from the time when it really made a difference. I do not criticise them for having the conversation, I would have rather had someone with more interesting to say than your everyday average sensationalism critical point of view, but I criticise them for thinking being a critic is such an easy job where you can just blast out every vocabulary at their disposal to debase something to provoke a response. And you will be glad to know I am not a critic just a valued daily visitor of the site concerned at the drop of standards.

  • Adam K | July 20, 2012 4:33 PM

    Ha, I didn't see this while I was writing my comment below, and we have basically all the same points, even down to the formulation of "robot critics." High five!

  • thisisnotanexit | July 20, 2012 3:07 PMReply

    "Are these guys really critics? Then why would you start with 'I have never like a Chris Nolan's film (maybe apart from 'The Prestige') and start ripping on 'The Dark Knight Rises'. Where is the impartiality in that?"

    A critic doesn't need to be impartial. A critic needs to offer CRITICISM, which requires them to analyze a work and formulate opinons.

    "And me coming to the film's defence doesn't make me a fanboy, just someone who wants to read your reviews not read your transcribed bar talk."

    You realize they post these kinds of conversations all of the time, right? If you don't enjoy this type of "transcribed bar talk," why read this one?

  • Adam K | July 20, 2012 4:32 PM

    To STRANGELOVE (good name, btw):
    It seems you're looking for some sort of inhuman robot-critic to objectively review something. You speak of them "giv[ing] us perspective by all their past knowledge of history of the art form" and doesn't that include the histories of the director and actors? How would, to rephrase your words, "a critic go[ing] into a cinema with a preconception of preferring a certain filmmaker thus formulating a positive comment" be any less impartial than the negative version?

    Actual human critics can't pretend to be impartial any more than regular moviegoers can, except that critics have a wider and deeper range of knowledge to pull from and typically (as opposed to regular moviegoers) give reasons behind their assessments; we're all people, after all, but at least these two critics are helpfully willing to give us their biases up front instead of feigning an impossible "impartiality." I suppose I'm trying to figure out what this mythical "impartiality" of yours would look like.

  • Strangelove | July 20, 2012 3:38 PM

    A critic needs to have an authoritative voice, be it in any form of art, they give us perspective by all their past knowledge of history of the art form. When a critic goes into a cinema with a preconception of not preferring a certain filmmaker thus formulating a criticism; because of such impartiality is what make these critics irrelevant when it comes to big budget films. Believe me 'The Dark Knight Rises' will be the only big budget film I will be watching this year so why wouldnt I read everything I can read about it as I do with every other film I watch.
    Did you really expect they would post these conversation without thinking there would such a discussion? You are not a critic if you heavily criticise a piece of work and completely fail to stand by your words by saying 'Thats just my opinion, everyone has their own'.

  • Migdia Chinea | July 20, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    You guys are completely wrong. Completely! Migdia Chinea UCLA MFA TFTDM - KNINTH FLOOR - 2012

  • CJ | July 20, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    You lost all credibility by speaking as if everything you said was fact. Oh, and when you stated your liking for the bomb that was "Batman and Robin." some just don't understand the character I suppose.

  • Scott | July 20, 2012 3:01 PM

    It's clearly an opinion piece; it is ridiculous to expect every statement to be preceded by an IMO.

  • strangelove | July 20, 2012 1:17 PMReply

    Are these guys really critics? Then why would you start with 'I have never like a Chris Nolan's film (maybe apart from 'The Prestige') and start ripping on 'The Dark Knight Rises'. Where is the impartiality in that? Of course, you can say you didn't like the 'The Dark Knight' but dare not say you didn't like Heath Ledger's performance. Lets face it, most audience are sheep, they will go watch anything if the studios bombard them with enough marketing campaign, which has given to the question 'Why do we need critics?'. Big dumb studio blockbuster always end up making a profit, if not in the US then overseas, which is why they are dumbed down because they expect the guy who has the minimal grasp of the English language (myself a non-English speaking non-US audience) to be wowed by the million dollar CGI explosions and monsters.

    Question to them is who would you want directing these big hundred two hundred million dollars production if not Chris Nolan because its not like the studios will stop making them. You are not gonna get PT Anderson or Michael Haneke to get asked by the studios to direct these films. Lets face the realities, this is the best it will get for now.

    Would I have even bothered to write a comment if they talked about 'The Dark Knight Rises' was a masterpiece, a zenith of modern filmmaking, the bar every aspiring filmmaker to thrive for? No, I wouldn't. But to completely dismantle a film with bias just make critics that much irrelevant again when it comes to big budget films. And me coming to the film's defence doesn't make me a fanboy, just someone who wants to read your reviews not read your transcribed bar talk.