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Critical Consensus: Mike D’Angelo and Keith Uhlich on ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ Christopher Nolan, and Batman’s Next Move

Critical Consensus: Mike D'Angelo and Keith Uhlich on 'The Dark Knight Rises,' Christopher Nolan, and Batman's Next Move

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”?

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.)

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?

D’ANGELO: Keith, I’m gonna do my best not to turn this into a debate about the merits of “The Prestige,” which you’re of course entitled to dislike.  I do want to quickly note, however, that your bleak interpretation of the film’s “message” is 180 degrees from what I think Nolan intended.  It’s a materialist work, to be sure, but being a hardcore materialist doesn’t necessitate renouncing wonder or mystery.  Ultimately, “The Prestige” is a paean to magic — including, implicitly, that of the movies.  It doesn’t chide us for needing illusions; on the contrary, it celebrates their creation, to the point of fashioning a hero who sacrifices himself nightly to provide them (an element that wasn’t in Christopher Priest’s novel).  That’s precisely what I find so oddly moving about it.

As it happens, I badly misunderstood “The Prestige” the first time I saw it, and wrote a fairly mixed review.  Why? Because I had certain expectations regarding a movie about magicians, and got thrown when Nikola Tesla showed up and the story took a sudden swerve into the realm of science-fiction.  In general, expectations are a curse. There’s no way of eliminating them entirely, but I do my best to neutralize them as much as possible, by avoiding trailers (as Keith correctly noted) and eschewing fundamentally promotional events like Comic-Con.  Ideally, I’d prefer to see every movie completely cold, without even knowing who made it; as you guys may recall, I experienced the entire 2007 Cannes Competition slate that way, and it was an eye-opening experience (which I haven’t repeated only because remaining ignorant is a giant logistical pain in the ass that requires you to be a hermit for two weeks).

In the specific case of  “Dark Knight Rises,” I guess my expectations were mildly hopeful.  As a huge Nolan fan, I eagerly anticipate each film; at the same time, his Batman movies aren’t my favorites (on the Criticwire scale, I gave each of the first two a solid “B”), so I can’t say I was salivating.  Certainly I didn’t expect to be as bored as I often was.  Also, unlike Keith, I have no special attachment to Batman as a character, having been more of a Marvel kid growing up.  As for the fanboy hype, I find it problematic even aside from the vitriolic comments…but no more problematic, I have to say, than the mindset of some hardcore cinephiles I know who are convinced sight unseen that each new Dardennes or Von Trier or Garrel or Costa movie will surely be an unqualified masterpiece.  Hero worship is unhealthy as a rule, and perhaps that simply gets magnified when it comes to a movie about an actual superhero.

Whatever you make of Nolan’s approach to Batman — and it’s clear now that critical reactions have been a lot more divided than initial hype suggested — it’s obvious that these movies did allow Nolan to successfully transition into an entirely new plane as a commercial filmmaker, as evidenced by the success of “Inception” (if not “The Prestige”).

Mike, since you almost certainly care more than Keith, tell us: What would you like to see Nolan do with his power and influence during this new post-Batman phase? He’s a producer on the upcoming Superman movie “Man of Steel” but has not yet announced his next directing project. Should he return to the smaller, trickier projects of his early years? Or is this the wrong question to ask because, post-“Dark Knight Rises,” you no longer care what Nolan does next?

D’ANGELO: I’m absolutely still interested in what Nolan does next. (Abbas Kiarostami spent a full decade making movies I couldn’t abide, then gave us “Certfied Copy.”  Never write anybody off.)  He should obviously go wherever his creative urges lead him, and I have every confidence that if he continues to make hugely expensive event films, they’ll at least be orders of magnitude more intelligent and ambitious than most of Hollywood’s output.  Still, I wouldn’t be unhappy if someone handed him “only,” say, $10 million and told him to do whatever he wants with it.  He and his brother Jonathan share a prodigious imagination, and I’d rather see it channeled into Memento-style structural ingenuity than dedicated to realizing F/X wet dreams like city streets folding over each other or football fields collapsing underfoot chunk by chunk.  In particular, I’d be happy to see Nolan adapt more novels — what he did with “The Prestige,” employing the outline of Priest’s narrative in service of an essentially new-but-related story of his own, is an ideal example of how one medium can inspire another.

And if he doesn’t make any more trilogies or comic-book movies, that’s okay by me.

Keith, since you’re the bigger Batman fan here, what would like to see happen to the character now? Does he deserve a reboot? (Does anything?) Or are the existing movies — the ones you like anyway — enough for you to get all the Batman fixes you need?

UHLICH: Mike: I remember your review of “The Prestige” vividly, as well as the turnaround you experienced. I had a similar road-to-Damascus moment with Spielberg’s “A.I.,” which so confounded and angered me on first view and has since become a favorite. Interestingly, I partially attribute my initial reaction to seeing a packed-house opening night screening at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld, where the sense of the audience turning against the film during the 2000 years leap forward was painfully palpable. I couldn’t disconnect myself from that. Much as we strive for ideal experiences of movies, I think they’re fairly impossible to attain.   

Mike, I read your take here on “The Prestige” and it makes me wish I could see it through your eyes. I also wish I felt it was worth a revisit, but I’ve been burned and bludgeoned by Nolan so many times that I’m not feeling especially eager for a re-viewing. Never say never—e.g., after swearing off Paul Greengrass post-“United 93” (I’ll watch any Nolan movie again before I rewatch that muddled, malevolent shitstorm), I’m finally getting around to his Bourne movies in anticipation of the fourth one. Who knows what our journey holds?

I also agree about the shared affinities between fanboy and hardcore cinephile commentary and the hero-worship that frequently results. It’s tough, much of the time, to speak passionately about an artist you love without tipping over into defensive posturing. Better the person who thinks and rethinks, who doesn’t kowtow to the fashionable be his obsession Bruce Wayne or his godhead Godard. Much as I have my favorite filmmakers, they almost all have disappointed me in some way or another (see, or rather don’t, De Palma’s “Redacted”). Likewise there have been artists I’ve loathed who have surprised me with something potent and powerful (perhaps someday I’ll work up the courage to write a full-on defense of Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”—but that’s another discussion).

I will take a crack at Eric’s earlier question about Nolan and what I’d like to see him do. And I mean this in all honesty and good faith: I hope he keeps doing whatever he feels he has to do, and goes wherever his muse takes him. I may never be a proponent of his work, but as long as we can both occupy our own creative spaces without any real infringement, then godspeed. No artist should bear the burden of having to please. And all I ask is the continuing freedom to respond.

Finally, as far as what I’d like to see happen to Batman now: Let whoever wants take a crack at the character. Reboot. Rework. Rethink. Pace several reviewers, Nolan’s isn’t the final word. At this point, Batman belongs to the world, and there’s enough of a mythos there for other creatives to explore. As I said above, he’s malleable, and though there are certainly plenty of stories to return to, I’m always interested in new visions and directions—as much of what’s established as what has yet to be imagined.

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