"THE DARK KNIGHT RISES" SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
I liked it a lot. I think the best thing about the movie is how it surprised me. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to the buzz ahead of the movie’s release, but I went in pretty blind. I knew it was Bane and I knew there was a bit of an "Occupy Gotham" flavor in there somewhere, but that was it. When, in the second half, the movie turned out to be an adaptation of a completely different Batman story than I thought it was going to be, I wanted to applaud.
And wasn't the final surprise, either.
Probably the biggest surprise is that Christopher Nolan nailed the ending: Surprising, yet predictable in retrospect. Quick, yet impactful. A fitting finale to a movie trilogy. It was one that felt final, yet left things open to something completely different for when Warner Bros. finds someone to make the next movie. I don’t think the next movie will continue directly from here, but I think Nolan left the ending open enough that the viewer could imagine the next step, and that’s enough for me.
I hope Warner Bros. reboots the franchise with the next movie and veers in the direction of Adam West, but maybe I'm just an anarchist.
It's a bit of a brutal movie, though if you know the original Bane story from Batman comics twenty years ago, you were kind of prepared for it. And while the on-screen violence is minimized (necks are generally snapped after the camera cuts away), I still had a gut-wrenching feeling through most of the movie. But as good as the movie was, I didn't walk out wanting to see it all over again. That didn't seem like a good time to me. I'd rather go see "The Avengers" again. It's much lighter and more fun. It may not be as tightly plotted or as deadly serious and "realistic" as "The Dark Knight Rises," but it was a much more enjoyable time. As a father who mostly watches animated or princess movies, my stomach for darker fare is quickly weakening. I am, as the kids might say, a wuss.
Like most superhero movies, the more you think of it, the more holes you might poke into the plot. There was only one action that made me smack my head with the stupidity of the logic near the end, but I didn’t let it ruin the overall movie. Sometimes, you accept "movie logic" and move on with your life. It’s a superhero thriller/action movie and not a docu-drama. I say, give the creators some artistic license. Enjoy the artifice of the style and stop thinking about it so damned much. That doesn’t mean you should accept blind stupidity, but I do think too many people go in looking to feel smarter by poking holes into movies instead of having a good time with what’s presented to them. For that reason, I’ll never earn my stripes as a "serious movie critic," and that’s OK by me.
As usual with any great movie, the supporting cast steals the show. Yes, Christian Bale is a fine actor and still plays the smiley debonair Bruce Wayne well, but it's the people he's surrounded by that keep the show going. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon is as great as he was in the first two movies, even with a slightly smaller role. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer John Blake gives a strong performance as the every man police officer, honest and true, who never gives up the fight. Morgan Freeman always lends gravitas to a movie. Anne Hathaway quickly erases any doubts you might have had in your mind about a pretty face playing a serious role in this movie. She's sexy without being over-the-top and delivers the role as a more complicated character than you might expect. The issue of a female character running around in high heels even gets a nod in the script, which was nice.
And, then, of course, there's Michael Caine. The only threat to him in this movie is in Tom Hardy's Bane. Who would inspire the most bad impressions? Who could chew their lines more? Whose voice would be easier to understand? (Overall, the movie was so loud that I lost some bits of dialogue just from the loud music combined with whispering characters and the jarring transitions between the two.)
If there's any weakness in the supporting cast, it's that some of the other lower profile characters are acting as if they're in a sillier movie. They're less nuanced, less subtle. In the opening scene, the federal agent is over-the-top and cartoonish in both dialogue and his posturing. There are a lot of characters like him in the movie, like Daggett and the stock exchange characters. That's a consistent trait across the entire trilogy here, but something that bugs me more as the movies get more and more serious.
Everything else, though, impressed me, including the driving and haunting (and did I mention loud?) Hans Zimmer score. The movie clocked in at two hours and forty-five minutes and could have easily gone another hour to flesh things out in the second half. I wonder if there was ever any talk of splitting this into two movies somehow? That seems to be the fashionable thing to do with book adaptations, like "Twilight" and "Harry Potter." Certainly, there was enough raw material here for that. Keeping it condensed into one might have short-changed some of the characterization and world-building, but still delivered a satisfying package.
"The Dark Knight Trilogy," as it is being called now, is a success, without an obvious stinker in the bunch. Chris Nolan and his team did a great job in keeping the movie series going over the last decade, and the next guy will have some large shoes to fill.
Trailer watch: "The Hobbit" looks cool. "The Bourne Legacy" strikes me as a movie whose concept seems like a gigantic comic book series ret-con. ("Our character is popular and successful! But we killed him off. But a sequel would make us more money! What if there was more than one of him?" "A Bourne Totem?") I wasn’t sure I cared about the movie before I saw that trailer, but now I definitely would like to see it. The "Man of Steel" teaser turns the tables on the usual Superman movie feel and goes for something completely different. I hope that works out for them. I also hope the movie has a good explanation for the fishing boat motif in the middle of Kansas. One theater-goer sitting across from me muttered, "That’s it?" at the end of the teaser. With a year to go, the masses want more. That’s not a bad problem for Warner Bros. to have.
FLASHBACK: "BATMAN BEGINS" BEGINS
I couldn't resist looking back at the Pipeline columns from the Chicago Comic-Con of 2004. It was the summer they were filming "Batman Begins" in, and DC "surprised" a Green Lantern panel with a special preview of footage from the movie, as well as an appearance from Christopher Nolan.
It was, to put it mildly, an awkward scene:
The room filled up easily with 400 people or so, plus a dozen security guards, Warner Bros. executives, DC professionals, Wizard staffers, and more. Security was positioned all over the room, including one standing in the middle aisle halfway. One member of the security detail stood a couple of feet away from the screen with a night vision scope, checking out the room as the footage played. They were Very Very Very serious about this footage not leaking out onto the internet. So important was this to them that Nolan, Bob Wayne, and Paul Levitz all pointed it out repeatedly. A sign stood on an easel at the front of the room that said no photography or recording of the event was permitted. Insanely, the security force took that to include the Green Lantern portion of the panel. You know how Warner Bros. gets when pictures are taken of Ethan Van Sciver and Geoff Johns together begin surfacing on the internet...
I wrote a review for CBR's news feed of the footage they showed us that day, from hastily scrawled notes in my notebook. It ended like this:
The BATMAN BEGINS teaser didn't show you much of substance as far as the story and acting goes, but it sure did look cool. The clips package I saw today with 400 of my closest friends backed up that teaser, showing us four minutes of new stuff and strengthening the image of the movie. There's nothing in that package to suggest that this movie is in any trouble. There's nothing there to make us worry that we have another DAREDEVIL or ALIENS VERSUS PREDATOR or CATWOMAN on our hands here. Quite the opposite. Today, I saw grown men reduced to piles of mush.
After seeing this package, I'm ready for BATMAN BEGINS. On a day when Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon held solo presentations, I couldn't be happier than with the choice I made to give DC a chance.
That "piles of mush" statement wasn't overselling it, either. It's easy to forget how low the "Batman in movie theaters" bar had fallen after Joel Schumacher did "Batman and Robin." The wounds of seeing a Bat-nipple costume do not heal quickly. Seeing a "serious" Batman movie after years of growing campiness, neon lights, and corny villains was a breath of fresh and welcomed air.
And later that night, a group of us would go out to dinner in the city of Chicago and see helicopters flying overhead from filming on the movie. It was quite the weekend. . .
Wonder if that Joss Whedon fellow I skipped over that day ever got to direct a superhero movie?
Going back just a little bit further, news of Christian Bale's casting hit in September 2003. Here's what I wrote then:
Christian Bale is now Batman. I like the decision. I thought he showed the acting chops necessary to play Bruce Wayne and Batman during EQUILIBRIUM, which I just caught on DVD a couple of weeks ago. It wasn't a perfect movie by any means, but Bale could play emotionless and driven at the same time. I think it'll suit the movie well.
The thing that I find really funny about all of these announcements is how much stock everyone puts in the actor playing the lead. They forget completely about the script. That's the little thing that guides everything else about the production. I don't think we've seen any actor yet who was a flat-out bad Batman. Even George Clooney did a great job as Bruce Wayne, no matter what you think of his caped crusader. But he was given utter crap to work with for a script, and the whole movie stunk for it.
Let's concentrate less on who's playing the lead character and a little more on the script. I still have an uneasy feeling about that.
Thankfully, my uneasiness was quelled just about a year later.
One final tangent: In that same Pipeline, there's a link to the end of Comic Book Idol. Do you remember which two artists were in that finale? Patrick Scherberger and Jonathan Hickman. Not a bad graduating class there. I was voting for Martin Redmond until that point. Whatever happened to him?
UPDATES ON IP AND CREATOR-OWNERSHIP
Some of what I wrote in last week’s column may not have been as clear in virtual print as it was in my head. So I have to revisit it, with more background details, to spell it all out.
Let’s backtrack: On Preview Night at Comic-Con, a "Hollywood Insider" story announced the formation of Studio JMS. This is J. Michael Straczynski’s new company to make the most of his own properties. JMS has worked in Hollywood for decades now. He’s written for stage, screen, silver screen, radio, newspapers, the web, and just about every medium stories have been told in for the last century. He even wrote a book on writing for all those formats. Given his experience in the business dealings in Hollywood -- especially from creating, show-running, and writing "Babylon 5" for five years and beyond -- he’s in a unique position to create a company of which his comics writings are just a part.
In the course of the story, JMS is quoted as saying he’s looking forward to "creating IP" to exploit across all these media.
Many on the internet jumped on him for the statement. There’s obviously an anti-fan movement afoot when it comes to JMS for several reasons -- "abandoned" runs on series, controversial stories (Gwen Stacey clone, for one example) and his more wordy moments. This was just an opportunity for the same old jokers to come out.
If Straczynski would hire Rob Liefeld to do a comic book with him, the internet would finally explode and destroy itself in gleeful snark to end all snark.
It surprised me, however, to see fellow comics professionals join in the movement. It doubly surprised me, since many of those professionals have Hollywood deals with their creator-owned properties, and have even participated in the screenwriting process for them. In short, the people making fun of JMS for talking about creating IP have all created their own IP in comics that they’ve since sold to Hollywood. Many have worked on adapting the material on their own. All of this is exactly what JMS is looking to do. And unlike those who took to Twitter to joke about it, JMS actually has the credits to back it up. ("Changelings" even had the Oscar nominations in non-writing categories.) His screenplays have made it to the screen, not languished in development/pilot season hell for years on end.
Like I said in the last column, JMS was speaking Hollywood-ese to a Hollywood publication. Seems normal to me.
The biggest bone of contention to what I wrote last week, however, came from my statement that there is no difference between "Creator-Owned" and "IP." When viewed in the context of that part of the column, I think it makes sense. But taken on its own, it might be misleading, so please let me clarify:
"IP" (Intellectual Property) exists on its own merits and can be owned by its original creator or by someone else who either paid the creator to work on the material in the first place, or who bought it later. Or traded for it. Or screwed someone else over for it with shady lawyers. IP can, indeed, be owned by anyone.
When something is creator-owned, though, what does the creator own? The IP. That’s the point of creator ownership. The creator owns and controls the IP, up until he or she signs a deal with someone else reassigning any of that value for any length of time for any compensation. There are various flavors of such a deal, but it's always the same: the creator is trading in on the IP s/he owns in exchange for a better deal with someone else. Maintaining ownerwhip of that IP is critical.
You can have IP that isn’t creator owned. But if something is creator-owned, then the creator owns that IP and the rights to do with it what he or she wants. That’s the point.
Further along in the column, I was taken to task for suggesting that I don’t know what creator ownership means because I suggested J. Bone would make a great replacement for Paul Smith on "Leave It To Chance." Let me be explicit, then:
"Leave It To Chance" is IP co-owned by James Robinson and Paul Smith. It says so in the books’ indicias. Now, I don’t know all the details of the contract between the two, but let’s just guess each has 50% ownership and can’t do anything with the IP without the other’s contractual acceptance.
I would like to suggest that in the event Paul Smith doesn’t wish to continue drawing "Leave It To Chance" but that James Robinson has a story he’d like to tell, and Smith agrees to let someone else draw it, and can work out a deal with the IP’s co-owner so that he benefits for the usage of his property, and approves of the new artist, I think J. Bone’s style would be a good fit for the book.
I am not suggesting that J. Bone does some kind of hostile takeover of the title, or that Robinson ignores Smith’s rights to the characters. I would like to see more "Leave It To Chance" is all. . . I’d prefer to see it with Smith on art, but his involvement in the comics world is never certain. Right now, he appears to be on the outs with the industry. Maybe that'll change again someday.
That’s a much wordier way of putting it, but this is the internet. We love a good argument over semantics and assuming the worst in others. Hopefully, I put enough clauses in there to please the lawyers.