Great and Not-So-Great Expectations
Batman is my favorite character in all of fiction. Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989 was the first movie I saw on opening night in a sold-out house, and after that I managed to see it seven more times while it was in theaters. And that was the summer before I entered second grade, so you figure out how I did that because I don’t even know! After the movie, I started following the Caped Crusader’s exploits in Detective Comics and graphic novels like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. Comics are what got me into reading, and reading got me into writing, and writing got me into… whatever the hell this is.
Batman: The Animated Series is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and even the most wretched Joel Schumacher-directed Bat-nipple extravaganza got my money. If it’s a Batman movie, I’ll be there, and if you pay attention to the world, you know that a new one just opened nation wide yesterday.
Twenty minutes before midnight on Thursday, I entered the movie theater with my pre-purchased ticket for The Dark Knight Rises. Thankfully, I was one of the countless people who had an uninterrupted experience and went home safely the next morning, not one of the dozens who faced inexplicable horror and violence at the hands of an evil domestic terrorist. I considered not writing about the actual experience of sitting in the theater for this entry, not mentioning the cavalier, almost whimsical references to injury and death that I and some of my fellow movie-goers tossed around while waiting in the lobby. Like how, when the usher opened the doors, I cupped my hand over my mouth and shouted “BUM RUSH!” Like how, when my friends and I, as well as a bunch of teenagers, and a lot of drunks who’d just sauntered in from the house of sleaze and crabs across the street known as The Dawg House, raced to our seats, I may have called out, “If someone falls, leave ‘em behind!” Like how the frantic yelling, chattering and occasional slapping from the audience waiting for the lights to dim reminded me of the scene in Gremlins when the creatures watch Snow White. I thought bringing up any of these moments from the movie experience would be in poor taste. Not NRA-tweet poor taste, but poor.
Then I decided the death toll was high enough and that this dickless psychopath wasn’t going to shame me from telling my jokes. Only my wife can do that!
When I bought three tickets for The Dark Knight Rises last Tuesday, the sweet, elderly woman in the ticket booth said, “Now, you know the rules, right?” The rules? What rules could she mean? Did I have to show up at a certain time in order to get a specific seat? Was I supposed to dress up in character? Was I not supposed to bring a digital camera and bootleg the entire film?
“What rules?” I asked.
“You have to bring these tickets back when you come to see the movie,” she said.
Oh, she meant the rule about needing a ticket to get in. The rule that was the exact same reason I went there in the first place. I guess it wasn’t obvious to anyone born since 1590. And I guess I must have looked pretty stupefied because she went on to explain:
“I won’t remember you, see? I’m not going to be here Thursday at midnight, so you need to show the girl your ticket.”
Apparently, the Star Cinema movie theater has had a spree of movie-crashers who come without tickets and just say, “Hey, c’mon, it’s me! You know I got a ticket, I just didn’t bring it! C’mon, look at my face! You know me!” Thus, the management created the rule: No Ticket, No Movie. A bit harsh, sure, but I guess that’s the price you pay for… not paying a price…?
Okay, moving right along.
Christopher Nolan is as good an illusionist as the dueling stage magicians he directed in The Prestige (2006). He keeps managing to lower my expectations for these Batman films to the point of ambivalence going into the theater, and then slamming me in the face with a masterpiece that is not only respectful to the comic book source material I adore, but thrilling and artful at the same time. In the summer of 2005, I looked forward to Batman Begins if only to see a version of the costume that didn’t have embossed genitalia made of rubber. Then I saw publicity photos of the Batmobile and damn near had a rage-stroke.
That’s how Batman is supposed to get around town while striking at the heart of villainy from the shadows? I really thought Batman Begins might include a monster truck rally to replace the soul-crushing ice-hockey battle from Batman & Robin. And then there was the pre-release Scarecrow action figure that came with a fire-breathing horse. Holy fuckballs, did this movie look horrible from the previews and merchandise! But Nolan proved how bad Warner Bros.’ marketing division could be and how good his vision of the Batman was at the same time. Batman Begins blew me away. It instantly became my favorite movie in the superhero/comic book genre, which, for my tastes, put it very high on my list of all time favorite movies total.
So going into 2008 I was pretty pumped up for the sequel, The Dark Knight… Until I found out that young heartthrob Heath Ledger was playing the Joker. Wait, Heath Ledger, wasn’t he the kid from that remake of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that didn’t call itself that because if teenagers knew it was based on a play they’d never go watch it? Wasn’t Heath Ledger like, ten years too young for this part? And this was the guy who had to contend with Jack “Jack Fucking Nicholson” Nicholson? And then there were the onset photos of the new Bat-costume and Bat-motorcycle that just looked silly… as silly as the idea of a billionaire dressing up in this costume.
But all of these pictures and casting decisions made sense in the context of the film. Batman’s knightly armor, as well as the behemoth Bat-mobile and stripped Bat-pod motorcycle work in the films by taking the subtlety out of Batman’s war on crime and embracing a doctrine of shock and awe. They’re some of the most visceral, eye-catching and downright fun action sequences of any major blockbuster movie.
And there’s really nothing that can be said about Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker that hasn’t already been said (though far too little is said of the performances of Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart, the movie’s unsung heroes). I mean, Ledger walked right up and pimp slapped Nicholson and took the character from him. That such a young actor had the cojones to even try is amazing; that he won an Oscar for it is incredible! And deserved.
I came out of the midnight screening of The Dark Knight believing it had trumped the immortal Casablanca as my favorite movie of all time. It still might be today; the two films alternate depending on how I’m feeling at any given time.
Needless to say, the stakes were immensely–perhaps impossibly–high for the next chapter. How could they top Ledger’s Joker in this film? Short answer: they couldn’t. Nolan and his writing team didn’t follow Joker and Two-Face with another beloved rogue older viewers might remember from the television series, like the Riddler or Penguin or Mister Freeze. They chose Bane, a character with less than twenty years of history in the comic books, whose only notable contribution to Bat-lore was breaking Batman’s back in a story line called “Knightfall” in the mid-1990s.
Comics in the ’90s were a lot like music in the ’80s: soulless. Lots of flash, little substance. ”Knightfall” was entertaining, but less enduring than other stories, and the villainous Bane devolved into a brute who challenged Batman physically but not mentally or emotionally.
This was the follow-up to the Joker and Two-Face and Ra’s al Ghul? The threat to Batman in The Dark Knight was more existential, even spiritual in its menace. Joker didn’t want Batman dead; he wanted to break his intractable spirit, he wanted to corrupt him, and he came damn close at times. What was Bane going to do in The Dark Knight Rises? Beat Batman up, maybe paralyze him, maybe even kill him? Okay… boring.
Then they cast Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. The Princess Diaries girl? Wait, seriously?!?! Granted, any depiction of Catwoman was bound to be better than the Halle Berry version, but still… this girl?
On top of all of this, the trailers for the movie gave me nothing to work with. Warner Bros. released four official trailers and I watched them all multiple times and I still got no sense of the structure, tone, themes or plot of this movie. There are movies whose trailers I think far, far exceed the actual films. I could watch the previews for Prometheus and Watchmen all day long, but god knows I never want to see those movies again! The trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, were incoherent and weird. All I had to cling to was In Nolan I Trust. The man hadn’t directed a movie I didn’t like, but surely that couldn’t last forever.
I went to the theater Thursday night full of caution and a willful distance to protect myself from the likelihood of it bombing. I might as well have been going into the movie with no knowledge of the franchise.
And that is why Chris Nolan is a magician! All of the poor marketing and all of my caution leading into The Dark Knight Rises lowered my expectations so that they had nowhere to go but up… and up… and up…
To Be Continued