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Needs More Batman

January 15th, 2013

I was in no rush to watch The Dark Knight Rises, the allegedly final film in director Christopher Nolan’s triptych about everyone’s favorite rodent-themed superhero, Mighty Mouse Batman. I was already predisposed against it; I had begun to resent the overrated previous installment, Dark Knight: The Jokering. Then the shootings in Aurora–sadly, only the second most horrific mass killing in America last year–dulled whatever remaining interest I’d had.

However, as I’ve previously stated, I prefer to bitch about things with authority. So last Saturday I spun a Blu-Ray of Rises. And…

I kinda liked it. It wasn’t the best Batman movie ever, but it didn’t actively annoy me either.

The main beef I had with it was its relative lack of Batman. There are thousands of movies I can watch that don’t have Batman in them, so I prefer my Batman films to feature frequent appearances by Batman. Instead, there were long, Batman-free stretches which found Bruce Wayne too mopey to Batman it up.

The previous installment ended with Batman taking the rap for the death of Harvey Dent, the crime-busting district attorney who, unbeknownst to Gotham City, had been transformed into the villainous Two-Face. This deception was deemed necessary to prevent undoing the progress Dent had made against organized crime.

Rises begins eight years later, with the gangs brought low under draconian sentencing laws and Batman fading into legend. Gotham is by no means crime-free, but people seem content with the current state of low-level thuggery.

While Bruce Wayne’s sacrifice made a certain amount of sense as I was watching the film, something nagged at me afterward. Okay, I can see that Batman would see great value in eliminating organized crime. Yet the mobs had nothing to do with the traumatic event that spurred his lifelong crusade: his parents’ murder at the hands of a garden-variety mugger. It struck me as out-of-character for Bruce to allow street-level crime to continue in his self-imposed exile.

Rises piles on the villains. As with The Dark Knight, there are three* of them: Catwoman, Bane and a third whose reveal is meant to be a surprise but is pretty easy to guess if you’re more than passingly familiar with Batman’s comic book history.

Of them, Catwoman was the one I enjoyed the most, and not only because Anne Hathaway in skin-tight leather trips at least a couple of my triggers. She was the only one who seemed to be having fun being bad. Happily, Rises expunges the “licked back to life by cats” backstory from Catwoman’s last two movie appearances, and gets back to the original idea of a cat burglar who shares a mutual attraction with Batman.

Bane is a character I’ve greatly disliked since his first appearance. He was everything that I hated about ’90s comics: an impossibly-muscled, ‘roid-raging brute with a badass name. (Also an inexplicable resemblance to a Mexican wrestler. Not that I have anything against luchadores.) He improbably managed to defeat Batman despite a glaringly obvious vulnerable spot that the World’s Greatest Detective failed to notice for the editorially-mandated reason that the “Knightfall” storyline had another forty-skillion issues to run.

Anyhow, the Rises version of Bane does away with the super-steroid tube and the wrestling get-up. Which, honestly, are the only visually interesting things about the character. Instead, he gets a weird breath mask that (somehow) helps him manage his constant pain…and also makes him difficult to understand. (I didn’t have as much trouble with this as did theatergoers; watching it at home without background noise helped.) Bane also gets a fur coat, so there’s that. Overall, he’s effective enough as a generic terrorist baddie, as well as a bait-and-switch for the actual mastermind.

I was confused by the part in which Bane left the broken Bruce Wayne in prison–ostensibly to rot while Gotham burns–but in the care of two guys who made it their personal mission to rehabilitate him and motivate him to climb out of the pit. Did they not get the memo? I was waiting for one of them to turn out to be a disguised Michael Caine, but it was not to be.

I did enjoy the excesses of Bane’s inverted version of Gotham, particularly the kangaroo court presided over by Jonathan Crane (aka the Scarecrow) perched atop an enormous, improvised judge’s bench.

The film’s conclusion puts a coda on the Caped Crusader’s career. In the context of the trilogy’s overall story arc, this works well enough. It does, however, strike a note of dissonance in that it suggests that Batman’s eternal quest for justice is something he can take or leave.

In the end, I generally enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, yet it’s just not what I’m looking for in a Batman film. As a longtime fan of DC Comics’ stable of characters, I find it repeatedly frustrating that I have to look to the Marvel Comics adaptations for the fun and adventure I want when I plunk down my money for a superhero flick.

*Or five, if you count the out-of-costume cameo by the Scarecrow and the surprisingly knowledgeable hallucination of Ra’s Al Ghul. Seriously, if Bruce is imagining Ra’s, how is it that he knows things that Bruce doesn’t?

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