The Dark Knight Rises, comics, and… Magic Mike?
Posted by Hedwig on July 22, 2012
No “what’s making me happy” this week, since what I really want to talk about is the new Batman movie, and it unfortunately didn’t make me very happy. I hesitated to write this post because of the violent response to early negative (or not positive enough) reviews, but by now the virulent fan boys have seen the movie, and they’ve been much quieter since…
Note: a minor spoiler for The Dark Knight occurs further in the text. I’ll warn beforehand.
For me, the film illustrated how valuable film criticism can be. See, I liked, but didn’t love, the first two batman films, BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. There was plenty to admire – many of the performances, with Heath Ledger’s joker as a stand-out; the fact that Gotham became a tangible place; the sheer scope of the thing, the epic scale. But I never really got into them, never really managed to lose myself in the films, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on the why. I knew that part of it was that the themes were stated over and over, and that the film mistook being dour and “dark” for being intellectual and deep, but that wasn’t everything.
Then I read many of Jim Emerson‘s many pieces about the films, and it clicked. The problem is not just that the subtext is text. It’s that the images have no subtext at all: they show exactly what they want to show, and nothing more. There’s never any interplay between foreground and background. Nothing ever comes into the frame in an interesting way. It’s flatfooted, unimaginative film-making. I felt the effect before, but having read his analyses, I finally understood why the movies didn’t get to me.
“But it’s just a comic book movie!”, you might say. But see, I’ve been reading a lot of comics lately – about 1/3 of the DC New 52, old She-Hulk comics, some original Spider-Man. And especially in the newer comics, the panels are very creative. The first new issue of Catwoman got a lot of criticism for showing Catwoman’s body, and not her face, for the first few pages. Sexist? Yup. Interestingly composed? Absolutely. The Batman: Year One comic, which goes over the origin yet again, has some stunning composition, far above anything in the Nolan films.
I have to admit: the movie also suffered because of the other three movies I saw in the week before. The first was SHALLOW GRAVE, new on Criterion blu, which is a bit show-offy but often gorgeous. The second was LE CERCLE ROUGE (on film!), and well, I don’t suppose I have to defend Melville. And the third? The third was MAGIC MIKE.
I’ll admit: I went for the strippers. Soderbergh having directed it was only a perk, raising the hope that there would be other nice things to look at besides abs and naked bums. But the film, light and forgettable as it is, shows how much a director can do. There’s a great sight gag, for instance, where you’re looking at a conversation in the background, through some shelves, and suddenly realize that the out-of-focus thing in the background is the dick belonging to the aptly named Big Dick Richie getting pumped. You could hear the realization (and associated laughter) ripple through the (all-female) audience. Then there’s the first scene with Mike, getting our of bed: you see his ass, then the camera movement reveals there’s also a naked lady there, and then the camera moves further to reveal a third bedpartner.
Is it silly? Sure. It’s also really skillful. Maybe more instructive is a comparison between two scenes, one from Magic Mike and one from TDKR.
In Magic Mike, most of the dancing is presented as a bit silly. The customers hoot and giggle, and so does the audience. Then Mike gets a solo dance, and Soderbergh manages to turn the dancing sexy again in a very simple way: he cuts back and forth between Mike’s dancing and another stripper’s sister, Brooke, watching. The actress isn’t all that great, but simply by showing her be quiet, alternately entranced and embarrassed, we suddenly can’t giggle the hotness away any more. It’s a genuinely sexy moment, and it doesn’t require a single word.
Late in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (and here’s where the minor spoiler happens), Commisioner Gordon finally finds out who Batman is. It goes like this: Batman tells him something about how someone will always be there to give their coat to a young boy whose world has just fallen apart. Then we flash back to a young Gordon giving kid Bruce Wayne his coat. Then Batman flies away, and Gordon mutters “Bruce Wayne”.
The moment plays like a joke. It’s so literal, and within the movie, it may even serve as a reminder that Gordon’s the last to know, since all other main characters do at that point. The moment lands flat, especially since it comes on the heels of a particularly clumsy death scene.
How could it have been done better? Simple. Just have Batman deliver the same line. Skip the flashback. Have the Batmobile take off, and just show Gordon look upwards, realization dawning on his face. I mean: Gary Oldman is a great actor, much better than Cody Horn, the girl in Magic Mike. He CAN, actually, convey things without verbalizing them. And the moment would have been much stronger, much more mythic.
But Nolan doesn’t trust his audience enough. And so the movie thuds when it should soar. MAGIC MIKE may be a trifle of a movie, with none of the complexities of Nolan’s Batman movies. But on a pure visual level, it’s much more interesting.
ETA: I was looking at my stats, and noticed that my post about THE DARK KNIGHT got a couple of hits, probably from people googling this movie. I re-read it, and it aligns with this one quite eerily (I even compared TDK unfavorable to a comic book!). Also, I used to get comments. Man, those were the days.