Bad Pacing, Bad Action Scenes
I’ll give Christopher Nolan this one caveat: He and his cinematographer Wally Pfister know how to make an attractive-looking motion picture. Shooting on celluloid as opposed to digital, they’ve devised three comic book movies that look absolutely sensational, with enough requisite polish and gloss. We’ll get to the flawed production design a bit later on, but the visuals of these movies are great, like an old-school Michael Mann picture.
Which is why it’s a shame that Nolan isn’t a better director. Given blah scripts to work with, he lathers on the gloss, but pays no mind to essential filmmaking characteristics like pacing or, you know, coherence or comprehensibility in an action scene. One of The Dark Knight‘s action sequences has already been meticulously analysed and destroyed by a professional film critic. Also, it doesn’t help that other scenes – like the hand-to-hand combat stuff – are studiously mediocre, suffering from bad camerawork and worse editing to hide the strictly average-at-best fight choreography.
Tim Burton might not have been the biggest comic book fan, but he created two extremely good Batman adventures. The fight scenes weren’t the greatest, but you can always see what’s happening, and his filmmaking routine doesn’t revolve around quick-cuts and shaky-cam.
Batman Begins is the only watchable entry in the trilogy, because it’s not as bloated and the action scenes aren’t as overblown. The climactic fight with Ra’s al Ghul is a bit on the shaky side, but for the most part Nolan did it right. It’s a real shame the quality of Begins was chucked by the wayside for the unworthy follow-ups.
Have any of you guys watched the two-part animated epic known as The Dark Knight Returns? If not, you NEED to get it in front of your eyes. Also, I recommend you watch Batman: Under the Red Hood, another near-masterpiece that absolutely shits on the Nolan Batman movies.
You know why those above titles work so well? They’re taut. They understand that, as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit. Nolan’s Batman movies are filled with endless dialogue scenes with tonnes of exposition to get across absolutely everything that the characters are feeling. The attempts at moralistic debating and social commentary are half-hearted at best. If you really need to shove in that much chatter, it means you’re a bad writer without the skill to relate things in a subtler manner.
Under the Red Hood runs 70 minutes, and its finale is a masterpiece, with ethical discussions and unforced depth that’s absolutely riveting. I never felt anything like that in Nolan’s movies. In The Dark Knight Returns, it takes maybe 10 minutes for Bruce to put on the cowl and bring the Caped Crusader out of retirement, and his rumination and decision-making is, if anything, more effective than the hour or so of pretentious, repetitive bickering in The Dark Knight Rises before Bruce hits the streets again.
There are also plot holes that you can drive a truck through, like how Bruce manages to make it back to Gotham City in Rises with no credit cards or ID. Or how The Joker’s plan goes off without a hitch in TDK, which is completely preposterous. It’s also weird how Bruce retired Batman after the death of his beloved Rachel when it’s such tragedies that DEFINE Batman and got him started in the first place.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, the writing for these movies is elementary at best. I wish a competent screenwriter could have gotten his mittens on these movies.
I have to throw in a Begins caveat for this entry, too. From an adaptation standpoint, Begins is pretty close to the source, and doesn’t suffer from as many of the pitfalls that knee-capped its follow-ups. A lot of the bad writing crops up in TDK and TDKR.
Too Serious and “Realistic”
Tim Burton’s movies tread the very fine line between outright camp and dour seriousness. They’re pretty silly, to be sure, but that’s inherent to the freaking source material: These movies are based on a comic book about a guy who dresses up like a rodent and fights crime because he misses his parents. You need that underlying sense of camp and silliness to make the movies, well, FUN. If you go too over-the-top with camp, you get the Schumacher movies. If you go too serious, you fail just as badly.
Nolan’s movies strip the fun out of the equation, and as a result the movies are just dull. They’re not rewarding or entertaining; they’re heavy-handed and leaden.
But Not Realistic Enough
The recent Netflix show Daredevil showed exactly how to do the real-world style of comic book movie correctly, mixing gritty drama with superhero incredulity in a skilful way that Nolan cannot ever hope to achieve or even understand. There’s humanity and real-world underpinnings throughout Daredevil‘s thirteen-episode first season, making for riveting viewing and showing where Nolan went wrong.
One of the big things which detracts from Nolan’s vision is the PG-13 rating. Yeah, Burton’s movies were PG-13, but they weren’t all about seriousness. They were about matinee fun, and at no point did you feel you needed to see more blood than what was seen. Nolan insists on this real-world sensibility, but panders to the PG-13 rating. When The Joker has a knife in someone’s mouth and then tosses him aside, we don’t know WTF just happened, and that harms coherence. The battle at the end of Rises just looked sanitised when it should’ve been a bloody war zone.
Daredevil was violent as fuck, comfortable with its adult rating. It just shows another area where Nolan fell really short. Yeah, Warner Bros weren’t about to invest $200 million in an R-rated Batman movie, but if you can’t do the serious thing properly, don’t do it at all. I’d much prefer a smaller, $50 million R-rated Batman movie which does everything required of it properly. Nolan’s movies aren’t really for kids in the first place – just go the whole hog!
Weight of Self-Importance
This is more of an extension of the “badly-written” argument. Burton’s movies were all about the story of the Caped Crusader working to take down the nefarious villains terrorising his city, but Nolan’s movies feel that a straight-ahead comic book approach would be too cheap in this day and age, so Nolan and co. endowed the movies with a faux weight of self-importance to make it SEEM smart when, in reality, it’s still a pretty dumb movie.
The result is a couple of faux adult movies that are too dumb to be taken seriously, but too straight-faced and serious to be taken as fun. The movies pretend to be all deep and complex, but have nothing insightful to say. It’s all text, it’s not subtext. Rises had every chance to explore the toll that this life takes on Bruce’s mental state, but it’s too concerned with blah dialogue and injuries that disappear halfway through the movie anyway (yeah, Bruce’s knee just magically heals?). Nolan just gets credit for tricking people into thinking his movies are smarter than they are.
Admittedly, Begins is not as bad in this respect. It’s a solid story of Batman’s origins, and doesn’t try to be much more. Why oh why did Nolan and co. have to fuck it up for the sequels?
Hans Zimmer isn’t a bad composer by any stretch – his work on Man of Steel is actually pretty good, and his Sherlock Holmes score is magical – but when he comes to Nolan’s movies, he gets pretty freaking lazy.
Listen to Danny Elfman’s score for the original Batman movies. The compositions are rich and exciting, a feast for the ears with a distinctive Batman theme. It’s clear that Elfman thought long and hard about his work, devising music that suited the character and the respective situations and tones. But Zimmer? He uses two notes for Nolan’s Batman movies. Two. He just changes the tempo and pitch of the notes to hide his laziness. There’s no careful planning or application – it’s just two notes that are slightly altered for different scenes to make them sound different. And apparently that’s worth awards?
Bale’s Batman Voice
This is a big one. Bale’s voice was acceptable in Batman Begins, but it became a fucking joke in TDK. It just sounds like he’s trying too hard, and in the process he’s just mumbling incomprehensible sentences. Keaton is still my favourite Batman, and his voice was fine – it’s just slightly tweaked for effect, not OTT.
Bale has the physique to be Batman, believe me. The dude fucking works his ass off for big muscles, rather than relying on digital or rubber abs. His Bruce Wayne isn’t bad. But deary me, that voice is just awful.
In the comics, Bane was the physical pinnacle of Batman’s opponents; a huge, buff dude who could overpower Batman in a fight. You look at the two about to brawl, and you don’t think Batman has a chance, because it’s like seeing a giant versus a mortal human. He’s a very visual character, and should be easy to nail in a movie. But seeing a short, flabby English midget fighting the muscular Christian Bale, and seeing said midget winning… It’s not believable at all. Just look at the scene with Hardy’s shirt off…he just looks pudgy, especially by Hollywood standards. Fuck, there are henchmen in the other Batman movies in better shape than Hardy is as Bane. That’s a problem!
Chicks No Longer Dig the Car
Apparently ‘The Tumbler’ in Nolan’s movies can no longer be called ‘The Batmobile’ because it’s too immature. Ugh. Keaton’s Batmobile was a sleek, sexy beast with gadgets to boot, and Kim Basinger got instantly wet when she saw the thing. But The Tumbler in Nolan’s movies? An impractical, oversized pile of shit that would look more suitable in a Transformers movie.
I mean, this is supposed to be a “grounded, realistic” universe, but Batman looks pretty conspicuous tooling down the road in his massive monster truck that takes up two lanes. Yeah, nobody is going to notice that. And what if an escape necessitates going down a narrow alley? Keaton’s Batmobile had that one covered.
The Tumber looks shit and has no sex appeal. The Keaton-driven Batmobile was awesome.
I can understand if The Tumbler was like a first model which was only used in Begins, before the sleeker Batmobile took hold for the follow-ups. I really wish that’s what happened. After all, you’d think that Batman and Lucius would be constantly trying to upgrade their equipment. A more practical Batmobile would be at the top of my list, that’s for sure.
Also, the production design whitewashes the imagery from the comics as a whole. Gotham is no longer a richly-detailed fantasyland, but instead a regular old cityscape. The realism strips all the colour out of the visuals. I much prefer Burton’s vibrant, colourful vision.
It’s Not Batman
Nolan has simply devised a few serious crime-thrillers and chucked Batman in them. Literally. They are Michael Mann-inspired Christopher Nolan movies with Batman in them, not Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. You could argue that any artist will imprint his vision on the source material, and that’s fine. Hey, Burton’s movies weren’t entirely faithful either, and Batman Returns was pretty much a Tim Burton movie.
But you know what? Burton’s movies still nail the requisite characteristics to make it a freaking Batman movie – Bruce dons the Batman outfit many times (in Rises he barely wears it), he does a lot of the heavy lifting in the story, and there are fantastical underpinnings that pay homage to the source. I can understand why Begins is what it is – because it’s about how Batman got started, and it’s like Casino Royale in that it’s designed to strip away the distinctive franchise characteristics after the utter bomb that was Batman & Robin. I get that. But there’s no excuse for TDK and TDKR, where it just becomes blander and more tedious. After Begins, we were already sufficiently removed from the Joel Schumacher camp, and yet TDK and TDKR feel even further removed from the Batman universe than the origin story. Yikes!
Furthermore, Nolan’s Batman is incapable of pro action or preemption. Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective; a master strategist who’s often three steps ahead of his enemy. The guy has his shit locked down tight. Nolan’s Batman is always chasing, always ignorant of the big picture, always letting emotion cloud his thoughts. In short, he is NOT Batman.