When I was growing up, superheroes were fun. Adam West’s Batman was a groove-arama and Tim Burton’s was a black comedy. The 1990s movie series hit its peak with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997). Dear old Arnie didn’t so much phone in his performance as he sent a belated postcard from Pisa. Who could pass up on lines like this? “Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well. For it's the chilling sound of your doom…” Pure genius.
But between then and now, 9-11 and the Credit Crunch happened. And movies got way, way too big and serious. As is always the case with Hollywood, business masquerades as art. The old studio model was to make several movies for $30 million in the hope that one or two would be hits and cover the costs of the others. But after the success of blockbusters like Spider-Man and Transformers, the suits realized that they could make one movie for $100 million and rake in close to a billion dollars. It was a gamble, so to improve the odds they decided to make films that were rooted in an established franchise (this got so silly that they even made a feature based on the game Battleship). Once they found a brand that sold well, they would exhaust it and then reboot it with younger actors. This year, we got The Amazing Spider-Man and next year we’ll get Man of Steel. By the time I’ve finished writing this, they’ll be planning to re-launch Batman, staring a fetus.
They call these expensive bores “event movies,” because who would want to miss out on an event? And in order to convey that “event” feel, they turn them into epics. They were helped in that task by a rolling media keen to sell copy off the idea that we really ought to care about all this twaddle. That’s how Batman – a comic book about a flying man-rodent who tussles with cartoon psychopaths – got turned into a modern Iliad.
And, o, how The Dark Knight Rises reeks with pomposity. There’s the endless choir music, the ubiquitous shots of an apocalyptic landscape, the talk about the importance of myths (“The people need to belieeeeve…”), the dark shadows, the whispered voices and the constant references to previous movies that make no sense unless you know them off by heart. An example: Catwoman isn’t called Catwoman. The movie needs a Catwoman because, well, Batman is nothing without a sexy feline-themed heroine to spar off. But because this is Batman in an age of seriousness, the kitsch is chiselled off and she is redubbed a “cat burglar” (I see what they did there). So the bare bones of Batman remains, but the fun is excised. Which is a tragedy because the movie was screaming out for a Mrs Slocombe-style innuendo about a pussy that had spent all night in the rain.
All this seriousness is undermined by one horrible error: the villain. Tom Hardy’s performance is already hampered by a giant gas mask covering his face, which gives the impression that he’s got a nasty bout of asthma. But it’s made all the worse by a criminal case of poor-dubbing. The best way I can describe it is like a drunk Sean Connery. The first time I heard it, I was not the only one to burst out laughing. “I shupoose you shink you can defeat me, Mishter Batman,” etc. Every scene he’s in is farcical: Hardy grimaces and flexes while the dubbing artist camps and coos. To use appropriate gay slang, Bane is a Muscle Mary.
Bane’s voice belongs in one of the Burton movies, but not in this adolescent attempt at serious drama. What is the point that The Dark Knight Rises is trying to make? It starts as a critique of one-percenter greed as Gotham slips into peaceful disparity between the rich and the poor. But Bane’s socialist revolution (he uses a bomb to blackmail the city into creating a commune) is sadistic, not egalitarian. The characters bitch endlessly that Harvey Dent’s memory has been used to create a myth upon which they built a police state – but who cares, so long as the murder rate is low? The movie pretends to be about goodness, but its heroes are all pretty shallow. Batman refuses to do what his butler says and help the police. Instead he dons his cape and catalyzes much of the anarchy. Catwoman steals wallets and apples and it’s treated like a joke. Robin abandons both the police and the Church to become a vigilante because he’s tired of working within “structures.” Why? They worked perfectly well until the random elements of Bane and Batman came along. Violence is the only apt response to violence in a horribly violent world. It left me wanting to join one of those encounter groups where everyone hugs each other to whale music.
The only reason why this movie seems clever is that it stands out from the current big budget dross being made by Hollywood. If it doesn’t star Adam Sandler, logic follows that it must be good.
Of course, there are good movies being distributed. Wes Anderson is back, Ted was hilarious and Young Adult made me seriously consider online dating. But The Dark Knight Rises is the kind of epic-by-numbers that is the product of a movie business that won’t take risks. It’s time to run the suits out of Hollywood.