I will come out and say this off the bat. I do not “get” the hero worship of the director named Christopher Nolan. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I get it just fine. It is just that once I get it, I do not want it anymore. As I have mentioned, I have insulin-dependent diabetes. I have had it since I was a little shy of ten years old, and have been promised an imminent cure ever since. So when I tell you that “…it’s time for my shot…” offended me more in that moment than two Rain Mans put together, I want you to understand my full meaning here. People who crap on that Christopher Nolan is some awesome director who can not do wrong can blow me. Their opinion has less meaning to me than the life of Jenny McCarthy.
Now, in order to get where I am coming from in this article, I have to provide a little historical context. Like a lot of people of my age, I sat through repeats of the 1960s television series that I derisively refer to as Batman In Name Only during the time just after I was diagnosed with diabetes. I believe that that television show can be credited with making myself and many others believe that superhero stories were solely for small children, and thus not worthy of my time. Whilst I no longer believe that, the genre had to fight hard to escape the shadow of Batman In Name Only and accomplish that.
Part of that long walk out from the hell of being baby-fied started in 1978 with the Richard Donner adaptation of Superman. That was a crawl. It picked up into a walk in 1989 when Tim Burton delivered the first of his Batman films to the public. Of course, we can all point and laugh our arses off at Adam West and his infantile insistences that he knew how to portray Batman better than anyone, including its own creator. But in 1989, portraying a vigilante who used considerable financial resources in order to become an auxillary to the police force in a serious, realistic manner was a huge risk. Had 1989’s Batman flopped, it is very safe to say that the current trio of adaptations, and especially the others in that “series” would have never got off the ground. Or if they had, they would be in a form that was only resemblant of Batman Forever or Batman & Robin. Abominations, in other words.
Christopher Nolan does not merely owe his success with the Batman films to Tim Burton‘s visions, or those who followed in a similar pattern such as Bryan Singer. In fact, 2005’s Batman Begins, in contrast to 1989’s Batman, is laden with photography that makes me wonder whom Nolan bent over for in order to get the director’s chair.
You might think I am being harsh. Look at it from the perspective of a man who actually studies filmmaking techniques as an enthusiastic pastime. In action sequences, Nolan‘s shots and framings can be broken down into three distinct categories:
- Too close
- Shaking all over the place
This is a polar opposite of Burton‘s films, where every shot was framed beautifully and gave an exact, clear view of what is going on. Simply put, Nolan shot Batman as if he did not want the audience to know exactly what Batman was doing. There are two kinds of people who shoot things in a manner designed to obscure the exact meaning or content of a shot. People who do not want the viewer to see every little detail of the shot, or people who are flat out fukking incompetent. And often, the two walk hand in hand.
A number of shots in Batman Begins… no, let me give a very specific example in order to demonstrate what I am talking about here. During Batman’s apprehension of one mob boss, Batman is seen to engage several henchmen in hand to hand combat. Now… if Bruce Lee was shooting a sequence in which he fought an opponent, would he end it with a zoomed-in shot of one of his legs failing about in mid-air whilst some very unconvincing impact sound effects were dubbed in? If you picked any answer than “fukk no, what kind of stupid question is that?”, then go and shoot yourself now, please. Yet Christopher Nolan expects us to accept such a shot after all of this preamble about training Bruce Wayne as a “ninja”. Bzzt – no sale!
I will give credit where credit is due, however. Unlike Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan was not hobbled by a script cobbled together by hack writers that makes one impressed his product turned out as well as it did. The story arc not only in each film but in the series as a whole is a very strong one. Tim Burton‘s films were basically cobbled-together pieces of fanfic brought together in a shape that had to be squeezed hard in order to resemble Batman. Calling Adam West Minces About Like A Pansy Who Would Scream For His Mother If Confronted By A Real Criminal and the films that thought it would be a good idea to bring that style back Batman is like calling anything Paul Verhoeven did not direct RoboCop. It just does not fit. So the fact that Nolan‘s Batman films basically go in an arc of the birth, death, and post-mortem of Batman deserves kudos. As does the manner in which they try to portray Bruce Wayne as if he were a living, real person with real-world challenges and feelings. And the actors, bless them, give it their all.
Also worth giving mention to is that it is nice to have a Batman film in which the villain known as Bane is portrayed in a manner comensurate with how he was depicted by his original designers. Nolan‘s Bane is strong, warped, and capable of breaking people into quivering messes with a few moves of his muscles. But he is also articulate and considered in his actions. He has a very real and powerful goal, and the film explores that as well as it can within its limitations.
Which brings me to the myriad of problems with all three Batman films as directed by Christoper Nolan. I have already covered the fact that Nolan cannot frame or zoom a shot worth a shit. This seems to be a common malady of many directors these days. Hey, directors. If your script says “Character X kicks Character Y in the balls, points, and laughs”, you shots need to show exactly whose foot is making contact with whose balls. No exceptions. But probably the worst part for me when I watched the film was the balance of the sound. Given that all three films show this problem to one degree or another, I am pretty sure Nolan designed it this way. But in order to make one understand this, I need to provide a contrasting example first. On a well-sounded film, the balance of sound elements generally goes something like:
- Important sound effects
- Less important sound effects
Note here what is larger than all of the other elements, and by a not-insubstantial margin: the fukking dialogue. Being able to understand what characters say to one another is probably the single most important thing in a film. Christopher Nolan obviously missed this lesson when he was in film school. On Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films, the balance of sound elements is more like:
- Sound effects
It is very hard to enjoy the story that you are being told when the most important element to understand the story itself has to be strained and struggled to be properly heard or appreciated. Nolan has stated in the past that he likes “production” sound. That is, sound that is recorded live as the actors act out their parts. All well and good, but ADR was invented for a good reason, Nolan. Specifically, if a good director such as Verhoeven, Cronenberg, or hell even Raimi, feels that the intelligibility of the dialogue might compromise the viewer’s enjoyment, they can tweak the balances of sounds in order to correct the problem. If I want “live” sound and all of the problems it entails, I will go to live theatre, or live music. None of the actors you have employed have any of the propensity for mumbling, grunting, or slurring that has been demonstrated at times by the like of Stallone, Mr. T, or Clark. Yet they come off as even less intelligible at times than the last of that brief list, which is quite an accomplishment given that his unintelligibility was a deliberate and very funny joke.
Mister Nolan, actors have a number of tools at their disposal. A lot of actors do not like to play roles where they must do the entire film in sunglasses, for example, because their eyes allow them to convey certain subtle things that may be important to their performance. Actors with eyelines or jawlines like to be free to use those in order to draw a reaction. But probably the most important thing to an actor is to be able to not only be heard clearly by their audience, but also to be able to alter the reaction the audience has to their words with a change in tone or emphasis. Hell, Frank Zappa did this all the time in numerous songs, my favourite example being Muffin Man. Simply put, you have robbed your entire cast of one of their most vital tools. During RoboCop, all of the most important lines are so intelligible that people can quote them accurately even after watching the film only once. So I hope you can understand where I am coming from when I say that if a film were being made based on my writings, you would be among my last choices to direct because of how unintelligible your characters often are.
As with the prior two films, Michael Caine really steals the show. Often, his dialogue is concerned with how he made a promise of sorts to Bruce Wayne’s father about taking care of Bruce until Bruce was ready to take care of himself. In this film, he spends a lot of time expressing deep regret that he has failed to push Bruce in the direction of something resembling a full life. I will not give away the ending except to say that in one scene, he tells Bruce that he had long hoped that Bruce would never come back to Gotham, and that he would find Bruce in a faraway place some day with a wife or even children of his own. His reward for sticking it out through the majority of the Batman saga is basically our reward for sitting through the films.
But that brings me back to the point that I just cannot get past with these films. I read other people post about how much Nolan has accomplished with these films, or how brilliant they are. To call this a giant step backward for filmmaking is pretty fair. I like my dialogue intelligible, thanks very much. I like my shots framed by an artist, as opposed to some fukking dickhead who thinks keeping me trying to discern what, if anything, is going on in this shot is somehow cooool. And last but not least, and this is a point I have been chafing about for the majority of my lifetime, when I decide that a work is good or even passable, I want to do so on the merit of the work itself. Not because a bunch of assholic fashion victims say that the director, actor, or caterer involved in the work is cooool. Christopher Nolan has failed that test consistently throughout his career. He failed it when he was just a nobody making “independent” films or non-headliners, and he has failed it every time he has been a headliner.
Michael Caine and Heath Ledger aside, Anne Hathaway ranks as the best thing in the entire series. She takes a completely implausible and highly unrealistic character. Eartha Kitt‘s performance of this role in Batman In Name Only sucked dog shit through a straw because she thought that acting “sexy” and putting purrs into every fukking thing she said would make her Catwoman. Nuh uh. And the less we say about Halle Berry, who cannot even tell us she has at least chosen a side without sounding like she is about to bring up one of my combat boots, the better. Michelle Pfeiffer gave us a step in the right direction, but where she gave a subtle hint of what the character needed, Anne Hathaway‘s performance blows her’s away by taking that and ramping it up. Simply put, between the script and Hathaway, Catwoman for the first time in a visual medium seems like an actual person.
And you will still note that when I have stated something to be good in these films, precious little has to do with Nolan. The people praising these films as if they are the renaissance of comic book adaptations need to get a grip on themselves and look at what they are really praising. Because without Michael Caine, the late Heath Ledger, or Anne Hathaway, Christopher Nolan‘s Batman would have nothing at all to offer. Less than nothing, in fact.