Last night I went to see The Dark Knight Rises at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, London. I hated it.
I started my writing career by writing film, book and music reviews for the BBC Collective website (see portfolio). It takes a very different approach to writing than does fiction, but it shares enough in common. You need a point and you need structure. And the whole thing has to flow. I learned a lot by writing reviews. And after watching The Dark Knight Rises, or rather, enduring it, I came out so upset by the film’s failures that I wanted to write a film review again, for the first time in 6 years.
But a tirade of negativity just isn’t me. What’s the point in raving at walls? And then I thought… What if something positive could come out of it instead? What if rather than just slating it, we could learn from it? So let’s do that. Let’s break down the film and find out why it was rubbish, and how any writer can learn to avoid the same mistakes.
[Note: contains spoilers. But then who cares, there was so little tension in this film – indeed one friend fell asleep watching it – and it’s so crap, that I don’t care if this is full of spoilers. Batman falls in love with Catwoman and they live happily ever after at the end. There’s your first spoiler. You don’t believe it, do you?, because it’s so unlikely given the first two films. But it’s true. The last shot is the two of them acting young and free in Florence. What a crock of shit.]
A. The story
This has to be where it starts, with the story. I’ll recap and then break down why it doesn’t work.
Bruce Wayne has lived in exile for eight years. Batman has not been seen since Two Face died, and is accused of his murder.
Bane, a hulk of a man who wears a mask over his face kidnaps a nuclear physicist and then disappears for ages.
A board member of Wayne Enterprises wants to take over the company. He steals Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, and has Bane place most of Bruce Wayne’s money on the stock market in a lot of dodgy deals. Bruce is penniless, his body broken, his will to be Batman at a low. The board member is then primed to take over the company. Except Bruce asks another board member, Miranda, to stop him. Apparently she does, though we don’t see any of this. It just happens, as if by magic. Then the evil board member is killed by Bane. Just like that.
Bane steals a fusion reactor that promises clean energy for everyone. He turns it into a neutron bomb. And then does not much with it for a while. Batman comes back for a bit. Bane faces off against Batman, and defeats him after a minor punch up. We jump to somewhere unspecified (somewhere in the Middle East by the looks of it) where Bruce is put into a dark pit. We are told there is no escape from this pit, and that only one person has ever done it. We are repeatedly told that it was Bane who escaped. Bruce has his back stretched, does a few sit ups, and then escapes. And somehow, without money or a passport, gets back to America. Oh and into Gotham, which has been closed off to everyone. But we’re not shown that. Perhaps it’s by magic?
Batman tackles Bane, who ends up dead. The bomb is still around somewhere. Miranda turns out to be the baddie, and runs off with the neutron bomb. Batman stops her vehicle, she dies. The characters stand around for a bit while the neutron bomb counts down to some supposedly tension-inducing final couple of seconds. And then stand around a bit more, snogging. Because you’d do that. Eventually Batman flies the bomb out over the sea, where it blows up in a big mushroom cloud. Everyone is saved, and some children look at the mushroom cloud and don’t appear to be upset by it. Bruce Wayne hooks up with Catwoman (oh yeah, Catwoman’s in this. But don’t worry, she’s not a character, just a plot device, so you missed nothing from the story synopsis). The end.
And, er, that’s it.
What’s wrong with the story?
What I described above is a sequence of events. Batman and Bruce Wayne are no more. Someone wants to blow up the city. Batman comes back and defeats them. Fine. The basic structure is there: a character has fallen low, there is a great threat, the character has to overcome their own limitations before they tackle the great threat. The character is triumphant. And so what? All stories do that. That doesn’t get you any points, for following Story Telling 101. So why does it fail as a story?
Let’s go into reverse a bit. “… the character has to overcome their own limitations…” Let’s start there, with some:
B. Character motivation
Your characters need a motivation, a reason to be doing something. Let’s go through the main characters and see what their motivations are:
Bruce Wayne / Batman
Bruce is bored and a recluse. He responds to a threat to Gotham because… because that’s what he does. Even he doesn’t really know. Then he keeps going because there’s a bomb that will kill people. There is none of the personal story of Bruce Wayne and his battle with his darker side here. It’s even exposed in the film. “You don’t fear death,” says one character. “That’s right,” Bruce may as well have replied, “I have no flaws. I do things because they’re right, I’m at peace with myself, and I’ll overcome these challenges after a bit of a rest.”
Bruce Wayne is perfect. He has no serious flaws any more. But that’s not what an audience needs. It wants a flawed hero. That’s what he is in the first two films. Flawed by the darkness inside him, flawed by his conflict with loving someone, flawed by his struggle with friendship. In this film he’s… Well, he’s come to terms with all of that. Even at the end when he hangs up his cape, it’s with no regret, no difficult parting, no tortured struggle within his being, his very soul. He just sods off to Italy, apparently now with some money (after losing everything in the film), and is very happy, thanks.
Where is Bruce Wayne’s struggle with his dark side? Where is his fight against adversity?
Bruce says to Alfred, “If Bane’s a hard nut, I’ll just be harder still. That’s what I always do.” And with that he completely undercuts any tension, any “will he / won’t he?” that might have followed. Bane captures Batman in Gotham, then suddenly we’re in the Middle East (I assume, there’s no explanation of how the characters get from Gotham to this mysterious place, they’re just there), and Bruce is put in a deep pit from which no one has ever escaped (* see Bane section below).
Bruce lies around for a bit, and we’re told that he’s going to have his soul tortured. That he will never escape, and will see his beloved Gotham destroyed. We don’t see any of this soul-torture. Bruce talks to Tom Conti, who does a bit of chiropracty on him, then he does some sit-ups, and is much better. And that point arrives where he could become flawed again, where the internal conflict could come back and make things interesting.
“You do not fear death,” says a handy character. “To escape, you must.”
At that point it could have become interesting – plunge back into the fear he spent so long escaping. Bruce climbs a wall to escape the pit, and he has to take a leap of faith. Which on his 3rd attempt, he does, and he makes it. At no point does the struggle look difficult for him. And this climb out of a pit into the light is supposed to be juxtaposed with his fall from perfection. Darkness should re-enter his soul, the ultimate irony: he should fear death and mortality just as he emerges into the light. And does it? No. He’s magically back in Gotham, and fights and defeats the baddies.
Let’s summarise the character journey here: he’s happy with the world, he has no flaws, he does things because they’re right, he’s captured, he has to become afraid (not face his fears), he escapes from a pit with no real challenge, and then wins. No struggle, no tension, no valedictory triumph. Where is the “Dark” Knight? This is a “Shining” Knight.
Writers: Learning point number 1: your hero needs to be flawed, they need to go on a journey and overcome a great challenge within. That challenge can be externalised – in Star Wars, Luke must face Vader, not just his greatest fear, but later, we learn, his father. Luke must face his own fears and strike down his own father. Now that’s a journey to go on. In this film Bruce has to be… perfect. “I’ll be harder still,” says Bruce and lo – it came to pass, as we knew it would.
What’s Bane about? He’s the baddie, right? Oooh, scary big man.
Nothing, except that he looks cool and gives Tom Hardy a chance to create a bonkers character. Credit where credit is due – Tom Hardy is enigmatic on screen. And this is especially hard given that Bane hardly moves, you can’t see his face, and you can’t hear or make out half of what he says. There’s a physicality to Tom Hardy’s acting that draws you in. It’s just a shame it’s so wasted.
Bane is the baddie of the film, until he isn’t. He stomps around looking angry. He appears to have a plan. He wants to grab this fusion reactor and turn it into a bomb and kill everyone. Except he doesn’t want to kill everyone, he wants to free the people from their rich rulers and their legal oppressors (the police, upholding the rule of law). Except he wants to kill everyone, because the bomb can’t be defused. But he also wants to free everyone from their oppressors. But he’s killed the only man who can defuse the bomb, so everyone’s going to die. But he wants to free… Hang on a minute. Let’s skip this and get to the proper point.
What is Bane’s motivation? If he’s successful, what does he achieve?
Well, we’re never told. That’s right. Bane wants to free people (and kill them) for the purpose of… Um. Er. Nope, no reason is given.
He’s the film’s main antagonist. He’s set up as Batman’s nemesis. At one point, when he captures Batman, he says that he wants to make Batman suffer, that he is going to torture his soul. There isn’t really any reason given for this.
Both Bane and Batman are products of the mysterious League of Shadows. Batman left, discovering they were a bit mental. In the first film, where the conflict is really driven by Batman’s internal conflict (his dark side vs his desire for love and affection) we find the League of Shadows pop up in Liam Neeson, who wants to spread disorder and bring down Gotham’s rulers. There’s no real reason given there, either, and it’s the weakest part of the first film. But it wasn’t so important, because that story was about Batman and his struggle. The League of Shadows was incidental. It wasn’t the point of the story. It was the cause of some bad things happening (Arkham, the Scarecrow and so on) but it wasn’t the major plot device.
Here, well. Let’s leave it there for the moment. We’ll come back to it in a moment.
The other thing with Bane is that he’s just a monster. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. We learn that he’s a protector for the Miranda character when she was young. We’re encouraged to believe that he’s in love with her. But by the point we learn this, there’s no space left for sympathy for him – the misdirected lover, brought into a world of evil by his over-riding love for a woman? No. By the time we learn this, he’s a man in a mask who’s killed loads of people. We don’t like him, and he’s about to die. The opportunity to create a sympathetic monster has been lost. If we’d learned earlier that he was tortured, that he’d followed Miranda into the League of Shadows to continue protecting her, having been blinded by unrequited or promised love, we could be better terrified by his monstrousness. All of that intelligence and might, which could easily have been used as a force for good, channelled into anarchy and hatred. The conflict which lies within us all, the monster we could all have become, and so on. But instead he’s just a monster.
Let’s look at a different aspect of Bane: his face mask.
He wears a mask and characters keep asking why. “A-hah!” you think, “the mask will be important later.” And it is, so let’s find out why.
In story telling if a character in a story has a “thing” – a trick, a knack, something different – it has to be because it serves the story. Continuing with the comparison to Star Wars, Darth Vader is trapped inside his suit and breathing apparatus because it serves to remind us of a couple of things: one, that he is vulnerable, the suit keeps him alive; two, that he was once fully human but has become “more machine now than man” – we know that somewhere inside there is a human. This is underscored by Luke’s assertion that, “There is good in him.” It creates a tragic character. Terrifying to look at, but vulnerable, human, and in secret conflict. And three, because at the end Darth Vader chooses to sacrifice himself. He could survive after killing the Emperor, but he asks Luke to remove his face mask at the point when he needs it most. He completes his journey, his redemption, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Darth Vader wears a mask – has a thing – because it serves the story.
Bane wears a mask, and people keep asking, “Why?”. We learn the reason behind it – it is some sort of pain control device. Fine, but what’s the point of it in the story? At the end, Batman aims to punch off Bane’s mask (despite the leads coming out of it which you could easily pull out… but let’s gloss over that). And he succeeds! Ah, so now we’ll have some struggle with Bane. Now Bane is in pain, and he’ll battle against his sudden weakness and still try to defeat Batman, driven on by his rage only. He will… Oh no, Batman has him defeated. But Miranda turns up and, with a knife plunged between Batman’s ribs (which he conveniently forgets about a few moments later), plugs Bane’s mask in again. This is where the purpose of Bane’s mask is revealed, the reason it’s important to the story. Let’s change characters to find out why.
Just as Batman has Bane on the floor, mask compromised, Miranda turns up. She plunges a knife between Batman’s ribs (not sure how she got through is body armour, but let’s gloss over that…) and with Batman immobile, she painstakingly plugs in the two loose leads on Bane’s mask. The sort of job that takes 5 seconds, but we’re entering exposition time.
She spends three minutes explaining what’s actually been happening for the past 2.5 hours. Yes, instead of creating tension at the start, by setting up a goal for the bad people, something we want to avoid happening, it’s explained right at the end.
“Hi,” she may as well have said, “I’m actually the baddie. Surprise! So, you know that bomb and all the carnage that Bane’s been going on about? See how you never knew why he was doing it? It’s because of me. I’m the daughter of Liam Neeson’s character. What’s that? There would’ve been more tension if we’d learned this earlier? Oh shush now. Yes, so he was my father. Both me and Bane were in the League of Shadows, but Bane was kicked out, so fuck knows why he’s trying to carry on their work. And I was too, I think. I’m a bit vague on that, really. I mean, I was, but I don’t appear to know any martial arts or anything. But also, have I talked enough yet? No, let’s carry on a bit more then. Oh yes, Liam Neeson was my father. But he rejected me. So why am I carrying on his work of blowing up Gotham? Um, why do I need a reason? I just am. Ha ha ha! What? Blow up another city? But I want to blow up Gotham because. Well, there isn’t a because. I just do, OK? Have I talked enough yet? Still not? OK, let’s draw this out a bit longer. Yes, I just thought I’d free the people from the rich rulers, like Daddy wanted. Oh, I’ve no idea what I’ll do after that. That’s right, thanks for the reminder, I’ll blow them up. I mean free them. Blow them up. Oh dear, I’m just as confused as Bane on this one. But hey, guess what! Bane said that the bomb’s trigger had been given to an ordinary person. That was because the power to control one’s destiny has been taken from the ordinary people and placed into the hands of the rich. And I hate the rich rulers of Gotham, even though I’m one of them. So guess what? As a very rich board member of Wayne Enterprises, I have the bomb trigger. That’s right. And I will explain away this contradiction by saying that “I’m a normal person, too.” And don’t point out how that means that the rich rulers are also normal people, because that completely undermines the point of removing the rich rulers. And stop asking why I want to remove the rich rulers. I DON’T NEED A REASON, OK? And I will free the people by killing them, and I don’t a reason for that either. Oh look, I’ve talked for three minutes. Now I’ll run away. Thanks.”
4. Bane (a slight return)
With your big baddie, you want there to be a struggle with the hero. In the ultimate fight, the baddie must almost win, until the hero finds that last ounce of strength, or makes that major internal breakthrough which allows them to rise up and defeat the baddie.
Here the resolution to the Bane/Batman fight is a Raiders of the Lost Ark lie. Catwoman turns up and shoots Bane mid-fight. We see him fly across the floor for about 0.25 seconds, and then – whoof! – we cut away and he’s never mentioned again. Talk about an anti-climax.
And what in the end was Bane’s motivation for killing so many people? We’re led to believe it was for the love of Miranda. Not that we see any compassion between them. At the end, when she runs away to get her precious bomb, she looks at him and says, “Goodbye old friend.” Ouch. Straight into the friend zone. What should have happened after was this:
What did she just say?
Dude, she put you in the friend zone.
Bitch. I want my Blink 182 CDs back. BRB Batman. LOLZ!
BANE RUNS AFTER HER. THEY STRUGGLE OVER CONTROL OF THE BOMB. IT EXPLODES AND THEIR ANARCHY IS ULTIMATELY SELF DESTRUCTIVE.
That would’ve been interesting. But instead Bane doesn’t blink. He just tries to kill Batman, until Catwoman turns up – somehow knowing just where to find Batman – and shoots Bane dead, so ner! Is there a lingering camera shot over Bane, a remorseful comment like, “Love can blind even the best of us?” No, he flies across the floor, and before he even comes to a stop (or perhaps I blinked in that 0.2 seconds of screen time) we cut away and he’s never seen again.
Writers: the learning tips here are: even your monsters need a sympathetic side. A flawed bad person is just as interesting as a flawed good person. A “that could have been me in other circumstances.” And if there is a terrific, final conflict between your baddie and hero, make sure of two things: a) don’t stop the conflict half way through to explain what’s been going on for the last 500 pages of your novel, filter in that exposition throughout your story, and b) let the baddie’s defeat be satisfying. Let the hero fight and be on the point of losing, but then find some hidden strength they didn’t realise they had. Oh, and if your monster has a trick, a knack, a thing like a breathing mask, don’t give it to them because it looks cool, make it serve the story. If it’s their weakpoint, make the hero struggle to reach it.
I wasn’t going to bother with anything on Catwoman, but she serves a useful point for writing. If you have a character, make sure there’s a reason they’re that character.
Catwoman serves one purpose only: so Batman can find Bane.
Now, any character can do that. It could’ve been a junkie, one of Bane’s crew who had a crisis of conscience, even a remote controlled bat-drone-camera flying down a tunnel. A device would have done it.
If you make the character apparently central to your plot, like Catwoman appears to be, give them some depth, some of their own conflict, and a compelling reason to be there. In this film Catwoman is completely one dimensional, until she experiences a very strange conversion near the end (or perhaps doesn’t, which I’ll explain in a sec).
Here, Catwoman is a thief, and unrepentant. That’s what she does. She sells out Batman for what she can get out of it. Her character is caught in a bizarre trajectory of committing larger and larger crimes, none of which she’s indicted for, so she can get a computer program to wipe her criminal record, so she can stop committing crimes. She’s not a tragic character, just a stupid one.
At the end, she is ready to flee the bomb. “You’re better than that,” says Batman. “I’m not,” she replies. Flip forward a few minutes, and with no hint of internal conflict, she turns up to kill Bane.
What a strange conversion. No hint of conflict at all. But then there’s the end. In the closing few shots, we see Bruce Wayne and Catwoman apparently in love, and carefree. There is no hint of this through the film (or if there is, it is poorly acted and represented on screen, and not developed), until right near the end when Catwoman kisses Batman for no good reason whatsoever. Then that end shot, of them carefree. Perhaps she hasn’t changed, perhaps she just smelled money on Bruce Wayne, and decided to steal him to end her life of crime? Or… Nah, that’s too deep.
6. Other characters
Commissioner Gordon spends most of the film in a hospital bed, looking relieved to be out of the film. At the end he has some action, but looks bored and confused.
A police man keeps turning up at the right place and the right time during the film. He serves no use to the story, except that at the end we find out he’s called Robin, and he discovers the Batcave. So, you know. Franchise. Oh, and he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne, because as a 10 year old child he worked it all out and everything, so there.
There’s a police commander who gets very confused. Bane has just killed lots of people at the stock exchange and driven off with live hostages. He’s hacked into the stock exchange, for what reason no one knows – but as it’s a stock exchange, you have to accept the risk that it could bring down the global economy. One of the minor characters even says so. And with this as a backdrop, what does he do? Send all of the police to catch Bane and halt the story 30 minutes in? Nope. Batman turns up, so he chases after Batman instead. You know, with Bane having killed everyone and potentially causing global economic collapse. Because that makes sense.
Alfred’s in it, and Michael Caine steals every scene he’s in. What a wonderful actor. Only Alfred leaves about 30 minutes in, when it all starts crumbling into a dreadful film (well done, Michael Caine). We leap from Alfred exhorting Bruce Wayne to wake up to himself, through a very weird edit, to the two of them suddenly shouting at each other on the stairs, and Alfred saying he’s leaving. Just like that. He turns up at the end to preside over Bruce Wayne’s grave stone and see Bruce in Florence, all loved up with Catwoman. Because happily ever after is what happens to Batman.
Writers: if you have a character in a story, make sure they’re there for a reason. Catwoman could easily have been a drone, a tracking device, a Star Trek guy in a red shirt. It was inflated to a lead role because… Because you need a lead female character who looks hot in a catsuit? Surely Christopher Nolan can leave that kind of scripting to Transformers? And if you have returning characters, like Commissioner Gordon, so well portrayed as a troubled, layered personality by Gary Oldman in the first two films, then give them the same role if you bring them back. If Gary Oldman was too busy to shoot the film, then don’t put the character in. Ask yourself as a writer: why is this character here? If it’s “so the bad guy can escape”, then make sure letting the bad guy escape is within the character’s normal behaviour – a second in command police commander who goes chasing Batman when there’s grand larceny, murder and kidnapping going on isn’t a good example of this.
The Dark Knight Rises falls prey to George Lucas disease, which is increasingly affecting Hollywood. Combat scenes are drawn out and receive long camera shots and a lot of screen time. Exposition and story telling are reduced to micro-scenes, savagely cut and presented on screen in a series of disruptive lurches. The flow of character development and story telling in this film is awful, and some of the editing cuts scenes so far back that they have no room to breathe. It’s almost like there’s an editorial decision of “ARGH! STORY! Get it off screen as quick as possible!”
There’s always a tension in writing. Writers often want long descriptive scenes – Umberto Eco does it particularly well – whereas audiences want to be entertained. But sacrificing story for the sake of explosions isn’t the way to do it. If your audience (has been forced to believe that it) needs some action every 36.7 seconds (or whatever), then use the action to push forward the story.
At one point we have a great opportunity for some deeper, darker character development, when Bruce Wayne is cast into a pit. Tom Conti turns up and starts helping him (we aren’t told why). The sequence is essentially reduced to a montage of training, and is all the worse for it. Important parts of Tom Conti’s role are chopped up and spliced throughout the rest of the film, when placed together in a slower, intense sequence, they could have given Bane and Miranda some real character depth. A love forged in the dark and shadows, become tragically twisted by the rejection of Miranda by her father. But no.
Writers: pace is important, of course it is. Heavy exposition scenes (“Let me just explain my master plan, Mister Bond,”) can feel forced. It takes practice, and it needs feedback from your audience. Go by what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” Don’t leave the important information out, and don’t leave it so late in the story that no one cares any more. And don’t compress your character development scenes as if they’re annoying. They may need editing for pace, but they don’t need sacrificing for explosions.
D. Some other things while I’m ranting
In the film, a Special Forces team turns up to help the people of Gotham. They are killed immediately. So why have them in? Useless.
Bruce Wayne walks with a stick in the first part of the film. We even see him get a device which goes over his knee to help him walk. Then he’s thrown into a pit, wearing just rags. And… he can climb walls and walk just fine, thanks. Um.
We’re set up to care about some characters, like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Near the end we see him struggling to escape a chamber being flooded and… Um. What happened to him? Apparently he escaped, because he pops up later, but otherwise, we don’t see his struggle to escape. He just gets to a ladder and looks a bit panicked.
Gotham is threatened with a neutron bomb. This is later confused with an atom bomb. The two things are different. A neutron bomb would kill all the people, but leave the buildings standing. They are banned by international agreement because their purpose is to specifically kill people, rather than destroy infrastructure to impede an enemy. I don’t want to get in a discussion about arms control, but the reason a neutron bomb is used in the film obviously had some relevance at some point. It’s never drawn out, though. Maybe this is what the League of Shadows wanted? To kill everyone in Gotham so they could take over the buildings. But then… how would they do that? Oh yes, it’s never explained, because Bane and Miranda have no reason for doing what they’re doing, other than that Liam Neeson tried to do it in the first Batman film. You know, you kinda want to send them back to How To Be A Bad Guy School and have a conversation with them:
TEACHER: So, Bane, Miranda, which of you wants to tell me what your plan is for Gotham?
BANE: We want to free the people.
MIRANDA: That’s right. And blow them up.
BANE: Oh yeah. Blow them up.
TEACHER: I’m sorry, kids, you can’t free them and blow them up. Try again.
MIRANDA: Free them, then.
TEACHER: Good, and how will you do that?
BANE: By giving them control of a bomb that will blow up anyway, regardless of what they do?
TEACHER: Let’s go back again. What is it about these people that shackles them?
BANE: Um, oppressors. The police.
TEACHER: Good. And what do the police do?
BANE: Put rapists and murderers and thieves in prison?
MIRANDA: We want to free them of the rich people, stupid.
BANE: Oh yeah. We want to kill the rich. Miranda, you’re pretty.
TEACHER: Let’s stay focused. Once you’ve freed the people of the rich people controlling them, what do you want to happen?
BANE: Um. We kill them?
MIRANDA: I want my daddy.
Writers: Final point. If you write a script like this and it gets made into a Hollywood blockbuster, then well done you. Enjoy your big house and gold-plated pension. But if you want to keep your audience and be respected in the longer term, don’t write a script like this. It’s fucking terrible.