On Last-Minute Twists and The Dark Knight Rises
So I’m rewatching The Dark Knight Rises, and thinking about the nature of twist endings. You’d think that Christopher Nolan would know better how to make a good one, considering the kickstart of his career, Memento.
(spoilers if you’ve somehow gone this long without seeing DKR)
Miranda Tate is Bruce Wayne’s… I dunno, girlfriend? Benefactor of the film’s great millstone, the free energy nuclear green circle sphere? She doesn’t really have a character, alas, which is doubly unfortunate considering one of DKR’s successes is strong characterization (at least for a Christopher Nolan movie). Everyone in Wayne’s life is telling him that he should bone missus Tate, and after Wayne loses all his money he goes ahead and bones her, I guess because she maybe reminds him of Rachel Dawes? I dunno. Like I said, not a strong character.
Anyway it turns out she’s Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra'as al Ghul. This is the twist of the film, revealed when she stabs Batman in the side right before he gets the chance to beat Bane into a coma.
So, the essence of a good twist is that it completely changes how see the events of the film. The Sixth Sense is the perfect example. In the context of Bruce Willis’s character being alive, the film tells one story… but after it’s revealed that he was dead the whole time, you go back and see it again and suddenly, with this new context, it tells another one altogether. And you notice all these little sign posts and think to yourself, goddamn, I should have noticed that before!
Yeah, the Miranda Tate / Talia al Ghul twist doesn’t do any of that. You get one shot of a scar on her back after they’ve surreptitiously boned, and that’s your only hint that she’s the big bad. And it isn’t even a good hint because the scar is never explicitly explained as either a result of her time in that hole prison, or of being a member of the League of Shadows. There wasn’t any sort of scarification ritual in Batman Begins, back when Wayne was learning all his tricks.
It just comes out of the blue, and because the plot demands it, she’s suddenly evil. This isn’t like a character development, she just goes from being a sympathetic one-dimensional character to an antagonist one-dimensional character. And then she dies and it’s one of those awful dramatic “you’ll never stop me” deaths that B-movies make fun of. It adds nothing to rewatching the movie except making Bane, a truly successful villain, less menacing because now you know he isn’t the mastermind of this plan, just a mouthpiece with an apparent knack for improvisation.
The handful of interactions between Bane and Tate do not reflect the reality of their relationship in any way. It’s written as though they just made up the twist at the end and didn’t go back to edit it so it made sense. Which is part of DKR’s problem, sloppy writing. The twist doesn’t change the dilemma of the film in any meaningful way, doesn’t change your perception of prior events in any meaningful way, and it really only serves to needless pad an already bloated running time, and add a few last-minute stakes that weren’t really needed, or anyway could have been more properly communicated if the characters involved had been more defined.
Don’t get me wrong, DKR is an entertaining film. I’ve watched it probably ten times now, it has a whole lot in it that is really good and really fun… but ultimately it’s a disappointing film. The acting, the action, the effects, the music, all of these things are just trappings, curtains to enhance the plot. And here the plot is sloppy at best. However good the trappings, if the main course isn’t worth a damn then the whole thing isn’t worth a damn.
EDIT: Hollywood filmmaking is a big, messy business, with a lot of people involved in even the smallest of productions. A movie like this, shot in like seven countries with thousands of extras and multiple action sequences filmed practically and on location, is an industry all its own. So to put all the blame of its failings on Nolan feels kind of like blaming the President for the ills of the country at the time of his presidency. Does he have a part in it? Sure. But probably not as big a part as even he says. It’s just that, once you start going down the chain of command from the top, anyone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care starts to get a bit glassy-eyed. Undoubtedly there were a bunch more people involved in writing this script than Chris and John Nolan and David Goyer, both credited and uncredited. Did they know this was weak? Did one person know but get outvoted? Did it start off stronger and end up weak because of outside influence? There’s really no way to know, unfortunately, and the blame will fall on Nolan’s head whether he deserves it or not.