Saturday, January 2, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Jonathan Nolan (Screenplay), Christopher Nolan (Screenplay, Based On), David S. Goyer (Based On), D.C. Comics
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Cane, Gary Oldman
Genre: Action, Thriller
Running Time: 164 minutes
Summary: Eight years after the Joker's reign of anarchy, the Dark Knight is forced to return from his imposed exile to save Gotham City from the brutal guerrilla terrorist Bane with the help of the enigmatic Selina.

The Movie

Over the course of three films, director Christopher Nolan was credited with reinventing the modern superhero movie. Using the popular comic book character Batman, he created a world that has been referred to as the "gritty reboot." Where most of the other recent films turned to colorful and optimistic stories, Nolan preferred the dark cinematography with even darker stories where the violence was more realistic and the characters would be more of a brooding force. While most people would credit The Dark Knight to this trend, Nolan was changing the game since Batman Begins, where he turned the caped crusader's Gotham into a Blade Runner-esque universe (though major set designs would change in subsequent sequels for more emphasis on realism). While the film helped to revitalize interest in the character after the notoriously maligned Batman & Robin from the late 90's, it wouldn't become abundantly clear until 2008 with its sequel: The Dark Knight.

It's a film whose legacy has since preceded it in every conversation; almost synonymous with "The Godfather of superhero movies." There's a lot of different reasons why it likely worked - though most credit would go to Heath Ledger as antagonist The Joker; of whom was a neurotic, unstable, and daunting presence that was also comical. Even if the set pieces, soundtrack, and story were stronger - they were all overshadowed by Ledger's unfortunate death several months prior. He would get the Oscar for his work. The film's box office was a phenomenally high result, thrusting its chances into being more than just populous entertainment. Nolan was officially one of the best directors working today. Depending on who you asked, he was either "The Better Michael Bay," "The Next Steven Spielberg," or "The Closest Thing to Stanley Kubrick." While all have traces of influence, none are inherently true. He was just a director on the cusp of a very dedicated cult status.

Then there was The Dark Knight Rises: the final entry into his Batman trilogy. Following the highs of his 2008 film, one could only imagine what was left to do. The results haven't been as fruitful as the previous two. Even with initial praise, superhero fans have since criticized it as one of the weakest entries in the franchise and that its antagonist, Tom Hardy as Bane, was too cartoonish for a realistic world setting. Whatever the reason may be, Nolan was primed to ride the phenomenon through all of 2012, with only The Avengers to counterattack its status as the "best superhero movie of the year." History has proven to like Joss Whedon's vision a little better, though there's no denying that Nolan's work is still just as talked about.

The Dark Knight Rises is a film that may be victim of excess by its very length. At close to three hours, it's the longest in the trilogy (and his longest until Interstellar). Coming off of Inception, even the Hans Zimmer score was a familiar caricature of loud, noisy aggression. For all of its flaws, it was a superhero film that attempted to make itself into the must see epic. Even if the results don't compare, it's intriguing to see the good movie hidden underneath the layers of odd calls. It's a film that had to live up to a juggernaut. Even if it didn't, it at least captured the world's attention long enough to make it a success and lock in Nolan's status as one of the biggest influences on the gritty reboot genre.

The Campaign

As mentioned before, Nolan would come to develop an irrational cult thanks to The Dark Knight. In the history of The Academy Awards, many would credit this 2008 film with the sudden change in the Best Picture's nominees; expanding it from the traditional five to the 10 nominees (later, a sliding scale of 5-10 nominations). While no direct attribution was given to Nolan by The Academy, this caused the long held belief that The Oscars "owed" Nolan for snubbing The Dark Knight. To some extent, the metaphorical debt was paid with several nominations for his 2010 film Inception. However, the argument shifted to his inability to get a Best Director nomination, which has since remained unresolved.

The pressure for The Dark Knight Rises was inevitable. How was the final entry in his trilogy going to compare to the heights of the second one? In a series of strange moments, the film had a strange birth. In the week leading up to its release, the film's Rotten Tomatoes reviews faced their own problems. Anyone who wrote a negative piece was given death threats by the commenting community: most of whom had yet to even see the movie and still held it as a holy relic. Even critic Eric D. Snider would take it one step further by posting a false review as a joke to prove that nobody read the piece (stating his intentions at the end of his piece). However, the film likely suffered some sort of a blow when a mass shooting happened in a theater in Aurora, Colorado that injured many and left some dead (the shooter has since been sentenced to life in jail). Cast and crew took this opportunity to visit the victims and bring some joy into their lives.

Soon the conversation shifted to the obvious old hat. Nolan was "owed" some Oscar love. The Dark Knight Rises was seen as an opportunity to right the wrongs. Even if the film was acknowledged as being inferior to The Dark Knight, the consensus of its quality would only begin to wane in the years to follow. For now, it was becoming just as iconic and quotable as before. The film rarely wasn't talked about in social media, save for the competitive nature against the film The Avengers (which would even out-gross it). Even then, the film was a box office success and the conversation on if blockbusters could compete for Best Picture began to rise again. With some guilt thrown on, The Dark Knight Rises had the gift of shame in its campaign for Batman fans worldwide.

While not nearly as impressive as a Harvey Weinstein strategy, the Warner Bros. company would unleash their own campaign in November. It was the first film in a series of marketing, with a lot of focus on the familiar Best Picture, Best Director, and acting slots. Considering that The Dark Knight had racked up eight nominations, there was little to bet against. However, prognosticators were even skeptical, not believing that the film stood any chances beyond technical fields. There was even the prestige poster to accompany it, which would even call the film "magisterial." However, nobody was really confident in its chances, given how it wasn't even showing up in various other awards ceremonies.

The Payoff

In a delightful twist, The Dark Knight Rises was part of yet another shift for The Academy Awards' Best Picture race. With The Dark Knight encouraging change in the Best Picture field to a solid 10 nominees, The Dark Knight Rises was part of the first class to be considered on a sliding scale of 5-10 nominees. That is, of course, if it were to even be considered. The film didn't only miss out on the Best Picture nomination (Argo won that year), but it failed to receive a single nomination in ANY category. Even the prognosticators who had hopes for technical fields were shocked to discover that not even Wally Pfister got the familiar nod of Best Cinematography.

This wasn't just an embarrassment for Nolan's Batman series. It was pretty bad for every theatrically released Batman film since 1989's highly popular Batman adaptation by Tim Burton. Between 1989 and 2012, there have only been two films about the caped crusader to not get a single Oscar nomination; not even in technical fields. Before The Dark Knight Rises, the only film to receive this honor was the universally considered low point of the franchise called Batman & Robin; ironically also featuring a take on nemesis Bane. It's especially an odd call considering that the flop's director Joel Schumacher has since admitted that he was doing his film for commercialism's sake. Nolan was doing it for an art.

With the change in 2009 in mind, there are a few that would go so far as to think that Nolan "ruined" The Oscars by contributing to this. In an article that cites "The Nolan Effect,"writer Mark Harris goes on at length about how having more Best Picture nominees shifts the chances of having a wider diversity in other categories. It started as an attempt to get younger people interested in The Academy Awards, but quickly shifted into focusing more on the familiar gambit of prestige dramas. The article goes on at length to explain how this attempt inevitably backfired and that the double digit nominations is a little problematic. While not entirely Nolan's fault (again, he didn't receive direct blame for the category's 2009 expansion), it's easy to see why many would blame him.

For those wondering, Nolan is doing just fine. Even if The Dark Knight Rises has since been considered one of his weakest films, he has gone on to compelling cinematic choices. His 2014 film Interstellar was another commercial success, even earning him a multitude of Oscar nominations - though no acting, directing, or Best Picture love was on display. While this film will likely remain heavily revered for its technological achievements, it does help to raise the questions that seem oddly pitted between Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio: Do the Oscars just hate these guys? While this is a silly argument (and one that I don't care about), it's interesting to think of filmmakers with amazing gifts being ignored by The Oscars by not winning. Considering that Nolan is planning a World War II drama next, maybe this will finally be his shot at the big award. If not, one can only guess how much his fan base thinks that he is owed.

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