Despite the self-conscious grandiosity, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are more doggedly grounded in realism than any other superhero movies I can think of. Unlike, say, the perfect bucket of popcorn that is The Avengers, The Dark Knight trilogy is an attempt to present a dramatic, metaphorical, and action-packed banquet of adult ideas and visuals. Gotham City feels real. The violence that infects it is both gritty and consequential. The social commentary is timely and relevant. Compare that with the bloodless, brainless alien invasion that Joss Whedon unleashed on New York City earlier this summer and the differences couldn’t be starker.
But this verisimilitude is as much a virtue as it is a liability in The Dark Knight Rises. On the one hand you have a grim yet majestic exploration of fascism, underclass resentment and revolution. On the other, you have corny sentiment, melodramatic plot twists and the kind of on-the-nose dialogue that would pepper any of a dozen run-of-the-mill comic books. When Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon quotes from Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities in the film’s final reel — “It’s a far, far better thing I do …” — it’s hard to keep a straight face. For all of Batman’s sober themes and bone-crunching seriousness, it’s still, at heart, a story that can’t escape its pulp origins.
Which brings to mind the Joker’s query, “Why so serious?”
Nolan is a Kubrick-like control freak, which is why (absent the Joker in his deck) The Dark Knight Rises is more in sync with Batman Begins than his more successful second film. It has the airless, humorless quality of an artist who takes his job very seriously indeed. Which is an uncomfortable fit for the film’s more comic book-like sensibilities. The two influences grate against each other, undermining the intended impact. What made Nolan’s ponderous sense of drama and risky post-9/11 subtext work in The Dark Knight was the brilliant anarchy of Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance. Nothing in this epic-minded sequel feels as spontaneous or, frankly, as dangerous as Ledger’s lip-smacking monologues. Though the canvas is bigger, the cast more assured, and the action pieces more impressive — the Joker’s embrace of violence and chaos cut close to the bone. For instance, his lethal pencil trick disturbs far more than the villain Bane’s most outlandish attack.
Still, Nolan clearly had weighty issues in mind when he, his brother Jonathan, and David Goyer constructed their three-film arc of Gotham City’s rise from criminal ruins and fall from police-state grace. (If you thought it was about the man in the cowl, think again.) Continuing his Nietzschean exploration of human and social corruption, Nolan pushes the underpinnings of Batman to their natural fascistic conclusion, giving us an extreme vision of symbolic champions battling for supremacy over a hopelessly terrified and too easily corrupted society.
Whether it’s the steroidal brutality of his muscle-bound bad guy or the mindless terrorism of The Joker, in Nolan’s view, fear of apocalyptic catastrophe drives us to demand a self-sacrificing savior who will do whatever it takes to keep us safe. That savior is Batman, of course. But as the movies remind us time and again, the caped crusader is merely a symbol, subject to our conflicted need for heroes to rely on and villains to blame. That’s why in Batman Begins, where Bruce Wayne overcame his selfish need for revenge, he was heralded as a champion, but as The Dark Knight concluded, he had compromised the civil liberties of those he swore to protect and ended up retreating into the shadows as a hunted fugitive, blamed for the murder of Gotham’s supposedly white knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhard).
It’s that lie that Commissioner Gordon maintains, even after eight years, in order to reassure the Gotham masses. The Dark Knight Rises begins with a physically and emotionally crippled Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living as a recluse, pining for his lost love, Rachel (Maggie Gyllanhaal who was blown up in the last film). In contrast, his city has flowered, attaining peace and prosperity through the strong-arm legal policies created by Dent.
When cat burglar Selina Kyle (the wonderfully sexy and sly Anne Hathaway) sneaks into Wayne manor to rob Bruce’s safe, the billionaire is inspired to don his bat suit once more. As it turns out, Selina is less interested in Wayne’s jewels and more interested in his fingerprints, which end up in the hands of a masked mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy). Teamed with a sleazy corporate raider, the masked villain is out to take over Wayne Enterprises and, eventually, all of Gotham City.
Posing as a modern-day revolutionary who incites the 99 percent to rise up against their wealthy masters, Bane destroys all but one of Gotham’s bridges (for supplies), and creates an isolated fiefdom that’s ruled by a tyrannical and thuggish regime modeled after the French Revolution’s reign of terror. A kangaroo court levies sentences (before crimes have been determined), and Gotham’s elite are given the choice of execution or exile onto the crumbling winter ice. Meanwhile, a truck carrying a nuclear bomb circles the city, ready to detonate should the outside world seek to interfere with Bane’s twisted social experiment.
Can Bruce rise above his self-pity and a despairing death wish to save the city he loves from annihilation? That Nolan so sadistically revels in the black-hearted discord of his story makes the outcome less than certain. And that’s a good thing. Far from the inevitable and casualty-free victory of The Avengers over their adversaries (even the villain survives), The Dark Knight Rises leaves its audience thoroughly battered and bruised. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to discern Nolan’s ultimate intent. Despite Batman’s unwavering hometown commitment, it’s unclear whether the filmmaker believes Gotham — as a stand-in for society at large — is actually worth saving. Though The Dark Knight Rises ends on a note of triumph, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the auteur or the comic book that’s speaking.
But casual moviegoers and fanboys won’t care about any of that. What they want is another dark-night-of-the-soul spectacle. And on that front, the movie delivers in spades. You’d be hard-pressed to find visuals as magnificent as those captured by director of photography Wally Pfister. Nolan and Pfister take full advantage of the IMAX film format, delivering 72 astounding minutes of vertigo-inducing action. Whether it’s a mid-air attack on an airplane, a motorcycle chase through the streets of Gotham, or the spectacular destruction of a football field, The Dark Knight Rises presents a steady flow of jaw-dropping set pieces. Nolan counter balances these bombastic sequences with masterful calm-before-the-storm flourishes, such as the angelic “Star Spangled Banner” that precedes the assault that cripples Gotham.
Despite these, Nolan still doesn’t know how to direct a kinetically exciting fight scene. Hathaway and Bale seem more than up to the task of seriously kicking ass, but the shots work against them. Black Widow’s three-minute takedown in Iron Man 2 delivered more of a visceral kick than any of Batman’s mano a mano confrontations.
More troubling is Nolan’s clunky storytelling skills. The Dark Knight certainly rises but often forgets to build. It’s as if Nolan composed a symphony made up exclusively of climaxes. The plot is so overstuffed with characters, subplots and exposition that the only option is for him to breathlessly cram everything into his already unwieldy two-hour-and-45-minute running time. It’s hard to decide whether The Dark Knight Rises needed more time to breathe or less detail to dramatically build its narrative. Either way, many interesting characters and relationships get reduced to their bare essentials. This diminishes the emotional impact of Nolan’s tale, something the already icy director has trouble evincing. Nevertheless, whatever emotions are lost between the players are made up with Hans Zimmer’s thunderous soundtrack, which pounds the audience into emotional submission.
In the end, The Dark Knight Rises is as ambitious as it is pretentious, as electrifying as it is frustrating. It may not live up to the bar set by its predecessor, The Dark Knight, but it’s still a brilliantly conceived mash-up of pop culture thrills and serious-minded art. More importantly, it’s a fitting conclusion to Nolan’s operatic vision and the shadowy hero who inspired it.
Have you seen this film yet? Pretentious? Frustrating? Ambitious? Electrifying? The director is unsure whether Gotham (meaning us, the audience) is worth saving? Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or post them to our Facebook page.
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