The challenge in writing a proper analysis of a sequel is in having the capacity to remove one’s self from the halo effect of beloved franchises. The problem with Christopher Nolan’s final installment in the DC Comics serial, owned by Warner Bros. since their 1969 acquisition of National Periodical Publications, is threefold: First, the film tugs at our heartstrings by borrowing heavily from the events of September 11, 2001. Second, The Dark Knight Rises exploits the emotionally charged attitude about the present climate of class warfare. Third, and perhaps most egregiously, Mr. Nolan seems to rest on the expectations of an audience already in love with the character of Batman. However, the trilogy’s center has always been Bruce Wayne’s personal journey. When the film focuses on the man, not the myth, it’s at its best. But these moments are fleeting.
The film picks up with Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) funeral, in the aftermath of the middle chapter. But the picture abruptly shifts focus to the escaped prisoner, Bane (Tom Hardy), and some nebulous plot involving a nuclear physicist, Dr. Leonid Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), and a fusion reactor which he weaponizes into a nuclear bomb (Sound familiar? The filmmakers did this before, with municipal plumbing and a large vaporizer–beneficient technology twisted to malevolent purpose.). The plot becomes clearer as the picture progresses, but we gain no new insights on the central figure of Wayne. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, far too talented for this series) carries in his pocket a speech, intended to tell the people of Gotham who Harvey Dent had really become. He decides, perhaps appropriately, that it’s not the time. Gordon remains faithful to ideas that inspire hope.
Eight years have passed since the Batman fled. A scruffy, disheveled Bruce Wayne, battered and bruised from myriad altercations, now hobbles along with a cane. And somewhere out of this Howard Hughes parable (one character even offers a quip about fingernails and jars of urine) his stalwart servant, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), decides he can no longer watch the orphaned son of privilege remain withdrawn from the world. From here, the film collapses. Batman and his game of Chutes N’ Ladders with Gotham’s substrate of villains has never been the interesting facet of the series. The singular element to which everyone wishes to relate is Bruce Wayne and his fall from grace. It’s that story which gives heft to his resurrection as an incorruptible messiah. Superheroes generally have some kind of ability that puts them above and beyond the the physics of this world. But Bruce Wayne fascinates because he’s human and has flaws. He’s a philanthropist in a cape, minus the top hat.
The gold standard in the genre, of course, is Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). (Full disclosure: This was the first superhero film I’d seen on 35mm, setting the expectation for everything that followed.) If one cannot achieve the character depth that Mr. Donner did, he or she might as well skip the attempt. But part of what was at play, including the chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, was the origin story of Superman. You can’t beat the origin story of Batman in terms of emotional intensity. So Mr. Nolan and gang, it seems, have decided to “rip from the headlines” as they say in Law & Order parlance, which is the screenwriter’s method to dealing with abject laziness.
Let’s re-examine the three components I feel were a failure in a film that had the potential to be so much more than merely entertaining. In the first case, I don’t take direct issue with the appeal to post-9/11 emotions. It’s not, as they say, “Too soon,” to have that conversation. The problem I have lies in co-opting our emotions surrounding that moment to make us feel something that isn’t built independently by the story elements themselves. The Dark Knight Rises makes the connection all too evident when Bane and his gang of terrorists trigger citywide explosions, trapping three thousand police officers below ground. Later, as matters escalate, another familiar scene is invoked: a pair of fighter jets patrolling the island of Manhattan, err, Gotham. It’s extremely effective at eliciting emotions, but it feels cheap.
A recurring theme in Mr. Nolan’s Batman series is that of class warfare. Here, Shakespeare was and remains the master of social commentary. But social commentary, whether in Gotham or the topsy-turvy dream world of Inception, is just Mr. Nolan’s backdrop for action sequences. Buildings get “blowed up real good”. Presided over by the Nutcase-in-Chief, Dr. Jonathan Crane a.k.a. Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), mock trials incarcerate the obscenely wealthy. The inmates are literally running the asylum. But there’s no real involvement—class warfare is just another plot device. The imagery of castles being stormed is meant purely to incense and titillate us. Again effective, but shallow.
There’s a scene in which Alfred tells Bruce Wayne of a vision he has, Good Will Hunting-style, in which he hopes that some day the crusader will hang up his cape and get a real life. This and numerous other breadcrumbs are loaded with portents so obvious you’d have to be M. Night Shyamalan to believe that nobody could see it coming. It entirely plays toward our love for the established character. Some degree of reverence is inevitable. But how much of our excitement is anchored upon seeing our beloved hero in action, and how much genuine excitement germinates from a well-crafted human story?
I can’t quite decide whether the introduction of Officer John Blake was Mr. Nolan’s idea, or the studio’s. The role is carried completely by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s presence, not at all by the writing. While it’s certain that no one will, nor would they deign to, surpass Heath Ledger’s astonishing performance as the Joker, Mr. Gordon-Levitt admirably chisels out an heir to both Commissioner Gordon and, perhaps, Bruce Wayne, who seem to have been the only two honest men in a city of scoundrels. But Blake’s already wearing one uniform. If you can’t tell where Mr. Nolan is going with Blake or socialite Miranda (Marion Cotillard), then you’ve never read Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters (see Chris Cooper in The Life of David Gale).
The lithe burglar, Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, cast cleverly for a duality she can straddle which my original preference for the role, Eva Green, would belie), makes her entrance in a sequence that nicely builds up to revealing a broken Bruce Wayne—knee shattered, several years past his prime. The thought, perhaps, was that Batman had his dark middle chapter. But that’s incorrect. In the previous installment, dark things were happening to Gotham, yet Bruce Wayne was still dedicated to saving it. Aside from feeling sorry for himself and his pitifully corrupt city, Wayne never had a true crisis of conscience. Bane describes himself as Gotham’s reckoning, but save for some nebulous ideal into which he was indoctrinated from afar, why do we care that he resents Gotham? Imagine if it had been Bruce Wayne resenting Gotham? Isn’t that more realistic? Isn’t it more tragic? Isn’t Gotham, rightly or wrongly, the city that bred the kind of criminal that senselessly murdered his parents? A fascinating opportunity to explore depths of the privileged son’s character is completely missed here in favor of paint-by-numbers, superficial redemption.
So attached are we, lately, to the pedestrian myth-making of comic books, that we might overlook how the third film recycles the prison liberation story from Batman Begins for more than a third of this lumbering 164-minute celluloid behemoth—attempting to capitalize on the appeal of origin stories as if Mr. Nolan had no idea where to go with the characters once he’d established them. Excluding perhaps Rocky II and The Godfather: Part II, this is where almost every sequel fails miserably, lending credibility to Pauline Kael’s belief that Hollywood always bets on the audience’s willingness to settle for less than they deserve. What the audience deserves is a deeper, more traumatized Bruce Wayne who might even identify with Bane and Catwoman—a cross-pollination of empathy that both enlightens as well as complicates reality. What we got was more of the same gadgets and chase sequences in real, urban locations, shot mostly on very expensive 65mm film.
The Dark Knight Rises • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.44:1 • Running Time: 164 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
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