The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman
Review: 2 stars (of five)

Did it ever occur to you that if The Dark Knight had not had the hypnotically intense presence of Heath Ledger, it would’ve just been a too-long, too-loud mess? Well, the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Bat trilogy doesn’t have Heath Ledger.

Whereas the second film really went off the rails at the end (pretty much as soon as Ledger’s Joker had been dispatched), The Dark Knight Rises is a mess pretty consistently. There’s the outline of a good movie scattered throughout its mammoth 165 minutes, but its buried by the excessive percussion of Hans Zimmer’s jackhammer score and a constant flow of military/terroristic violence that dominates this movie supposedly about a crime-fighting superhero.

If you’d told me that halfway through this movie, I’d want to walk out due to sheer boredom, I’d have thought you a liar. But the film lavishes so much destruction on Gotham City and its anonymous citizens without allowing any of its characters to be interesting that, finally, I was thinking, “Yes, destroy the city, let me go home!”  The film’s story takes place over a period of about five months, and that’s how long it feels as it shoots through one incomprehensible plot point after another.

Plot-wise, this movie feels like a story recounted by a six-year-old:  This happens and then that happens … with no real connective tissue, and much of the film makes no sense on a scene-to-scene basis.  The fact that almost everyone’s dialogue is hard to understand, starting with the (dubbed) dialogue of the masked Bane, doesn’t help.

The best thing about the film is Anne Hathaway.  I know, I was pretty surprised, too.  She plays “Selina Kyle,” who dresses as a vaguely cat-themed cat burglar who is never called “Catwoman.”  She fights spectacularly, she lies convincingly, she steals effortlessly, flirts disarmingly, and is entertaining nearly every moment she’s allowed to do something on screen—which felt like maybe fifteen, twenty minutes of the movie.

Other cast members are equally underutilized.  The sainted Michael Caine is given some great stuff to work with, then just disappears from the film.  Morgan Freeman moves the plot when the plot needs him to move it.  Gary Oldman spends a lot of time in bed.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes around being a contrast to Oldman or to Matthew Modine, who plays a jerk we never care about at all.  Marion Cotillard … well, she’s a great example of the randomness of characterization and motivation in this film, and at Nolan’s failure to understand how to build to a reveal or plot turn.

(Digression:  I don’t think Nolan is very good at ending films–the twist in Memento betrays the whole story, and the ending of The Dark Knight is nearly unwatchable. He really sticks the landing here, but lots of late plot zags are pretty damned lousy.)

There will be people who like this film.  I will submit that mostly they’re bamboozled by some combination of:

  • The film’s throat-clutching intensity
  • The seeming relevance of its vaguely Occupy political rhetoric
  • A real interest in urban destruction and paramilitary violence
  • Lingering fondness for the first two installments
  • Anne Hathaway in that skintight black costume
  • An unwillingness to admit they spent ten bucks (fifteen in IMAX) a head and three hours of their life for a half-baked turd
  • The last five minutes, which are great.

That’s all you need to know. But if you want to hang around to bitch about the chaotic plot, or touch on Nolan’s themes, read on …

Optional Complaining about the Plot

(Which is a bit spoilery, of course)

Simple example from early in the film:  Bane, a mercenary of uncertain foreign origin, has been hired by a crooked businessman of some kind who wants to take over the Wayne Enterprises board.  Although he’s hired a supremely powerful and ruthless mercenary with a cadre of well-disciplined flunkies, he doesn’t try to have the reclusive Wayne killed, extorted or intimidated.  He hires Catwoman to steal (amazingly perfect) copies of Wayne’s fingerprints, so that Bane’s cabal can break spectacularly into the stock exchange in a massive show of terror and violence, all to plant false trades that bankrupt Wayne (authenticated by fingerprint) via computer hacking that (secret about computer hacking!) shouldn’t require an in-person raid on a major public institution.  Or, y’know, you could kill Bruce Wayne.

Much later, we learn that Bane had wanted to be in Gotham for a weirder, even-less-sane agenda of his own, a plan that has been years in the making, and somehow included having this random board member hire Bane for the crazy bankrupt-Wayne scheme, which is what Bane wants because he had been planning to torture Wayne and destroy Gotham all along, anyway.  See?  Perfect sense.

The movie rushes through this nonsense without any attempt at really explaining, and without any shame.  Batman doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as he deserves, both he and his Bruce Wayne identity seem strangely incidental to the filmmakers, who really care about showing how Bane’s plan unfolds, and how many buildings get blown up.

Another random dumb thing:  In the eight years Batman has been retired (it’s awhile into the film before we’re told that he’s been inactive eight years), Gotham has been at peace because of a tough-on-crime bill passed in the name of Harvey Dent (who died as Two-Face in the last film). When Gordon is confronted with the fact that he knew Dent didn’t die a hero, it’s suggested that this makes the law immoral.  As though the question of justice depends on the law’s name.  (“Hey, it must be good—it’s called the Patriot Act!”)

Bruce Whine:  The film opens with Bruce Wayne on a cane, injured, nearly a decade out of the costume, still obsessing (of course) over the dead girl from the last film.  This is not what I came to the Batman movie for.  He gets into the costume for, I believe, two scenes, and then Bane beats him to the point of death and puts him out of action (to say the least) for months.  This, also, is not what I came to the Batman movie for.  I came for Batman, to see him kick ass and maybe flirt with Catwoman.  Yeah, Nolan wanted to make a darker film, didn’t want to pander to the Bat-fans, but there’s really no point in making a Batman movie that doesn’t really have Batman.

He said, she said:  A major character reveal in the film depends entirely on the fact that, while Bruce Wayne is in prison for months, he’s told a story about a person at least three times (maybe more, in the many days and nights not shown in the film), and only the fact that no one ever uses a gender-specific pronoun about this person allows him, and us, to be surprised closer to the film’s climax.  Try telling stories about people you know without using “he” or “she.”  It’s pretty freakin’ unnatural, and a lame way to layer in a shock revelation.

Blinded me with science:  The climax of the film includes an incident of a nuclear nature.  But in the bat-world, apparently nuclear radiation doesn’t work like it does here.  I mean, on a level like having a comet the size of a minivan hit your city and only leave a minivan-sized hole in City Hall—that scientifically unlikely.

But What Does It All Mean?

As Bane unleashes anarchy on Gotham in an attempt to destroy social order (inspired by Ra’s al Ghul’s similar plan in Batman Begins) we get a lot of “down with rich people rhetoric that seems torn from the headlines of the Occupy era.  Except it’s populist rhetoric co-opted by rich filmmakers, put into the mouths of an insane, lying villain, and used not for social justice, but to cause disorder ahead of an act of unprecedented urban terrorism.

The positive reading of that is that the bad guys are using real social concerns for their own ends, and that if this injustice didn’t exist, there’d be nothing for the villain to exploit. That isn’t a good reading, though, because we never see the real results of this thirst for justice, nor the “99 percent” of Gotham at all.  So really, it’s just rich filmmakers pissing on the concerns of the ever-growing underclass that are buying most of the movie tickets.  Classy.

I do find something interesting in Nolan’s choice of villains across the three Batman flicks.  Batman’s got the deepest bench of interesting bad guys in the superhero pantheon, so Nolan’s selection from among such riches reveals his take on the hero.  He starts with Ra’s al Ghul, who wants to return society to a level of anarchy to cleanse it.  Or something.  Then comes the Joker, who is anarchy for anarchy’s sake, a nihilist who wants to prove that life is pointless, and insanity the only valid response.  And then we get Bane, who is out to complete Ra’s vision.  So in the major villains, it’s not crime against law/justice, but anarchy against social order.  Despite his vigilante status, Nolan’s Batman is The Man. (This runs contrary to the standard comic book origins of yore, in which a younger Bruce Wayne gives up pursuing a career in law enforcement because he doesn’t want to serve law and order–he’s interested in justice.)

And each film has a minor villain that also reflects an aspect of the hero.  The Scarecrow wears a scary costume and inspires fear.  As does Batman.  Two Face is driven by tragedy that utterly changes his outlook on life, and has a dual nature.  As does Batman.  Catwoman … um … has a skintight black costume?  No, Catwoman is the worst fit for a dark reflection motif, but her life of poverty is repeatedly contrasted with Wayne’s advantages, and she is selfish where Batman is selfless, and the relationship between the hero and the burglar turns on whether don’t-call-her-Catwoman can become a better person.

The best theme laced into the Nolan films is his idea that Batman’s anonymity not only protects Bruce Wayne’s (few) loved ones, but that it also gives people hope because “Batman could be anyone.”  By being no one man, Batman is all men and women.  He is us.  It’s the one spot where Nolan seems to understand the greatness of the idea of this character, and it’s the idea whose application makes the ending of this long, hyper-intense trilogy so satisfying.