The Dark Knight Rises has ambitions to rise, to soar, to climb above and meet the lofty expectations that are unfairly shackled to it. Ultimately, though, it barely gets off the ground, permanently restrained by the cement shoes of pretension, clumsy storytelling, excessive length, and lack of focus, all the trademarks of its creator, Christopher Nolan, the Internet appointed Awesomest Director Ever! Read the blogs, people: This guy makes nothing short of a masterpiece every time he turns on a camera.
Oh, brother. As someone that found Batman Begins plodding and underwhelming and The Dark Knight overstuffed and overrated, this final chapter in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy doesn’t strike me as the potential crowning jewel in the franchise that has everyone else and their mothers drooling feverishly with fanboy rabidity. Instead, I inquisitively approach Nolan’s work as a curious skeptic, on guard to one-day endorse him the title of Master he so desperately craves. When he’s worthy of it, I swear I’ll declare it, but until that day, Nolan remains, to these eyes, a high-minded action-movie director with too much zeal and not enough grace.
For starters, Nolan could have at least made this Batman movie actually, you know, about Batman—something its predecessor, The Dark Knight, failed to do. But such obvious dramatic foundation seems to slip the director’s mind. The Dark Knight Rises is about juicier stuff than superheroes. When your movie tackles terrorism and economic dichotomies and moral conundrums and numerous other topical and brainy subjects, what use are Bat-caves and Bat-mobiles? At a ruthless 2 hours and 45 minutes, the movie finds time for a dozen zeitgeist allusions—from the financial crisis to Occupy Wall Street to the threat of new technologies. It fills its quota of flipping cars and exploding bridges. It manages to logjam in a whole slew of new extraneous characters. There’s plenty of room for plot turns and double crosses. All the while, The Dark Knight Rises fails to properly introduce, develop and resolve its protagonist, the guy with the pointy ears—the one in the goddamn title.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Maybe the movie does wrap up the tale of The Caped Crusader is the most facile sense, but I was too distracted by Nolan’s Film-Noir-On-Speed stylistic disorder and his debilitating need to overload his script with people, places, and flying things to fully absorb—or care for—any pregnant insights on Bruce Wayne and his dark alter ego. If they did exist, they were, like so many of Nolan’s thematic “messages”, buried under three feet of murky cinematic soot.
To avoid ranting, let’s talk plot. It’s been eight years since The Joker held Gotham City in a vice grip of fear, and turned its golden boy, DA Harvey Dent, to the dark side. Remember, Batman took the rap for Dent’s deranged killing spree and has gone underground to avoid the resulting lynch mob. His daytime other-half, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), is now a gimpy Howard Hughes with a beard and Kleenex boxes on his feet (so to speak). He no longer makes public appearances. The Dent Act—ratified after the eponymous man’s demise—has cleaned up the streets, but left Gotham with a massive wage discrepancy. The middle class is shrinking.
In marches a new villain, Bane. He takes to the sewers with his army of Chechen Rebels, expatiating on revolution to incite the masses against the wealthy, beginning with a strategic stock market crash. A bald bodybuilder with a black voice-box/muzzle that makes him sound like Darth Vader mixed with an old English elocutionist, Bane is played by Tom Hardy, who gives an impressive physical performance, but considering the disability of having to act behind that awkward shroud, he comes off as little more than a meathead with a funny voice. (They probably could’ve cast Kane Hodder, the guy in the hockey mask from the Friday The 13th movies, and few would know the difference.)
For mostly incomprehensible reasons, at least until the finale’s (whoa!) giant twist, Bane takes control of Gotham, sets up a people’s court presided over by the increasingly zany Scarecrow, and keeps the outside world at bay with a massive nuclear reactor/bomb. With the city in dire peril yet again, Batman dusts off his suit and prepares to go head-to-head with Gotham’s latest nihilistic overlord.
I wish the story were that simple, I really do. But Nolan lives by this maxim: If it’s horribly convoluted, people will mistake it for cooly complex. Back are Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), penitent over allowing Batman to take Dent’s heat; superhero apparel handyman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman); and trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine), whose only role in this smorgasbord is to cry every time he’s on screen. (Nolan has apparently taken note that critics find his films emotionally vacuous, so as to indolently solve that dilemma, he lets his English thespian turn on the waterworks malapropos.) There’s newcomer John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levit), an idealistic rookie cop that does his own private sleuthing, and leads around a ragtag troop of orphans like their scoutmaster; and billionaire philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Wayne’s newest business partner and love interest.
All these characters figure prominently into the monstrous narrative juggernaut that is the plot of The Dark Knight Rises, and throughout this loud and capricious grind you’ll feel as if you’re watching three or four films at once, all crudely parallel edited into a single bloated and busy picture without a semblance of intelligence or heart. But it’s about big, current, real-world issues, you say? When asked which way his film leaned on the political spectrum, Nolan replied with something along the lines of, “I don’t know. We just throw in as many things as we can to see what sticks.” In other words, his film has no voice or point of view; it just name-drops hot button topics to fraudulently generate relevance and respectability.
Bain’s clearly the story’s resident “terrorist”, but his vendetta to avenge his old master—Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson from Batman Begins)—hews closer to the motives of Die Hard 3’s German bank robbers than any actual terrorist.
But Nolan, employing his agonizingly urgent verbosity, makes the insinuation like a broken record. Purported sophistication isn’t the same as actual sophistication. I’m reading too much into this, is that it? I’d happily proclaim the movie a mindless summer blockbuster with some badass action scenes and special effects, if it weren’t so heavily marinated in portent, pretension and big concepts. If it wants to be considered art, I’ll treat it as such. In that light, it’s worthless. As spectacle, sure Nolan knows how to blow up a football field or demolish massive steal suspension bridges with the help of his friends over in the Computer Generated Images department. If only he knew how to tell a clean, coherent story and express fully formed ideas.
I will concede that the one beacon of light in this overwhelming darkness has got to be Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. A duplicitous cat burglar torn asunder by her allegiance to the 99% and her obvious attraction to one mysterious billionaire, Kyle is even more slippery than Batman, leaving him searching on rooftops as she evaporates stealthily into the night. “So, that’s what that feels like,” he growls. She travels around with a cute little blonde teenager (maybe her ward, maybe her lover?), and walks the ever-so-plausible tightrope between good and evil, between solipsism and communal welfare. In a less discursive film, Kyle could’ve really shined, but Hathaway leaves her mark nonetheless, in a performance as witty and beguiling as it is liberated and brilliantly unknowable.
That’s where the compliments end. The Dark Knight Rises, when it’s all said and done, really is a suitable capper to Christopher Nolan’s over-exalted trilogy. It manages to be as ponderous as Batman Begins and as overblown as The Dark Knight, while still being as empty as both, combined. So this is what “serious” superhero movies look like, huh? Hopefully now that Nolan’s take on the genre has at long last reached its conclusion, they can finally go back to being fun.