Those who are especially sensitive to spoilers should be careful with this review. I attempt to spoil nothing, but some second half business is discussed.
The Dark Knight Rises is the most entertaining of Christopher Nolan’s Batfilms, but it is certainly not the best. Is it the worst? I’m not quite sure. I’m also not quite sure if it’s a bad film or not. The whole movie feels so like a series of contradictions - bloated and long yet rushed, deeply serious yet utterly silly, politically minded yet ultimately vapid - that being both wildly entertaining and a bad movie would be exactly right for it.
The film picks up eight years after the death of Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight. Batman was never again seen after that night, and Bruce Wayne has become a hermit as well. In the wake of Dent’s death Gotham City apparently cleaned up its act instantly, and organized crime is a thing of the past. Gordon is now commissioner, but he’s seen as a relic, a war hero in a time of peace.
Trouble looms, though. A mercenary named Bane - hulking, bald, relying on a respirator mask to keep him alive - has come to Gotham, and he’s building an army beneath the streets in the sewer. Meanwhile, someone has hired cat burglar Selina Kyle to steal recluse Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints. Perhaps there’s even a connection of some sort between these events. Intrigued by Selina’s skill, Bruce slowly lumbers out of retirement. His body has been worn down by his adventures (he walks with a cane), but he forces himself into shape to investigate the cat burglar and Bane.
The first hour of the film is remarkably light*. There are actual comedic bits, and it’s engaging to see Bruce Wayne pull himself together from his utterly out-of-character majority-of-a-decade slump. And as Bane’s broad, weird, over-complicated plan comes into focus it seems as if Nolan has finally embraced the comic book origins of the character. Or at least attempted to fold them into a genre idiom he understands - that of the James Bond franchise. Even the broken Bruce Wayne feels like Bond in the aftermath of wife Tracy’s death (at least in the novel You Only Live Twice), especially since it’s almost impossible to imagine any other iteration of Bruce Wayne being such an emo chump. At any rate, the ensuing redonning of the cowl has, for the first time in the whole Nolan series, a feel of dashing adventure, especially as Wayne flirts with Selina Kyle both as a billionaire and a crime fighter in desperate need of a lozenge.
Some of the lightness of the first hour is intentional - Anne Hathaway is ridiculously magnetic and charming and funny as Selina Kyle (assiduously never called Catwoman) - while some of it creeps in around the edges. Bane’s voice is consistently hilarious, and any time he spoke I found myself giggling. Bane’s voice is forwarded so much in the sound mix that it sounds like accidental ADR, as if another movie’s audio got spliced into this one. He has a ridiculous British butler accent going on, only made sillier by the muffling effects of his mask. Also silly: almost any time anyone appears in costume. No superhero series has ever been so uncomfortable with the costume trope, and even Batman himself seems physically uncomfortable all the time.
The movie kind of falls apart as it attempts to transition from this initial post-retirement story into something bigger and more ambitious than perhaps any other superhero film so far. The structure of this movie is bizarre - it opens with a physically broken Bruce Wayne, so when Bane does to Batman what Bane is famous for doing to Batman, there’s a sense of ‘We spent an hour getting him back in the saddle just to do this?’ And then just when it gets to something that feels truly fresh - a riff on the No Man’s Land storyline - Nolan shifts into hard montage mode, leaping over three months and leaving behind all sorts of interesting possibilties.
And then the climax, which is where Nolan’s particular skill set shines. As a director Nolan has always had a gift for thunderous pacing, a driving momentum that brings the audience along in a way that helps us not notice the plot holes or logic problems on the journey. The Dark Knight’s Gordon death fake-out is a perfect example of this; in the moment it’s thrilling, but the second you start thinking about it the whole thing falls apart. The climax is filled with moments where you’ll later say “How did he get there?” or “How did he know that?,” but in the moment you’ll be rapt as each member of the new Batman family plays a role in a sprawling, last-ditch effort to save Gotham City. Again.
While all of this is entertaining enough, it’s also not terribly good. Nolan’s action is better now than it was back in Batman Begins, but the cross-cutting between actions in the climax isn’t particularly compelling. For all of the scope of the movie - the entire city of Gotham is now ruled by a malevolent warlord - all the action feels tiny in scope. It boils down to a couple of hundred guys brawling on the steps of Blackgate Prison while Commissioner Gordon chases bombs around the city.
What’s worse is that it’s all meaningless. The movie makes some noise about being political, but the politics of the movie are empty, just as much fantasy as the new Bat plane or Bane’s doomsday bomb (complete with a countdown clock, something made funnier by the origin of the device). The film makes some nods to economic inequality, but in the end that's just wallpaper.
Throughout the film Bane speaks out to the people of Gotham. He’s the guy who claims to be speaking for the downtrodden, for the average citizen who has been screwed over by the powers-that-be. Except that The Dark Knight Rises includes absolutely not one single average citizen. The closest it gets are a bunch of orphans who hang around cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Without that perspective all of the political talk is hollow. There’s one line of dialogue that indicates some homeless have been joining Bane’s army, but the film casts them simply as criminals. Perhaps this is Nolan’s intention, to say that the underclass is naturally criminal and that the middle class are a bunch of helpless orphans, but even that reading feels essentially unsupported by the non-specific text.
Every thematic element of the movie is confused. Gotham City is better off without a Batman, as crime is very low at the beginning of the film (“Soon they’ll have us chasing down overdue library books,” John Blake jokes at one point). The solution to Gotham’s crime problem was apparently... no parole for mob guys? That’s the only explanation given for the Dent Act, a piece of legislation that sweepingly changed the city. I expected the film to have the police force acting in a more fascist manner, or to find out that the Dent Act removed Constitutional rights or anything that made a lick of sense. Hell, I thought maybe it had cleaned up the police department, which always seemed to be the root of Gotham’s trouble and the reason it needed a Batman.
It’s all just a hand wave, though. Which wouldn’t bug me if the movie wasn’t so certain of its own serious intentions. There’s a scene where Bane and friends take over the Gotham City Stock Exchange (weirdly a completely undisguised 23 Wall Street, a super famous Financial District building**. Also undisguised: the J train station in the shot) and a sleazy stockbroker (there’s a thudding sequence where he proves how sleazy he is by telling an underling he’s going to use public fears to make bank) says “We don’t keep any money here. There’s nothing to steal!” Bane, in his delightfully wrong voice, replies “Then what are YOU doing here?” This same sequence has a lame-brained discussion between some cops about how the stock market impacts EVERYBODY, even those with money in their mattresses. Anyway, this is sort of cool and feels really current eventsy, but it’s got nothing to do with politics. Bane’s taking the stock exchange because of his supervillain plan, not because of anything to do with the financial crisis.
If the movie did have any real political beliefs it certainly would be coming down on the side of the establishment and against anyone who aligns themselves with the 99%. This time out the police of Gotham City are, at worst, sort of lazy and cowardly before becoming brave warriors seeking to return the city to the status quo. There’s a bad billionaire in the movie, but he’s such an uninteresting piece of cardboard that the only reason I even remember his name is that it’s the same as the robot dog in the original Battlestar Galactica. He’s a plot device, not a character and certainly not a piece of any larger thematic puzzles. Even Selina Kyle, who originally tells Bruce Wayne that a storm is coming for the rich, is horrified when it arrives.
The film does have great performances going for it. Bale’s Bruce Wayne is nicely essayed, and since Wayne is in the film as much, if not more, than Batman, that’s a relief. He still has that stupid voice as Batman, but at this point you figure they feel committed to it. Anne Hathaway is probably the MVP, bringing life to her every scene. Catwoman is in no way as good as the Joker, but she has the same electrifying impact on this film that Heath Ledger did in the last one.
Runner up for MVP is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. John Blake is a do-gooder cop whose personal journey is the most dramatically interesting thing in the film. Levitt takes Blake from rookie to hero in the movie’s only complete character arc.
Tom Hardy is, without a doubt, criminally wasted in the film. Bane is a dud; driven by the exact same motivation as R’as al Ghul, he feels like a repeat, except with a more Rube Goldergian plan. Hardy works hard to act behind that idiotic mask, but it’s no use. There’s a moment towards the end, in one of the film’s too many flashbacks, where we see Hardy’s full face and we’re reminded of what a powerful figure he is on screen when allowed to be completely seen.
And so I find myself in this dilemma: is The Dark Knight Rises any good? The movie entertains. It has a James Bond sensibility where hugely improbable things occur but you shrug them off (Selina Kyle is after a computer program that will erase your name from every database on Earth - it’s total magic, but you go with it), and I respect the chances that Nolan takes in the last act with the extreme events in Gotham (although I wish he had done more with the setting). The movie is also clunky and structured strangely and - with the exception of Michael Caine’s Alfred - emotionally empty. The stakes have weirdly never felt lower than they do in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan keeps the movie going from scene to scene, but the momentum is all cinematic, not narrative.
As the movie wrapped up with five final minutes that play out exactly like Superhero Hype forum fanfic, I wasn’t hating it. I hadn’t been squirming in my seat. I thought a lot of it was dumb, I laughed at things that probably weren’t meant to be laughed at, and I experienced a few moments of deflation when I realized the movie had nothing to actually say. But I had also been caught up in it, even when it didn’t quite work or make much sense. I liked that Nolan went a little broader, even if that broadness occasionally clashed with his efforts to be ‘realistic.’
I just don’t care either way. After being profoundly disappointed by the way Batman Begins turned out, and after really enjoying most of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises evokes no strong feelings in me. It’s large and busy and convinced of its own profundity, but in the end it’s a big shrug.
* Comparatively. It’s not like The Dark Knight Rises is suddenly a comedy. It’s still somber and mopey a lot.
** Famous for a number of reasons, one of which being it was bombed by anarchists in 1920. I want to believe that Nolan is blatantly referencing this in the film by setting the scene there.