I figured a fitting first entry would be on the most anticipated film of the year. Fair warning first off: This review will contain major spoilers, and it is not recommended reading until you have seen The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight Rises is the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s genre-redefining Batman trilogy, a franchise that has taken bombastic summer spectacle and added thematic complexity, grit, and ambition that, frankly, has not been seen in superhero films before or since. Rises is the most ambitious film in the trilogy and, at 2 hrs 45 min, it is the longest. Unfortunately, it is by far the weakest.
When looking back on The Dark Knight, it was a great movie because of the moral dynamics at work. Joker was not merely evil, but he was out to prove that man himself is evil, or at least endlessly selfish. His monologues had a twisted sense of logic to them, while Batman’s vigilante heroism seemed, at times, equally sadistic. Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne had a dichotomy with regards to means and ends that “good” and “evil” with which failed to apply. Two-Face was perhaps a late entry, but he was a thought-provoking one. He was a villain, but one with whom we could—and did—sympathize. Who Rachel would choose to be with told us what kind of person, what methods and beliefs would lead to a safer world, were more desirable. Harvey Dent’s fall from grace was ripe with ideas of forgiveness and revenge.
With this in mind, I was struck by the simplicity of characters in The Dark Knight Rises. Every character, Bruce Wayne, Bane, the young police officer Blake, is unequivocally aligned with either good or evil. The only character with a shred of development or ambiguity is Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). That said, her only development plays as a cliché anti-hero reversal that has been done to death since blockbusters were invented (think Han Solo). Worse yet, it was given away so obviously in the repeated cutaways during a fight between Bane and Batman that subtext became signpost that the development played more as a conveniently timed reveal than actual growth.
Beyond that, Catwoman was merely a giant walking “99%” sign, one that says quite explicitly “I’ll do whatever I can to survive, but I only take from those who are excessively wealthy,” like a Robin Hood for the Occupy Age. Still, without her, all the pieces would be in place within moments of the film’s beginning.
Still, even on a purely narrative level, The Dark Knight Rises rarely engages. Catwoman’s quest for a clean slate is totally inconsequential, and the first half of the film is murky but also something we have seen too many times before. There is a scene where Bane (Tom Hardy) and his thugs, in his plan to crash the stock market, are making a getaway while the download he needs is not complete. It is here that Batman returns for the first time in 8 years. The police officer leading the chase calls everyone off of Bane onto Batman to “get the son of a bitch who killed Harvey Dent.” Harvey Dent has been credited with eradicating crime in Gotham, but that every police officer would turn away from the culprits of a stock market crash led by the most notorious criminal in Gotham is utterly perplexing, but also far too predictable.
As a result of this, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his fortune that was already diminishing because of an investment in a failed project Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) designed to power Gotham entirely on sustainable energy. As a result of her well-intentioned project, Wayne puts her in charge of his enterprise.
With these two scenes, all you need to know with regards to the film’s ultra-conservative, perhaps fascist ideology is set up. In an age where corporations are notoriously greedy and powerful, the people who set out to stop it (albeit in an extreme fashion) are the villains. Bruce loses all of his wealth, but as he forfeits control of his enterprise, Nolan sets up worlds to say about class equality, wealth, and loss. All he gives us is news that Wayne will keep his house, and thus, “the rich even go broke differently than the rest of us.” When Batman finds himself trapped in a prison in the ground, one where anyone can attempt to climb out but only a couple have succeeded, the message is not entirely lost: For Batman to rise and defeat Bane, he must first shrink to his level. Broke in wealth, body, and spirit, climbing up to the top on his willpower and determination alone. Unfortunately, this is spelled out for us in Bane and Batman’s last meeting, and this is the extent of the exploration of the theme.
It’s easy to forget this missed opportunity and small hint of compassion of the working class, however, because for some reason Bane decides that the best route is to blow up Gotham for a poorly (if at all) explained reason, either when somebody challenges his rule or after five months (just because?). If Bane were written with the same nuance and and motivation as The Joker, we might see a point that he is trying to prove, but the writing here is so thin that Tom Hardy’s admirable effort cannot lend depth to a caricature. Instead of a potentially interesting tale of vigilante class warfare, we receive typical good guy vs. bad guy mish-mash, something that Nolan has consistently strayed away from since his debut Following, but finds himself trapped in here.
So if the people who are fighting for class equality are the villains, who are the good guys? A small resistance led primarily by an exceptional superhero? It certainly is not the common people, who are useless in the film’s nuclear climax and who make up Bane’s underground army. That the underground is here equated with maliciously intentioned citizens instead of a socially-conscious, forward thinking group (see: Occupy, Civil Rights, Arab Spring) is condescending to the point of distrust and even fascism. The citizens, the common people, have become the villains. Once again, Catwoman is potentially a saving grace, as her hatred for millionaires and crime, or perhaps activism, signifies her as the 99%. Still, she is far too exceptional in her super-heroism, and that the rest of the underground, the “activists,” are in league with the evil Bane results in, at best an incoherent theme and understanding of everyday citizens.
Law enforcement does not fare much better, as their understanding of the truth puts them in leagues with Batman but also sees a different group of cops blow up a bridge that the exceptional cop Blake (Joseph Gordin-Levitt) is leading school children across, away from the nuclear bomb. Were the police “just following orders” the whole time? It’s the best interpretation, but it also makes way for the overdone “throw my badge into the water” ending for the good, independently-minded cop.
Let’s get back to that nuke for a second: The reactor that was going to power Gotham on sustainable energy has become the devastating weapon. Between this and the East/Hudson rivers being frozen over, we can reasonably conclude that Christopher Nolan does not believe in global warming, and, with Miranda Tate’s reveal that she is Talia, the daughter of Begins’ villain Ra’s Al Ghul, probably thinks that those who “invest” in it have a diabolical plan. Here, the intentions for socially-conscious film-making go beyond simply ignoring an issue that is presented but instead make a mockery of it, where Tate’s villainous turn equates those working to slow global warming with maliciously intentioned, hungry for either power or wealth.
Despite the fascist undertones, on the level of pure spectacle, The Dark Knight Rises is, of course, an enormous success. But its conservative ideology, besides just steps into extremism, is also far too one-sided, and it comes at the expense of narrative interests. Still, The Dark Knight Rises is ambitious and its second half is unrelentingly pulse-pounding (thanks to Han Zimmer’s score). The acting here seems particularly uninspired, save for a few of Anne Hathaway’s earlier scenes and a determined Tom Hardy. Bale’s Batman voice seems especially cringe-inducing here, and Nolan’s direction deprives a scenic Gotham of any form of depth, cutting away from the most interesting elements and opting for quick cuts to try to keep our attention onscreen. he tries to make The Dark Knight Rises a film about the triumph of will, but in doing so, it seemed more like Triumph of the Will.