It’s about escalation. Christopher Nolan has not been shy about what to expect from the final chapter in his Batman series. The Dark Knight Rises is about something bigger and meaner in every sense possible. For his main character, the caped crusader we’ve known through countless years and iterations, it’s about facing the escalation he created when he became Gotham’s symbol.
But for the filmmaker behind him, equally adored in the halls of pop culture for his contemporary epics, it’s about creating something so big that no one will dare forget it. On a scale that is off the charts, putting emphatic punctuation on the end of his dissertation on the rise and fall of a hero. And he’s done it. But at what cost?
When we meet Bruce Wayne, as played by Christian Bale for a third time, he’s right where we met him in 2005’s Batman Begins, broken and stricken with grief. Cut off from the outside world, actively avoiding his role in a Gotham City that could use a little bit of that Wayne family spirit. Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, he still hasn’t recovered from the loss of his beloved Rachel. Elsewhere, Commissioner Gordon, played again by the ever-gruff Gary Oldman, still hasn’t recovered from the night he last saw Batman. He lives with the lie of Harvey Dent’s heroism, a lie that has spurned Gotham to clean up its streets and move forward. But these two men are about to be upset back into action.
For Wayne, it’s a visit from a cat burglar named Selina Kyle, played by Anne Hathaway, who steals what she needs from Bruce and inspires him to get out of the house, where he finds a Gotham that is on the verge of trouble again. For Gordon, it’s an encounter with Bane, brought to life by the formidable frame and expressive eyes of Tom Hardy. He’s a big, mysterious fellow who is building a revolution literally underneath the streets of Gotham, waiting for the right moment to rise up and lay siege to the establishment.
Bringing back some of the ponderous themes about Gotham’s eventual fate found in Batman Begins, Nolan and brother Jonah, collaborators once again on the script, decide that our heroic duo of Bats and Jim must fall again, but harder this time. Before his self-instituted exile, Bruce Wayne spent almost all of his company’s money on a project that would revolutionize clean energy. But unlike another suit-wearing billionaire that we know with a penchant for ridding us of dependency on fossil fuels, his project stalls and Wayne Enterprises becomes a shell of its former self. As Bane’s plan unfolds, both Bruce Wayne and Batman pay a brutal price. And as if he’s learned nothing from the beautifully drawn character arc created between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, we find Bruce back at square one. A man crippled by his grief, trying to master fear.
Somewhere in the second act of the film, after stumbling around through a first act crowded with exposition, Nolan conveys this by making Wayne watch as Bane takes over the city he once sought to inspire. And it’s hard not to feel the same, like disconnected viewers watching news reports from afar. Bane’s plan has a grand theatrical quality, but we’re never really part of it. Which doesn’t help as the stakes increase, becoming sillier as they become larger (lets just say he’s not a fan of clean energy, or having anything but a crater in place of Gotham).
Because it’s about escalation. No matter how dour the world becomes, as long as the violence and scale of the conflict are increased, we’re expected to keep on rooting. But it’s hard to do as the film buries us in its overcast thematic blanket, evoking thoughts of the Occupy Movement’s war against the upper 1% in a way similar to The Dark Knight and its effortless invocation of the helplessness we felt following 9/11. But there’s a big problem this time around. Nolan and his team have made Batman’s story so unflinchingly real that we’re no longer suspending disbelief, we’re actually hoping for a masked man to jump off the screen and come save us from our own cruel, cynical world.
It’s a cold realization that comes along when we remember that we’re just watching a movie, about a guy dressed as a giant bat. Also, the politics just don’t work. Every time The Dark Knight Rises decides that is has something to say, it’s all exposed as a ruse. Bane’s not attacking Wall Street and leading an uprising because of economic inequality, as we’re so often told, he’s just carrying out R’as Al Ghul’s old plan: destroy Gotham. So why even try to wedge in the politics? What’s wrong with Gotham being taken over by a madman warlord who can beat Batman to a pulp with his bare hands?
Of course, it’s easy to forget some of these narrative inconsistencies when Batman jumps into big flying hovercraft framed perfectly across the full vertical reach of the IMAX format. For all its narrative manipulation and muddled details — especially around its villain and his plan — this movie does have moments of completely awe-inspiring scope. Nolan’s long-time cinematographer and partner in crime Wally Pfister shoots the absolute Dickens out of the IMAX sequences. They are massive, gorgeous and unprecedented. But unlike the seamless switching we experienced with The Dark Knight, there’s something lethargic about Pfister’s camera when he’s not shooting with the big gun. The in-between scenes, where action is not happening full-frame, find his generally active style giving way to something disinterested. As if he was truly disappointed when he had to put down his favorite toy.
But those IMAX shots, they are awesome. They create in Bane a size factor that makes 5’10” Tom Hardy look like The Incredible Hulk, but with piercing, unnerving evil in his eyes. It captures wide landscapes filled to the brim with a flurry of Gotham’s police cars chasing down The Batman. It captures the star of the show, the Bat-Pod, twisting and turning no matter who is at the wheel. In the action sequences, this movie is all size and brawn and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Then there are the moments when it’s not. There are moments, many of which occur in the crowded first act, when Christopher Nolan goes out of character as a storyteller. In The Dark Knight, Nolan allowed his characters to tell stories and trusted that we’d get the visual. The performances delivered, and we understood what was happening. In Rises, he seems to know that he’s bitten off way more complexity (at least logistically) than we can chew, so he hand-holds his audience with copious flashbacks and mind-numbing bouts of exposition. Which, when delivered by the squeaky, synthesized voice of Bane, is chuckle-worthy at best.
He also runs into a problem that Sam Raimi found toward the end of his Spider-Man run, the need to hit narrative benchmarks. Instead of building characters, he moves them along just enough to get them to moments that will make the fans of the property jump and cheer. And while some of these moments accomplish that goal, and are awesome to see carried out on screen, the rest are perfunctory and wedged in. Filler to get us toward Nolan’s big finish. The result is a 3-hour film sapped of its kinetic energy. Unlike the film that came before it, we’re not seeing characters evolve and connecting with them emotionally. We’re seeing characters torn down, forced to re-evolve and learn the same lessons over again. Leaving us with an experience that falls just as often as it rises, just like our hero.
Even four years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who walked out of The Dark Knight quite as electrified as yours truly. With razor sharp precision and efficiency, it cut into the Batman mythos and boldly gave us an evolved take on a classic story. Order and chaos. Batman and The Joker. The ultimate culmination of the rise of Gotham’s symbol. It was the perfect ending to a two-film arc that worked hard and payed off beautifully. The Dark Knight Rises, just as it does with characters in its third act, unceremoniously discards all of that hard work for the sake of sprawling, frantic action. For the sake of pure escalation. Some are going to walk out of this film and be quietly blown away by said spectacle. And who am I to say that they shouldn’t enjoy it? They should. But it left me cold. And after the heat of the moment dies down, I surely won’t be the only one who realizes that something just isn’t right.
Swear to me, Mr. Nolan, that you did this because you found the right story, as you promised you would. Not that you simply found the right ending, as writer David Goyer has said in a number of interviews, and reverse-engineered it with filler and cool, iconic “Batman moments” just so that you could play on a scale that no other filmmaker can touch. Tell me that you didn’t do it just because you could. But because it was the right thing to do. Because what you’ve given us is fun to watch at times, but to what end? For escalation? Yeah, you made it bigger. But you also made it colder and emptier.
You’ve always been the hero the Batman franchise deserves, but this movie isn’t the one we need right now. And we may not have needed it at all.
The Upside: The escalation of Nolan’s Bat-franchise brings with it action on a scale unlike anything you’re likely to see anywhere else. Bane is massive and intimidating. The Bat-Pod is still the most fun thing happening in Gotham.
The Downside: It is much bigger. But it’s also much colder, much more dour and emptier as it plods its way from spectacular action sequence to spectacular action sequence.
On the Side: Despite being the impetus for Bruce Wayne getting off the couch after 8 years of sulking, Nolan’s Catwoman becomes sort of a non-event. His disinterest in the character, despite having her play a key role in some of the action, is palpable. You can tell that he’s got much more affinity for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake character, an underling of Commissioner Gordon’s who is instrumental in keeping hope alive in Gotham while Bruce Wayne finds himself… again.