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Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

It’s certain that Christopher Nolan’s final Batman epic (or so he says) is ambitious, relentless, confident, and overwhelmingly stern and self-serious. What’s not as certain is whether or not it’s any good. The Dark Knight Rises is overstuffed with good ideas, bad ideas, big ideas, and dangerous ideas, and the distinctions between them are not too keenly felt. Nolan’s film is not without emotional heft, dramatic momentum, or committed performances. Indeed, it is often pure heft, momentum, and commitment, with only the briefest interludes of weighty wit for breathing room. It also presents multiple contending and even contradictory ideologies without ever adopting any of them. Like The Dark Knight, it’s once again the comic-book-hero action-adventure as exercise in moral philosophy, but not nearly as compelling.

The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight. Batman has been off the Gotham City scene for all of that time, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse as well, haunting the remote wings of Wayne Manor and rarely checking in on his increasingly unprofitable corporation. But his city (now firmly, unavoidably a New York City proxy after coyly mixing various urban settings, mainly Chicago, in previous films) doesn’t much miss him, particular because its crime rate has sunk in his absence and since the city’s elite have accepted the noble lie told by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) that Batman killed the virtuous DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), leading to harsh penalties for organized crime.

But this is Gotham, that metropolitan metaphor for moral decay, so things can’t stay quiet for long. The emergence on the underworld scene of the menacing, uncompromising Bane (Tom Hardy), a revolutionary terrorist and mercenary with an intimidating weight-room physique and a Darth Vader-like respitory mask, draws Batman out of the shadows and Wayne back into the boardroom. In perhaps the most labyrinthine plot of Nolan’s trilogy (the script is again by Nolan and his brother Jonathan), Wayne uncovers an elaborate plan by Bane and certain hidden associates to hold Gotham City hostage in a revolutionary, order-inverting Reign of Terror involving underground excavations, a neutron reactor transformed into a nuclear bomb, slinky high-end cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and an intense personal grudge against the Batman. This gives Nolan the opportunity to stage multiple breakneck chases through skyscraper canyons, brutal hand-to-hand combat (including a police charge against Bane’s army and a bone-breaking dust-up or two between the hero and the villain), and large-scale set-pieces of destruction like an imploding football field (prefaced by an angelic boy singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which is either manipulative or kind of sneakily satirical).

The less said about the narrative particulars, the better, but it’s more than a little necessary to delve into those details to unpack Nolan’s ideological engagements. Bane’s assault on Gotham carries more than a hint of the socioeconomic class grievances of the Occupy Movement, from its setting at the iconic Wall Street crossroads of American finance and power to its vindictive targeting of the wealthy 1% for a tribunal judgment of death or exile (which amount to the same thing: a precarious walk across the part-frozen river ice that is the only exit from Gotham after its bridges are blown by Bane’s men).

This cartoon parody of the leftist expression of outrage at income inequality, when combined with a corporate billionaire hero who combats it through violence and fear, has lead to critical accusations of a fascistic perspective on the part of Nolan. This label only really sticks to The Dark Knight Rises if you accept that Nolan subscribes to a specific moral-philosophical perspective. If he does, he doesn’t ever really tip his hat one way or another. Bane’s a nasty enough piece of work (Hardy vanishes behind muscles and the hyper-dramatic score, the mask hiding his pillowy lips so that we’ll take him seriously as a villain), but he never seems firm in the political convictions that his acts appears to support or indeed to have any sort of ideological undercurrent to them at all, and the ultimate motivation revealed for his revolution is something much more intimate and personal. Likewise, Nolan’s film has little sympathy for the privileged being targeted for retribution, caricaturing stock traders (when one of them tells Bane there’s no money on the exchange floor, the bad guy replies pointedly, “Then why are you all here?”) and old matrons in furs alike, and even delights in Kyle’s filching of their valuables (Hathaway is a superb scene-stealer and adds some sizzle to the grandiosity on display).

Give us a kiss, then.

By the same token, the solutions offered to social ills by institutions, be they political, law enforcement, or superhero, are also firmly doubted by the Nolans. Alfred (Michael Caine) excoriates Wayne for pulling on the suit again with an apparent death wish, throwing cold water on his delusions of reclaiming his mantle as Gotham’s savior, while Gordon’s complicity in the well-meaning lies about Dent are exposed, disillusioning his young detective protégé John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, continuing his slow march to megastardom with a strong, naturalistic showing). Ultimately, the recurrent image of Nolan’s moral worldview in this film is the hellish Middle Eastern prison set deep in a pit in the desert, where the confinement is all the more torturous for the inmates due to the hopeful glimpse of sunlit freedom above them.

Nolan’s established Nietszchean vision of the Batman mythos takes on more nihilistic tones in The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s a less interesting vision because of it. The absence of the anarchic Joker bevils down the unpredictable edge that made the previous installment such a draining but rewarding experience; Bane’s evil acts are, perhaps, even greater, but somehow less chilling, less unnerving. His dark authority is defused by the fairly ludicrous voice that Hardy gives him, redolent of a mustache-twirling cartoon Brit supervillain. Hathaway’s slippery Catwoman, a deceitful but unapologetic survivor in the moral morass of Gotham, is much more interesting, undercutting the more important woman to the plot, Marion Cotillard’s comparatively bland Miranda Tate. It reflects The Dark Knight Rises as a whole, a film so convinced of its own importance and depth, so invested in its moral passion play of ideology as mass spectacle, that it sometimes neglects to function as fully-involved cinema. It rises, but not as high as might have been expected.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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