The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's third and final entry in his re-telling of the Batman saga, is a thrilling (if flawed) epic that ambitiously roots its narrative somewhere between the nexus of comic books and Charles Dickens. Famously inspired by A Tale of Two Cities, Nolan set to wrap up his story of Bruce Wayne (and his alter ego) with imagery that directly evokes recent civil unrest in the Middle East as well as the Occupy movement here at home. The citizens of Gotham are segregated from the rest of the world and asked by masked villain Bane to rise up against the ruling class. Newcomer Catwoman also purrs along similar themes with her dialogue during a lush ballroom dance with Bruce Wayne. There is plenty of subtext material here rife for Marxist readings in which the proletariat takes action against the bourgeoisie but it never quite materializes successfully and that's indicative of the film as a whole. Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises is messy, due in part to the large cast of characters (maybe too large) and some gaping plot-holes. Still, somehow - at a sprawling two hours and forty-five minutes - the film never overstays its welcome and surprisingly doesn't even seem to have enough time to tell the grandiose story it needs to tell. Nolan's trilogy has surpassed the superficiality typically adorning Hollywood superhero blockbusters by rooting the spectacle in trenchant storytelling, Shakespearean tragedy, and characters who leap off of the screen with stunning charisma. However, these qualities that uplift the first two entries of the trilogy fail to stick their landing in The Dark Knight Rises.
One of the primary reasons The Dark Knight Rises instantly suffers in the wake of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is that the film loses its hold on delivering extraordinary action set pieces. Moments from Batman Begins such as Wayne's training with Ra's Al Guhl or moments from The Dark Knight such as the Joker's "pencil trick" and the "semi truck flip" are alarmingly absent from the final installment. Only two visual moments of spectacle will remain with me long-term from The Dark Knight Rises: Bane's introductory airplane hijack and Bruce Wayne ascending from the well in India. For a film that at its core needs to thrill - the moments designed to do exactly that never seem to rise to the occasion (no pun intended). The Dark Knight Rises action set-pieces can ultimately be reduced to large crowd fistfights. Yawn. That said, it was never the action sequences that made Nolan's Batman trilogy so successful. In fact, his storytelling abilities propelled the Batman trilogy to success in-spite of the action sequences (read Nick Schager's insightful commentary on Why Most Modern Action Films Are Terrible).
That said, in The Dark Knight Rises, our main character loses his definition. There have been few stories as successful at charting a protagonist's journey and growth as well as Nolan's trilogy handles Bruce Wayne. Wayne's three-film trajectory handles the first two acts of setup and story complications quite well but misses the climax. In Batman Begins, viewers witness the pathos in Wayne's past that leads him to turn his back on the pampered life; the grief that turns him into a monster of sorts. From the death of his parents, to his criminal past, to his training with the greatest under lord, Batman Begins succeeds by making the first believable superhero: a man on a mission to avenge and protect his city. Bruce Wayne is a man without any super-powers. The laws of physics in Gotham city are of the same world as our own. Bruce Wayne is a soldier built of the greatest training, grounded with the needs, goals, desires, and traits of many a classic movie character - although he does have a bottomless pit of resources and technology at his disposal. Watching Wayne create and grow into Batman - a symbol for the people - is a thrilling opening act. The Dark Knight doesn't just rest on the laurels of the first film by allowing our character to succeed in keeping evil at bay for two and a half hours. The second film in the trilogy further explores the anti-hero qualities of Bruce Wayne (what he's doing by taking the law into his own hands is unethical and illegal). Here Batman is forced to square off against villains (the Joker and Two-Face) whose "freak" status reinforce just how similar and damaged our main character is as well. In the end, Wayne sacrifices the legend of Batman that he himself created to serve Gotham and protect the legacy of Harvey Dent. Together these two films initiate a story that sutures spectators into a frenzy awaiting the resolution for their tortured hero.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne brings Batman out of hiding to challenge what many believe to be his greatest foe yet: Bane. The past eight years have left Wayne cynical, lacking the passion that drove him to create Batman all those years ago. Through his first encounter with Bane it's clear that Wayne's no match for the mercenary. In fact, Bane breaks his back (in an image adopted straight from a classic Batman comic storyline) and leaves him to suffer in a hellish welled-prison in India. In order for Wayne to find himself once again, he must rediscover the fear at the origin of Batman: explored expertly in Batman Begins. This lovely sequence in the prison (that takes place during what screenwriting guru Blake Snyder terms "The Dark Night of the Soul") also provides viewers with Bane's origin story (or so we think) which inspires Bruce Wayne to a stunning escape act. Wayne's ascension from the pit is a sequence that beautifully mirrors his childhood trauma of falling into the well (that led to the discovery of the bat cave). It also equalizes him against Bane preparing for a climactic final duel. The problem in The Dark Knight Rises is that the twist ending revealed moments after this sequence invalidates it entirely. If Bruce heals himself, finds himself, and puts his body, mind, and soul through hell to save Gotham then why isn't he allowed to die for it at the end? What does his lack of sacrifice and abandonment of Gotham truly mean for the character of Bruce Wayne?
One of the most interesting aspects of Nolan's Batman films is the inversion of a common superhero trope: that the man, Bruce Wayne, was the alter-ego all along. Batman is a truer incarnation of the real man. This notion is established early in the series when Rachel Dawes notes "It's what you do that defines you." So what does it actually mean when Batman escapes certain death in the last few seconds of his ushering an atom bomb out to sea? Does it reveal that Batman's journey has led him to a place where he no longer feels Gotham needs his life? If Batman isn't willing to die for Gotham city then isn't that the saddest ending possible - masquerading as a happy ending in which our main character can live to see another day? Too many spectators leave the theater feeling cheated with a sappy Hollywood ending. No one seems to be ruminating that maybe Nolan gave us a tragedy after all. The final image of Wayne is one of him on "permanent vacation" in Italy. Not only does Wayne not choose the ultimate sacrifice (the reason he created Batman in the first place) but he doesn't even choose to spend the rest of his days in the city he's saved. He's wiped his hands of it.
Another problematic issue with The Dark Knight Rises has to do with Nolan sustaining the arcs of two newly introduced characters: Bane and Miranda Tate. There is nothing particularly fascinating about Bane if, after nearly three hours, viewers learn that his hopes for some sort of social revolution were a cover-up for his devotion to Talia Al Guhl. Bane was the character who broke Wayne's back and promised that the city of Gotham would be returned to the 99%. Even from the beginning his plan was unclear: why would he go through so much work for the revolution of Gotham if his end game was always to destroy the city with an atom bomb? The muddled motivations (including the twist ending's switch on Batman's sacrifice - per the argument above) all coalesce to inform a narrative that's rather devoid of a concrete drive. The film begins by molding Bane as a character with something to say. Much like The Joker's need for anarchy and chaos - Bane was a reflection of society's ills. Bane so beautifully mirrors Batman as the masked vigilante with almost laudable goals (if ghastly methods for attaining them). By film's end he's reduced in size to a teenager suffering from puppy love - and is blasted away by Catwoman almost incidentally. That brings us to Miranda Tate. If Bane was the mirror for Batman, Tate was the mirror for Bruce Wayne. Both Wayne and Tate were effigies created by their hosts for society. Tate's reveal as Talia Al Guhl may have been momentarily satisfying as a sudden game-changing twist but it comes at the cost of Bane's legacy. Also, by saving the reveal of Tate until so late in the film, Nolan prevents viewers from reading any deeper dramatic undercurrents into the makeup of her character. Alas, Miranda Tate - you had much potential but we hardly knew ye enough to invest in your development as a rich and colorful character in this saga.
Finally, I feel the need to bullet out the particular plotholes within The Dark Knight Rises that could have benefited from further screen time. Some of these were covered in the arguments above:
- How did Bruce get back into Gotham city if it was cut off and he was away from his toys?
- How can we invest in Bane as the villain to end all others if his plans for social upheaval never had a chance because of his second plan to blow up the city?
- How can we view Bane as a richly deserved character if he was just Miranda's bitch?
- As a storyteller, if you plant dialogue in the first act that "it would be extremely unpleasant for the individual taking off Bane's mask" then you must deliver the goods on that promise by story's end.
- How did John Blake just "know" about Wayne as Batman from his appearance? Any sort of real deduction utilized would have further rooted John's ascension in the police force to Detective. Ball dropped.
Still, as critical as I've been through the points raised above, I have witnessed too much bashing of The Dark Knight Rises in its first week of release. What Christopher Nolan sought to execute was a trilogy of films that weren't simply CGI-laced superhero movies (though they are that, too). The Batman trilogy will survive as a rich saga of storytelling that charts the journey of a large cast of characters but most importantly Bruce Wayne/Batman. Today's blockbusters are often so empty, so devoid of spirit, that we're ready for a reboot less then a decade after the last series ends (see: Spiderman). Nolan's Batman films are built of decadent visuals, rich storytelling rooted in classic literature, deeply flawed characters and fantastic filmic construction on all levels of film form (mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound, editing, narrative). There is so much good in The Dark Knight Rises as well. The arcs of Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Lucius Fox balance nicely. Likewise, Gordon Levitt's John Blake is a revelation: the final shot of his character's literal rise in the bat cave as the score crescendos gives me goosebumps. Tom Hardy's performance (and that voice!) are chilling. Are there issues with The Dark Knight Rises? Absolutely. Does the final chapter warrant the incessant ballyhooing of the film that's permeated popular culture this past week? Absolutely not. There is so much praise that deserves to be heaped on Nolan for his work with the deconstruction of this genre. Nolan is due credit for balancing these characters and this story for the better part of a decade. For sheer ambition alone, The Dark Knight saga will be one that inspires many a story teller for many decades to come.