THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough

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THIS PIECE CONTAINS SPOILERS. IN FACT, IT DEPENDS ON THEM. IF YOU DON'T WANT SPOILERS, DON'T READ THIS PIECE.

Christopher Nolan's selective use of naturalism and realism in his three Bat-films has always been a double-edged sword. His literal-minded representations of the character, complete with declarative speeches that leave no symbol, gesture, or character motivation unexplained, can be maddening. Nolan's films’ biggest successes come from their massive scope. But The Dark Knight Rises is a half-baked success, a finale whose ambitions ultimately exceed the Nolan brothers' abilities.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight (2008). Bruce Wayne has hung up his cowl as Batman to reinforce the myth that Batman killed "white knight" district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The decision to hide the real reasons for Dent's death—he was driven mad after his face was scarred in an explosion, leading him to become the monstrous villain Two Face—supposedly weighs heavily on both Wayne and Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), but that is something we are more often told than shown (more on this later). Still, this secret is the sticking point for criminal mastermind Bane's (Tom Hardy) plans to discredit Batman and "break" his soul.

Much of The Dark Knight Rises' colossal 168-minute running time is spent watching Bane's plan come to fruition. But The Dark Knight Rises isn't all it aspires to be, because its creators fumble key establishing events, many of which are needed to convincingly establish the film's grand scope. For example, all three of Nolan's films use dialogue excessively to spell out what each character represents. While Batman Begins has a self-serious charm which is smothered by the Nolans' need to psychologically enrich the character through lame, posturing dialogue, The Dark Knight Rises often feels emotionally skimpy.

As has been noted elsewhere, the skill of the actors in Nolan’s films often carries the weight of their emotionally heavy dialogue. In this film, Christian Bale's performance as Batman and Anne Hathaway's as Catwoman are both impressive. However, the most chatty character is Tom Hardy's Bane, a guy who sounds like the descendant of Kenneth Mars's character from Young Frankenstein. Bane's speeches are not only sometimes hard to understand, they're also stilted well past the point of credulity. The scene where he reads Gordon's speech before freeing and arming the inmates of Blackgate Prison, a facility erected with the help of the Harvey Dent-supported, uh, Dent Act, is a dud. It’s a dud for a couple of reasons, chief among them its excessive fixation on the mechanics of what it is trying to convey, to the point where it fails to give good reasons why it’s necessary in the first place. Do Gotham City residents really believe that much in Dent and his heroic image, which Wayne and Gordon helped to establish? If his martyrdom matters so much, Nolan should have slowed down and let the implications of Bane's speech sink in. He doesn't, however, and as a result, a crucial scene has little impact.

Bane's dialogue is flatfooted throughout the film. At one point, he tells Batman that he too was literally raised among the shadows; at another, he enters a room with the line, "Speak of the devil, and he appears." It's impossible, at moments like these, to take him completely seriously. Nolan and his screenwriters have no ear for juicy dialogue, so their villain just sounds like a maniacal windbag missing not only an impressive backstory but also the ability to gloat properly (his most dry taunt line has to be when he compliments the "very lovely" sotto voice of the little boy singing the National Anthem during the stadium scene). 

But again, the Nolans' characterization of Bane and The Dark Knight Rises' other key characters is not, in theory, off-the-mark. The script contains several reverent allusions to the way its characters have previously been portrayed in comic books. Two of the most apparent examples of this can be seen in the way that Selina Kyle traipses around with gal pal Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), a meaningless but cute nod to Frank Miller's portrayal of Kyle in Batman: Year One. But then poor execution makes an ostensibly huge moment such as the one where Bane breaks Batman's back by slamming him down over his knee (as he does in the now infamous Knightfall comic book story) feel weightless. There is no appreciable eye for detail in this scene, no sign that Nolan wants the big, spine-crushing moment of impact to be felt. If this is Bane’s triumphal moment, why does this moment feel so inconsequential? 

I don't just mean to ask why Nolan didn't make Bane scream longer or have Batman’s back crack in slow-motion. Instead, I wonder why he chose to follow this seemingly pivotal scene with one where Bane explains to Wayne that he will continue to break his "soul," lessoning the power of the moment where he destroys his body. Likewise, Wayne's rehabilitation seems more perfunctory than grueling. Nolan should have taken a page from The French Connection II's book and not been so impulsive when fleshing out these pivotal lulls between action scenes. The effectiveness of these little moments and details distinguish an epic narrative from an over-reaching one.

The Nolans fumble in a couple of other small but salient ways, mostly because they don't know how to modulate the pitch of their representation of the character or his world. The Bat, the plane Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) creates for Batman, looks like a flying tank. That sounds trivial, given that that's essentially how the Tumbler, Nolan's spin on the Batmobile, has been described. But when it whooshes in out of nowhere to break up a tense standoff between bedraggled policemen and heavily-armed Bane supporters, its clunky appearance really ruins the scene.

The same heavy-handed approach makes it hard to take Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) character seriously. It might seem unfair to complain that Nolan did a poor job of foreshadowing the revelation that Tate is secretly Talia Al Gul, the daughter of eco-terrorist and arch-Bat-foe Ra's Al Gul (played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins). But Nolan really does do a poor job here, both in foreshadowing the betrayal and conveying its importance. You don't have to be a fanboy to anticipate that Tate is somehow related to Ra's, given that she is initially defined in Rises by her pro-environmental politics, a position that defined Ra's in Batman Begins (2005). Bane is also repeatedly presented as a representative of the League of Shadows, the group Ra's led in Begins, even having Bane go so far as to insist that he "is the League of Shadows."

The obviousness of Tate's real identity is a glaring problem. Nolan likes to get his audience to focus so intently on breadcrumb-sized morsels of information that it's often very easy to lose perspective on what pattern he's establishing as he builds a story. We are meant to be impressed with the complex nature of Rises' narrative but its details, both on a micro- and a macro-level, are frustrating. The scene where Tate cozies up with Wayne by a fire establishes adequately Tate’s significance to Wayne by the time she betrays him. But the scene where she does betray him, by actually thrusting a knife into his back, is emotionally slack. Is Nolan so creatively constipated that he has to make Talia a literal back-stabber?

Or take a look at what Talia symbolizes in the grand scheme of things. The political subtext of Nolan's pseudo-timely Bat-films has always been willfully evasive, which is striking since almost everything else in these films is blatantly spelled-out. But here, Talia tells Wayne point-blank that she is a foreigner in Gotham's midst, an alien who was only posing as a native-born citizen. While surely one can tease out an anti-Obama message from this, what's most striking about this political attack is how incomplete it is. Nolan only seems to point out Talia's foreign-ness and Bane's foreign accent, too, as a means of pointing out that the threat to Gotham has arrived disguised as an ally to Wayne, Gotham's real native son. But again, so what? That kind of weird, self-evident xenophobia does nothing to enrich our understanding of who Wayne is or why Batman is needed as a symbol for Gotham. If the answer is simply that he's not a mean false friend with a chip on his shoulder and a goofy accent, then maybe it's a good thing there won't be a fourth Nolan-directed Batman movie.

Then again, apart from good supporting characters like James Gordon and Joseph-Gordon Levitt's John Blake, the Nolans do get one central character just right:Hathaway's Catwoman is, for the purposes of this last film, mostly well-realized. Her trepidation in her fascination with Wayne is largely believable, and she makes for a decent bad-girl-turned-good. But even this characterization is only relatively successful. The camaraderie that serves as the foundation of the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman is more than believable in the scene where Catwoman half-leads Batman and half-struts into Bane's midst at Batman's request. But once Catwoman slinks back into the shadows and lets Bane take control of the scene, her passivity becomes unbelievable. It's hard to believe that a character who later appears to have suffered from serious pangs of guilt would, in that key moment, watch and not even recoil forcefully while she watches the man she just betrayed get his back broken. Even the stuff the Nolans get right in The Dark Knight Rises is frustratingly imperfect. Here's hoping that the creators of the next Bat-tent pole are a little more flexible and a lot more detail-oriented.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

VIDEO ESSAY: THE DARK KNIGHT: NOLAN’S MODERNIZED MYTH

VIDEO ESSAY: THE DARK KNIGHT MYTH

When director Christopher Nolan first conceived of his Batman film trilogy, the challenge was revitalizing a hero who had previously been buried in cinematic fantasy shtick—a de-evolution that started with Tim Burton’s promising Batman and ended with Joel Schumacher’s laughably bad Batman & Robin. And Nolan wasn’t a franchise superhero movie director either. From the get-go, Nolan was an unlikely choice to take over such a mammoth cash cow for Warner Bros. Nolan’s previous films—Following, Memento and Insomnia—were small by comparison with the Batman films but shared the common narrative thread of a protagonist struggling to find moral redemption amidst the chaotic (psychological) forces of each film’s unique environment.  Therefore, the Batman mythos and its dark, enigmatic origin story of a billionaire turned self-made vigilante proved an apt fit for the intellectual Nolan—ultimately helping the director edge out the likes of Boaz Yakin (Remember The Titans), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One) for the job of rebooting the series.

In his first entry, Batman Begins, Nolan’s masterstroke lay in envisioning Gotham City as a modern, real city. Gone were the colorful, circus-like set pieces from earlier Batman films. There weren’t any fantastical lairs or alternate dimensions. Nolan’s Gotham had public transportation, seedy corporate suits, corrupt court systems and even a lower-income housing area only accessible by street bridges. By positioning a beloved comic book superhero in a very accessible and believable environment, Nolan transcended the dated source material and forced audiences to re-evaluate Batman’s role. In other words, it wasn’t so much about what outrageous predicament Batman would have to punch (Pow!) his way out of. It was more of seeing how this new Batman could plausibly function within the day-to-day operations of the modern urban world.

After establishing a parallel “real” society in Batman Begins, Nolan raised the stakes with The Dark Knight. By zeroing in on the very relevant, modern topic of terrorism, Nolan recreated the post-9/11 atmosphere of dread and fear for the citizens of Gotham. In The Dark Knight, Nolan separated the villainous Joker character from his silly, cartoonish origins and recreated the Joker as “an agent of chaos”—a volatile criminal hell-bent on demoralizing the citizens of Gotham. The Joker’s plan was simple: If he could invoke the fear of death at every corner for every Gotham citizen, a radical unbiased social structure based on elemental fear would emerge. Thus, this society would be in constant stasis; the people of Gotham would be united by fear but torn apart by their animalistic instincts to outlive one another.

Putting Batman in the backseat in a Batman film was an important gesture for this movie and for Nolan’s work—as well as a first in the Batman filmography. In The Dark Knight, Batman himself was unusually absent from the screen, allowing for an array of equally compelling characters to come through. By building the film this way, Nolan deconstructed the mythology behind the Batman figure. Specifically, this once indomitable hero from comic book legend now became as vulnerable as anybody else in Gotham (or the real world for that matter).

Still, the fundamentals that Batman stood for as a comic book hero—justice, social order and establishing a sense of collective moral hope for Gotham—were evident in Nolan’s interpretation of the caped crusader (e.g. Batman reconciled both his and Gotham’s disillusionment with faux heroism by taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s murderous rampage in The Dark Knight). More interestingly, Nolan’s modernized Batman redefined the function of the traditional myth. Consider: The comic book Batman’s original Sociological Function was to establish a proper social order by existing outside the parameters of society, as an elite hero. In the comic book and earlier film adaptations, Batman was only accessible to Gotham’s police (via a red telephone or a bat signal in the sky); this exclusivity positioned Batman to exist as an intangible, incorruptible and unbelievably fantastic heroic figure. Yet, in Nolan’s screen narrative, Batman has been dethroned from his once-elusive crime fighter status. In an obscenely modern twist, Nolan looks to argue that order in any society cannot rest solely on an elected or officially prominent figure.

The promotional clips for Nolan’s third and final entry, The Dark Knight Rises, show Batman in the war zone streets, fighting alongside the citizens of Gotham. This is fitting imagery for Nolan’s modernization of this once-romantic comic book myth. The new Batman mythology isn’t meant to serve as adventurous escapism. The new Batman mythology reflects our very modern world, a society desperately trying to restore order amidst all the chaos—without having to always flash a bat signal in the sky.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."

BONUS TRAILER MIX: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

BONUS TRAILER MIX: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

At the end of The Dark Knight, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) had to explain to his son why Batman (Christian Bale) was being willfully chased by police—disgracing himself and abandoning his post for the greater good of Gotham. The new trailer for The Dark Knight Rises zeroes in on the sleepy void that abandonment left behind, positioning Batman as the embodiment of hope, which won't return to the city's people until he himself returns. At the center is another boy who, while chalking the bat symbol on the pavement and chatting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's beat cop, asks the question on everyone's mind: “Do you think he's coming back?”

Christopher Nolan hasn't been wont to cater to fanboy demands, but with the inclusion of idealistic children, he allows for the presence of both innocence and wide-eyed admiration, representative of vulnerable Gothamites and minute-counting franchise diehards. The moods of both parties are evoked in the trailer's first half, which, but for a light score accented with gentle piano notes, uses the sound of silence to ratchet up tension and augment awe. In rather Spielbergian fashion, both viewers and city residents look on as epic effects ravage Gotham in an eerie hush, its bridges, football fields, and crowded interiors handily destroyed by Bane (Tom Hardy), representing the self-professed “Reckoning” of the gray metropolis. “Hope is lost” and “Faith is broken,” read the ominous intertitles, setting up everything, from the music to the masked avenger, to ultimately rise, appeasing all who were flabbergasted by Gotham's quiet undoing.  

Through it all, the trailer finds precious balance in shady Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a character who, beyond possessing unique allure, has notoriously played both sides in Batman's world. In voiceover, she whispers that “a storm is coming,” which one could apply to everything from Bane's impending assault to the movie's probable record-breaking sales. And with both a teasing menace and a clear devotion to the hero, her ambiguity is employed to amplify the theme of unease, another figure denoting citizens' fears and fans' rapid pulses.

The double entendres continue to pour from Selina's mouth, as she assures Batman that he “[doesn't] owe these people anymore,” and that he's “given them everything.” “Not everything,” Batman replies. “Not yet.” Without doubt, this exchange speaks directly to the tricks still tucked up Nolan's sleeve, and aims to assure the masses there's still plenty to come from the Caped Crusader. It's a promise that requires more faith than one may have expected, seeing as this preview doesn't boast the kind of wow factors oft-associated with a year's most anticipated film (the tacked-on reveal of a new Bat-vehicle seems more like a shameless trick than a thrilling addition). But in its use of the silent hovering of hope, the latest Dark Knight Rises trailer weaves audience loyalty into its very fabric, and leaves to the ticket-buyer the final assertion that the storm was worth waiting for.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.