The Dark Knight Rises is, like Christopher Nolan’s other Batman films, a gutsy, imaginative crime drama that dines on dread. Ultimately, Nolan’s choices as a director leave viewers wanting more. This is both bad and good.
Wracked by the death of his childhood sweetheart, and from having to take the blame for the chaos the Joker (Heath Ledger) unleashed on Gotham City, Batman (Christian Bale) comes out of retirement when an underground band of anarchists threaten to finish what the Joker started – but on a loftier scale, and with far greater resources, than the Joker could manage. Their leader is Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, physically deformed baddie. Along the way, Batman realizes that no man (or Catwoman) is an island, and every man (or Catwoman) must own up to a greater good (an impossible good, the cause greater than self), lest the world fall asunder.
Batman and Bane are prepared to sacrifice all for what they believe. Ideals are not strictly the domain of those with dark hearts; the will to impose one’s vision of a perfect society only ever comes down to a case of numbers: Who will stand with you? Are they willing to fight the fight? Answers come hard. There is no easy way out. There could not, for that matter, be an easy way in.
Much flows from the Batman: the outsized ego – the wish to cure Gotham of a cancerous criminality – will void itself. That, or someone else, someone with the right stuff, will step in to take his place. Heavy lies the cowl; too great is the burden of the Batman/Bruce Wayne split (the split persona). To wear the symbol is to earn it. And, failing that, the symbol remains a symbol – elusive but within the grasp of those who have the power and the imagination to call it into being.
And so, with The Dark Knight Rises, we have a director who has thought his story through. Nolan’s Batman trilogy was always Batman’s story. By putting it front and center, he has given Batman’s character back to Batman. The villains, of course, are colorful and memorable (none more so than the Joker).1 Batman, though, as rendered by Nolan and Bale, carries the most weight. He is the story. The Joker exists because of him. Bane blooms because of him. Sympathetically ugly, the bad guys are an outgrowth of Batman’s fated sense of self – that morbid self-attention, that hubris – that desire to reinvent himself and the world around him, so as to transcend human baseness.
Nolan sees Batman as a very peculiar set of circumstances, some traumatic, that result in a kind of howl against the world. In The Dark Knight, the Joker howled and the Joker “won”: Adamant and all-pervasive in his influence and purpose (the Joker was psychotic, not insane), averse to pain because he welcomed it, the Joker was pure. And since he was willing to be purer than Batman (in that he was demonstrably committed to subverting the conventional order), the Joker was a mirror and a warning of Batman’s own cri de coeur – the oath to the dark – the self-grappling Batman would have to face in order to do some good. The Joker’s Pyrrhic victory is Batman’s more lasting, substantive win: Rises does not mention him, but the Joker’s thumbprints cover the whole goddamned thing; destructive minds continue to pierce Batman’s inner sanctum. The movie, then, presents for him the final test. Does Batman have the strength to get back up, to endure his dark night of the soul? Well – maybe. But at what cost, and to what end? Nolan ups the stakes. He fills the circle. The arc is complete.
He ends the trilogy well.
Still, Nolan gets a tad sloppy. Two different Rachels star in two consecutive Batman films (Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight). Admittedly less concerning, two different Gothams provide the backdrop for three Batman films (Chicago then New York, each an apt stand-in for the metropolis of the mind’s eye). The batpod is superior to the batmobile, but the batmobile is a tank (and anyway, shouldn’t the Bruce Wayne/Lucius Fox arsenal be invulnerable to itself?). The comic relief as Batman loses a fortune on Wall Street is dumb (his electricity is cut off that same day, and the lights are on in the batcave? Does he have a backup generator down there?). And Bane’s casual death is much less grand than should befall a major villain. And again, Batman’s growl radios in from the grave of Jack Palance. What of these lapses, these tiny slips by a serious and series-minded filmmaker who is characteristically airtight? I’ll theorize.
Batman copyright is law. Without it, Warner Brothers/DC would not have backed Nolan, and Nolan couldn’t have realized his vision. Few directors aim as high as Nolan does here. (What can you say, but that the point at which commerce intersects with art is slippery.) In Rises, Nolan relaxes the transformative dread of The Dark Knight and creates something bigger but neat, and a bit less taut than the previous installment: franchise, finality, and the compromises inherent within that. Take, for example, the hassle-free kowtow to the MPAA. In each of these films, death dogs Gotham, but where are the squibs? Hand-to-hand combat is explicit. We see the detailed burns on half of Harvey Dent’s face. But injury by knife, pencil or gun? These are all bloodless blows. Nolan barely gets away with it. He has atmosphere to burn; he does leave some violence to the imagination. And playing to those in the audience who want combat, and those who came for art, Nolan seeks to trace an evolution in Batman’s character. As a result, Rises earns its ending. Only after we leave the theater, or during repeated viewings, do the false notes niggle.2 They are useful, perhaps, and fair, to the extent that Nolan permits an air of mystery – of not threading every last thread – to saturate the film. If Nolan hadn’t involved us, we wouldn’t look so hard at it.
The Dark Knight is a visceral experience, a nightmare. Rises rivets, but it doesn’t haunt you. The movie shows a gain in playfulness and sweep. Bald, brainy, brawny, and partially masked, Bane is an effective villain. His Vader-Lecter criss-cross, courtly but merciless, is hard to forget. (That I can only discern 75% of his speech adds to the mystique.) Chaos and despair are his endgame – plain, unequivocal, non-negotiable, organized chaos. As a kind of relief to this, Batman accrues two love interests, Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Both characters incite the plot, doing their part to bring Batman out of his shell, but refusing to be mere pawns. Selena, in particular, comes straight out of a Luc Besson film noir. Slinky, cheeky and dangerous, she’s a greedy honey – a bad cat. The repartee she has with Batman is movie-movie. Not only does it enliven an otherwise somber film, it shows Nolan easing his grip on the material. The control freaks on and off the screen have begun to move on.
So, on the evidence of Rises, Nolan has become both more and less painstaking. Not one to balk at the restrictions of a movie budget, or the setbacks endemic to any production, he embraces the high-wire totality of his trade. This is smart, and this smart passion extends to the coiled spring – the Rubik’s cube dilemma – that sits at the heart of his best work. Be it Batman tussling with Bane in a world where hope is a fig, or Dom Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio in Inception) dreaming in a vain effort to stop dreaming, or the amnesiac Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce in Memento) trying to remember what he can’t (or won’t), Nolan’s heroes are trapped in an endless riddle they (and we) can only hope to solve. Nolan presents these riddles cogently – coherently. We come away enormously satisfied; he holds our interest but remains a step or two (or three) ahead of us. It’s a true sleight of hand. And when you think about it, his heroes, not unaware of their absurd plight, go after the same thing he does – the suspension of disbelief. They know they have to earn it. Respecting the medium, the form, and (like Batman) refusing to take the easy way out, Nolan earns his effects the old-fashioned way, deploying stunts and special FX in-camera when and where he can. He crafts charismatic characters who do interesting things for a living; who, simply by co-existing, stir conflicts that compel. He lets some of his establishing shots glide. For action scenes, he doesn’t overdo the handheld camera. He wants to make immersive films; and, as steely as they are, they come off as alive, as important. Because of all he achieves in Rises (and in other films), we root for it to rise to our expectations. Fall short it does, but the movie prioritizes and preserves Batman’s character. That’s an achievement. Even more so than in The Dark Knight or Inception, Nolan dreams big and goes epic, refusing to cheapen the material. This is rare and unusual in modern cinema. Were he more precise – were he back to working on a smaller scale – he might take fewer risks. So, I’m glad his Batman movies reach for something. I’m glad they aren’t that dour. Unbridled realism for so fun an enterprise as this would throw us out of the story3. B films this big can be meaningful, but they shouldn’t want for humor or ballast or, God forbid, a sense of momentum. They’d feel dull. They’d feel false. The Dark Knight Rises dares to be different.
By striving to earn his effects – by refusing to go camp or clone The Dark Knight – Nolan proves he is good enough to have it both ways on several counts: He’s made three violent, near-bloodless Batman movies that run deep. He’s slaked every Batgeek’s thirst for a decisive end to the saga, leaving room for it to continue. And finally, he’s made Batman a flawed, charismatic superhero, one as arresting and three-dimensional as the villains he inspires.
1Consciously artificial and comic-book, Tim Burton’s Batman movies have their place. Burton sees Gotham as a noir city. He imbues it with personality and a degree of seriousness. However, his villains upstage the hero (Michael Keaton). Compared to Bale, Keaton broods less and has less of a character to play. Bale’s Batman sets everything in motion.
2Perhaps the inconsistency is a creative license to kill. If a comic-book illustrator or publisher can draw a key character differently, issue to issue (series to series), why can’t Nolan do the same with a character like Rachel, film to film? As long as the story works, I guess I shouldn’t whine.
3Realism butts heads with reality. We go to the movies to escape reality, and realism helps to pin us to our seats. It makes what we’re watching watchable. However, it should never act as an end unto itself. When it does, we cry bullshit.
We don’t like movies to tell us that something is real; drama is real (as are dreams themselves, a fractured play on reality). If a director is serious about his story and themes, working up to the audience’s intellect and therefore earning its respect, drama is the only realism we need. Evoking a shared, recognizable set of feelings, and being true to the overall tone of the piece — that’s all the realism we should need. Thankfully, Nolan gives Batman a realistic footing, but doesn’t let this get in the way of the story. Sure — people will say that Nolan plays politics. No matter. By situating Batman in a world that feels real, Nolan taps into a topical, political paranoia; he doesn’t dwell on it. His foremost concern is to tell a ripping good yarn. If we’re caught up in the story, we’ll measure the film on its aesthetics, not the way it scours (or plumbs) politics. If some folks find a political viewpoint that does not exist, well, they’re invested in seeing one. The film engaged them.