The Dark Knight Rises: Review


One thing I have to say about Christopher Nolan: he always tries. Not that anybody is contesting that point. As of last night he’s had eight films released in theaters, and every one of them — Following to Inception to last night’s big premiere — attempted something unique and conceptually difficult. Before Nolan nobody would have believed that three movies about Batman could be considered a magnum opus of cinematic complexity. Before Nolan the high schoolers in my theater wouldn’t have set foot in a film as heady as The Dark Knight Rises, much less packed it and walked out with loud declarations of, “That was awesome!” Sure! Awesome! Three hour-long brooding, socially conscious reflections on economics and social equality and ethics and depression are apparently awesome now. I can get behind that.

But I’m not so sure I can get behind everything else that happens in The Dark Knight Rises. It has it’s moments, definitely, and like every Nolan film it demands a response — no resting on a predictable hero’s journey or tried and true cathartic filler. But while I want to say I always respect that kind of effort, part of me knows, deep down, that such ambition can be carried too far. One can be too serious about Batman.

I sincerely didn’t believe that was the case four years ago. With The Dark Knight I had no qualms about Nolan using the caped crusader to explore terrorism and the patriot act and an era where world justice dominated the headlines. Other movies like Iron Man tried the same thing. Nolan eclipsed them precisely because he was willing to take the discussion that much further; treat it that much more seriously despite his hero wearing a bat costume costume (but not hockey pads) and his villain sporting clown makeup. But even then, if you’d told me that the sequel to The Dark Knight would be so obtusely literate and intellectual and rooted in psychological realism it would make its predecessor seem like The Fantastic 4 by comparison… I’ll admit, I’d have had my doubts. I mean, even the last one had intelligent people counting on their fingers and toes in the theater, (“So if he’s the hero they need but not the hero they deserve, and if you die the hero but live long enough to become the villain, then wouldn’t you cross multiply and divide by two to find X?”)

I know Nolan would refer to this as removing the safety net (a metaphor he plays with extensively). Admittedly this Batman isn’t a safe, reliable symbol like Mickey Mouse anymore, and that’s a huge part of the point and the appeal of this incarnation. Bruce Wayne is a wounded person, not a symbol, and he can be defeated and destroyed. But let’s say that’s true and we’ve ventured into new territory; there still has to be some way to judge what’s going on. All of a sudden the superhero elements — like a couple very pulpy twists at the film’s end — stick out like a sore thumb. Catwoman’s story would be believable in any other superhero epic (it’s one of my favorite Ann Hathaway performances) but here it comes off as pretty ridiculous. And then there’s a trial scene, where Scarecrow (yes, Cillian Murphy’s scarecrow) oversees a makeshift, Robespierean high court and announces the doom of citizens who don’t adhere to Bane’s new anarchist regulations. It’s supposed to be funny and it is funny, but why is it funny? It’s funny because Scarecrow is kind of ridiculous, and it’s enjoyable to see a ridiculous character acting ridiculously when there’s a precedent for it. There doesn’t seem to be enough of a precedent for it when the rest of the story is dominated by cops and hospital patients and suicidally depressed philanthropists talking to about death and terrorism and politics and orphans and despair. And that funny court room scene ends with a sequence that seems to draw on holocaust imagery, as the prisoners are forced to walk onto an icy minefield in front of their captors. Where are the fun explosions? I want to see a magic trick!

And yes, there are some incredible moments in the film. Bruce’s stint in “the pit” is a triumph of mythical storytelling, and its conclusion produces the kind of chills I’ve come to expect from Nolan films. Other chill moments include a final discussion between Batman and Gordon (which actually got me to tear up), Batman’s first tragic battle with Bane, and a wonderful conclusion to the Alfred story. And Commissioner Gordon has a pained discussion with Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Detective Blake about the fallout of the Harvey Dent incident and his reasons for lying to the people of Gotham. I love that these movies work on a such a nuanced level that the dramatic conclusion of one film can be essentially contradicted in the next one.

But what’s the cost of such discussions? Maybe it’s a tough thing to admit, but part of Batman’s appeal is categorical: he’s Batman and Batman is cool for Batman sake. When he ceases to be Batman; when he’s just an eccentric, crippled billionaire vigilante; when commissioner Gordon is just a depressed cop in a hospital bed; when Catwoman is just an exceptional cat burglar: well, at the very least we have to start judging the movie by a different standard. The Dark Knight rose the bar for superhero films because it was a superhero film. It explored complex themes and had a whole epic crime movie element, but it still adhered to most of the superhero staples. The Dark Knight Rises is a lot more comparable to Heat or The Godfather, and that’s when a few things stop adding up.

Consider the other big super film this summer, The Avengers. It’s almost eerie how comparable their subject matter is — a billionaire vigilante is attacked by villains who lead an army to a veritable New York City to hijack his one-of-a-kind generator of renewable, clean energy — but Whedon seems to be able to do what Nolan can’t bring himself to. Whedon can make Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and The Hulk real people while still understanding they’re also pop symbols. There’s something joyously ridiculous to their existence. That’s why Whedon can say almost exactly the same thing as Nolan and still provide the requisite thrills and chills and cathartic derring do without it all seeming to fragment the tone of the film (also, people who’ve been reading my blog know I’ve been heavily into Buffy recently, and Whedon said all this best back in Buffy seasons 3 and 5). Some people will say I have no right comparing Avengers to The Dark Knight Rises. They’re completely different films. Well, maybe it wouldn’t have hurt Nolan to make them a bit more similar.


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