For most people, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is beyond criticism. It is such a successful interpretation of one of America’s most well known fictional heroes that viewers are so excited just to see it, with no eye for any potential flaws.
Luckily, I am not “most people.” Although I love The Dark Knight, I actually find Batman Begins to be rather turgid and poorly constructed. The exciting character dynamic between Batman and his rogues gallery that makes up the best stories was not in that first film. Batman only works, really, when he has a strong villain to contrast to his stoic, introverted nature. Knight had that with Joker, but Begins managed to take two great villains and turn them into boring figures, leaving the film to center on Wayne’s constant brooding. What’s worse is that Bale seemed to think his Bruce Wayne was all just an act, rather than another aspect of the Batman personality. Some would argue this is the correct approach, but I always feel that the strength of the character is in exploring the two sides of the same man. Wayne is not a silly masquerade, but Batman’s futile attempts to live a normal life while carrying his deep scars. At the risk of sounding controversial, Begins has not aged very well and is not as good as Tim Burton’s first two Batman films.
That is why, despite the excitement surrounding the film, I went in with an open mind. The Dark Knight Rises could be another masterpiece, like The Dark Knight. Or it could be a technically well made film that still manages to fall short of the source material’s potential and turn into a bore, like Begins.
Well, I immensely enjoyed watching The Dark Knight Rises. It is probably the best film playing in theaters right now, and is a satisfying conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But I cannot help feeling disappointed with Rises. The film tries to accomplish too much and, despite many moments that nearly achieve the greatness of its predecessor, lacks the simple core that made The Dark Knight great.
It’s been eight years since the conclusion of The Dark Knight. Batman has not been seen in that time, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse in his mansion. The events of The Dark Knight also lead to the passage of the “Dent Act,” which eliminated parole for convicts involved in organized crime. Gotham’s crime rate is at an all time low, making Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman seem like relics of another era. But an encounter with cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) leads to Wayne’s discovery of a vast conspiracy being orchestrated the remnants of Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Shadows to destroy Gotham City once and for all. Bruce Wayne must become Batman again to stop the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) the new ringleader of the group.
All of the strong elements that were present in the previous films are here. Bale gives his usual strong performance, and the script takes the material seriously. What is fascinating is how relevant the character is to the modern society, but how it can be interpreted in completely different ways.There are many people who will view Selina Kyle as a representative of the “Occupy” movement, and the kangaroo court scenes late in the film reminded me of Ayn Rand’s We the Living. I’ve often said that great art is universal, and The Dark Knight Rises manages to appeal to all sensibilities without compromising its intelligence.
That intelligence and desire to connect Batman to our modern world is the best aspect of Nolan’s trilogy. The Burton films existed in a own fantasy world, and it was difficult to see at times how we were supposed to relate to such alien characters. The Dark Knight Rises, although still undeniably a fantasy, reflects the problems that we are going through in today’s tumultuous times with characters who are not too far removed from people in our lives.
Even the villain is an effective one. I was worried that Bane would not give the film an effective antagonist the way The Joker did, but Bane is absolutely perfect in this film. Bane seems destined to become a cult figure in the same way the Joker has. In some ways, he is a lot worse than The Joker. Although Bane advocates horrifying things, it is easy to see how people can be enchanted into his way of thinking. The Joker was demonstrably insane and only attracted sociopaths. Bane is cold, calculating, highly intelligent, and rational. He also knows what people want to hear and how to motivate them to action. And, without getting into spoilers, there is an element of tragedy to the origin of the character given in the film. Nolan erased the biggest doubt I had about Rises and creates one of the most memorable villains of the Batman franchise.
But The Dark Knight Rises uses too many different Batman stories for the basis of its script. There are references in the film to Knightfall, No Man’s Land, and The Dark Knight Returns. Each of these stories presented different aspects of the characters involved. Rises tries to incorporate all of these elements, from redemption to hope to determination to the effects of the passage of time on a man’s psyche.
But these elements are relevant to people at very different ages. Trying to place all of these important, decades long developments into one film doesn’t work and most are so rushed that the film, ironically, ends up leaving ideas about Wayne and Batman unexplored.
Again, it is difficult to explain exactly what I mean without giving away important plot points. I will try to illustrate what I mean. Part of Bane’s master plan involves bankrupting Bruce Wayne by taking over the stock exchange and buying a bunch of put options in Wayne’s name. Thematically, this could work, especially as an important part of Wayne’s identity is his vast wealth. But Wayne is barely given time to react and his bankruptcy doesn’t seem to affect his life at all (he is still shown living in his mansion). This potentially important moment in Wayne’s character arc is wasted. And how Rises deals with the most famous element of the Knightfall saga is laughable. Also, an element from No Man’s Land introduced late in the film involves the army trying to prevent citizens from escaping an isolated Gotham, lest a doomsday weapon is triggered. This should have created some tense standoffs, but by the time that element is utilized, it feels more like an example of too little, too late.
Mentioning these arcs are not to criticize the filmmakers for not getting every element about the original stories correct. Rather, it is to demonstrate the approach Rises uses is wrong. The Dark Knight was equally epic in scale, but it grew out of a single idea about The Joker’s desire to corrupt all that was decent about society, and Batman demonstrated that this corruption was impossible. Everything that happened related back to that idea. Rises is not that organic. I am not sure why, but Christopher Nolan as well writers Johnathon Nolan and David S. Goyer worked backwards this time, piling on ideas and story elements and hoping to figure out the central theme later. As a result, Rises does not that ideological and emotional core that made The Dark Knight a classic of modern Hollywood.
The Dark Knight Rises is undeniably a great film. All of the actors give memorable performances, my concern about the villain was addressed, and the film is an exciting action piece that introduces many memorable moments. But is it as good as The Dark Knight? Not by a long shot, and for that reason, I cannot but help feel disappointed by the end result.
Oh, and I know this may be considered “nitpicking,” but can someone PLEASE show this to Nolan?