Review: Visceral 'The Dark Knight Rises' Is A Cinematic, Cultural & Personal Triumph
In a season filled with big movies that somehow ask even bigger questions, “The Dark Knight Rises” feels like the superego to its competition’s id. An action opus that manages to be both viscerally and intellectually engaging, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated third Batman film comes full circle, examining both the Dark Knight and the society that produced him without sacrificing any of the sweeping thrills for which the series is known. A literate, thoughtful and invigorating finale, “The Dark Knight Rises” delivers everything audiences could ask for and then some, albeit in fewer of the ways than they might expect.
Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, limping around his estate because of injuries sustained as Batman, while the public speculates about his sanity. Although Bruce is happy to let the rumor mill keep turning, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) informs him that Wayne Enterprises is in major financial trouble, thanks in no small part to a clean-energy research project which Bruce spearheaded and then mothballed. But when a masked, monolithic terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) empties the Wayne coffers and launches a populist uprising using an underworld of thieves and criminals, Bruce is forced to don the cape and cowl again to try and restore order, even as Gotham remains convinced that Batman was responsible for the death of late district attorney-turned-psychopath Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Looking piecemeal at “The Dark Knight Rises,” it feels like a movie of profound disillusionment about America that could only be objectively told by someone who’s not a native: Nolan dissects our current financial woes, our clash of cultures, even one-percent-versus-99-percent-style class warfare with a scalpel, assigning culpability to all involved and condemning the whole system as a sort of demagogue-exchange program. From the corporate fat cats to the mouth breathers scraping by on pennies, everyone aspires to change their situation, to triumph over the forces of (sometimes rightful) opposition, or to wipe the slate clean and start again, and their motives are almost unilaterally unclean – either in origin or execution. The film should have its own Faustian bargain counter in the corner of the screen, ticking off bad decisions and foolhardy expectations.
Moreover, Bane more or less distills the status quo of America into a few depressingly succinct ideas, which form the basis of his plans: fuel his followers with a sense of fear, incite them to anger by suggesting betrayal, allow them the pretense of hope, and they will become believers. He leads with a combination of ruthless control and facetious empowerment, keeping his minions under his thumb and turning Gotham into a battleground for revolution – but only for his nefarious purposes. The concept of turning the citizenship against its own interests is nothing new, but Nolan makes it frighteningly palpable in this fictional setting without undermining the real-world implications of this sort of manipulation.
But oddly, the film ultimately proves to be not just a redemption tale for virtually all of these characters, but an embodiment of the fundamental American belief in the individual. Although its deep bench of recognizable talent and a story with an incredible variety of moving parts suggest the necessity of cooperation – a well-oiled machine whose parts all work together towards a common goal – Nolan allows almost every “important” character an opportunity to shine, to distinguish him or herself. As the hero himself has said numerous times in all of the films, “Batman could be anyone,” but the point Nolan seems to be making is that he can be any one – even working within a system that requires the cooperation and coordination of others, a person can still distinguish himself with an act of intelligence, sensitivity, leadership, or yes, heroism.
In terms of the film’s devotion to canon, meanwhile, fans should be more than satisfied by Nolan’s treatment of familiar storylines – especially those whose conclusions probably come as little surprise (although they won’t be spoiled here). Perhaps most importantly, the caped crusader remains the root of the entire ensemble, and unlike in past films – okay, the previous “Batman” series – he never takes a back seat to his adversaries. And it’s his troubles that provide the foundational themes for the rest of the characters, and the story as a whole: after eight years of inactivity, Bruce is convinced that he’s neither able to save Gotham nor redeem himself, no matter how desperately he wants to. Bane wants to fulfill the destiny of Ra’s Al Ghul – which was thoroughly detailed in “Batman Begins” — which means enabling Gotham to destroy itself and rebuild atop the rubble. And Selina Kyle is a criminal desperate for a fresh start, but unable to find a legitimate way to seek redemption.
As both Batman and Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale’s work here is master-class, and he gives the character such an inescapable melancholy – a certain perseverance in the face of absolute resignation to his fate – that he becomes a more tragic figure than ever. That said, he’s aided enormously by a never-better Michael Caine, who turns with hope and palpable love what might otherwise be expository dialogue into searing, supportive criticisms of Wayne’s self-destruction. And as sexed-up and skintight as Michelle Pfeiffer’s charms were in “Batman Returns,” Nolan’s Catwoman is the best cinematic rendering of the character to date, allowing Anne Hathaway sex appeal, humor and real humanity in equal measures, not to mention motivation that places her on equal footing with her male counterparts without making her a fetish object who’s ultimately subject to them.
On the other hand, after being marketed as heir to the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Tom Hardy’s Bane is a different sort of villain – a focused and more ideologically-developed version of Heath Ledger’s anarchist – but one with equally ruthless charm. After brutally taking control of a building, he surveys his hostages, and offers one of them an almost-friendly “what’s up” nod. As many obstacles as Bane faces as a compelling character – chief of them being having his face covered almost entirely, and constantly, by a mask which also obscures much of his dialogue – Hardy juxtaposes an almost jaunty vocal intonation with a sort of monolithic, chilling stillness, creating a villain worthy of the series’ rogue’s gallery.
It should be interesting to see precisely how the film translates to home video given the number of times within a scene the frame switches from IMAX to a traditional film format, but cinematically the film is gorgeous, meticulously constructed and seemingly effortless in execution, even with so many moving parts racing towards what is ultimately a narratively and thematically cohesive finale. More importantly, however, is how it fits into the summer’s conversation about the Big Important Issues that are preoccupying us, even when we’re walking into darkened theaters and asking only to be entertained.
If, as Badass Digest argues, “The Avengers” “defeated irony and cynicism,” then “The Dark Knight Rises” feels like the rock-bottom, lowest-point examination of ourselves which provides the substance to make Joss Whedon’s optimistic vision endure. Because Nolan’s film is a reminder that superheroes aren’t merely a frivolous distraction, or even a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but an embodiment of our best selves – or at least what we want our best selves to be. A cinematic, cultural and personal triumph, “The Dark Knight Rises” is emotionally inspiring, aesthetically significant and critically important for America itself – as a mirror of both sober reflection and resilient hope. [A]
With his new film, “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan completes the triptych that he started with “Batman Begins” (2005) and continued with “The Dark Knight” (2008). So now we have the full saga of our hero, from childhood trauma to grand apotheosis. We see how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the compulsive loner and eccentric billionaire, has transformed himself into Batman, the scourge of evil and savior of Gotham City. At last, we are able to grasp what links these two incarnations: each, it turns out, is a pain in the neck.
Be honest. How badly would you not want Bruce—or Batman—to show up at one of your parties? He has no small talk (and Bale, as an actor, has charisma but no charm), although ask him about fear, anger, and other large abstract nouns, especially as they relate to him, and he’ll keep you in the corner all night. He doesn’t eat or drink, besides toying with a flute of champagne. Basic human tasks are beyond his reach; direct Batman to the bathroom, and it would take him twenty minutes of hydraulic shunting simply to unzip. On the rare occasions when Bruce, fresh from his helicopter or his Lamborghini, enters a reception with a girl or two on his arm, he looks deeply uncomfortable, and Nolan, as if sharing that unease, tends to hurry him through the moment. The point—and, after three installments, it seems a fatal one—is that the two halves of our hero form not a beguiling contrast but a dreary, perfect match. Both as Wayne and as super-Wayne he seems indifferent, as the films themselves are, to the activities of little people, and to the claims of the everyday, preferring to semi-purse his lips, as if preparing to whistle for an errant dog, and stare pensively into the distance. Caped or uncaped, the guy is a bore. He should have kids; that would pull him out of himself. Or else he should hang out with Iron Man and get wasted. He should have fun.
The third film picks up where its predecessors left off, the implication being that anyone unschooled in those two works is not worthy, and not welcome. “I knew Harvey Dent,” Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) says, in the opening scene, and if you murmur, “Harvey who?,” it’s time to bail. Harvey Dent, in “The Dark Knight,” was a good man turned bad, the district attorney who cleaned up Gotham City but sullied his soul; Gordon is the good cop who stayed good, his mustache and glasses, like Groucho’s, unchanged with the passing years. Newcomers include Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), another pure policeman, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a businesswoman with a past even more loaded than her wallet; regulars include Alfred (Michael Caine), the butler-cum-pedagogue who has always dwelt by Bruce’s side, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who does pretty much what Q does in the Bond movies, except that he does it with the air of someone offering up pieces of the True Cross.
To give credit where it’s due, the spiffiness of the gadgets remains intact. We still have the Bat-Pod, which looks like a motorbike crossed with a very angry praying mantis. Its near-spherical wheels spin on some complicated gimbal system, allowing it to hang a sharp left without describing anything as tedious as a curve. Nothing was finer than its begetting, in “The Dark Knight,” when it burst forth from the body of the Tumbler, Batman’s four-wheeled vehicle of choice; the signature image of the trilogy, best viewed from a low angle, is of our guy crouched over his long machine, his cloak streaming behind him, as he powers through the night. This time, he has an addition to his stable: a flying craft, with two enclosed rotors underneath, which allow it to dink around tall buildings and, presumably, to chop vegetables in the event that Alfred wants to make a pot-au-feu. Visually, the new toy is less striking than the Pod, as you can tell from its unambitious name. “I just took to calling it the Bat,” Lucius says. Not so fantastic, Mr. Fox.
Batman needs all the gizmos he can muster, if he is to defeat his latest and most potent foe. Bane (Tom Hardy) is a muscleman, who was, we are told, “born and raised in Hell on earth,” which sounds like an unused lyric by Spinal Tap. Near the start, he is sprung from an airplane, in flight; later, with the push of a button, he sets off a train of explosions in the Gotham sewers, leading to extravagant results on a football field. Both scenes have appeared in trailers, which is a shame, because a Nolan spectacle is nothing without its detonation of surprise; he is an instinctive showman, who may be Kubrick-careful in his compositions but who harks back to De Mille in his unabashed devotion to the big event. When the edge of a city, in “Inception” (2010), curled up and ascended to the vertical, we goggled with joyous amazement, like infants turning the page of a pop-up book. Conversely, the earnest revelations allotted to Marion Cotillard, in that movie, seemed out of place, undone by the curious rule that governs Nolan’s oeuvre: the heavier the emotion, the less it means to us. We go to his films to gasp, not to yearn or pity or weep, except over the paucity of our own automobiles.
Who, then, in “The Dark Knight Rises” does the rising? Not Bruce; the slacker we see wandering through the Wayne mansion at the beginning can hardly get out of his pajamas. Carnally, too, he seems about as risen as flatbread; over three films, we have waited for him to have Bat-core sex, hanging upside down from a rafter and emitting cries of sonar, and what has he given us? Not a squeak. There is one canoodle here, in front of a homely hearth, but it’s laughably chaste, and our masochistic lover boy seems far more aroused by trading punches with Bane. We are left, then, with yeasty political risings: a resentful mob, summoned by Bane, who instructs the downtrodden of Gotham to surge up against their overlords.
Ahead of the movie, the Web was alive with hints of topicality; nothing boosts a fan base like the possibility that its crazes and crushes might resound in the real world, and Batman devotees were pre-congratulating Nolan for tapping into the spirit of Occupy. Sorry, guys. It didn’t work out. True, we see a handful of rich white men being ejected from fancy apartments, but then the film coughs politely and moves on, as if recalling that nobody is richer or whiter than Bruce Wayne, and that his apartment is, in fact, a castle. Also, the outcome is positively Victorian, in that its dread of disorder far outweighs its relish of liberty uncaged; the throng is faced down and tamed by ranks of growling police officers. Having just spent half the movie trapped underground, between mounds of rubble, they are in no mood to be messed with. I know how they feel.
Something has happened here. “The Dark Knight” was pantherish and sleek. “Inception” had its faults, but the frictionless ease with which it slipped from one reverie to the next kept it buoyant and alert; Nolan knew, as Buster Keaton knew, that moviegoers are paying dreamers, even if Keaton also knew, and proved in “Sherlock Jr.,” that dreams are more fragmentary than Nolan would admit. “The Dark Knight Rises,” however, is murky, interminable, confused, and dropsical with self-importance. It is also inaudible. Batman speaks in his usual bronchial whisper, and Bane wears a crablike mask over the lower part of his face—a disastrous burden for Tom Hardy, whose mouth, sensual and amused for such a tough customer, is his defining feature. Via this device, Bane declaims his bold, anarchic sentiments; at least, I think they were anarchic. Given that I could make out barely a third of them, he may well have been reciting from “Clifford the Small Red Puppy.” But the over-all sound balance in “The Dark Knight Rises” is so screwy that everyone’s dialogue, not just Bane’s, is forever being swallowed by ambient noise, and I began to wonder if we were even meant to follow the labyrinth of the plot.
And yet, for all that, the film is redeemed—rescued from itself, ironically, by another mouth. Rimmed in scarlet, it belongs to Anne Hathaway. She plays Selina Kyle, a Catwoman in the making, though really just a jewel thief. Deft and purring, she seems to pounce in from another land entirely, a Hitchcockian pleasure ground of light fingers and matching repartee, and her expression is that of a grown woman who surveys all these sombre boys, plus their whizzing toys, and sees only Bat-crap. When Bruce dances with her at a costume party, the music behind them is Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” which must be Nolan’s idea of a waltz; yet still she smiles. Her silver heels are like knives, her working costume is tauter than a second skin, and, when she straddles the Pod, as if planning to have kittens with it, the only one not to notice is poor old Batman. What can you expect? This is a fellow whose permanent frown is ready-carved between the brows of his black rubber mask, and who was warned by Alfred not to take up Gotham’s cause, because “there is nothing here for you but pain and tragedy.” Christopher Nolan, for all his visionary flair, wants to suck the comic out of comic books; Anne Hathaway wants to put it back in. Take your pick. ♦