Whatever Floats Your Bloat
Do I really look like a guy with a plan?
--Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
According to The Dark Knight Rises, there is a deep, dark pit located in the most desolate place on Earth. At the bottom of this pit is an equally desolate prison full of nasty, ruthless criminals. Their only hope of escape is a stone well that leads to the outside world--a well so steep and with such unsure footing that each climber brings a rope. In the pit's centuries-long history, we're told, only one person has survived the climb; everyone else either died or resigned themselves to a life of miserable toil.
For me, watching The Dark Knight Rises was like being trapped in that pit, and writing this review is like making that perilous trek upwards: if I don't fight through my apathy toward Christopher Nolan's astoundingly mediocre swan song, I'll never forgive myself. I don't want to think about this movie. I don't want to talk about this movie. And the only reason I've begun this climb is to earn the right to do both those things.
I spent much of last week reviewing Nolan's previous Batman films. Unlike most moviegoers, I didn't see this as a great way to spend five hours. The director/co-writer is a master stylist. His smaller films have distinct voices, big ideas, and are clearly made for discerning adult audiences. That he can inject his twisty narratives with visual spectacle is a bonus.
But his time in Warner Brothers' Batman sandbox has proven to be a frustrating and uninspired waste of time. After sitting through this third and final chapter, it's clear to me that Nolan either doesn't understand the characters he's working with or has been so focused on shoehorning their mythos into his grand social commentary that the resulting films are profoundly confused.
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the death of hero-District-Attorney-turned-psychopath Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). In that time, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) gave up being the vigilante crimefighter, Batman, and Gotham City saw a drastic reduction in crime and an increase in prosperity. From the get-go, the story has problems.
Though I had a real issue with Batman's taking the fall for Dent and agreeing to be hunted by the cops, I assumed he would simply continue nabbing bad guys. But, no, Batman became really depressed, apparently, and decided to let the cops handle things. The idea that the Gotham City Police Department--a force whose inherent corruptness was explicitly detailed over the course of two films--would suddenly crack down on criminals after the DA was allegedly murdered is ridiculous on its face. Also, even if the heads of the major crime families were locked up towards the end of The Dark Knight, an underworld vacuum that big would have surely been filled by other interests--either from within or from outside Gotham.
Trying to describe the plot is pointless. History will likely remember The Dark Knight Rises for two reasons: first, the Colorado tragedy that marred its release; second, the fact that it may be the only film whose story is comprised exclusively of red herrings. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I suggest you turn away. I'm going to spoil the hell out of it, and don't want to ruin anyone's party.
At its core, I guess, the film is about a 'roided-up mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy), who we're told is the only person to ever escape the notorious pit I mentioned earlier. He's driven to bring Gotham to its knees, and to make sure Bruce Wayne watches it crumble. He knows Wayne's secret identity, after all, and even sends him to the pit after breaking his back in a scuffle. Eventually, Wayne recovers, Batman returns (or rises, or is forever, or something), and punishes evil.
How I wish things were as straightforward as that! But, no. Perhaps because Nolan feels he needs to stretch these movies to Oscar-length in order to legitimize his "comic-book" ventures, we get plots, sub-plots, side-plots, Z-stories, and so many characters coming out of the walls that I had flashbacks to the nest scene in Aliens.
From the device that will give the pseudo-villainous Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) a new identity; to the shady motives of Bruce Wayne's new love interest, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard); to Alfred (Michael Caine) leaving; to the other device that doubles as a nuclear energy source and a bomb; to Bane's taking over Gotham by trapping thousands of cops under the city for five months; to the origin of Bane, which turns out to not be the origin of Bane, because it's really Miranda's origin (she turns out to be Bane's boss--which means Bane never escaped the pit, even though our entire understanding of his character hinges on his having done so); to Ra's Al Ghul's (Liam Neeson) appearance in Bruce Wayne's fever dream, where he shares one of Bane's twelve back-stories; to Bruce taking this information as gospel, even though he has zero reason to trust it; to the stock market takeover that turns out to be a ruse; to Bane's broadcasting secrets to the world and leaving out the minor detail that Bruce Wayne is Batman--which would be a tidy insurance policy in destroying his enemy's reputation if Plan A were to fail; to the federal government's practical non-response to a major city being taken over by terrorists; to the rookie cop who becomes the new Batman after Batman dies--even though he doesn't die, he just gives up fighting crime (again)--all of these things nudge each other in and out of the spotlight for nearly three hours. Not only is this a partial list of the things that happen in this movie, I can't tell you what any of them have to do with Nolan's previous Batman films.
Much of this, I think, has to do with Nolan backing himself into a narrative corner by A) shoehorning the Harvey Dent story into the end of the second film, rather than allowing it to breathe, and B) refusing to acknowledge the Joker character at all, following the untimely death of actor Heath Ledger. This business about resurrecting the League of Shadows from the first film, as well as their deceased leader, Ra's Al Ghul stinks of desperation. I'm sure he'd planned for these boring villains to round out his trilogy--just as I'm sure George Lucas created Jar Jar Binks in the late 1970s.
If anything, the flood of narrative busy-work feels more like a video game than a movie. I don't mean this in the clichéd "ADD" sense. Rather, The Dark Knight Rises plays as a series of mini-missions that one would conquer over the course of a week before getting to the finale. Really, it plays like four people playing the same game simultaneously, without the benefit of a split screen for the audience.
I suspect that all the chases, explosions, speeches, and dead-end subplots are simply cover for a filmmaker who's run out of steam. Take Talia Al Ghul out of the movie, and you're left with a decent, menacing villain in Bane. Take the nuclear-bomb-thingy out of the movie, and you're left with a decent, menacing villain with, I'm sure, other ways of gripping a city in fear--rather than a hokey "One-of-you-has-a-bomb-trigger-on-your-person-(or-something)" line. Take the idealistic cop out of the movie, and, frankly, you save a lot of superfluous gunk and an insulting closing scene in which he sort of becomes Robin.
Can we pull over for a second? What kind of bullshit is this Robin business? It's implied that the cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will take up the Batman mantle after the Dark Knight flies the bomb out over the ocean and "dies" saving the city (gee, where have I seen that before?). In a recent interview, Christian Bale announced that Warner Brothers was already planning to reboot the Batman franchise--likely to set up a Justice League movie to compete with Marvel's burgeoning Avengers series. So, what's the point of dropping Robin into this story? It's essentially a tease for a fourth movie that we'll never see, as well as nerd candy for fanboys with no self esteem.**
I could go on for another fifteen-hundred words about my problems with this movie (starting with Bane's voice, which sounds like Cap'n Crunch doing Goldfinger impressions through a gas mask), but I won't. I have the sneaking feeling that my disdain for this whole franchise has bled into my writings on it. Sorry about that.
If you're a fan of what Christopher Nolan has done here, and are satisfied that he's delivered the best possible Batman trilogy--good for you. If you're not a fan, and feel cheated out of the eight hours it took to tell this insubstantial, flashing-lights-and-parlor-tricks story, I can only offer my condolences and understanding. There are fantastic moments and ideas buried in each of these films, but they drown in convoluted elements disguised as complex ones. My hopes for a truly great Batman movie aren't dead, they're just really hard to see from way down here in the pit.
*I don't know how bad her rap sheet is, but Selina Kyle is only twenty-two years old, fer Chrissakes. If she wants a clean slate so desperately, she should A) pay a crooked government official or two to change her identity, B) stop robbing people, and C) get a job, go to school, or retire. Then again, if she's dumb enough to think that the only way out of her life of crime is a magic identity machine, maybe higher learning isn't for her.
**It's unfair to hold a press interview against the movie it's promoting. So let's assume we know nothing of Warner Brothers' future plans for the franchise. Are we really going to watch Joseph Gordon-Freakin'-Levitt take on Batman's rogues gallery now? This feels like a back-door version of the cheap, demographic-chasing reboot shenanigans that Marvel pulled with The Amazing Spider-Man.