Notes on The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan) by Will Noah

When Batman Begins, the first entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, was released in 2005, it seemed a minor miracle in the Hollywood landscape.  Here was a piece of blockbuster entertainment by a fiercely intelligent director, one who had directed one of the best American films of recent years (Memento) and seemed capable of bringing serious heft to a comic book franchise.  That film’s Gotham, a nightmare landscape reminiscent of Taxi Driver’s New York or Se7en’s unnamed metropolis, felt more tactile than most cinematic depictions of real urban locations.  Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight, expanded this setting to a dizzying scale, often resembling an epic crime saga more than a superhero thriller.  What this entry lacked in coherence it made up for in full with the presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker, a villain whose crazed nihilism transcended its genre surroundings.  The critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, along with that of Nolan’s follow-up Inception, have positioned him in some moviegoers’ eyes as a minor deity, shooting anticipation for The Dark Knight rises through the roof.  Unfortunately, Nolan’s conclusion to the trilogy is the worst film he has made, an empty, tone-deaf, overstuffed spectacle that fails to build upon the strengths of the first two entries.

The film finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lurking around his manor eight years after the events of the last film.  He has retired the Batsuit, but is spurred into re-donning it about an hour into the film (it’s a long one, folks) thanks to convoluted series of events involving the following characters:

  • Bane (Tom Hardy), a sewer-dwelling baddie who may be connected to The League of Shadows (they want to destroy Gotham for reasons that people who re-watched Batman Begins again recently probably remember better than I).  At the beginning of the film, he is seen dispatching a plane of CIA agents lead by “The Wire”’s Tommy Carcetti in order to kidnap a Russian scientist whose role was surely meant for Stellan Skarsgard.
  • Miranda Tate (Marillon Cotillard), a philanthropic love interest with a mysterious past.
  • Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar with ambiguous allegiances and skin-tight body suits looking for a computer program called Clean Slate (the movie’s got a thing for literalized clichés).
  • Alfred (Michael Kane), Wayne/Batman’s loyal butler, who apparently at some point in the past eight years developed a mental condition that forces him to speak exclusively in parables.
  • Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) Gotham’s incorruptible police commissioner, and one of Batman’s few allies.
  • John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young cop who conveniently ties together dangling plot strands.

I haven’t even mentioned Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, or Ben Mendelsohn’s corporate sleazebag who plays some inscrutable role in Bane’s nefarious scheme.  Nolan spends the film’s first hour juggling these plot strands with no discernible result other than the balls mostly staying in the air; only Hathaway brings the films to life, and she has to fight through some pretty horrendous dialogue.  Things appear to heat up once Bane and his cronies take over the city via an explosion that traps most of the police force underground and hollows out a football stadium.  Though Nolan cripples this scene with a comically on-the-nose music choice, it serves as a reminder that the series has a real flair for staging theatrical acts of terrorism, an uneasy blessing if there ever was one.

Thereafter, the film’s ideological incoherence manages to one-up its narrative confusion by revealing Bane’s revolutionary rhetoric as a front for terrorism.  Part Occupy Wall Street, part French Revolution, the chaos that ensues in the wake of Bane’s upheaval resembles a conservative’s nightmare vision of the popular spirit.  Though many of the film’s early scenes invite us to vent some contempt for the rich, the second half finds us cowering behind a millionaire, cursing ourselves for daring to challenge the status quo.  Nolan’s dark vision of the modern American city felt dangerous and vital in the first two Batman films; here his fatalism comes across as irresponsible and out of touch.  In the midst of this conceptual clusterfuck, the character of Batman/Wayne is lost almost completely.  Nolan’s heroes have always specialized in a weirdly bloodless form of obsession without passion (the most important women in his films tend to be dead ones), but TDKR finds Batman so deeply submerged in the narrative—he literally spends a portion of the film trapped in a hole—that his arc seems perfunctory.  Wayne’s got his own deceased love to mourn, but the obsession that drives his narrative for most of the film is his zeal for the defense of a city.  At this point, it’s difficult to say what Gotham means for Wayne.  Some might say that this motivation was established in earlier films, but even Bale’s trademark intensity seems to scramble for an object throughout the lengthy running time.  One could easily extend the metaphor to Nolan: his franchise has grown to a civic size so overwhelming that he’s lost sight of what drew him to it in the first place.

It’s awfully tempting to ask what went wrong in the interim between films two and three, but perhaps the question one should ask is how such a tricky proposition could actually go right.  The ending of The Dark Knight clearly positioned Ledger’s Joker for a return in the next entry; Ledger’s death surely forced Nolan to reshape his plans.  Additionally, the political climate the first two films, especially the second, eagerly took advantage of has changed.  TDK served as a pop culture mirror to the Bush administration, casting Batman in the role of national defense and the Joker as the face of terrorism: absurdity and violence incarnate.  This mythic shadow play was simplistically and troublingly conservative, but Nolan’s gift for bombast rendered the material fissile enough to ignite a moral urgency rare in blockbuster cinema.  Faced with a new administration a decade after 9/11—an eternity in Hollywood terms—Nolan seems to have scrambled wildly to find some sort of cultural relevance for his spectacle.  The funny thing is, he actually stumbled onto a key social dynamic of 2012 in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which coalesced after he had presumably finished the screenplay.  Unfortunately, Nolan has no real perspective on the phenomenon, and the political angle just becomes one more piece of scrap on the pile of desperately half-finished ideas he’s cobbled together.  The Dark Knight Rises attempts to overcome its shortcomings by making itself Too Big to Fail, yet the assembly of political imagery and empty bombast that ensues proves the inadvisability of this strategy in every sense but the economic.  I’m sure moviegoers around the globe will bail out this epic folly: I did, to the tune of $13.50.  It was the first time I had felt guilty about paying taxes to support Nolan’s benevolent dictatorship.