- Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
- Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on characters created by Bob Kane.
- Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ben Mendelsohn, Tom Conti, Matthew Modine, Nestor Carbonell, Aiden Gillen, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Joey King.
- Rated: PG-13.
Batman Begins was only half of a superhero movie. It featured a mob boss played by Tom Wilkinson and a machine meant to destroy the city in the climax, but my, at the time it was unequaled in depth and darkness. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was - and is - the most complex of comic book heroes.The film took time to examine him, justify him, and condemn him with visual flair and storytelling bravado. The Dark Knight upped the ante: it was bleak, thrilling, and chaotic. The film transcended its loose categorization as a “superhero film”. It was about two monsters locked in a deadly duel, a world in which everyone is a piece on an upside down chess board.
The third film in Christopher Nolan’s exalted Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, exchanges frenzied chess for all-out war. This is fundamentally wrong. Whereas the first two films were marked by a twisted realism, or at least represented an interpretation of Gotham meant to mirror our own world, the images hurled across the screen are ridiculous. Nolan’s answer to the Batwing is a flying tank straight out of Blade Runner, or perhaps Avatar. The film’s MacGuffin is nothing short of a nuclear bomb. I saw a crack that the film should be entitled James Bond Rises. I laughed, but I found a great many more parallels between a stereotypical 007 film and The Dark Knight Rises - notably one of Batman’s love interests who, you guessed it, turns out to be a villain (gasp!)
The threequel begins eight years after The Dark Knight left off. This proves to be an unwise move, as Batman Begins flowed almost directly into The Dark Knight. This gave them a sense of continuity and made them feel like two parts of one whole, similar to The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. It’s ironic, then, that the reviled The Godfather: Part III bears many similarities to The Dark Knight Rises. A jump in time, a protagonist past his prime sinking into his own despair, and a glut of less interesting new characters.
Following The Dark Knight’s formula, there is a prologue setting up the villain’s escapades. The action and special effects are audacious as usual. Close attention has been paid to making as many of the effects as possible grounded in realism. Sadly, Nolan seems to be trying to do outdo himself in every way, losing this gritty verisimilitude in his storytelling. You’ll remember that the previous film opened with the Joker’s terrifying bank heist, featuring a memorable cameo by William Fichtner. It’s noteworthy, then, that this film opens with a rescue operation aboard a CIA plane featuring a cheesy cameo by Aiden Gillen. Regardless, my jaw was dropped.
The film finds Bruce Wayne a (supposedly cuckoo) reclusive billionaire à la Howard Hughes. His business has been decimated by an unwise investment in a project meant to provide clean energy to the entire city. Unfortunately, if it falls into the wrong hands (SPOILER: it does) it could be used as a nuclear bomb (SPOILER: it is.) These early scenes show us what happens in a post-noir noir Batman world. The Dent Act has peeled the mob up from the streets, which left me disappointed not to see a middle-aged character actor with a New York accent as this film’s featured mobster, but ah well.
There are four major new characters, which means the cast is exactly half freshmen and half seniors. Bane (Tom Hardy) is a menacing if weakly conceived nemesis severely hindered by some banal dialogue and a muzzle rendering him incomprehensible. John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an orphan cop who identifies with Batman but, as Nolan would have it, is ultimately a better individual than he is. A less than interesting character is saved entirely by Gordon-Levitt’s natural talents. Bruce Wayne also has two love interests: the mysterious burglar Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who isn’t given nearly enough screen time to develop the duo’s relationship but makes up for it by delivering her lines with a dynamic mixture of sensuality and gravitas; and Miranda Tate, a throwaway character presented a Wayne Foundation board member who becomes pivotal. The latter is played by Marion Cotillard, a fine actress stuck in the role of a plot device.
The returning ensemble, reprised by the fine trio of legendary actors Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, is similarly constrained. Oldman has two scenes in which he’s able to show off his abilities, though one isn’t given enough weight and the other is painfully unsubtle. Freeman is humdrum and utterly lacking in humor or color, though that’s more to the lazy script’s fault, not his. For his part, Caine appears in only the first fifteen minutes and the last five.
Bane works quickly, somehow demolishing half of Gotham and allowing the citizens to govern their own city - kind of. Bane still has a large amount of authority, but he allows vandalism, theft, and murder to run rampant. Mock tribunals of the wealthy are held by Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane (remember him?) with only two possible sentences: death, or death by exile. If anyone should try to escape, or if the US government should interfere, he’ll use the Wayne Foundation’s nuclear bomb to destroy Gotham. For good measure, he’s broken Batman’s back and sent him to the inescapable South American prison where he was supposedly raised. And here Batman stays for two thirds of the film.
The first half of the film is a web of plot holes and loose ends. I laughed at several lines that weren’t supposed to be funny. At one point, Catwoman meets with Batman in a subway tunnel and demands she take him to Bane. They walk ten feet into another tunnel and BLAM! there’s Bane. Another time, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character revealed he had guessed Batman’s secret identity because Bruce Wayne’s face reveals pain and so does Batman’s. What? The film is also somewhat confusing to boot - Nolan introduces Bane, Catwoman, and Ben Mendelsohn’s corporate tycoon John Daggett (an easter egg name for all those who love Batman: The Animated Series) and then rather quickly reveals they’re all related. The societal issues the film tries to tackle give way to the two biggest themes: incoherency and inexplicability.
The second half of the film is an action blockbuster that slowly gives way to The Avengers’ formula mixed with The Lord of the Rings epic battle sequences, Gotham style. At one point, Bane and Batman engage in fisticuffs in the middle of all out war. Call me a traditionalist, but I can’t see this as the same world inhabited by the Joker, Harvey Dent, and the largely forgotten Rachel Dawes. The big twist is surprising and rewarding for fans of the comic books, but emotionally limp, and the finale is simply ludicrous. A sense of déjà vu pervades the film, as well - didn’t we see a citywide annihilation device and a prison break in Batman Begins? What’s more, any emotional heft Nolan could’ve added is wasted. The only two major characters to die are the ones we naturally care about the least. An ending that sunny does not belong in the bleak Nolanverse.
The thing most disappointing about The Dark Knight Rises is that Nolan does not realize what makes his titular character so magnetic. Batman is a vigilante, a detective, a man, a monster, an outsider, an enigma. Batman is not a general of war, nor a pilot of futuristic flying contraptions, nor a deactivator of doomsday devices. Most of all, Batman is not a superhero. I repeat: Batman is not a superhero. ☆☆