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The Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012
The Dark Knight Rises

This is it, the opening that superhero fandom has been awaiting with bated breath for years: the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. What started with Batman Begins and swelled to unprecedented heights in The Dark Knight concludes with The Dark Knight Rises. And — well, I really hate to say this because it’s called down such bile onto other critics — it’s just not very good. At two hours and forty-five minutes it’s a lumbering, blundering behemoth of a film with none of the subtlety, nuance, or intricacy we know Nolan and his brother Jonathan are capable of. And while there are no stunningly obvious plot holes — blatant factual errors aside — it just doesn’t make any sense or fit in with anything outside itself.

It’s eight years since Batman stopped the Joker and Harvey Dent. At the end of the last story, he took the blame for Dent so that the former DA’s image could be used to ram through a Patriot-ish act giving Gotham’s police the powers they needed to clean up the city’s streets. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse in his mansion, attended only by Alfred (Michael Caine); Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) has become the police commissioner, and he picks out rising star officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to work with him.

But all is not well after all; did you really think it would be? Wayne Enterprises is stagnating, and one of the board members tries to stage a coup. He hires cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to steal Wayne’s fingerprints to make fraudulent stock trades to ruin his fortunes, while at the same time employing a mercenary as an enforcer. This proves to be a mistake, since the mercenary — the super-strong Bane (Tom Hardy) — has plans of his own.

Bane has a fantastically gothic back-story, being born in and subsequently escaping from a third-world hellhole of a prison. He claims to be fulfilling the plans of others who have tried to destroy Gotham City, but in practice the footsteps he follows are more those of Tyler Durden. He isolates the city and holds it hostage with a hydrogen bomb, declaring that he is returning it to the people. This plunges it into an anarcho-communist parody of Reagan-era horror stories about the conditions in Soviet Russia, right down to a kangaroo court meting out punishment on the bourgeoisie, led by none other than the unmasked Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), ratty suit and all; fear literally establishes itself as the new order. But Bane and the rest of the core cast know that the bomb will go off of its own accord in time, rendering the whole exercise a bizarre, five-month farce.

Nolan must be credited with some fantastic visuals, but they’re fewer and further between than in his previous efforts. Thankfully there’s no extended chase scene like in The Dark Knight, because Nolan still can’t direct coherent action worth a damn. The real disappointment, though, is the truly awful, ham-fisted writing. The first ninety minutes alternate between set pieces and stupefyingly long chunks of awkward exposition, each one a neon sign screaming out the important plot points contained therein. Acting-wise there’s not much anyone can do for good or ill; they just have to come off as earnest and possibly constipated, which they generally do. The only real exception is Caine, who descends into such self-parody that I have to believe he knows how much he’s embarrassing himself.

Still, what ultimately lifted The Dark Knight up was its themes; Heath Ledger’s Joker set out to strip the thin veneer of civility from the city and prove how savage we all are underneath, only to be caught unprepared when the common people — citizens and criminals alike — actually banded together for the common good. Here, all that is thrown out in favor of a right-wing fantasy of power and martyrdom. I know that the story draws many of its points from Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, but the tone draws its influence from the present-day Miller’s vitriolic rants against the Occupy movement.

This time around, the Joker was right after all: society really is just waiting for the excuse it needs to break down and give in to its selfish urges, and those who seek to allow that breakdown of the state’s authority are secretly conspiring against the people to lead them to their own destruction. The common people are selfish, stupid lambs to be led to the slaughter by the promise of finally eating the rich, and all that stops this moral apocalypse are the brave, powerful men who are willing to do whatever it takes — including overstepping the legal bounds of authority — to preserve order.

The ideas are childish fantasies; the dialogue and narrative structure are terrible; the action is less coherent than the plot; the imagery is disappointing. Nolan’s turn at the helm goes out not with a bang, but a whimper, and a really long, drawn-out one at that.

Worth It: if you’re really invested in the series by now, go on and finish it out. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Bechdel Test: fail.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Ilya Kopysitsky permalink
    July 24, 2012 22:20

    “…Nolan still can’t direct coherent action worth a damn.” You’ve nailed it. The three things I liked about The Dark Knight were Heath Ledger’s performance, practical special effects and a few nice shots that Nolan is able to come up. I recall a particularly dazzling one: Heath ledger sticks his head out of the back of a police car like to take in the night air – clearly the dog chasing cars he describes earlier…

  2. July 25, 2012 13:29

    After the first two movies of the trilogy, I had low expectations for this one, and what with people spooling out great long lists of just the sorts of things which bug me, I’ll probably wait until TDKR is rentable or streamable.

    Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight struck me as “smart” movies as imagined by someone who is … well, not stupid, but definitely needing a co-creator of some kind to complement their skill set. They try so hard to be gritty and realistic and dark and edgy and Xanatos-y, but they just can’t manage it. The resulting falls come at the worst times and are far more damaging than they would be in a film which had clearly set out to be zany from the beginning.

    “Oh, look, it’s a new, gritty and realistic origin story for Batman… whose climax revolves around a magic water heater!”

    “Oh, look, Batman and the Joker are engaged in a complex game of psychological cat-and-mouse… in which Batman’s move involves pulling a fingerprint off a shattered bullet he scanned with his tricorder!” Batman’s detective skills reminded me, more than anything else, of Isaac Asimov’s quip about how not to write a science fiction mystery story: have your detective “whip out an odd device” and declare, “As you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of detecting the hidden jewel in a trice.”

    And then, all of The Dark Knight builds to Batman deciding he must be blamed for Two-Face’s crimes, in order to protect Harvey Dent’s image… excuse me? How is that not the worst of the available options? You live in a city where every third person on the street works for the Mob. The Joker has been running around killing cops, criminals and people who happen to share parts of Harvey Dent’s name. You’re not exactly bereft of possible fall guys here. Take a couple days, sit down with Gordon and Fox over coffee and sandwiches, fabricate the right evidence to implicate one or more of the stupefyingly large number of suspects… do the job right. After all, you’re the goddamn Batman.

  3. July 25, 2012 13:35

    All good points, though in fairness number 11 on that list actually was dealt with, albeit just as awkwardly as everything other plot point.

    Really, though, TDK did redeem itself on a thematic level. It’s only about as deep as the original Matrix, but that’s something for an action movie. This one got worse in the basic storytelling and just threw everything TDK had going for it out the window. I really expected Frank Miller to show up screaming WHORES!

  4. July 25, 2012 18:42

    Heh.

    I may have to see TDKR eventually, just so I can write a fanfic in which, while Batman is off being useless in a dilithium mine or whatever, John McClane and Zeus L. Jackson save the day.

    [JOHN is repeatedly punching BANE in the face] “I. Just. Want. One. Normal. Christmas. With. My. FAMILY!”

    [Later, BANE is swinging from a lamppost by an extension cord, his neck very broken.] “Yippie ki yay, you weird-looking motherfucker.”

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