SPOILERS. OBVIOUSLY. BUT KEPT TO A MINIMUM. HERE’S A BIG PICTURE TO DRAW YOUR EYES SO YOU CAN LOOK AWAY IF YOU MUST.
Ok, so not poor, but I needed it there for that line to work which, quite neatly, is one of the niggliest quirks in the disappointing The Dark Knight Rises.
Let me quickly qualify that disappointment before you lynch me.
Firstly, to give it its due, The Dark Knight Rises is a thrilling feat of epic filmmaking, built upon some terrific performances (it was particularly good to see Bale back on form, since I felt he was a bit wayward in the previous film) and a keen sense of grandeur. Seeing it at the IMAX and experiencing the 70mm sections as they were meant to be delivered felt like a privilege.
Secondly, you will not find a bigger Christopher Nolan fanboy than me. I love everything about him: his path into the movies; his relationship with his wife-producer; his inventive, practicals grounded stunt work. I’ve even tried to hunt down the corporate videos he made back in the day and secretly hope the BFI will release them as a DVD some day. I screen Following, his low budget first feature, to people whenever I get a chance. On a thematic level, his investigations into the insane things that men do, and why they do them, strong appeal to me. I admire Nolan and hold him to a high standard because his track record has made me believe in his capacity to deliver well-wrought thrilling tales that are driven by character rather than convenience and with The Dark Knight Rises I can’t help but feel he squanders opportunities that I know he is good enough to take. It’s like Nolan asked a girl back to his for a late night coffee and then proceeded to serve up the best damned coffee she’d ever had. On a literal level, he’s delivered everything he promised, but you can’t help but feel that more could have been made of the occasion if not for a lack of courage. He’s done everything right with the set up, but has strayed with the delivery and that deviation has turned what was potentially a classic motion picture into a decent flick, verging on greatness, but laced with regrettable choices.
So let’s get into it.
First up, let’s consider how the primary foe, Bane, is handled. I absolutely adored this performance from Hardy – the brute with a refined, mocking voice and soulful eyes. A man of physical solutions, a bad man born out of a good deed – the opposite to Batman. This makes for a juicy antagonism. But why bother to create such a complex, compelling villain if only to off him with zero grace? Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman lets off a canon into his masked face, delivers a quip about not sharing Wayne’s reluctance to kill, and that’s that – her and Bats go about their merry business, which at this point is the business of sorting out fusion bombs. BUT HANG ON A MINUTE! I know bombs need sorting, but surely giving Bane such a violent, truncated end, and that being fine, not only makes the set up a bit of a waste, it also makes the entire dramatic struggle at the centre of the previous instalment, The Dark Knight obsolete. “Nothing to do…with all that strength.” the Joker taunted in that movie. He’s right. Batman is rendered impotent by his inability to permanently put down a foe.This is, how you say, A Big Deal. In The Dark Knight, his solution to this is a mix of ingenuity, vigilance and belief in the citizenry. All admirable traits that we love to see thrive in our heroes. In The Dark Knight Rises this is literally blown away. We learn that Wayne is happy to bankroll orphans which is the least he can do, since his inability to either get over killing people or develop an effective knock out gas, means he plays a large part in creating hundreds of abandoned tykes. Here is a man who is not up for killing but happily allows others to kill and be killed for him. To me, that makes him either callous or a coward. A superhero is meant to have flaws, but these don’t feel like intentionally crafted ones.
So let me repeat: In this movie, the hero lucks out of defeating the villain, and the way in which it is done violates a central tenant of his character, seemingly without care or consequence. I find that desperately unsatisfying. Yes, you can argue that Kyle’s turning up is due to Wayne’s “you’re better than that” intervention but that still counts as fortunate – he didn’t overcome Bane. I’ve heard it said that, dramatically, it’s ok for a coincidence to get you into a situation, but not to get you out of it. I 100% agree with that, and The Dark Knight Rises is unfortunately slung with a string of useful contrivances. To nip this in the bud, “the comic books are too!” is not a good defence. If it’s bad, it’s bad, fidelity be damned – let’s take what’s good, ditch the rubbish and make it great. Wasn’t that Nolan’s whole mantra for his Batman franchise?
Now…the feel. For the realistic, gritty world that we’re often told Nolan’s Batman movies depict, there sure is a hell of a lot of symbolic neatness. Ultimately, Nolan cannot resist an epic gesture, and I can’t blame him – neither can his audience. We are suckers for grand notions and signs. That is entirely how, as we are repeatedly told, The Batman functions – a symbol of hope and order. But in this movie, the power of that symbol gets muddied up somewhat. You see, it’s a very noisy film, this – lots of characters, lots of turns, lots of hands being dealt and played. It’s almost inevitable that the emotional arcs get a little lost in there. A friend mentioned that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake feels like the main character at times, and he’s not wrong. I wonder why that is? Perhaps it’s the strength of Gordon-Levitt’s performance – measured in its nuance, while remaining passionate. Perhaps it’s because, in terms of the grand drama of Gotham’s decline, we aren’t properly situated with Wayne. At one point he is taken out of the situation, leaving us with Blake as our guide through the turmoil. Perhaps it’s because Blake’s emotional stake in the city is more palpable – he’s from the streets and spends time with their inhabitants. Whereas, with Wayne, for a man who puts so much faith in the people of Gotham, he sure doesn’t spend a whole lot of time around them. Again, here the film is thematically at odds with The Dark Knight. His line at the end of that film is you’ve got to have belief in the citizens of Gotham, and they will do the right thing (like not blow up a boat full of inmates). Here, there’s a lot made of his not trusting people. I’m a tad confused – are Gotham folk just a better moral breed?
I’m mostly happy to allow that because The Dark Knight Rises is ostensibly about one man’s love for one city, his city and it’s inhabitants, and what he’s willing to endure to save it. We are told this repeatedly. Yet we never really see this play out on a personal level for Wayne, and so Gotham is never given its emotional due. For example, at the end, where’s the fleeting glance back at the life that he is, one way or another, forever leaving behind, knowing he did right by both it and his parent’s legacy? You don’t need to be that crass, but that emotional beat has to be there – after all, a desire to use his privilege to clean up Gotham is Batman’s entire mode d’être. Nothing wrong with a bit of recognition of a job done.
Finally, the women. Nolan generally struggles with women, relying on great actresses to shore up underwritten parts. Here, Marion Cotillard does a solid, unshowy job as a Wayne Enterprise Board Member-come-rug-pull villain, while Hathaway’s stronger turn as Kyle/Catwoman is the right mix of charm, danger and wistfulness. However, both only really exist to be on Wayne’s arm. They don’t form a proper emotive connection with him, nor do they gain much depth themselves. As Glenn (who I saw the film with) put it, it all turns slightly Bond-esque at one point. It’s actually almost a bit Bridget Jones – we simply must find Master Wayne a woman for him to be happy, doesn’t really matter who she is.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight redefined what could be done with previously maligned comic book source materials, and Nolan has earned the right to make this final instalment whatever he wanted. I would’ve seen it anyway, and I would still definitely recommend it, if not just for its phenomenal technical achievement. For any other director, a movie as accomplished as The Dark Knight Rises would probably crown their career. Given that Nolan has the rare gift of being an epic yet sensitive, imaginative and inquisitive filmmaker, all I can do is quote The Batman: “you’re better than that.”
(The Prestige is still flippin’ ace)