[Major spoiler alert: It’s almost impossible to effectively discuss this film without leaking information.]
Perhaps you’ve heard the popular internet theory which posits that director Christopher Nolan is a sort of genius magician, that he works in trilogies, connects the twisted dream logic of his films, and outlined his process while introducing the steps to a magic trick in The Prestige. According to that theory, the first step is the Pledge (we’re shown something ordinary), the second is the Turn (the ordinary thing disappears), the third is the Prestige (where the ordinary object is brought back, but the secret isn’t revealed). With the Batman trilogy, there’s a ring of relevance. In Act I (Batman Begins) we watched a very good but ultimately quite ordinary origin story about a very good but seemingly unexceptional playboy. In Act II (The Dark Knight), the ordinary nature of the film gave way to something quite daring and exceptional while, in a plot parallel, the ordinary hero became legend and, accordingly, was forced to disappear following the complicated death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). It only follows that in Act III must feature a return to the ordinary object. For better or worse, this is precisely what Nolan manages in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted comic book adaptation, but one that feels more in line with the genre standard. Our hero returns, our city is in danger, the situation is gritty and grim, but the megalomaniacal tension that transformed 2008’s The Dark Knight from ‘Batman movie’ to ‘ultimate crime film’ simply isn’t present.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t try. The Dark Knight Rises is, in many ways, a potentially dangerous film. In the weeks to come, the unfortunate events surrounding its midnight premiere will give way to a deep media risk assessment. As has always been the case with superhero stories (Batman in particular), this is a tale of good and evil, of violent acts of out-and-out terrorism and sideways societal commentary. There’s a psychological violence that’s always seemed more present in the Batman universe than in others, and Nolan specializes in dragging the lunatics out of Arkham Asylum and throwing them into a hyper-real milieu. When the city goes awry, it’s the fault of flesh and blood humans; of citizens, psychopaths, and a buzzing desperation that leads to a madness without hope. At its cheesiest, there’s always been a burned up darkness at the edge of the Batman mythos, and in pop cultural big-screen depictions we may have gotten freeze rays and batnipples, but they’ve always come with mass murderers, genocidal geniuses, and the easily influenced mere mortals who’ve fallen into step beside them. The Dark Knight Rises offers us a villain oft discounted by the casual observer: Bane (Tom Hardy). Was Bane the right choice in the wake of Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the Joker? Perhaps not. There’s a logical progression in choosing him, sure. The Scarecrow was quick, but not quick enough. The Joker was brilliant and deranged, but physically fairly weak. Bane? He’s the whole package: the villain smart enough to outwit the Bat, and strong enough to earn recognition as the ‘man who broke the bat’ by comic book aficionados. The problem? He’s not the most screen-friendly of villains in the DC galaxy.
The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Batman has taken the fall for the death of Harvey Dent in order to allow the city to pass a bit of legislation that has all but wiped out organized crime. It’s peacetime, and Bruce Wayne has sequestered himself (Howard Hughes style) deep in a wing of Wayne Manor. All it takes to pull him out, however, is a minor robbery under his very nose. In investigating Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), his bewitching burglar, Bruce stumbles upon a bubbling uprising in Gotham’s sewers, where Bane has corralled a small army of disposable street toughs in his slowly building insurrection.
There are echoes of the Occupy Wall Street movement that can’t be ignored, and the film pulls a politically divisive punch and posits that there are, essentially, enough folks in the 99% angry enough to run with a nuke wielding villain and ‘take back their city’ from both government and wealthy folk alike (is it a statement on the occupiers or a statement on the tea party? Discuss). It’s an immediate, relevant, and threatening premise that should read that way on screen, but never quite makes it. The problem with the scenario, as I read it, is the exact problem with Bane himself. Namely: everything is tempered by the mask. Tom Hardy is a menacing screen presence with the ferocity of an angry badger (see: Bronson), but when 2/3 of his face is blocked by a mask like a muzzle, he loses a great deal of his ability to emote. Ledger’s Joker was frightening because we could see the madness behind his eyes, because he smirked when he stabbed you and called attention to his own mutilation. Bane has the voice of a cartoon gentleman and a jaw that never seems to move, even as he announces his terrible intentions. There’s a distance created that separates voice and body, threat and follow-through, and it’s one that the film’s own PG-13 reluctance echoes. The Dark Knight was raw. Even if the camera cut away when the pencil broke skin, you felt its impact. In Rises, you don’t. The most shocking images and set pieces, the ones that truly allow for a sense of dread (and a need for a hero) are all delivered at an actual distance. Hanging bodies are specks on the horizon, broken necks happen entirely off-screen, and even as the city is plunged into the bleakest pits of hell, there's too much left to inference.
In a way, the focus seems split in too many directions. We start to wonder what The Dark Knight Rises is actually about. Is its subject Batman? Certainly not. Christian Bale’s ‘Gran Torino’ voiced hero is more of a lurking presence than an on-screen protagonist. The story depends on him, but doesn’t give him to us. Instead, he’s more of the symbol philosophized about in the previous film. Gotham city needs him, the viewer needs him, but we like the idea of Batman more than the moment he shows up for his high speed chase. Just as the film isn’t about Batman, though, it’s not about Bane. Bane’s a lurker in the opposite direction, and the eventual phasing out of his character comes too quickly and too easily. Why did we need him at all? Catwoman? She’s alright, but not the center. Commissioner Gordan (Gary Oldman)? He gets more play, but so it is. Newbie hero cop Blake (Joseph Gorden Levitt)? Oh, wait, yeah. Maybe the film actually is about him. In a way, there's a sense that this a story generally themed around the idea of resurrection, a grand, operatic discussion of power with an entry point (Batman) to its generalizations. Heroes must fall to rise, cities must fall to rebuild, and everything needs to go to shit in order for ordinary citizens to stand up and take their place.
In large part, The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent action film. As good as Batman Begins? Yes. As The Dark Knight? Meh. It’s enjoyable popcorn viewing with smartly choreographed sequences and big set pieces that never dwell too heavily in the realm of dizzying CGI. It’s also well worth noting that Nolan gets some surprisingly positive results from a couple played-out characters, and for all my doomsday speculation on the casting of Anne Hathaway, she works. Comic fans will be relieved to hear that the Cat (only referred to as Selina here) gets her due: she’s a tough, complicated antihero who sometimes slips into sexy come-ons, but in a way that seems all-too aware of how offensive they are to her own strength and intellect. While I still assert that Eva Green could have done it better, watching the tricky ethical relationship between hero and Robin Hood figure is rather a treat -especially after the boring boring depictions of Rachel Dawes in the previous films.
Still, this film just doesn’t have the same impact. It’s complex, it’s dark, it aspires to great things, but it never quite pulls them off without feeling heavy handed or overly grandiose. In a way, I can’t fault Nolan for this. He’s chosen a tricky skyline for this incarnation of Gotham, and his subject matter treads dangerously close to something you probably couldn’t have gotten away with making just a few years back (if you know what I mean). It’s probably best that he stepped away from the gory details and gave us something just a little more comic book that doesn’t harness that same power, especially now. We need the ordinary thing to return, we need normalcy to have been restored, but...we know what could have been. The Dark Knight Rises is as dark in thought as the last film but it doesn't have that technicolor bit of electricity at its core. It's the resolution to the trick, but we’re left wishing it had been the old sleight of hand part repeated.