There are a handful of franchises that have pulled off successful trilogies. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones. Star Wars (IV, V, VI). Then you have the failed trilogies: Alien, Terminator, The Godfather. For whatever reason, the third film often seems to find consistent quality elusive. The one franchise that looked to define a generation of filmgoers outside of wizards and Hobbiton was Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Despite a powerful filmography of solid films, from Nolan’s debut black and white thriller Following to 2010’s Inception, The Dark Knight Rises disappointingly stands as his worst film.
It has been eight years since Harvey Dent was turned by Joker’s orchestrated chaos in The Dark Knight. As promised, Batman has assumed the blame for Dent’s crimes so that Gotham can have a hero without a mask. With Batman in retirement, Bruce Wayne takes the Salinger route to Hermit-town, haunting Wayne Manor in a depression worthy of a Poe tale: Gotham no longer needs Batman and he failed to save Dent and his lady-love, Rachel Dawes. Despite his brooding condition, Bruce is called back into action when human Mack truck Bane (Tom Hardy) plots to destroy Gotham city once and for all.
Featuring two heroes, two love interests, and another pairing I won’t spoil, The Dark Knight Rises is the same type of over-stuffed third installment cookie that sank Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Even though the film is nearly three hours long, it still doesn’t have enough time to properly guide us through a convoluted plot with too many new characters and not enough of the old ones. Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle (aka Catwoman) milks every frame she gets, but she’s in the film for window dressing; whispering sultry, sometimes smartass lines is not enough to let her figure into the plot in any serious way. She does the best with what’s she’s got, but Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (who have written all three of the Nolan Batman films) leave her table scraps.
Marion Cotillard as Wayne Industries investor Miranda similarly gets short shrift, moving in and out of the foreground with just enough time to sleep with Wayne and earn nominal love-interest status. Dividing the love interest angle between Catwoman and Miranda costs both of their characters, and their narrative functions in the third act, dearly.
Even Wayne’s parental figure Alfred (Michael Caine) is gone during most of the film, appearing only long enough to march in and out of scenes to deliver awkward ultimatums before disappearing. Save for Batman himself, it’s like Nolan and Co. have a box where Gordon, Alfred, Catwoman and Miranda are held captive till narrative whimsy releases them for recess. In The Dark Knight Rises, there’s no time for relationships or build up – just the action of getting to the finish line.
Bruce Wayne’s journey in Batman Begins is to pay the debt he feels he owes to himself, his parents, and to Gotham when the League of Shadows threatens the city. In The Dark Knight, Wayne hopes that Dent can be the hero Gotham deserves so he can hang up his cowl to ride off into the sunset with Rachel (which of course, the Joker rudely disrupts). In The Dark Knight Rises it’s unclear what Wayne wants. He goes from moping playboy who may be looking for death, to suddenly….mopey playboy who can now kick Bane’s metal maw.
This turnaround takes place while Wayne recuperates from a serious injury with little development in a narrow window, which undermines the magnitude of Wayne’s physical and mental journey. The abbreviated trek out of apathy never yields a “moment of clarity” that allows him to live up to the title of the film. Even though the film tries desperately to force this journey with call backs to Batman Begins and a chanting Greek chorus, the emotional shallowness of Wayne’s time in hell cripples the third act.
The most surprising new variable in The Dark Knight Rises is police officer John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Wayne’s angsty, poorly delivered arc leaves Blake to steal the show as the protagonist with the clearest motivations and maybe the most agency, running around the city trying to discover Bane’s plot. Blake’s story underscores a truism that cropped up during The Dark Knight: once we get past his origin story, Batman is the least interesting character in the series. Since all other characters, new and old, get little leg room, Blake stands out as the film’s star. Which means that this is the second time that Christian Bale is playing the main character that no one cares about. Yes, that’s right, The Dark Knight Rises is a lot like Terminator Salvation, in which Bale played the all-important John Connor, whose narrative led nowhere while that of Marcus Wright carried most of the film.
Ultimately the film lacks a unifying theme to give Batman’s final battle any of the emotionally satisfying punch of the previous films. The film might literally tell you that this is about Bruce Wayne learning how to want to live, but you never feel that at your core. Even Batman Begins, straddling Hollywood action film tropes and Nolan’s vision, was more emotionally affective and clear than The Dark Knight Rises. What makes this all the more frustrating is that the film decides to tap back into the League of Shadows thread, one of the hokiest parts of the entire franchise, to drive the entire picture. With a lot of flashbacks (literal and figurative) to Batman Begins, it’s like some victory lap that’s never fully realized.
No one expected Bane to amount to be a bigger bad than the Joker, but his poor characterization and utilization add to the film’s problems. Sure, one of the film’s best moments is the initial, bleak brawl between Batman and Bane. The same physicality that launched Tom Hardy in Bronson is used with frightening success as Bane breaks the Bat. Beyond this midpoint battle however, he spouts off some pro-proletariat philosophy of eating the rich, half-baked meandering meant to cash in on the Occupy movement which has brought the alarming wealth disparity in the United States to the forefront. Without being an adequate ideological opponent to Batman, Bane’s just another lame bad guy with a bomb – you just can’t hear what he’s saying half the time.
MAJOR SPOILERS, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
Making matters worse, the discovery that Bane is merely a lap dog following orders from Marion Cotillard (who, unsurprisingly to comic fans is revealed to be Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter, Talia) lowers the stakes of this “epic.” This “switching horses midstream” is quite the underwhelming reveal since Miranda is never given the proper setup to build her into Wayne’s life and the film at large.
Leading up to The Dark Knight Rises there were various theories that Wayne would die halfway through the final chapter, leaving Blake to take the mantle in the third act. Nolan surely has the Hollywood power to get that story made, and if that had happened, this could be a film Nolan could be proud of.
Instead, Nolan pulls his punch. Despite a supposed sacrificial act by Wayne, Nolan goes to great lengths to show the audience that Wayne’s not dead, just moving on; which paves the way for Blake to do what we’ve all thought would occur – take the Bat-mantle. With Warner Bros. already discussing re-booting the franchise and Nolan regularly stating he’s done with Batman, however, the film’s opening for Blake’s Batman is still-born.
MAJOR SPOILERS OVER, CONTINUE READING
It is truly impressive that Nolan and his team not only actually built The Bat (Batman’s latest vehicle, this time flying), but built a rig that allowed it to be driven around to simulate flight after digitally erasing the rig beneath it. The opening aerial hijacking is going to go down in cinema history as one of the most spectacular stunts of its kind. But with all the story and character issues, even the film’s spectacular display of practical effects feels hollow. The action in the previous films were connected to clear stakes, something most of The Dark Knight Rises is missing save for what Blake brings to the table. Coupled with Hans Zimmer’s surprisingly lackluster score and choppy editing that disrupts weightier dramatic scenes, it cuts itself off at the knees before it can get running.
The question everyone will begin asking over the next week will be what the hell happened? Nolan’s last two films (The Dark Knight and Inception) have had their detractors, with viewers and critics slamming his over-convoluted narratives. Some of us (myself included) weren’t too concerned with this, feeling it was outweighed by other great variables. Maybe this is the doom they were trying to warn us of: The Dark Knight Rises is the messy back room of Christopher Nolan’s that they were always talking about.
Considering that Nolan was able to maintain the same team from The Dark Knight to edit and write the film, we’re left with two possibilities for why things went so terribly wrong so suddenly: Nolan’s back-to-back success with The Dark Knight and Inception has given him the power to never be refused by other creatives who make his work better (à la George Lucas) or the studio system finally got to him. Too long, too convoluted, too undercooked – The Dark Knight Rises will go down in infamy as the franchise that could, but didn’t. Nolan’s franchise lived long enough to become the Hollywood studio film that Nolan set himself against. I can’t imagine a more depressing conclusion.