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|Dark Knight Rises, The
by Brett Gallman
To a certain extent, Chris Nolan’s stints with Batman have been exercises in outrunning not only the inherent silliness of the source material, but also the slapdash nature of his own scripts. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different in this respect, but it might be his most spirited sprint as he brings this trilogy to the finish line with a hugely entertaining film that embraces both grandeur and the pulpy roots that Nolan has largely gone out of his way to avoid.That sounds like a contradiction, but schizophrenia has always been at the center of the Batman character, a man who spends one life prancing around as a billionaire playboy and another ridding Gotham City of its crime while dressed as a bat. For better or worse, Nolan’s films have (perhaps unintentionally) captured this by grounding this material in a self-seriousness that’s put the whole proposition at odds with itself, particularly when the resultant films have been the equivalent of a sturdily build house of cards whose foundations end up resting on comic book logic anyway.
"Theatricality and deception are powerful agents, indeed."
Likewise, a few pokes and prods on the ride from the theater will cause “The Dark Knight Rises” to tumble. It’s a silly film and maybe even a dumb one at times, but it often doesn’t matter due to Nolan’s boldness and audacity to tackle it with a mix of earnestness and broadness that keeps it from collapsing on itself as it unfolds in spectacular fashion.
We pick up eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” and neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) have been seen since the night Harvey Dent died. Wayne has holed up in his mansion as an eccentric recluse, while his alter-ego took the fall for the Dent’s crimes. The sacrifice and the accompanying lie have resulted in eight years of peace for Gotham City thanks to the Dent Act; no longer is the city swarming with corruption and organized crime--in fact, things are going so well that officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is afraid he’ll only be tasked with tracking down overdue library books. However, the arrival of both a cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) and a terrorist organization led by the enigmatic Bane (Tom Hardy) begins to form cracks in the status quo, prompting Batman out of retirement.
It’s an odd starting point--nevermind that Batman’s quitting seems like a bizarre choice for someone obsessed enough to don such a mantle in the first place, but it also gives the film an off-kilter structure. The first hour feels propelled by a “getting the band back together” mentality--in fact, it’s almost like “Batman Begins Again,” so it feels a little light and zesty like bits of the first film, as if Nolan took The Joker’s “why so serious?” creed to heart during the early-going. Bale seems sufficiently settled into both roles, and his rapport with Hathaway (who ends up being one of the most inspired casting choices this trilogy has seen) makes the early sequences in the film click with simple humanity and, yes, humor.
There’s a real smallness to the first hour that I enjoyed, as Nolan slowly puts the pieces on the table and allows the main plot to come together. While he still relies on characters to be exposition machines, Nolan’s knack for potent storytelling (details and logic be damned) is on display as he spins this intriguing yarn that reconfigures the skeletal post-retirement plot of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” into something that’s intimate, dashing, and building towards something grand. Bane’s master-plan--furtively realized by both the stunning opening heist sequence and smaller, nuanced maneuvers with Selina Kyle--is an intriguing impetus that’s well-balanced by Nolan’s showmanship with Batman himself. You can’t wait to see The Caped Crusader return like a retired gunslinger from the frontier, and he delivers this and other rousing moments (seeing The Bat and The Cat team-up is a particular pleasure--I can’t overstate how great Hathaway’s Kyle is) in the first hour that almost feels like a self-contained movie in itself.
And this is where “The Dark Knight Rises” gets a little tricky, structurally speaking, as it hits a bit of a wall when Bane and Batman have their first confrontation. Anyone familiar with Bat-lore can guess how the exchange ends, so the film’s title is taken literally--twice. Not only does Batman return from his self-imposed exile, but also another one when Bane tosses him in a prison halfway around the world (“hell on earth,” we’re told a few times) as the terrorist takes control of Gotham City. As such, things get a little redundant as Bruce has to scrape himself up again, this time with the assistance of a blind inmate and a doctor who fill him in on Bane’s history.
“The Dark Knight Rises” eventually sprawls much like its predecessor; however, when stripped of its street-level mob ties, this installment feels less like “Heat” or “The Wire” and much more like a James Bond film, complete with a megalomaniacal, grandiose villain intent on finishing the job that Ra’s Al Ghul started back in “Batman Begins” by having Gotham tear itself apart (a sequence Nolan is content to barely explore--the nightmarish Narrows in “Batman Begins” seemed more post-apocalyptic than Gotham does here). Batman even has two “Bond girls” to contend with, as Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate enters the fray as a corporate ally for Bruce Wayne. At this point, “The Dark Knight Rises” also sees both its ambition and that self-seriousness creep back in as Nolan dials things up to operatic levels, even as the events become more convoluted, illogical, and absurd.
I could read a laundry list of the ludicrous things that happen; they’re mostly of the same sort of ridiculous plot mechanizations that have plagued the previous films: Batman can show up anywhere just when he needs to, everyone seems to have an almost preternatural sense of planning that hinges on the stupidity of their marks (the GCPD might be Gotham’s boldest, but they often aren’t the brightest), and entire motivations make little sense at times. There’s a revelatory twist (that’s only revelatory if you don’t know your Bat-lore) towards the end that should probably deflate the whole thing because it’s such a cartoonish rug pull.
But damn it all, Nolan is so assured in it---he’s far from an emperor with no clothes; instead, he’s a master tailor whose ability to mend the obvious seams on his often silly outfits is astounding. Armed with a terrific cast and crew, he stitches together a crazy quilt of a film that barrels ahead with both profundity and preposterousness. Forget operatic levels--it goes straight-up biblical when it has Bruce Wayne emerge from his dark night of the soul to wander in the desert on his way back to free his people from tyranny (and of course the word “exodus” is actually uttered!). Meanwhile, it also has Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon chasing down a garbage truck with a nuclear bomb (complete with a countdown timer!).
Somewhat impossibly, it all works--the film is wildly entertaining and moves at such a breathless pace that it almost feels too big and confident to fail. Sometimes, it feels like a Michael Bay movie done right--it’s huge, dumb spectacle whose sincerity and seriousness grounds it just enough. This is blockbuster filmmaking that merely asks you to turn your brain off a bit instead of pummeling it into oblivion.
That’s perhaps a bit dismaying given the serious posturing these films have had, especially “The Dark Knight,” which mused upon Bush-era misappropriation of power, terrorism, security, sacrifice, and moral ambiguity. You won’t find a whole lot of this stuff in the sequel--sure, it wheels out a stale “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” quip, and the film seems eerily prescient of the economic unrest that beset the United States during its filming. Bane himself seems to be a twisted, militant manifestation of the Occupy movement, and he even sieges the stock market with a quip about how it’s being used to steal money.
However, it turns out to be a coincidental cog in the machine since Bane’s plan isn’t motivated by economics (though that would have been a logical place to come from given The League of Shadows’s decades-earlier attempt to cripple Gotham’s economy). Instead, it’s just another generic “blow up the city” plot, which might be just as well since the film is a little thematically effusive anyway. Bane wants to give control of the city back over to its citizens in an apparent revolt against the upper class and the government, but he’s in league with the affluent himself since he allies with a white collar criminal who rivals Bruce Wayne; this guy would be a pretty forgettable crony if not for Ben Mendelsohn’s screen-chewing performance that puts Eric Roberts’s turn in “The Dark Knight” to shame.
Whatever incidental politics the movie has come down in an uncomfortable place by absolving the 1% who have apparently rescued Gotham with trickle-down economics and a police force armed with draconian laws (the Dent Act seems to be some vague stand-in for the Patriot Act but is barely expounded upon). There’s never much of a sense that Gotham is really all that restless or in need of saving since the ground-level citizenry is barely represented, save for the orphans that John Blake pals around with (and it turns out that their orphanage has been de-funded by the Wayne Foundation since Bruce has let his company crumble in his absence).
Because of all of this, “The Dark Knight Rises” feels a little thematically hollow and unwilling to explore the implications of the scenario--Batman is essentially part of the 1% but acts on behalf of the 99%, but it even rids itself of this by having Wayne become destitute and aligning him with Kyle, a doom-mongering 99er who suddenly grows a conscience amidst the turmoil and upheaval she seemingly craved. It’s a little frustrating because Nolan has seemingly arranged an array of themes and ideas before yanking the tablecloth from beneath it, and the cascading din is set to the tune of explosions, motorcycle chases, and brawls.
But Nolan is even good at conducting that since he hits most of the right notes on the way down in the form of call-backs to previous entries and small, quiet moments to complement the exhaustive action of the multi-pronged climax. It’s here that he’s arguably at his best, as he uses the kinetic power of cinema to overcome the film’s flaws with an assist from Wally Pfister’s mesmerizing photography and Hans Zimmer’s rousing score. Without these two, “The Dark Knight Rises” probably wouldn’t resonate nearly as well as it does. What the film may lack in thematic weight it makes up for with a production whose technical weightiness and practicality are appreciable in an era of feathery, computer-generated pseudo-cartoons.
Nolan’s cast--which might be his most impressive overall collection in the trilogy--also provides a genuine heft. Bale gets more screen time as Bruce Wayne and turns him into something of a lonely figure whose messiah complex isn’t driven by ego so much as inevitability. His Bruce Wayne has always treated the mantle as a sort of temporary curse, and the film expounds upon the symbolic nature of The Batman by exploring the humanity behind the cowl. Wayne is broken, both figuratively and spiritually, and there’s a quiet dignity to the way Bale portrays him not as an urbane, gallivanting playboy, but as a man who was always merely playing that part.
That dignity diffuses throughout the film in many of the characters; I know I’ve hammered on its mindlessness, but it does find a pure gravitas in the unwavering diligence of Gordon-Levitt’s Blake, the conflicted but well-meaning heroism of Oldman’s Gordon, the wry nobility of Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, and the heart-rending anguish of Michael Caine’s Alfred (who is sadly sidelined for much of the film).
Even Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is essentially the escort girl with a heart of gold who simply wants a way to wipe her criminal slate clean. She’s not as towering a presence as Heath Ledger’s Joker, but she’s often just as magnetic. No one ever refers to her as Catwoman, but everything about her is slinky and catty. She’s a joy to watch in every scene, and Hathaway masterfully straddles a line between confidence and vulnerability that’s always been key to the character.
Bane is a little less electrifying; buried beneath a silly mask, Tom Hardy does what he can to give the character any sort of dimension beyond his hulking, imposing physicality. His vocal inflection is a quirky mix of the Lord Humungous, Darth Vader, and a 19th century English gentleman that brings an unusual amount of austerity to a rabble rousing anarchist. The screenplay presents him as the antithesis to his foe, an underprivileged antichrist forged out of the hellish prison in which he was born. A late play to develop him beyond this one note is made but is sadly glossed over in favor of cannon fire and punch-lines, thus rendering his character a bit of a washout when compared to the previous villains in the franchise.
The same can’t be said for the film as a whole--within the confines of this trilogy, it’s a suitable, emotionally stirring conclusion. Its seams are a little more obvious than its predecessor‘s, but Nolan furiously weaves through them with theatricality and deception, the tenants espoused by Ra’s Al Ghul in “Batman Begins.” I keep coming back to its contradictory nature here especially, as “The Dark Knight Rises” feels like it’s left a lot on the table thematically, but it’s also completely emptied its narrative tank by the time it’s wound down to its valedictory denouement. Taken as a trilogy, Nolan and company have presented a fascinating and bizarre arc for Bruce Wayne, as the entire series has represented his attempt to shed himself of The Bat.
Perhaps that’s a reflection of Nolan himself; like his first two efforts, this is a Bat-film that sometimes feels like it wants to be more, but it’s without a doubt the most comic-bookish of the three. I could easily see this sprawling, peaks and valleys narrative collected in a six or eight part trade paperback, and Nolan often treats it as such, allowing the film to soar above its dour, desolate cityscapes and its own grandiosity. Ultimately, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a very good comic book movie, often despite itself.Is that enough for a series that’s carried it self as being so much more? Perhaps not if you’ve mythologized these films as transcendent efforts--but I’m just glad to have a superhero trilogy that sticks its landing, even if it does stub its toe a bit on the way down.
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originally posted: 07/20/12 03:33:57
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