This review is dedicated to the memory of everyone who lost their life in the senseless violence in Aurora, CO.
It’s been eleven years since the 9/11 tragedy left its immeasurable imprint in the American psyche. With a seismic shift in American foreign policy and the lengths that Americans were willing to go to guarantee their own safety (even if it meant sacrificing their own liberty), the terrorists changed the American way of life whether we’d like to admit it or not. With the PATRIOT Act, unmanned drones, and a government with the power to assassinate its own citizens (if and when they’re considered foreign enemy combatants), the America of today is radically different than the America pre-that fateful Monday morning. It isn’t just our political culture that reflects the post 9/11 world. It is our arts and popular media. Would Jack Bauer have been so beloved in a world where his questionable tactics weren’t deemed (by some) a rough necessity? More than any other superhero, Christopher Nolan’s Batman has become the the superhero of the post 9/11-world, but the very British (and cynical) Mr. Nolan (Inception) turns the concept of the American hero completely on its head.
Starting with Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One as well as his iconic The Dark Knight Returns (which TDKR‘s title is a more than apt homage/subversion), Batman has seen a slow, steady disintegration from the stalwart hero of the Silver Age to a more morally and psychologically complex anti-hero. Some writers even went so far as to paint Bruce as an aristocratic vigilante whose crime fighting masked serious mental illness (or at least highly repressed neuroses). What else is Watchmen‘s Nite Owl but a sexually repressed playboy/Batman stand-in who decides to fight crime because he’s bored? When Christopher Nola resuscitated the Batman franchise in 2005 (eight years after Joel Schumacher nearly destroyed it), he took the darker Batman mythos as a jumping off point for an examination of one man who represented both the best and worst in the American character.
The Dark Knight hinged thematically (the Joker without question drove the plot) entirely on this debate as framed between Harvey Dent and Batman. Dent was the idealistic crusader. He would stop at nothing to battle crime even if it meant crossing moral lines to get there. Bruce hadn’t become quite so cynical yet. The tipping point (which began Nolan’s almost too subtle commentary) was the arrival of the Joker who pushed Dent to his limits. He broke the man Gotham had invested considerable authority in and turned him into a force of nihilistic destruction. And although the Batman was able to stop Joker’s reign of terror, the Joker won. He made Bruce compromise. Batman took the blame for Dent’s death (and kept his transformation into Two-Face a secret) and went into hiding. Bruce even turned into a recluse because without Rachel Dawes and without Batman, he had nothing. Gotham chose to invest all of its power (as we find out in TDKR) into stopping criminals and honoring the legacy of Dent. It turns out the Joker knew what he was doing after all.
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the death of Harvey Dent. Although the streets of Gotham are safe, organized crime has simply moved from the mob to the boardroom. In one of the film’s best scenes, a young and highly capable cat-burglar, Selina Kyle (Brokeback Mounain‘s Anne Hathaway), breaks into Wayne Manor to steal finger prints from Bruce Wayne (as well as a pearl necklace that caught her fancy). After she’s betrayed by those that she was working for in the first place, we quickly learn that one of the largest shareholders in Wayne Enterprises is one of Gotham’s most merciless killers. It is, in fact, this same man who has hired the film’s Big Bad in the first place to wreak havoc on the streets of Gotham in an attempt to wrest control of Wayne Enterprise from Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately for Mr. Daggett, Bane is not an animal that can be controlled.
Bane (Inception‘s Tom Hardy) is a hulking brute with no code other than to watch the world burn. His malicious and unyielding penchant for evil even managed to get him excommunicated from the same League of Shadows that wanted to destroy Gotham in Batman Begins. In the film’s opening set piece (which isn’t fully understood until much later in the film), Bane intentionally hands himself over to the CIA in order to capture a Russian nuclear scientist in a mid-air hijacking where one of his men gladly volunteers to die in the wreckage so there’s proof who committed the crime. After a daring robbery of the Gotham Stock Exchange which effectively brings Batman out of retirement, the fight between Batman and Bane can barely be categorized as such. In their first physical confrontation, Bane doesn’t just beat Batman. He destroys him, breaking his back and tossing Bruce in an inescapable eastern European pit to force Bruce to watch the destruction of Gotham.
Which leads to the heart of the film. Before Bruce went into seclusion, he had been working on a nuclear fusion energy source that could completely power Gotham forever. He was doing this with the financing of wealthy philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). However, after studies showed how the device could be weaponized, Bruce and Lucian Fox hid the reactor away beneath the city. After Bane breaks Bruce, he commandeers the reactor and turns its core into a slowly ticking time bomb. After blowing the bridges out of the city (and trapping most of the police in the sewers), Bane takes control of Gotham, and it’s up to Commisioner Gordan (Nil By Mouth‘s Gary Oldman) and the few remaining cops, including idealistic and driven young cop John Blake (Brick‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to lead the resistance as the city prays for the return of the Batman.
It’s difficult to discuss the thematic turning point in the film where it suddenly became more clear that Nolan was trying to recreate the superhero story as a post 9/11 allegory (which led to the retroactive recognition of all of the other themes I’ve already pointed out) without spoiling the end of the film. Here goes. It finally struck me that Batman was meant to stand for the unchecked power and vigilantism of the post 9/11 America when he (probably not a huge spoiler) finally returns to Gotham after escaping the pit. Bruce failed to stop Bane because Bane represented a force that the Batman couldn’t defeat on his own. His complete lack of faith in the decency of others and his refusal to ask for the help of anyone else (including isolating his closest friend, Alfred) meant he was doomed to failure. As soon as he returns to Gotham, he immediately enlists the help of everyone he can which shows Batman’s transformation into a leader who isn’t too proud to admit when he needs help.
All of the franchise’s villains represent some breed of modern terrorist (which should have been painfully obvious) though the series subverts traditional conservative propaganda by showing what true (near) nihilism looks like as opposed to religious/state-sponsored terrorism. R’as Al Ghul was a cynic who thought the only way to fix the world was to destroy it. The Joker committed violence for violence’s sake. He was more interested in making everyone recognize what he saw as the futility of existence and the absurdity of morality. Bane saw himself as the successor to R’as Al Ghul’s legacy but instead wanted a vicious anarchism through a destructive cleansing. While the franchise has created a world of good vs. evil, it’s also a world of flawed heroes versus grand existential philosophies on the meaninglessness of modern life.
As fascinating as the film is at a thematic level, it’s also still a superhero movie, and, thankfully, it also succeeds in that era (though it’s length becomes a bit of a problem). The film is overflowing with masterfully staged action set pieces. Whether it’s Batman leading the entire GCPD on a manhunt when he first returns (before his good name is cleared), Batman and Selina Kyle fighting off Bane’s men or a shoot-out between the GCPD and the forces of Daggett and Bane, the film has enough action to counterbalance it’s overt social themes even before the marked shift in pace in the film’s final half. The film’s last half sees The Dark Knight Rises transform as much into a war film as it is a superhero movie. Gotham has been occupied, and Batman and all of the decent forces left in Gotham have to take up arms in a gorgeously constructed and choreographed fight to the death.
Nolan’s dedication to character-driven storytelling is just as great in this film as it has been in the past. With TDKR as his last chance to speak on these characters, it is great to report that he brings all of the remaining characters full circle in their respective arcs. Without wanting to spoil the film, it’s safe to say that Bruce’s arc is immensely satisfying and brought to an acceptable close. No matter where the Batman franchise goes from here, Christopher Nolan will always have left his mark on the Batman mythos. The most surprising aspect of the film was Nolan’s totally original creation, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s John Blake. An orphan like Bruce, Blake was an instantly endearing and charming creation that showed the human decency that Bruce Wayne thought was mostly extinct in Gotham. In a film with so many established characters, it was wonderful that a new character made the deepest emotional impact.
Not everything about the film is a winner though. As effective a villain as Bane is (he accomplishes far more damage than the other two Big Bads combined), he is pretty dull. Ignoring the fact that his breathing apparatus makes it impossible to understand half of what he says, he simply lacks the presence of the Joker or even Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s probably unfair to compare him to Heath Ledger’s Joker which will likely go down as the all-time greatest superhero villain in cinema. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that with such a grand and epic film, Christopher Nolan could have done better than a hulking brute with no real personality other than a terrifying evil. He nearly reminds one of Marlo Stanfield, the cold and calculating killer from The Wire who could never live up to the high bar set by Stringer Bell. Except Nolan’s rendition of Bane makes Marlo Stanfield look like a nuanced creation from a Jonathan Franzen novel.
Similarly, despite her major role in the film’s final act, I still firmly believe that The Dark Knight Rises could have done without Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate. It’s not that Cotillard isn’t a wonderful actress. She’s phenomenal (and incredibly gorgeous), but Miranda was just another female placeholder until the film’s end. Her romance with Bruce in the film’s first act made about zero sense even if you take into account that he had been mourning the loss of Rachel Dawes for eight years. Where The Amazing Spider-Man deftly explored romance with Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (which was ultimately more interesting than the film’s actual heroics), The Dark Knight Rises shows the same romantic understanding and life as George Lucas in Revenge of the Sith (which is to say not at all). I will for the life of me never understand why writer’s try to shoehorn romances into stories when they have no idea how to write a good love story.
In surprisingly American fashion, the Brit Nolan also tries to have it both way when he both lampoons and defends the modern economic strife in America. I have heard people refer to Bane as an allegory for the “militarm of the Occupy movement” and have also heard people read into the greed and corruption that would foster that sort of resentment in the first place. Nolan doesn’t handle economic malaise with the same sure-eyed clarity that he uses to take aim at terrorism, national security, and unchecked power (benevolent or not). Also, the simple fact that he tries to please both sides of his audience rather than coming out and just saying what he believes is a bit of Hollywood commercialism that he is usually better than.
Despite the film’s flaws, Nolan’s film is so ambitious that only the most hardened cynic would focus so hard on them as to not see the forest for the trees. Yes, the film is too long. Yes, Bane is a mush-mouth of the highest order and simply lacks an imposing emotional presence. But, with the entire Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan has reshaped the possibilities of the mainstream superhero movie. He aims a little higher. He believed that you could entertain and educate. He took the risk that you could transform the modern American myth, the superhero, into a reflection of the society that spawned the myth in the first place. The Dark Knight Rises may not be perfect, but as a summer American blockbuster, you couldn’t possibly ask for much more.
Final Score: A-