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The Batman has to come back.

Movie

The Dark Knight Rises
(2012)

 

More rousing than the first film, but more formulaic and less daring than the second, Christopher Nolan concludes his trilogy in the overblown and some times stodgy fashion that informed The Dark Knight. But, unlike that film, there is no sense that a passion to tell this tale fuelled him. While The Dark Knight stood out from its peers as something different, Rises echoes the first installment by hitting many of the standard superhero tale beats and adopting many of its clichés and plot devices. That said, Nolan continues to refine his technique, and as unwieldy the multi-subplots in this are he keeps his mighty engine from spluttering and giving out.

There was a sense of danger to the narrative in The Dark Knight, at least until the final act when Harvey Dent and the plotline-too-many with the ferry dulled the mix, largely because the Joker – both in performance and as a plot motivator – felt like an unpredictable element. Here, with the return of The League of Shadows, the canvas is much safer and more ordinary, more of a typical superhero/action movie plot. The desire to destroy Gotham is almost mundane. The use of Talia is a house of cards that makes no sense once she is revealed (and her motivation is even less believable – she hated her father, until Batman killed him, then she assumed his cause?)

That said, a couple of areas that I’ve seen criticism of gave me no great pause; how would the Dent Act actually have worked in clearing organised crime from Gotham, and the “betrayal’ of the character by having Batman hang up his cape for eight years for no good (enough) reason. Not being a particular aficionado of the comics this didn’t seem like a deal-breaker. I found him getting back into shape – twice – more of a stretch; I’m also not sure it really works in story terms it’s an unsatisfying kind of extension and repetition (like the double ending of Excalibur, it tests the patience as it doesn’t actually do anything very interesting with the delay it creates; it just hammers home what we all already know). More than either of the previous two films, Nolan teeters on the divide between comic book fantasy and real world grounding, and his reliance on the tropes of the former sees him occasionally lose his footing.

The film appears to willfully embrace ever bigger and more brazen clichéd plot points as it goes along. Batman climbs not once, not twice, but three times to get out of the well, aided by zen advice that would make Yoda blush. Disappointing that the best Batman can do when he and Bane play a rematch is engage in exactly the same sort of fisticuffs as before. Okay, there’s misdirection as motivation, but with all that time out you’d have thought he’d work out a more complex strategy than socking him repeatedly in the mush. And aren’t the residents of Wayne’s prison a genial bunch? Wouldn’t we all love to have Tom Conti as a cellmate?

Bane breaks out a nuclear device like a beefed-up Bond villain (or a standard Mission: Impossible climax). Later, with seconds left until detonation, Batman stands around talking to Catwoman and Gordon rather than making haste to dispose of it.

It’s not just the story construction. The third installment is chock-full of ripe dialogue spilling from every other character’s mouth. I quite enjoyed Michael Caine’s Alfred in the first two films but every line here is a tedious platitude; Wayne really didn’t need the spur of the truth about Rachel to tell him to hop it. He spends the first portion of the film bemoaning Bruce for giving up and when Wayne gets back in the saddle he bemoans him for not giving up in the wrong way.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s speech about being an orphan is almost audacious in that all concerned maintained straight faces throughout the scene. And, oh, the little orphans!

I like Gordon-Levitt as an actor and his character was engaging during the first half, but I was disappointed they threw him this film’s storyline-too-many (saving the little orphans) rather than something more meaty (I was half expecting a twist with him revealed to have been impersonating Batman because Wayne was too broken to fight any more). His disillusionment with the system and confrontation of Gordon over the latter’s decisions fits with the series thematically but that in itself presents a concern. The plot strand consciously evokes ideas that were explored better previously. Oldman can do no wrong, of course, but Gordon is a thanklessly dull character.

The subplot of the police fighting back didn’t really engage either, and the “heroic” street battle seemed faintly ridiculous (and like so much here, appears to be aiming squarely for the most clichéd presentation).  Beseiged Gotham is a great idea, but in a film this long you’d have thought it could have been more fully realised. In my mind it should have approximated the milieu of Escape from New York, but what we saw was remarkably civilised.

The reappearance of the Scarecrow was a welcome and unexpected touch, and Cillian Murphy was given some good lines. Anne Hathaway does a creditable job with a so-so character (as in, there was nothing new for Selina Kyle there), but can’t compete with Michelle Pfeiffer. And, while I felt a bit sorry for Hardy buried under an inexpressive mask and saddled with an uncompelling character, he does all but make up for it by adopting a wonderfully plummy voice (the offhand way in which he exits the story is less satisfying). Bale is ever-dependable, bringing the de rigueur intensity, and Morgan Freeman provided a welcomed his light touch.

Thematically, the film is a muddle. The plotting in general is so focused (although focused is the wrong word, given how d) on forming a conclusion to the superhero’s story that attempts to ascribe some sort of political thematic consistency (let alone manifesto) is wrong-footed and doomed to failure. Nolan attempts to pull a few threads of topicality together but they never amount to more than window-dressing and lack any overall coherence.

Wayne loses his fortune so he can become one of the people (but there’s just enough left to go round when it’s needed at the end). There’s no resonance to Bane’s appropriation of Occupy Wall Street language; it look more like a cynical move of a director trying to catch the lightning in a bottle of the The Dark Knight twice (although I’m as dubious of the claims of that film being a coherent commentary; it makes a better fist of displaying a few zeitgeisty elements, however). Suggesting that The Dark Knight Rises is on the side of a Conservative agenda may appear to state the obvious of a genre where the superhero upholds and imposes order, assuming the right to dictate this to others. Nolan’s take on Batman has been at some pains to deconstruct the character’s more fascistic impulses (in The Dark Knight in particular) but I don’t think he’s really that engaged by wrapping his story in political commentary (which I think probably reflects that he is. to some extent, a small “c” conservative), or even underlining it with the same.

It has been said that the “police repel the 99 percent scene” (is that what we are supposed to read them as representing, though?) defines the Conservative agenda of Rises (some Conservative critics have relished claiming the film as their own), but a coherent right wing interpretation of the film is not really possible; the political elements feel clumsy and attention-seeking at best. Nolan appropriated Occupy Wall Street once shooting was in progress, and the film showily makes Wayne one of the 99 percent (Talia, behind the “revolution”, is one of the privileged one percent).

Readings have evoked the French Revolution (Russ Douthat in The New York Times), no doubt spurred by Gordon quoting A Tale of Two Cities,  and I have some sympathy with the idea that Nolan’s “quiet toryism” led to him devise a story where “he’s trying to simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse”, but it doesn’t follow through. Individual scenes can be picked out as implying a position, but the film is messy and muddled politically throughout. For every point you could claim that Nolan is pushing a Conservative agenda you could find another where he is critiquing it.

I did wonder about the fusion reactor MacGuffin; I’ve seen it suggested that this was evidence of an anti-green stance and that clean energy didn’t work (except that the film states the device does work), fitting the Conservative agenda model. Like almost everything here, I don’t think the over-reading of subtext bears fruit. You might argue that it represents a critique of the dangers of any nuclear-based energy in a post-Fukushima world (albeit that the stress is put on fusion being clean). Alternatively, here we have the rich elite (Wayne) denying the public free energy (even if it is ostensibly to prevent the greater danger from its potential for weaponising – I don’t really see how that can be a coherent consideration on Wayne’s part since the nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for seventy years). This could be seen as Nolan’s continued interest in tackling of a character that is simply wrong but thinks they know what is best for all. Of course, Nolan has priors for exploration of alternative energies (Tesla in The Prestige).

The final scene(s) were unexpected in part, as if Nolan was riffing on the ambiguity he delivered at the end of Inception. While Gordon-Levitt’s destiny could be seen from a mile off, the object of Alfred’s attention over a liqueur appeared as if in a dream (this, not least because it went to an upbeat place, somewhere the trilogy did not appear to be leading us).

While The Dark Knight Rises is riddled with problems, many of which come attached to Nolan’s adopted mode of striving for the “epic”, it engaged me throughout. Which, although I think it is by far this film’s superior, The Dark Knight failed to do. I look forward to Nolan returning to passion projects, unencumbered by a franchise that has at best diluted his sensibilities.

Addendum 05/09/22: Any references to a viable nuke threat in this review should be taken with a pinch of the proverbial.

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