The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) July 20, 2012

I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

– Batman

Okay, no, Batman didn’t say those things. Bob Dylan did.

But those lyrics certainly sound like something Bruce Wayne might say in The Dark Knight Rises, the overbearingly ponderous, furiously violent, relentlessly climactic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy.

Over the course of this series, Bruce Wayne has exposed the lies festering beneath Gotham City. At the same time, he has decided that the ends justify the means. To protect the people of Gotham, he has violated their rights and sold them lies — lies that temporarily unite the whole city in hope. Those lies, spoken with the best intentions, will soon threaten to tear the city apart.

Perhaps Mr. Wayne keeps the Bat-costume around in case he has to cover his dirty hands, mask his tormented face, and hide from those who know how compromised he has become. To his burdensome sense of guilt, add a devastating sense of loss: His true love is dead, his fortune is vanishing, and his health is deteriorating. All of this trouble is turning him into a Howard Hughes, self-imprisoned in his palace.

As the movie begins, fans will be distraught by the sight of him — a ghost of the dashing young playboy he once was. In his strongest performance for Nolan, Christian Bale has reduced himself to the gaunt, haunted, emaciated condition that he manifested in films like Rescue Dawn and The Machinist. Thus, Batman doesn’t look ready to fight anybody. He can’t even stop a young woman from stealing his mother’s pearls from his safe.

But inevitably, answering the summons of the summertime box office, The Dark Knight Rises.

And so does the sun. Thus, we finally get to see Batman duking it out with bad guys in broad daylight.

The daylight reveals other things as well, like the vastness of the city, which gives us that much more trepidation about the prospect of seeing it all go up in a mushroom cloud. Oh, did I mention there’s a new threat in Gotham — a gang of terrorists led by a musclebound brute who wants to nuke the city?

Like the first two installments, The Dark Knight Rises finds its chief inspiration in the 9/11/2001 attacks on America, and in the ripples that are still expanding from those events. Batman Begins revealed a camp of terrorists determined to bring down a decadent society, and Batman stepped up to defend that city, for its citizens were not beyond hope. Sounded a bit like an Old Testament story about Ninevah. The Dark Knight gave us a story about an anarchist who wanted to prove that fear could bring even the decent people of Gotham to abandon the rules they set for themselves. The Joker wanted to show that everyone becomes an animal set on self-preservation when cornered. Batman stepped up again, determined to stoke the fires of courage and conviction, even if it meant inspiring people with a myth (or worse, an idealistic lie). A troubling question hung suspended with the villain: did the Joker, ultimately, win?

But now, having taken the sins of others on his shoulders in order to help people believe that a righteous leader might not be a false hope, Batman has vanished from Gotham. He may not be the crook that everybody thinks he is, but he has shown himself to be untrustworthy… at best.

Will Mr. Wayne find the gumption to don the Bat-costume again and rise to defend his city? Of course he will. But how can he rise in his decrepit state?

With a lot of help.

First, Wayne also has his faithful helper, dear old Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the Willy Wonka of the Wayne Manor Armory, eager to give tours of his war-toy wonderland.

Second, he has Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), his co-conspirator in selling Gotham the lie that Harvey Dent died a hero. Gordon, crumbling under the weight of his compromise, bound to a hospital bed, will do whatever he can to help the caped crusader expose the new nest of rats multiplying beneath the city.

Third, there’s Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist with a passion for developing a clean energy source, in his orbit — a brunette, and thus, an obvious love interest. (Seeing her, I thought, “Dear Christopher Nolan, please do not squander this great actress’s talents like you did in Inception.”)

Fourth, well… we might count Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) among Wayne’s helpers, willing or otherwise. She’s a cat-burglar, a seductress, a fighter in razor-edged high heels, and a potential ally. (Uh-oh… she’s a brunette too.) In this role, Hathaway shows lithe, feline athleticism and she purrs through a radiant smile. Hathaway shows she can play tough with the big boys, but this is a catwoman with a lower-case “c.” Don’t get me wrong — Hathaway’s far more fun to watch than that abominable character played by Halle Berry, but she’s nowhere near as much fun as the psychotic acrobat played played by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s cartoonish, macabre Batman Returns.

Then there’s Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s guardian angel. But how much help will he be this time? Alfred’s desire to preserve Bruce Wayne’s life and the legacy of the Wayne family may prove to be more important than the fate of a whole city.

Finally, Batman has inspired the faith and support of a young and idealistic cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Has any new action star ever had a coronation like the one given to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises? Staking out his claim as the Next Action Hero, a Bruce Willis in the making, this terrific actor manifests charisma and conscience in a way that Gotham desperately needs. (Shia Laboeuf, who has all but squandered his opportunities to be that next action icon, must be home curled up under the covers and shaking at the sight of him.)

As these superheroes assemble, fans will lean forward in anticipation, waiting to see the heroics commence. But those who have been thinking about the series’ central questions may feel increasing misgivings about the minds and methods of the characters who are supposed to be “sympathetic.”

I’m not saying the film is required to present a perfect hero; frankly, I prefer stories — including superhero stories — that give us complicated characters. It doesn’t bother me that the characters are mixed up, but if the film seems to condone their ethical compromises, or revels in their recklessness and abuses of power, that’s something else. The Dark Knight Rises becomes so muddled, even as its speechifying heroes and villains rant about power and fear, that my enjoyment of the movie’s highs was eventually eclipsed by my frustration (and ultimately exhaustion) with its relentless cacophony, violence, and redundancy. The movie seems to think it arrives at a kind of closure, but I’m at a loss as to what that closure means beyond this: With the world in the state it’s in, we’d better hope for heroes with big hearts and even bigger guns.

And if you’re bold enough to look for beauty, grace, or reasons to wonder why anybody bothers to live in Gotham at all… well, good luck with that.

To lighten the mood and paraphrase the question, a musical number might have been useful: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ra’s Al Ghul?” Yes, remember him, from Batman Begins? Remember the League of Shadows, his empire-busting organization of terrorists? Whether he’s alive or dead, the spectre of Mr. Al Ghul looms over Gotham as Bane (Tom Hardy), a former League of Shadows agent, reinvigorates the League’s plan to destroy this decadent city.

Bane, who describes himself with grandiose terms like “Gotham’s reckoning” and “necessary evil,” has the demeanor of a champion cage-fighter and the bluster of an egomaniacal megachurch evangelist. Such a character seems frightfully plausible, but he’s not nearly as interesting as Heath Ledger’s Joker.

How do you top supervillain perfection? Nolan’s answer is brilliant: Make every Gotham citizen, Batman included, his or her own worst enemy.

It’s too easy, after all, to turn one villain into a scapegoat for all of our fears and frustration. At this point in the series, the enemy is us — or better, it’s the weakness in all of us, the desire to be like God, to transcend the law in righteous anger and bring about our own vision of goodness by force. That impulse is what makes monsters of men. It’s what shatters the walls and fences that make freedom possible. It’s what poisoned Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, as well as the young soldier who came hunting him.

How can Batman and Company stop Bane? By stepping again outside the bounds of the law? Of course. But is that the road to triumph or failure?

All along the way, Nolan’s epic has challenged us to consider the ethics of violence, the proper use of power, and what is justifiable in order to serve “the greater good.” “Structures become shackles” says his screenplay, more than once. So, since those institutions that were established to create order have become corrupt, what’s left but vigilante justice and a good old fashioned revolution? Isn’t that what democracy looks like?

Ah, but Nolan isn’t about to champion the Occupy Gotham movement. When Bane’s reign of terror paralyzes the city and knocks down the wall between the oppressive rich and the desperate middle class, we are reminded that uprisings can easily make things much worse. So American moviegoers are treated to visions of angry protestors beating the fat cats they’ve hated, condemning them to death, and looting their belongings in a circus of self-indulgence. The removal of even a compromised structure seems to awaken the worst in people, and chaos fills the void.

So… what do we hope for then? If the corrupt elite will not repent, and the angry masses can deliver only chaos, from whence cometh our help?

There’s a nod toward the kind of spirit that the city needs: grace, generosity, charity. But it comes in the closing lines of dialogue, and it comes after almost three hours that show how the meek and the gracious will be trampled by the brutal and the violent. In a movie that moves this quickly, nothing is likely to get past the eyes to reach the heart, especially such a feeble nod in the right direction.

And anyway, if Gotham’s redemption must come from a spiritual revival, inspiring everyone to share their resources with the poor, serve the orphans in their streets, and minister to the prisoners in their prisons, well… where will that inspiration come from?

This movie doesn’t know. It gets lost in the labyrinth of its own ethical questions. The inspiration can’t come from these crooked volunteers of vigilante justice. And as there is only slight evidence of religion in Gotham, it’s unlikely that the people are going to find of anything larger in which we can place our faith.

You might say that Batman is a stand-in for Jesus in this movie. And the movie goes out of its way to cloak its hero in Christ-like imagery. There are enough torments, crucifixions, burials, and resurrections to make even Joseph Campbell weary of the symbolism. But still, the hero who will keeps rising to fight for Gotham must rely on fists, firepower, and “superior air support” (and that’s not a reference to the Almighty). Sure, there will be sacrificial acts, but they don’t carry the weight of the explosions unleashed by supercool motorcycles and shock-and-awe bat-copter-ma-jigs. (To be frank, the vehicles in this movie steal the show from its stars.)

In one scene, as Bruce Wayne descends into a sort of hell to suffer greater torment, a voice from his past emerges from his delirium: Liam Neeson’s. Of course, it’s the memory of a villain from Batman Begins, but for one moment, I had a sort of hilarious hope that we might see The Chronicles of Narnia’s Aslan step out of the dark, imparting wisdom to this entombed savior. No no… it’s just another excuse for Nolan to seal up gaps in his franchise narrative with another blast of exposition glue.

The lack of any kind of spiritual awakening seems to say as much about the storyteller as it does about his characters. Since Luke Skywalker met Obi-Wan Kenobi, we’ve come to expect our mythical heroes to realize that that there are dimensions to the battle before them that have nothing to do with time bombs, muscles, and kickass motorcycles. Alas, in the end, this secular messiah’s “disciples” are armed with explosives, not love; rage, not grace; and a compelling fear of death — which the film presents as something we should all cultivate in order to find the strength to go on. Lovely.

Thus, the saga continues as an everchanging contest of masculine egomaniacs, while women either become like them or volunteer themselves as love interests. But even love is disappointing here; there’s too much fighting too be done, and thus no time for anything more than a kiss or two. In his insistence that women come in two varieties — combatants or chances for heroes to get laid — Nolan demonstrates that he shares Michael Mann’s worst tendencies.

But then, he also demonstrates that he can equal, or even surpass Mann’s strengths: He delivers Mann-ish action with sledgehammer impact and effortless efficiency. And he all but admits the association by having Selina Kyle make a knowing reference to Mann’s Heat when she tells Batman that he should meet Bane: “You two should exchange notes over coffee.”

Oh, how I wish we’d been given a scene like that: a Pacino/DeNiro moment, something to give us another pause, an interlude, to let the actors really act. But there’s nothing like that here. The movie remains at frantic pace throughout, so that even its most arresting images fail to sink in. The only memorable pause for a real performance comes when Michael Caine gets to do an impression of Steve Coogan doing an impression of Michael Caine’s “broken voice.” It might be enough for an Oscar nomination, but it isn’t enough to give the film a heart to match its muscles.

It’s also unsettling to see Nolan, who has filled this series with strikingly original ideas, turning to such familiar formulas and tricks for his conclusion. Remember when Billy Boyd sang with boyish vulnerability in The Return of the King, while we watched Middle-Earth falling to pieces? It happens again here, this time during a rendition of the National Anthem. And when an unstoppable nuclear bomb becomes central to the plot, you can feel the movie sliding faster and faster toward one of the most overdone conclusions in the history of adventure films. (I actually said aloud, “You’re not really going to end it like this, are you?” But of course, the IMAX presentation was so loud, it drowned out my voice.)

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of staggeringly awesome moments. As this kind of thing goes — heavy-duty, high speed chases; smackdowns to the edge of death; leaps from tall buildings; scenes of mass panic — nobody delivers like Nolan. For all of my frustrations with the film’s thematic convolutions, I remain astonished by its elaborate kineticism. Everything that transpires has persuasive weight. I left the movie feeling like Bane had been punching me in the face.

It’s a shame, though, that this series delivers so much punishment only to arrive at a sort of exasperation, a Batmobile full of unanswered questions. As a new threat rises, threatening to turn Gotham into a mushroom cloud, the confused and increasingly desperate characters are left with two options: ill-informed and illegal violence… or surrender. And for all of the exhilarating catharsis of watching Batman punish bad guys and rescue far-from-innocent civilians, he cannot buy anything but another day or two for Gotham, temporarily postponing trouble.

I like the way my friend Steven Greydanus puts it in his review at The National Catholic Register:

In this battle, whether or not Gotham is ultimately destroyed or saved is not entirely the issue. The issue is who is right: Batman or Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker and Bane? … To the extent that The Dark Knight Rises addresses this question, the answer isn’t encouraging.

I had the pleasure of seeing this film in the company of a theologian — Dr. Jeffrey Keuss. Keuss noted that while the tombstones of Bruce Wayne’s parents are marked with crosses, that was the only evidence that Gotham exists in a world touched by religious faith. But the Waynes’ son Bruce seems to know nothing about the meaning of such a symbol. In his own egomaniacal fashion, guns blazing and fists flying, he’s determined to become Gotham’s savior, overcoming evil on his own strength, “taking on the sins” of others like Harvey Dent, putting his life on the line to save his city. Ultimately, he is making himself the sort of deliverer that Jesus’ own followers wished he would become. His revolution is achieved with violence rather than love. And it achieves only postponements of destruction, not the defeat of death itself.

When the end credits rolled, Keuss’s first observation was this: “We still believe that Judas was right.”

Indeed. As the cheering crowd made clear, the savior we’ll celebrate is the one who puts on the best fireworks show, who unleashes hell against those we have judged, who gives the rest of the guilty Gothamites another day to revel, the wages of their sins postponed and forgotten until another supervillain emerges.

The cycle of violence will continue. The rich and heartless will remain rich and heartless. The middle class will stay angry and covetous. The poor will remain neglected.

And a reboot will begin any moment now.

[This is a first draft review of The Dark Knight Rises. I reserve the right to revise it as I continue to reflect on a very complicated movie.]

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