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Ragnarok and renewal in The Dark Knight Rises

by  in Comic News Comment

An uncomfortable familiarity hangs over much of The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman trilogy. Some of it comes from the disquiet of watching familiar characters and settings suffer. However, some of it comes from the use of overly familiar movie tropes. For example, one of the early “Batman must come back” scenes feels lifted from a style guide. Another scene, much later, echoes Luke and Han’s join-us-no-join-me exchange just before the Death Star attack. Oh, and William Devane shows up in a very William Devane-esque role.

Accordingly, The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect movie. It doesn’t have the intricate plotting of its predecessor (2008’s The Dark Knight, like you didn’t know). Any socially conscious message about “the 99% vs. the 1%” is lost in Bane’s repurposed sloganeering and Selina Kyle’s disillusionment. In one spot, the movie seems to skip dusk entirely, going from twilight to pitch-black night in less than eight minutes.* Furthermore, although I hate to disagree with Sean, at times Bane sounds like Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery (and apparently — beware of spoilers past the link — I am not the only one who thinks so).

Nevertheless, its epic ambitions are mostly realized, and it exists mainly to give its principals (i.e., just about every major character still left from 2005’s Batman Begins) closure. This, I want to emphasize, it does exceptionally well. Four years ago I compared The Dark Knight to David Fincher’s serial-killer meditation Zodiac, but this time I’m going with Doctor Zhivago by way of James Bond. A macro-level exploration of Begins’ “why do we fall?”, it builds to a thrilling, triumphal, bittersweet final shot. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, and eventually to examining the trilogy as a whole.

Naturally, MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW:

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Actually, where to start with this movie? The great thing about Dark Knight ‘08 was its precision (or at least its aspirations thereto), but on first viewing there’s not the same level of intricacy here.  (Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the script, from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.)  Most of the plot’s heavy lifting happens early on: a burglary facilitates financial-sector shenanigans, which in turn are designed to wrest control of Wayne Enterprises away from the reclusive Bruce Wayne. The consequences of these events, and of the opening scene’s midair abduction, reverberate through the rest of the film; but when Bane and Batman have their first big fight, the movie becomes more “reactive,” for lack of a better word, as the villains’ master plan unfolds in earnest. After Bane physically isolates Gotham City from the rest of the United States (like “No Man’s Land,” but with nuclear blackmail), totalitarian paranoia gives way to all-out action, and the movie ends on an uplifting coda. I suppose it’s an inevitable part of the way the trilogy’s structure turned out, but all the bleakness does make me want to skip straight to the payoffs. (And I did enjoy the payoffs, even giving up a “now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” at an especially-well-choreographed Bat-fight.)

Perhaps my biggest issue is with Bane. Although Bane drives Rises’ plot, sometimes it feels like that’s all he does. (A couple of times this applies to John Blake too — who early on comes across as the only candidate for Employee of the Month — but he’s not as much a plot device as Bane is.)  While the Joker might have changed his story to fit different audiences, I always had a strong sense of the roiling in his gut which fueled him.  By contrast, Bane is not an effective spokesman for his twisted philosophy. In this respect it’s appropriate that he turns out to be working for someone else, because that frees him to be what any given appearance requires. He’s a force-of-nature villain in the sense that he is supposed to bring abject terror to all of his scenes — and in this he’s largely successful, don’t get me wrong — but he’s a criminal mastermind largely because everyone says he is, and because the plot requires him to be. While the revelation of the real mastermind makes up for this, I’m not sure after just one viewing that it covers all the film’s twists and turns.

Still, those twists and turns were very entertaining, especially once they started to confirm my own fannish speculation.

(EXTREMELY MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD)

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To be sure, after months of such speculation, it was hard not to think that “Miranda Tate” would turn out to be Talia al Ghul. For a while I expected her to be on Bruce’s side, and to send in a small army to pull him out of Bane’s prison, but I have no quibbles with using her to connect to the first film. Likewise, while I would have been positively giddy to learn that John Blake’s real name was Richard John Grayson, to say nothing of the fangasm I would have had upon seeing him in an appropriate costume, at least we can legitimately call him “Robin” now. The final scenes with Alfred and Gordon were also nice sendoffs for all involved (I was afraid one or both would die), and left me wanting more.

The fact that I am talking mostly about my emotional reactions to Rises probably means that the filmmakers did their jobs effectively. However, as mentioned above, it’s not without faults. Besides that abrupt day-to-night transition, there are other time-related issues. I never got a good sense of the movie’s early chronology, and once it shifts into “No Man’s Land” mode, the crisis’ duration never plays into the overall mood. Indeed, Bane’s nuclear device features two “ticking clocks”: the five months he estimates it will take for the bomb to go off on its own (when its core deteriorates sufficiently) and the race to find its remote detonator (because why wait?). Still, the former never becomes really suspenseful, and the way the latter is handled threatens to strain belief — especially when Batman and Selina share a Significant Moment with the five-month clock down to the last minute. Having Bruce’s spinal injury heal over a couple of months in prison, under the supervision of an ex-doctor inmate, and while Bruce occasionally tries to climb out of a tortuous pit, may also raise some eyebrows. I don’t know if using a Lazarus Pit would have been better (although it would also have allowed Ra’s al Ghul to appear as more than just a memory), but at least it wasn’t the magical psychic love of Shondra Kinsolving.

On the whole, though, I thought director Christopher Nolan laid everything out very well. Returning cast members were as good as I remember, and the new people were equally engaging. No more doubts about Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle: she might look like Julie Newmar, but she played the role with barely a trace of camp or irony. (At one point she does ask “Cat got your tongue?”) Hathaway is this movie’s anchor, creating a version of Catwoman (never called that) who goes believably from thief-for-hire to reluctant hero. She’s convincing both as Batman’s partner and his equal.

While Bane’s voice perhaps didn’t elicit quite the right reaction from me, Nolan and Tom Hardy made sure he filled up every scene in which he appeared. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake was so weirdly prominent that I knew his character had to have some hidden purpose, and that could have been very distracting; but his understated performance helped sell me on his eventual role. As for Marion Cotillard, I should have guessed she was trouble after I (finally) watched Inception the other week. She brought a good mix of intelligence and verve to her double-agency, although at the end she did get a little dragon-lady-ish.

Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister built on Dark Knight ‘08’s scope effectively, using Pittsburgh and Manhattan to give new angles on Gotham. Action scenes were markedly better this time, from the well-choreographed martial-arts exhibitions to the climactic clash of armies. I did think Hans Zimmer’s score was occasionally VERY. LOUD. AND VERY. INSISTENT, sometimes making it hard to hear dialogue; but that could have been a function of my theater.

Basically, The Dark Knight Rises is worth the wait. It finishes the journey that Bruce Wayne started in Batman Begins, and it does so in a manner specific to that version of the character. Specifically, this Bruce had to confront his past with the League of Shadows and grapple with his feelings for first-love Rachel Dawes. Rises reveals that Rachel’s fate drove Bruce into hiding as much as Harvey Dent’s death retired Batman, and resolves both subplots satisfactorily. I feel like there’s a lot more to say about this movie, and the trilogy in general — like the way Rises turns the last movie’s people-are-basically-good message around — but those thoughts may need more time to percolate.

Still, The Dark Knight Rises closes out a trilogy which set a new standard for the superhero-movie genre. Granted, there haven’t been a lot of superhero-trilogies per se, mostly because the third film tends to be either a big letdown (Spider-Man 3), a separate story (Superman III), or a complete change of pace (Batman Forever). Nevertheless, 2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight, and this installment collectively aim higher. As the sweeping saga of one man’s struggle to find peace through justice, these films can stand comfortably alongside the Star Wars trilogies and The Lord of the Rings.

* [An earlier version of this post got the sequence of nightfall (as opposed to “Knightfall,” of course) out of order.  Thanks as always to Kurt Busiek for the correction!]