The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)
!! CAUTION !!
There’s probably no scenario that might have caused me to watch this movie before I felt a somber responsibility to be aware of everything for the purposes of this blog. So when the time came that I could see it for free thanks to my local library, I sat in disbelief and then after it was over I sat in further disbelief. I really just watched this? What a sordid tale of fall and decline the last eight years of Batman have been for me. In 2005, after seeing Batman Begins and botching a job interview on the same day, I came home excited about the intelligence and starkness of Christopher Nolan’s first film in the series. I was so psyched for The Dark Knight that I joked about doing pull-ups after seeing the trailer, and then saw it in a grouchy mood on an extremely rainy evening and, well, you know how that turned out if you’re a regular reader here.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a similar feeling of gradual disspirit might have cursed Nolan himself, despite his attainment of almost unimaginable success through the franchise. The exhaustion after The Dark Knight Rises was finally released was something we all felt collectively, even if we didn’t go and see the film. In and of itself it might not have qualified as a shared cultural event in the classic sense (the way its predecessor did), but the fallout from it became such when it joined Manhattan Melodrama and The Godfather Part III in the ranks of films tainted by real-life bloodshed. This followed a strange vibe of deathly menace that had hung over from these films for some time, beginning with the horrific accident that took the life of technician Conway Wickliffe during shooting of The Dark Knight and extending to Heath Ledger’s tragic early death just after he wrapped his part of that film. Curses aren’t a thing, but it all gave the Nolan Batmans a sense of being too hot, too hallowed to touch; more than event pictures, these were life-or-death stuff, and if you aren’t sobered by the honest-to-goodness tragedy of people getting killed because they wanted to go to a movie they were excited about, you are either not human or not a lover of cinema. This was an us-or-them thing; we all might love different movies or different things about them, but we were all placed on the same side after what happened in Colorado.
I bring this up here strictly because, well, I mentioned Dillinger when I talked about Manhattan Melodrama, and because there’s a tiny, tiny chance that the shooting in July 2012 irrevocably fucked up Rises not because people will always think of it when they watch the film — though it certainly sickened me when I found myself involuntarily speculating on what scene marked the dreaded point when the violence started — but because casting a movie as a central prop in a life or death struggle over safety and security in America, a facet of the culture war horribly compounded a scant five months later, is inevitably unfair to that movie. No film can live up to being a rallying object for the very audacious and vital nature of the act of going to the movies. That’s too much of a burden for something so simple as a superhero picture.
Yet then again, Nolan’s entire filmography from The Dark Knight onward has been built on bigness, and it’s a bigness that comes to feel fatally empty. My many qualms with the previous film in this series notwithstanding, I would never have regarded it as bad. This, on the other hand, is a bad film — a very bad film, and a colossally stupid one — and to look upon it as the centerpiece in any real-life calamity is inevitably unkind to it, because it makes you think forbidden thoughts like this so wasn’t worth dying for, the same thing you inevitably think if you’re ever unlucky enough to sit through Twilight Zone: The Movie. Either way, it’s unfair to the content of the film itself. Just that when that content is already so facile, these forbidden thoughts make it seem worse than it is. So I’ll strike this concilatory note before we get heavily into this: this movie is no worse than Inception. Take from that what you will.
I’ve written and rewritten a paragraph explaining the plot of The Dark Knight Rises approximately seven times and have gotten nowhere. I will now dismiss with the diagrams and flow charts and try to wing it: some time after the Joker and Two-Face fiasco, Bruce Wayne is now an invalid living the Gatsby lifestyle and still carrying a torch for the childhood sweetheart whose rescue he botched. Now a new darkness descends upon Gotham City in the form of pro-wrestler Bane, who has nuclear weapons and has seen Seven Days to Noon. Also Catwoman robs his house, Robin is a cop, and lots of vehicles chase other vehicles. There’s a football game, and cops trapped underground. So many cops. In the end, Batman has to destroy the bridge in order to save it, and he also detonates a nuclear bomb a few miles from the shore and Vera Lynn’s voice sadly does not grace the closing credits. And whatever you do, don’t reveal the secret twist about Bane’s past and Marion Cotillard’s true colors — it’s on the order of such paramount gotchas as Arrested Development and Manos: the Hands of Fate. But what of our hero? Alfred Pennyworth announces apropos of nothing early in the film (in a very Inception-like overtelegraphed moment) that he had a dream once about running into a happily married, unburdened Bruce Wayne while on vacation; if you cannot immediately guess what that will lead to, you have clearly seen fewer than three feature-length Hollywood films in your life. That’s pretty much the story.
There are good points. The most widespread criticism of the first two otherwise beloved movies was that the action setpieces were incoherent; Nolan’s allergy to master shots as some sort of individual slant to his big-budget notion of the DC universe may have played a role in convincing people that these were movies rich in characterization — it was only in the quiet scenes that you knew what on earth was happening. In Rises, the big scenes are edited somewhat more competently — the huge moment when a football field collapses to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner actually feels like some audacious reimagining of the end of Nashville for the post-9/11, post-Toby Keith era. And despite the many, many humdrum and weak performances, I quite liked Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle — she’s nice to look at, sure, but her sensuality runs deeper and more sophisticated than you might expect — and there’s a compelling bluntness to her reading of the role that’s vastly preferable to Michelle Pfeiffer’s twenty years back, even if she doesn’t quite have Eartha Kitt or Julie Newmar’s wit and pure liberated joy.
But yeesh. The tale Nolan’s telling is incomprehensible and daft even by comic book standards, and the length is inexcusable; we run through forty-six minutes before there’s even an actual shot of Batman. That’s significant not because Batman is any great shakes as a character or because anyone’s really all that impatient to see him, but it just indicates how sluggish this thing is despite its frenetic, ride-Space-Mountain-until-you-throw-up pacing. Christian Bale still has no idea what to do with this character, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are still great actors stuck doing school-play parts. The number of Academy Award winners in this film (I count five, though Hathaway’s win was a few months away at this juncture) is staggering. As noted previously, this director’s ability to convince universally beloved and gifted performers to reduce themselves to this muck is unprecedented outside the Star Wars prequel series.
Nolan’s intent is obviously to harness the mood of the times in the guise of traditional, well-known characters, and he correctly reads the mood of the times as pretty dark, economically bleak, and depressingly violent. He responds mostly by boring us — he’s so determined to make his superhero film seem “adult” or something that he squeezes nearly all of the life and fun out of it, a problem inherent to the second film as well that’s compounded here because he feels obligated to try and tie up so many loose ends. (Some of that doesn’t make sense either — Gordon is suddenly regretful about the Dent mythology he very deliberately propagated, apparently to great effect? Way to negate the most interesting story point of the previous film, albeit one obbbbbviously cribbed from the Simpsons episode “Lisa the Iconoclast.”) There’s even a “ghost,” like in Return of the Jedi or whatnot. Like so many modern directors who get wrapped up in modern pseudo-mythologies, Nolan makes dull, self-serious, pretentious pap out of the raw materials of popcorn cinema. (Does this have more board meeting scenes than any other action movie?)
But you know the movie is a failure because by the end, it’s so ridiculous that you have to laugh at it (I mean, carting a fusion bomb six miles out via Batplane — you have to laugh), especially when you realize — as noted by David Edelstein — that Warner Bros. was trolled (to the tune of $200 million probably) into remaking at feature length the best scene of the 1966 Batman, still by far the best film ever made with this character. That would be the one that ends with Batman announcing “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” and then to disappear upon said bomb’s explosion, only to suddenly pop up again after Robin’s brief moment of grieving. Funny and witty are two different things, or else I might give Nolan credit for the levity. Unlike Dark Knight, though, this also trades in some really ugly sledgehammer screenwriting 101 stuff and clunky exposition that creeped into the Nolan repertoire circa The Prestige. Overcomplicated, overstuffed, overwrought to the point of numbness — that’s Nolan’s conception of “big,” of “cinema,” of “popcorn.” It’s sheer stress, sledgehammer Fun. Obviously I’m not really the target audience for this film, but lord it’s a mess: its bigness and mythology amounting to nothing of any great significance.