The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s remarkable re-imagining of the Batman series, is pretty clearly the least of the three films. At the same time however, any negative portrayal of this film has to be tempered. If this is a series nadir, it is a Return of the Jedi or The Last Crusade (wait, there was a fourth movie??!!) – not an atrocity like The Matrix Revoluitons. Yes, the movie is too long, and the villain is remarkably uninteresting, and Nolan seems to have built his screenplay with a shopping cart full from the Used Movie Parts Emporium. However, it is a testament to the character of Batman, the strength of the characters and actors that we have so much invested in, that the film works and is effective despite how bloated it is. In some sense, we can’t be surprised. The Dark Knight aimed so high, and asked such big questions that the movie – hell, any movie – is fairly ill equipped to satisfactorily tackle them. What is left is a very well made picture in the genre – and one which is a worthy piece of the canon.
As the trailers have pointed out – when we open the movie, Batman is out of business and Bruce Wayne (Bale) has faded into reclusive hermititude. Seen only by Alfred (the invaluable Michael Caine), Wayne is moping after the loss of Rachel Dawes, and facing a city that thinks Batman killed Gotham hero Harvey Dent. To be fair, Dent’s memory has driven a lot of reforms which have made Gotham safer and attacked organized crime while removing many aspects of due process and silly things like rights. But there is safety and that has been enough for Commissioner Gordon. However, things are brewing underneath the city – as in the sewers live a bunch of thugs serving Bane, a menace wearing a low-rent Darth Vader mask. He rants against oligopoly and the oppression of those under the mega rich like the Waynes. An early encounter with Gordon knocks Gordon out and puts him in the hospital. The city suddenly needs Batman again, and away we go.
As noted in the earlier paragraph, we get a LOT of cliches here. As in the earlier movies, we get Lucius Fox (Freeman) showing Wayne the newest gadgets to be used, in the classic form of Q in Bond. We already see the old pro coming back for a last job, but we also get the classic Bond gambit of the beauties who are not quite as they appear, as well as the city under siege, the descent into martial law, and god help me, a prison that “nobody has ever escaped”, and god help me, a Digital Readout (complete with a key speech that feels entirely too long given the time on the clock). One of my friends who cares deeply about this sort of thing talks about it in terms of lazy plot devices and whatnot – and there is truth there, but the earlier films have been less about startling originality than brilliant execution and a mastery of tone. That I noticed the cracks a bit now probably is a weakness. Indeed, the plot spins later on a revelation that felt more or less totally like a cheat, though I’ll let the reader figure out where that takes place.
Another weakness is the movie’s bigger picture themes, as in this movie oligarchy and economic inequality are explored. At the same time, themes of anarchism and mob justice are there. The old themes of vigilante justice are there still certainly, although now it is more about class warfare more than individuals in silly costumes. However, the movie does not do a lot with them, aside from employing a couple of useful set pieces. (indeed the court used to try criminals is a triumph of design with a fun surprise as the judge) We get motivation as to why the stock exchange ends up being the subject of an invasion and why that feline chick is doing what she does, but the film sort of muddles through that. I am not sure there is a unified statement to be had in any case, but really Nolan and his team have trouble with it, especially in contrast to the very personal nature of the Joker’s exploits. Sometimes the canvas is too big. Like the final Matrix movie, the series set up some very big questions, but if novelists and social commentators and political scientists have not satisfactorily cracked the puzzle, why should a summer blockbuster? Just be assured that Nolan’s work here is not nearly as lame as what the Matrix secret actually was. This wobbly big picture view infects the villain himself. Bane is not a particularly inspired villain, and his speaking through the mask actually creates a problem understanding him at times. He is a badass sure, but the motivations and back story are fairly bland. It was hard to care about him – certainly not in the way we cared about the Joker, and he lacks the elan of Scarecrow, and of course he suffers by not being Liam Neeson.
What does work though are the set pieces and performances. When Wayne ends up holed up in a prison in a place that he surely wouldn’t escape if this wasn’t the the final movie of the series, the entire prison and the “you’ll never get out of here” – and the failed attempts therein is pretty neat. The cliches are here, but they worked on me. Also, Michael Caine’s performance as Alfred more or less carries the first half hour of the film. One of Nolan’s great inspirations was to give the role to an important actor and give Alfred real weight in Bruce’s life, when Alfred speaks of his vision for Bruce’s future – it resonates and it surprisingly moving. Joseph Gordon Leavitt is particularly good as he tries to do the right thing, and as he explains where he knew Bruce Wayne from, and Gary Oldman is terrific as he reveals the struggle between what is right and what is right for Gotham, and the sacrifices he had to make therein. Anne Hathaway’s Selena is – on the other hand – a little less effective. The choice of Hathaway and Nolan to make her character something of a good soul whose life has gone off the rails is a bit of a miscalculation – when something a bit more dangerous might have been in order. (it’s cliched to say something that the role is probably better envisioned as something Angelina Jolie could do, but you probably knew that)
Overall, this is a pretty good movie – and deserving to be mentioned with the other two. Alas, it is not particularly memorable in specific ways – certainly not as sharply seen as the first two films. But there is some closure, and it brings an end to a series which I had no clue could be this good. After the Joel Schumacher extrusions of Batman, I never thought I’d care so much about this franchise – but Nolan made it happen. For that to come from a summer blockbuster is amazing.