Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises
Some films demand to be seen more than once to be written about with any complexity and/or thoroughness, and The Dark Knight Rises is certainly one of them. It’s not because the ideas are so intricate or because the actual narrative form is particularly complicated, a la Charlie Kaufman films or Terrence Malick films or even earlier Christopher Nolan films. It’s because the film is so jam-packed that it’s bursting at the seems. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily, because The Dark Knight had much of the same bloat and managed to smooth over its weaknesses with exceptionally high highs. But as a conclusion to the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises juggles so many balls that it’s difficult on a first viewing to tell which ones fall to the ground, which ones look like they’re about to, and which ones are fully controlled throughout. It wants to purposely connect to and fittingly resolve the first two films. It wants to deepen its themes, further capitalizing on a post-911 environment and adding in the financial crisis to boot. It wants to return the focus to its protagonist, a character that was somewhat sidelined in the middle film. It wants to raise the stakes, emotionally and physically, as it presents its climax not as the battle between two men or even a battle over the many lives of Gotham City but a battle over these free united states. It wants to deliver a terrifying villain without pretending that he can be as menacing or darkly charismatic as The Joker. It wants to top The Dark Knight without really “topping” it, because, well, is that even possible? Ultimately, with all of these balls in motion, I think Nolan succeeds. It’s such a considerable achievement that it’s difficulty to portray it properly. Nolan had odds stacked against him. He knew how incredible the middle film was. He knew that he didn’t have Heath Ledger. He knew that there are very few great third films. And he knew that expectations would be at a fever pitch. Well, as a conclusive chapter, The Dark Knight Rises does not disappoint. It’s a big, exciting film that offers a Batman at once definitive and highly specific, set within a cinematic world that is very much its own, which means that it can be one of many.
I need to see The Dark Knight Rises again to write anything coherent about it. But my knee-jerk reaction is this: It’s a great third film, perhaps the greatest third film of all time (What’s competing with it? Return of the King is probably the only thing close). It expertly concludes what has come before and manages to succeed on its own terms. But is it The Dark Knight? No. I understand this will be both a heavily criticized and widely felt sentiment, but it nevertheless comes from a genuine place. There is something within the fabric of The Dark Knight that just gets me every time. It’s not a position I can fully defend, but there’s an X-factor present that raises it to my echelon of favorite films with or without its flaws. And it certainly has them. It’s fatty. It contains some subplots that might not need to be there. It seems to forget about its protagonist. It’s perhaps a bit too in love with its villain (but how can you not be?). But, finally, I’m not sure that I care. It’s so atmospherically mesmerizing, so interested in its post-911 tableau, so unapologetically serious that I must forgive its weaknesses. And it features a performance that epitomizes the instantly iconic. So I’m not willing to give this latest installment “best of” honors, but I recognize that the reasons are as much personal as they are anything else. There are so many things that I like about it, and yet, some things that left me scratching my head. Rather than fit them into some kind of expositional flow, I’ll just list them as they come to me. Spoilers will follow so read at your own risk.
Let’s start off with things I wasn’t so crazy about. 1) The first 30-45 minutes. Aside from the introduction of Bane (which fell a little flat thanks to a strangely stilted performance from Aidan Gillen) and of Selina Kyle (which soared thanks to a blast of a performance from Anne Hathaway), I didn’t find the first act particularly interesting. It’s not that nothing was happening: Bane is set up as a fierce enemy, Bruce is a mournful recluse considering putting the cape back on, John Blake is a cop looking to do some good, etc.. It’s just that I didn’t care much about it. Once Bane’s plan is set in motion, however, things really pick up. 2) Cheesiness. I know that the hokey and the comic book can’t really be separated from one another. For all of its tragic overtones, Nolan’s franchise has not exactly shied away from a funny one-liner here or an overly sentimental speech there or whatever. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that I don’t especially enjoy watching it, particularly in the first act. I like some of Selina’s levity and Alfred’s jabs and all that. But as far as the speeches go, as well delivered as they are, there’s probably one too many. Michael Caine’s performance is so heartfelt that it doesn’t really matter, and Miranda Tate’s points of exposition truly drive the story, but some of it feels a bit written. And I could have done without Selina kissing Bruce before he’s about to save the city. Or the hokey reveal to Jim Gordon that Bruce is Batman, when everyone seems to know it already. Or Selina asking Bruce to come away with her or Bruce inexplicably trusting a woman that led him to near-death with some kind of blank-slate (what?) because he somehow sees some good in her. That whole thing didn’t work for me. 3) John Blake. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been as impressed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a lot of people seem to be (he’s great in 50/50, but otherwise…), but I could have done without this whole story. I know that it’s important, but I didn’t enjoy watching it. I didn’t really buy the performance or the backstory, and that speech to Bruce about the boy’s home is more than a bit much. I don’t understand…he knows Bruce is Batman because he recognized the false smile that Bruce shows the world? I checked out completely when Blake tries to rescue the boys. 4) The Miranda Tate reveal. As a twist, it works. But it has no emotional impact whatsoever. The character is a mystery, in the background the whole time, which is part of the set-up to the reveal. And she has a random one-night-stand with Bruce. But she makes so little of an impression before the reveal that you don’t really feel the sting of it when it comes. Maybe if she and Bruce had had an actual relationship, as opposed to a fling, we could have felt the betrayal he feels.
Now for the good. The second and third acts are great, especially when Bane puts his plot in motion and it looks as if all hope is lost for our protagonist. The prison scenes are amazing, tapping into a mythology and connecting to Batman Begins in important ways. The acting is everything we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Michael Caine is heartbreaking. Tom Hardy is a force of nature, expressing emotion even while most of his face is hidden. Christian Bale is so perfect in the role that it’s easy to undervalue his contribution. Gary Oldman is exceptional as he finds new aspects of Gordon to mine. And Anne Hathaway is mesmerizing as an underprivileged individual trying to pick the pockets of the rich. I like how the film questions (dismantles?) the ethics involved in the climactic decision of the middle film. I like the Occupy Wall Street connection, even if some of it could have been more thematically developed. And I love the way that Nolan cross-cuts between action, especially in the final act. Also, the way that the plot against Wayne Enterprises ties into Bane’s plot against Gotham, which ties into the League of Shadows, is all expertly done. So I really enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t feel right picking apart every detail, as some critics are doing. But I also don’t feel right declaring it some kind of masterpiece. It’s a rollicking, highly entertaining, highly ambitious big-budget blockbuster that does what it needs to do against all odds. It demands a second viewing, which is an achievement of itself. I’d be greedy to ask for more. What we have now is one of the greatest trilogies in the history of cinema.