People are going to be saying a lot of things about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, and after seeing it for yourself you're going to know why. Whether they’re debating the film’s complex politics or bitching that there will never be a sequel or just plain telling you how awesome it is (or not, and getting ignorant death threats for being contrarian), there’s one thing I suspect they will all be able to agree on. This film is daring.
The Dark Knight Rises is not just another Batman movie. In fact, in many respects it’s the anti-Batman movie. It’s a movie that dares to claim there probably should never have been a Batman in the first place. It takes the hero to task for having endless riches at his disposal and wasting all of them on a selfish crusade. And it manages to do all of this while still showing Batman in all his glory, kicking ass, taking names and concluding his journey in the most memorable way conceivable without resorting to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, even if it is a teensy bit of a mess.
The story creaks at times, some scenes don’t work, certain money shots are narrowly missed and the centerpiece of the villain’s plan would be hokey in an old James Bond film. Some plot points, though ultimately satisfying, were obvious from the early casting notices. But then again, Nolan’s Batman films were always just shy of absolute perfection. Nitpicks were present right from the beginning. Katie Holmes was miscast, The Joker disappeared in that one scene and the entire ending of Batman Begins is a big plot hole in and of itself. But they’re nitpicks. The worst thing you can probably say about The Dark Knight Rises is that the sound mix is a little off. Bane sounds just fine (most of the time), but it’s baffling that a production of this magnitude would let Hans Zimmer’s score drown out so much of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s dialogue.
The story picks up eight years after The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne has become a famous recluse, Batman has mysteriously vanished and Harvey Dent’s passing has been used to galvanize city officials into signing a questionably constitutional anti-crime act that keeps most of Gotham City’s criminals locked up without the possibility of parole. When Selina Kyle breaks into Wayne Manor to steal a very unexpected item, Bruce Wayne is forced out of retirement to investigate a mystery that leads him to a vast criminal conspiracy led by Bane, a famed terrorist whose face is perpetually hidden by an ominous mask, and who has taken up residency in the sewers beneath Gotham City.
What follows should not be spoiled, but nevertheless tests the limits of Batman’s abilities, Bruce Wayne’s conviction and the citizens of Gotham in a way that not even Heath Ledger’s Joker could have devised. For geeks like myself who notice and care about such things, the story borrows heavily from both Knightfall, the original comic book storyline in which Bane broke Batman’s back and spirit, as well as – surprisingly enough – No Man’s Land. If you know what that is, your curiosity has been piqued. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m not about to spoil it for you now. That’s what Wikipedia is for.
The important thing to focus on is that Christopher Nolan’s eye for purely cinematic storytelling remains as impeccable as ever, the increasingly large cast of characters is wonderfully utilized and the action, though a bit sporadic, satisfies thanks to clever conceptualization and a bravura use of 70mm photography, which looks more 3D than 3D ever has. This is what cinematography is capable of, even if a few shots here and there seem to imply that focusing on the actor’s faces was merely a polite suggestion.
Pages and pages and pages will be written in the future about the film’s troubling themes, which could be argued are pro-1% or pro-99% or even just the petulant sneers of a filmmaker angry at the world for perpetuating the fragile status quo. But I think the greater issue on Nolan’s mind is that in one way or another, everyone is accountable for their actions, good and bad. Batman brought a lot of good to the world, but at the cost of perhaps even greater benevolence on the part of Bruce Wayne. The rich and powerful deserve to be taken to task for their misdeeds, but not to be victimized in overzealous attempts at retribution. The underprivileged are entitled to stimulate genuine change, and yet are susceptible to their own corruption in the process.
It’s a powerful film. A great film. A messy film nonetheless. But it’s almost shockingly bold in its attempt to use the Batman mythos as a delivery system for thought-provoking discussions of relevant issues. I’m not surprised that some people don’t like it. At times it outright damns the events of The Dark Knight, a film that many – including myself – consider one of the best films of the last decade. And it certainly flies in the face of the gee whiz blockbuster that was The Avengers, as brilliant as Joss Whedon’s film was on its own merits. The Avengers spent their film punching everything in the face. Batman spends his entire 164-minute running time punching the audience in the gut and leaving them wanting more.
Photo Credit: Ron Phillips