Let me begin by saying that, on balance, I quite liked the Dark Knight Rises. Overall, I think it stands up and has something interesting to say. I don’t agree with its politics (which are not that coherent in any case as I will explore), but you have to be fairly insecure in your views to not like a film simply because you don’t agree with the ideology behind it. A well executed film has a point of view, even if that point of view is tosh. The Dark Knight Rises certainly has one, which is better than most Batman stories which simply glide over the pro-capitalist, authoritarian wish-fulfilment which is at the core of the character.
As a geek, the film was also fun in terms of spotting all the references. One of the most fun aspects of the Nolan Batman films is spotting all the references and nods to some of the best strips we’ve had over the years. Batman Begins mashes up Year One with Ra’s al Ghul lore and some of the Long Halloween; The Dark Knight has a lot in common with Dark Victory (especially the fall of Harvey Dent), but with lots of nods to The Killing Joke and the other better Joker stories. The Dark Knight Rises, of course, is a mash up of Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns. But for me, the nods I most enjoyed were references to lesser known bits of the canon such as the underrated No Man’s Land and Year Three (the bit when Blake declares he as always known about Bruce Wayne being Batman is clearly a nod to the revelation by Timothy Drake, the Robin he most closely resembles in terms of temperament).
Threequels which satisfyingly tie up the series are a distinct rarity (yes Spider-Man 3, I’m looking at you), so the fact that this film manages to take the series back to the beginning, as well as satisfyingly coming to a full stop, is something to be grateful about. Ra’s revelation in Batman Begins about wanting to revenge the death of his wife now looks, in retrospect, as if the Nolans had planned this all along. The direct comparison to the prison and the old well Bruce falls down as a child, was also particularly enjoyable. Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed; this is a solid piece of work I’m sure I will get more out of on repeat viewings.
I can’t help feeling it missed a few tricks. It was a worthy follow up to Batman Begins, but as the sequel to the Dark Knight it was fairly underwhelming. We get to see that Gotham has prospered under a lie (that Dent is a martyr and Batman a traitor), but the film utterly fails to spell out how that decision leads to Bane’s eventual success. The Dent Act would appear to be some way of keeping the gangbangers under some kind of permanent detention, horrific from a liberal point of view but also quite expensive and impractical. Are we really meant to believe that this hasn’t lead to lots of innocent people being locked up and that, with all this unaccountable power, the police have become less corrupt, not more? It’s a situation that doesn’t satisfy either the liberals or the authoritarians: the authoritarians can’t be happy that this approach is seemingly responsible for the eventual destruction of the city; the liberals can’t believe it could possibly have lasted as long as it did.
I didn’t like the way they handled Bruce Wayne at the start of the film. Part of the problem was that they were going, very self-consciously, for a mirror image of the start of the Dark Knight Returns. While the Gotham of Returns has sunk to a new low, the Gotham of Rises is experiencing a renaissance. Similarly, while the Bruce Wayne at the start of Returns is a philandering playboy, the Bruce Wayne of Rises has become a recluse (both of which evoke different faces of Howard Hughes, but that’s another matter).
I understand why they took this choice, but it didn’t work for me. Essentially, we are being asked to buy into the idea that Bruce Wayne has sat in the same room for eight years; it doesn’t ring true, and it makes it pretty likely that Wayne is Batman (even if you hadn’t figured out that he must be a billionaire with access to military technology by that point). This isn’t a fallen Dark Knight, this is a Dark Knight in suspended animation. Worse than being unconvincing, it’s boring.
Because his fall from grace amounts to little more than a stumble, it makes his rise far less interesting. Indeed, it’s barely noteworthy at all. Possibly, this is deliberate because Nolan wanted to make the broken bat subplot that much more impactful later on, but it means the first act never really gets moving.
The film’s portrayal of Catwoman is… mixed. On the plus side, this is clearly relatable to the Selina Kyle of the comics. However much I might love Batman Returns (and I do), Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman takes as many liberties with the source material as, well, Danny DeVito’s Penguin.
It is interesting that they chose to dress her in the same way she is depicted by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Merriweather in the 60s TV series and not, say, as designed by Darwyn Cooke in the iconic 2004 reboot – a vastly more sexy (and less exploitative) version. As it stands, at time her character seems quite out of place in a film which is struggling to retain a cynical and gritty vibe: I kept expecting the POW!!s and WACK!!!s to appear onscreen the first time she fights Bane’s henchmen with Batman.
Anne Hathaway’s casting made people nervous, even 7 years after Brokeback Mountain (if you can’t get over the fact she was in the Princess Diaries, that’s your problem), but she delivers all anyone could have expected of her. The problem is, she isn’t given much to do, and this is a real problem for me. Given the very obvious influence the Jeff Loeb/Tim Sale iteration of Batman has had on the films, it was surprising they didn’t tie her back to the Falcone family who were such a central part of Begins and the Dark Knight. Without such an arc, she ends up as a femme without the fatale – indeed, someone who is destined to become little more than Bruce Wayne’s wife (I’ll come back to that ending later). In this respect, the Catwoman of Batman Begins is a far more interesting character, one who has far more less reason to walk away and yet does anyway. It was downright cruel to offer us the glimpse of an interesting, kick-ass Catwoman only to spend three hours taking her away from us in slow motion.
I read a lot of people say that Gotham is a character in her own right in Nolan’s films; personally, I’ve always been disappointed by his portrayal of the city. Admittedly, to an extent I just have to get over the fact they didn’t reuse Anton Furst’s designs or get another artist in to reimagine the city from the ground up. But for me, Nolan’s Gotham just looks like a generic urban sprawl: on location shots of New York and Chicago with all their iconic buildings strategically avoided or digitally removed (which is exactly what it is). If you want to give a city a personality, you have to give it a face.
But more than that, the populace of Nolan’s Gotham don’t seem to have much of an identity either. The Spider-Man films invest New York with so much personality that the point in which the ordinary people help Spidey out has become a cliche (it was quite wearisome in Amazing Spider-Man – you could see it coming a mile away). The people of Gotham, by contrast, are just used as fodder in this film. At least at the end of the Dark Knight, the people on the ferries have a Noo Yawk moment of their own (oh yeah, about that bit when the prisoners refuse to kill the citizens: how does that square with the city going on to pass the Dent Act); in Rises they don’t do anything at all.
Again, as a sequel to the Dark Knight, this sucks. We are invited to think of the Joker’s reign of terror as a sort of 9/11, so why doesn’t Rises explore that at all? Instead, once again we’re in suspended animation territory, with the huddled masses sitting around waiting for either the police (who spend three months underground yet emerge neither deranged or even noticeably unshaven) or Batman to come and save them. Are we meant to believe no one, apart from the police and a few business executives, would do anything to resist Bane? It is at this point that the film slips from authoritarian wish fulfilment and into swivel-eyed Atlas Shrugged territory. As I said, this doesn’t fit with the setup of the Dark Knight at all.
I’ve been harsh here. I’m not a fan of Bane, but I did like Tom Hardy’s portrayal and the way they integrated his backstory quite cleverly with Ra’s al Ghul’s. Anyone who knew the comics could see the Talia reveal coming a mile away, but even with that said it was well done. If you focus on the Batman bits, and ignore the frankly confused story about Gotham, it’s a neat little story. The only bit that really struck a wrong note for me in terms of the Batman story was the final shot in the film, which had been foreshadowed earlier in the film, in which Alfred spots Wayne and Kyle in a Parisian bistro.
This was a horrifying way to end the film, and quite odd for Nolan, the king of ambiguity, to finish off his series. It is a bit like him deciding to end Inception with the spinning top falling over. If the film had ended with a close up of Michael Caine’s face, his eyes lightening up, I would have been entirely happy. But that final shot of Bale and Hathaway diminishes their characters. The strong implication was that, after an adventure, they were looking forward to a life of conventionality and mediocrity. I know they could have just been dressing up for Alfred’s benefit and that in reality, Wayne was now Selena Kyle’s gimp who she lead around on a leash, but that final shot meant the film ended on a full stop and not a question mark. However much Nolan wanted to make it clear he would be making no more Batman films, this was a bad note to end it on.
So in the end, while the Dark Knight Rises delivers in ending a series in a perfectly workmanlike way, it is clear that it could have been so much more. The politics, as rightwing as Batman has ever been, ultimately undermine a film that had a lot of more interesting avenues to explore than this frame could allow. The quest for the perfect threequel continues.