It seems too strange to write about The Dark Knight Rises while sitting on this particular square of the calendar without at least acknowledging the most grimly notorious midnight show of all time. I saw Christopher Nolan’s concluding spin with Batman just over twenty-four hours after I woke up to mind-boggling news about a psychopath who chose to air his personal issues by defiling my cathedral of choice, and it was impossible to watch certain portions of the movie without thinking of the news story that was still unfolding, the confusion that still hung like a giant veil and, more somberly, the names that were still being revealed. Wryly comic dialogue about guns, for example, had an entirely different ring to it than anyone could have previously imagined. The tragic events of Aurora, Colorado were surely on my mind, but I don’t think they ultimately impacted my view of the film. As I noted, the movie theater is my cathedral of choice, and no nut with a disregard for humanity is going to take that away from me. The Dark Knight Rises is forever tied to brutality not of its making, but it is still its own piece of art. The best spiritual rebuttal I can provide to the sadness of the moment is to seek solace in the same place I always have: at the movies.
Christopher Nolan isn’t just regarded as a fine director for his work on the 21st century cinematic iterations of DC Comics’s caped crusader, films that have relegated previously well-regarded work by director Tim Burton almost all the way to the same dilapidated household reserved for dismissible camp that his 1989 film, Batman, and its sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, decisively shoved the nineteen-sixties TV series. (Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films took their empty heads and joyfully set up residence there in the first place.) He’s treated as a visionary, someone who looked into the history of the character and saw its dark heart, playing up the deadly serious aspects of the well-worn story in a way that was incongruous with most previous superhero films. Even Bryan Singer’s brooding X-Men in 2000 had a sense of fun about it, a readiness to stand happily agog before the costumed beings performing miracles simply by thinking about it.
Nolan’s films were something different: dirty-nailed epics that just so happened to have capes and masks instead of samurai swords or six-shooters. The films he made were strong and fascinating (one of them is quite good indeed), but they also had their muddled qualities in the storytelling and the staging, as if the absence of broader novelty–a backwards plot or an adventure of the mind that folds in on itself–inspired Nolan to pile in more than the films could truly bear. There were always enough amazing elements that proved suitably compensatory for the flaws, but his latest effort, billed as the end of the Dark Knight trilogy, finds the balance finally thrown out of whack, completely exposing the faulty underpinnings that have perhaps been there all along.
The Dark Knight Rises begins chronologically eight years after its predecessor, The Dark Knight. Batman hasn’t been seen in Gotham City since he rode off while James Gordon offer his melancholy assessment of the fated solitude of the “silent guardian.” A mythology has been built up around Harvey Dent, deceased district attorney and possessor of a symmetrically split visage, that has allowed for tough crime bills that have largely cleaned up the city streets. As played once again by Christian Bale, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne is locked in glum isolation in his stately manor, hobbling around due to injuries sustained during his crime-fighting days. He coaxed back into action first by a comely cat burglar played by Anne Hathaway, and then a hulking figure with a mesh strainer held to his maw by a repurposed ball gag. His name is Bane, and he’s played by Tom Hardy, although the actor’s personality is blunted to such a degree that it’s hard to fathom why Nolan bothered when he may as well have followed Schumacher’s lead and grabbed the first pro wrestler who walked by the set.
What follows spins away from the implausible–reasonable territory for a superhero movie after all–and rushes headlong towards the nonsensical. Bane is an anarchist revolutionary who wants to exact vengeance of Gotham City, or maybe just its ruling elite, supposedly empowering the lower class (a group manipulated with remarkable ease in Nolan’s estimation) to run rampage over the metropolis after he blows up a few bridges, theoretically cutting it off completely from the rest of the country. If Gotham City has a professional football team, I’d wager they have an airport, and also that the federal government isn’t actually all that likely to treat an enormous city being usurped with the policy equivalent of muttering, “Whatever.” What’s worse, the story (credited to Nolan and David S. Goyer, and then turned into a script with his brother Jonathan Nolan) ultimate results on that hoariest of action clichés, the bomb that’s set to go off with a nice clear timer affixed to its side counting down the hours, minutes and seconds. (Although, initially the timing of the explosion is said to be tied to a deterioration of components that would be far more difficult to predict with such exactitude.) The timekeeping device isn’t really needed, though, as every character onscreen always seems to know precisely how much time is left, even when, say, they’ve just returned to the city after several months away in an isolated prison pit.
I could keep listing the legion of plot holes, garbled politics and leaden delivery of supposed subtle information, but why bother? The Dark Knight Rises isn’t really a clumsy failure in its particulars. It’s the totality of its misguided conception that sinks the film, which manages to feel bereft of ideas and inspiration despite having the sort of sizable, accomplished cast that was once reserved only for nineteen-seventies disaster flicks and a running time that pushes shamefully close to three hours. Almost everyone onscreen seems distracted or bored. Michael Caine (age 79) and Morgan Freeman (age 75) especially comes across like they simply don’t want to be there. There’s a scene in which Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth reacts to the tempest of wind a flying vehicle makes when it docks in the Batcave, and I swear I saw the actor himself decide he wanted out of the movie franchise right then and there. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the one performer still striving to create a character instead of a rickety construct, and the grinding mechanics of the film even manage to defeat him.
Nolan has drawn some praise for the way The Dark Knight Rises specifically and deliberately draws upon plot threads from its predecessors, but I’m not sure that’s exactly worth celebrating if the film that does it is woefully hollow, marked not by the payoff of patiently realized foresight but instead the boredom of retrod ground. I would have rather it stood entirely separate from the other two installments, sparing them the indignity of the sort of retroactive disappointment that leaves smeared memories of Sam Raimi’s superlative Spider-Man films because it got really bad when Venom showed up and Peter Parker brushed his hair into emo bangs. I agreed with that assessment of Nolan as a visionary, but his last spin through Gotham City proves that even his vision can get dangerously, disastrously blurred.