(kudos to http://www.funnyjunk.com/user/fiendtastic for the pic)
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. READ ONLY AFTER WATCHING.
The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) is not a bad movie. But it is a failure.
This is an important distinction to make. See, if I was doing a more standard review of it, TDKR would be a three star movie. But that description lack nuance. It could imply TDKR was a very basic, functional affair, like Innkeepers, which would be entirely the wrong impression. TDKR is a three star movie, because it had ambitions to be a five star movie, but proceeded to cock things up.
Which does mean that this going to be a pretty negative review. On the other hand, because criticism tends to grow strong from the failure of others, it should also be fairly interesting.
TDKR takes place 8 years after the end of the Dark Knight, and things have changed. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired as Batman after taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death. Not that he appears to be needed, what with a number of new, tough, anti-crime laws (known collectively as the Dent Act) managing to keep Gotham’s streets clean without him. At least, that is, until two new foes show up. One is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a highly accomplished cat burglar. The other is Bane (Tom Hardy), a massively strong mercenary with an apparent penchant for Bolshevik-style class warfare. There’s also a new face on team goodie: a hotheaded cop by name of Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who just happens to be Batman’s #1 fan.
Oh and there’s some stuff about a renewable energy project that’s been happening offscreen for ages. There’s also a new woman called Miranda (Marion Cotillard), who kind of just turns up and is all, “I’m totally a main character, despite my mysteriously thin backstory! This is not suspicious! Pay no attention as I win the hero’s trust!”
Now on the whole, the plot is fine. It’s a little overcomplicated and winding, but hey, this is Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. That’s just what he does. TDKR is also very well-shot. One conversation between Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) is particularly impressive for the DP’s manipulation of light and shadow. Hans Zimmer’s score is as great as ever, building tension and making the action sequences feel big and momentous, though its bombast does make it somewhat inflexible. The few throwaway comic lines sprinkled amidst the action are simply flattened by the score’s incessant grandiosity.
The acting is decent. Bale, Caine (Alfred) and Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) remain as good as ever. Levitt is pretty good too, believably earnest and committed to the fight. Hardy does the best he can with a mask covering most of his face, but the fact that his lines are so clearly dubbed robs what expression he can muster of its weight. His accent is also ridiculous. The standout performance is Anne Hathaway, mostly because of one scene early on in the film, where she does this subtle facial transformation that is bloody chameleonic: a truly incredible snippet of acting.
However the best moment of the film concerns something else entirely. Midway through the film, we have ourselves a good ol’ car chase, all cops and robbers. The camera is following a police car, speeding down a tunnel after the bad guys. Tension grips. And then suddenly, in one beautiful moment, all the lights in the tunnel flicker and die. And you know, you know what’s coming, what’s about to happen, because the policeman at the wheel knows, and his look of stunned awe reaches out of the screen and fills you from head to toe with prickling anticipation. Because out of the shadows comes riding, the goddamn Batman.
That is a moment that captures the beating heart of the superhero genre, the moment where an ordinary person finds themselves without warning in the presence of something awesome. Not in the weak, colloquial sense of the word, but something so powerful and grand as to outright demand awe. That feeling, that wonderful rush, that is the reason superheroes are so fucking popular. Not many emotions are as pure, as heady or better suited to cinema, as awe.
And there is almost nothing more tragic than this moment of beauty being surrounded by failure.
TDKR’s character creation is blindingly incompetent throughout. One example, the character of Blake, actually sits down and explains his motivation directly to the camera. Somehow, Nolan managed to forget the first rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell. It’s a rule that can be broken, sure, but not without good reason, especially when you’re detailing a highly emotional event that lies at the core of a major character. You watch this segment, and when you’re done, you know intellectually what motivates Blake. But you never feel the anger that drives him. Nolan effectively prevents you from getting inside his head. And this bit of characterisation is a goddamn triumph compared to the cack-handed creation that is Bane.
I just want to call your attention back, if I may, to the introduction of the Joker in The Dark Knight. That was just the most brilliant cinematic sequence. Exciting, tense, more than a little crazy, all culminating in Heath Ledger’s chilling opening line. But you know what else? That scene was also the most perfect introduction to who the Joker was. The complex, yet perfectly orchestrated heist. The careless disregard for life, whether of others, or his own (the Joker, by taking part secretly in the heist, puts himself at risk of being assassinated by one of his own goons). The contempt for the established order of things (knocking off a mob bank). And the sadistic sense of humour (the joke grenade). All the components of the Joker’s character are laid bare in that scene.
That sequence is not just fun, tense action. It is genius-level storytelling.
Now compare that to the beginning of TDKR. It has, if anything, even more spectacle than the first one, with that insane opening stunt with the planes. It has tension, it has violence. Once again, we see that Bane is a master planner. We also see a willingness to sacrifice the lives of others. So we know that Bane is clever, and evil. But we learn nothing of what motivates him, and no sense of identity within the villainy, as was provided by the Joker’s sense of humour.
This lack is never made up for. And I want to emphasise, this is not me criticising Bane for not being the Joker. Because he is also not the Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy’s character in Batman Begins was a multi-layered creation, a cool affected exterior masking a deranged interior. This multi-layered quality lent a chilling edge to his villainy, and he wasn’t even a particularly important character. Hell, he wasn’t even the main villain and he had more character than Bane does. Bane is not the Joker. But more importantly, he is a bad character: being physically powerful and nasty to subordinates is plenty evil and everything, but also dull and basic. A major villain requires character, beliefs, something to distinguish him from rote, everyday evil, and Bane has none of these.
“But what,” the voices in my head that represent my readership cry, “About the whole 99% thing? What about Bane as a representative of the perverted side of the wealth redistribution movement? What about Bane-in?”
“Ah”, I reply “Thanks for that not at all clumsy segue into my additional problem with TDKR. The total cock-up of the ideological struggle”.
See, the most significant trait of Nolan’s previous Batmans, is the running theme of Batman being more of a symbol than a person. Batman Begins was essentially Batman’s fight to establish himself as Gotham’s symbol of order, his defeat of the League of Shadows being a victory of the spirit of reform over the millennial desire to destroy and rebuild. Batman VS the Joker was very much about the consequences of when order meets, not simply an opposing order (the mob), but unmanaged chaos (The Joker). The added brilliance of The Dark Knight lay in it reflecting, on a fictional stage, what actually happened in reality post-9/11.
Now, TDKR is supposed to have a similar ideological conflict at its core: in essence, a battle against the capitalist underpinnings of the order represented by Batman. It would have been an interesting conflict too: what might a hero’s reaction be, to the fact that his cherished order is built on foundations at best unfair and at worst oppressive. Gotham after all appears to have severe wealth inequality problems.
Except of course (and here’s them SPOILERS kids), this is an ideological conflict existing on the surface only. Because the real villain is not Bane. It’s Talia al’Ghul, the heir to the League of Shadows. That whole 99% VS the 1% thing? It turns out to be empty rhetoric, a smokescreen, existing only to manufacture chaos and win supporters.
So right, League of Shadows, so that’ll be the whole Batman Begins theme being done again right? Well, not exactly. See Bane’s motivator turns out to have been his love for Talia (which has no emotional impact, because the two characters’ feelings are not given enough screentime to be convincing). Meanwhile, Talia’s motivator is revenge for her father (though why she would want to kill herself for her father when he exiled Bane, the love of her life, from the League of Shadows is not particularly well explained). Everyone’s motivators in this fight are strictly personal. So the aspect of ideological conflict that gave the previous two Batman films dramatic power is completely cast away.
What’s worse, this personal motivation is revealed in a series of choppy flashbacks and, again, direct monologues to camera. So though we now know why these characters are doing what they’re doing (though we know too late to save these characters from being bland dimensionless constructs for most of the film), we still don’t feel what motivates them. We never see the growth of Talia and Bane’s relationship. We never feel the love that motivates Bane to sacrifice himself for Talia. Nor do we ever feel Talia’s hatred for Bruce Wayne: it’s simply a plot point, hastily tripped out, then ignored for what’s left of the film.
This then is Nolan’s failure. He provided much in TDKR. He brought spectacle. He brought action. He brought grandiosity and awe. But he left out the intelligence, and, what’s worse, he left out the feeling. He was supposed to create rich, well-developed characters, and instead gave us narrative robots, machines created to drive the plot. Nolan’s Batman series has long been the highlight of the superhero genre for two reasons: interesting, cunningly-created characters, and the fact that their battles were the struggles of ideals, rather than merely human concerns. Somewhere in the process of making TDKR Nolan forgot this.
In doing so, he has made his Godfather 3.