Film Review: “The Dark Knight Rises”

by Jason LeRoy on July 19, 2012

Christian Bale in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Juno Temple

written by: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan

directed by: Christopher Nolan

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language

I am not envious of the position Christopher Nolan was in following the phenomenal critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight. After the comparatively modest and expository Batman Begins, The Dark Knight immediately declared that the time for slow-burn origin stories was over with its explosive, adrenaline-pumping opening heist sequence. More so than anything in the first film, this astounding scene proved to be Nolan’s set-piece calling card. And, of course, it introduced us to Heath Ledger’s iconic Oscar-winning performance as The Joker. It is impossible to know if the clamoring response to the film would have been different without the ghoulish real-life circumstances of Ledger’s death six months before it opened. But whatever the case, The Dark Knight had a stronger impact on the cultural landscape than any other superhero film in the last twenty years.

But how much of that film’s success was due to Ledger? Yes, Nolan co-wrote the character and directed the performance, but ultimately it was Ledger who permanently imprinted himself onto the collective cultural consciousness (how many years will it be before one can say “Why so serious?” without getting a slight chill), and obviously the added dimension of his death and the morbid publicity boost it provided the film could not have been anticipated. So here we are, four years later, and Nolan finds himself having to prove how much of that film’s effectiveness was due to his creativity and storytelling prowess, and how much was just pure lightning-in-a-bottle zeitgeist. From what we can see in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s instinct was to distract from Ledger’s absence by creating a final chapter so rich, layered, and overstuffed, it is essentially the turducken of summer blockbusters. Like a turducken, there is plenty to chew on here, but it’s a lot to take in a single sitting, and will take quite some time to digest.

In Gotham, it has been eight years since Batman (Christian Bale) participated in the coverup of Harvey Dent’s homicidal breakdown by letting himself take the fall for Dent’s death. Bruce Wayne, still walking with a limp (real physical consequences, what a novel idea!), has essentially been living in exile with Alfred (Michael Caine) ever since, while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is forced to smile through memorial ceremonies commemorating Dent’s heroic legacy, despite knowing the real story. Bruce’s contact with his struggling company has become virtually nonexistent, to the bemused frustration of besotted board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

But inevitably, like Cher going on one last farewell tour, shit starts to happen to pull Bruce out of retirement. It begins somewhat innocuously with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a peerlessly clever cat burglar who meets Bruce while stealing his mother’s pearls. Selina is like a somewhat less noble Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to…herself, mostly. She warns Bruce of a coming storm, invoking the first of the film’s many Occupy allusions when she adds, “…you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Bruce is glib about Selina’s warnings, but it turns out that a storm is really coming: a hulking, masked, hard-to-understand storm named Bane (Tom Hardy) that speaks in the kind of exaggeratedly menacing voice you’d expect to hear piped into the speaker behind your head on the Haunted Mansion ride.

And there I go making the same mistake Bruce made, being glib about a significant threat. Because in Bane, Bruce meets a stronger challenge than he has ever encountered before. Bane comes from a background of extreme poverty and degradation and, to put it mildly, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about wealth disparity. He rises through the subterranean ranks of Gotham’s poor and disenfranchised, organizing a powerful rebellion against the city’s 1% and the institutional forces that seem to exist solely to protect them and reinforce this broken economic structure — except Bane’s plans for Gotham are a lot more nihilistic than merely redistributing the wealth by force.

So, in lieu of the circumstantial zeitgeist of The Dark Knight, here Nolan is strenuously attempting to make the most zeitgeisty superhero film imaginable. While the last film flirted with political allegory with its allusions to illegal Bush-era wiretapping in its final act, The Dark Knight Rises functions as a thinly-veiled socioeconomic cautionary tale from beginning to end. It is impossible — IMPOSSIBLE — to view Bane’s uprising without thinking about Occupy. Nolan has imagined a vivid and startling dystopia in which the Occupy movement is seized by extremist econoterrorist anarchists; which is to say, “Imagine if Occupy did more than just assemble hobocamps?” This is class warfare at its most literal. Which, of course, makes this movie the exact opposite of what Rush Limbaugh (in a rare uninformed opinion!) has been ranting about. Nolan’s vision is far too complex to be fully labeled as conservative or liberal, but insofar as it valorizes law enforcement and demonizes its Occupy surrogates as a pack of violent anarchist thugs, I think The Dark Knight Rises can safely be considered a bit more conservative than progressive.

But sociopolitical subtext aside, how is The Dark Knight Rises as a film? Well, it’s deathly serious and less fun than ever (contrary to The Onion’s report). It is also very long, clocking in at nearly three hours. And yet despite its length, it still feels weirdly clipped and abridged. The plot takes a number of short cuts, some more noticeable than others, that the audience is willing to overlook in the interest of just keeping things moving. One assumes that Nolan has a considerably lengthier cut of the film up his sleeve, and I for one would be happy to watch it. He is nothing if not an expert storyteller, and I would love to see his fully-realized vision of this epic conclusion.

Still, The Dark Knight Rises never quite surpasses its predecessor. It suffers from having way too much, and yet simultaneously not enough. It overflows abundantly with characters and subplots, and yet lacks a moment as powerful as Rachel’s death or a performance as memorable as Ledger’s. Bale and Hardy making primarily physical impressions. Oldman and Caine are at least given stronger arcs than in the previous films, playing them beautifully. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does strong (and rousingly butch) work as a good-hearted police officer. Cotillard is luminous and hypnotic, although she grievously misplays a pivotal moment (you’ll know it when you see it). But perhaps the biggest news here is Hathaway, boldly embracing yet another way to play against type. She tones down her more theatrical tendencies and registers a sly, winningly slinky performance; she even acquits herself nicely in some of her choreographed fight scenes, the thought of which at first seems like a rather comical proposition.

If The Dark Knight Rises reads as a slight disappointment, it’s only because Nolan set the bar so impossibly high for himself with The Dark Knight (and, by proxy, Inception). By any other standard, it would be a masterpiece. It is frequently stunning and, in the end, warmly satisfying. Christopher Nolan has crafted an appropriately ambitious and thoroughly thoughtful conclusion to what will likely be remembered as the definitive cinematic superhero trilogy.

The Dark Knight Rises opens at midnight nationwide.

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