THE DARK KNIGHT RISES movie review
The Dark Knight Rises
*1/2 out of ****
I haven’t written a review on this site in year. Why am I writing this one? Because I can’t contain my contempt for The Dark Knight Rises and all of its careless storytelling, unwieldy filmmaking and lazy character development. Because it doesn’t succeed on any level, outside of Nolan’s ego-driven, James Cameron-like screwing around. Because the only thing epic about the finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is its failure. It just doesn’t work.
I won’t go heavy into plot here. I assume anyone reading this will have seen it. But for anyone who hasn’t, here’s the gist: Big bad Bane tries to destroy Gotham with a nuclear bomb fulfilling the legacy of Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows introduced in Batman Begins. (Selina Kyle is in this movie, too, but it doesn’t really matter.) Also, there are spoilers ahead.
Why it fails as a standalone picture
I’m one of those people who still believes that Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight, is no masterpiece. It’s fun as hell for two-thirds of the movie, then the film collapses in the third act. (For me, the hospital explosion is where everything great in The Dark Knight ends.) You can forgive a film its early missteps if it nails the landing. The Dark Knight didn’t do that.
With The Dark Knight Rises, the exact opposite happens… sort of. Nolan zooms to the finale dismissing any concern for the characters or a coherent narrative. It’s completely hollow, balls-to-the-wall spectacle that, had it been directed by Michael Bay, would have been derided by fans and critics alike.
The transition to this grand finale, where Bane and escaped prisoners from Gotham’s Blackgate Prison take civil control of the city and sentence Gotham’s one percent to death or exile (there’s no other option), is a hamfisted and terribly edited montage. It features the prisoners tearing apart the city with voiceover from Bane. The montage is so so confusing that you don’t know if what you’re seeing on screen is actually happening within the timeline of the film. The film jumps ahead, months at a time, from here, simply to get to the ultimate showdown between a Batman-lead Gotham PD and Bane’s army of criminals. Again, we see more Michael Bay here, especially in that last hour and a half, than we do Nolan.
By the end of the film, we don’t care about the excessive number of characters, both new and old, because we are never given a reason to… no matter how much Nolan wants to make us believe we do.
Why it fails as a superhero movie
This one is easy, partially because its the same criticism Nolan has received since he first started making Batman movies in 2005. Nolan takes all the fun out of the genre. Even the weakest entries in other franchises, say Spider-Man 3, The Hulk or even Superman Returns, have moments that are entertaining. There’s a camp value to Schumacher’s Batman movies that, even at their worst, make them ridiculous on a grand scale.
Nolan and his co-writer/brother Jonathan make a conscious effort here to zap the life out of every character, to make you feel their pain. This is most often demonstrated by excessive brooding, tears welling up in characters eyes, and making big bad Bane cry (yes, that actually happens).
Think back to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. At least the villains were entertaining (Two-Face aside). A cameo by Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow) is the closest we get to any single character enjoying himself in this movie. His few moments on screen are a pleasure because his giddy madness, fleeting as it may be, is a welcome relief from the grand scale misery of everyone else.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. There’s nothing profound in Nolan’s Batman movies. While he made people take the genre seriously, it’s not a genre anyone asked to be taken seriously. Compare that to Marvel’s films, even the weaker ones. Each of those movies (Thor, Iron Man, and two pop masterpieces, Captain America and The Avengers) are not only more entertaining, but they really are closer to the blockbusters of the late-70s and early-80s than anything we could ever hope to see.
Why it fails as the final movie in a trilogy
I’ll make this one short. Outside of a references to Harvey Dent and the death of Rachel Dawes, The Dark Knight Rises is not part of a trilogy. It is a continuation of Batman Begins. (More on this in the “Batman” section.)
Granted the Nolans weren’t given much room to maneuver with the tragic death of Heath Ledger, but the psychological toll of a run-in with the Joker isn’t even acknowledged here. It’s as if it never happened, except as a means to kill Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. (This diminishes The Dark Knight’s value even more than the third act collapse.) We’re merely lead to believe that Bruce Wayne is coping with the death of Rachel and not a nemesis that pushed him to his limit. The film makes an attempt to have us believe that Harvey Dent’s death needed to happen, if only to force Bruce Wayne to believe that he has to be Batman, that he can’t be anything else. This idea leads to a pointless confrontation with Alfred that doesn’t add to the story because, as I mention above, it’s never about the story here… it’s about the empty spectacle.
Why it fails as a Christopher Nolan movie
I respected Nolan before The Dark Knight Rises, and I’ll still respect him after it. I like Christopher Nolan’s movies. I like them a lot. He’s an auteur if there ever was one. Just like Martin Scorsese who is saddled with Italian Catholic guilt, Steven Spielberg who focuses on fatherhood, or Tarantino who disassembles and reassembles genre, Nolan’s movies, all of them, feature men driven to the edge because of a tragic past with women. He also has the ability, like the best 70s filmmakers, to make smart blockbusters. It’s a rare talent these days, most brilliantly demonstrated with Inception, his $250 million marriage of the art house and the multiplex.
Let’s start with the women. When you get right down to it, women are simply plot devices in all of Nolan’s movies. But he never lets you believe that. He’s always risen above that simple idea making you focus on the man-driven-to-the-edge story. With The Dark Knight Rises, you have not one but three women being used as plot devices (more on that in the “Batman” section). You’re beaten over the head with Rachel, while Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle and Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate are there to make Bruce forget about Rachel, kind of, and accomplish simple, one-note actions. The women are treated as chess pieces and are as easily dismissed as pawns once their purpose is served.
That’s because of the second problem. Nolan didn’t make an smart blockbuster. He made a blockbuster that masquerades as something profound. He flipped his formula here because The Dark Knight Rises is focused more on scale because he’s convinced it’s serious drama.
I don’t begrudge Nolan his failure here. Spielberg made War of the Worlds and Indy 4. Scorsese made Cape Fear and Shutter Island. Tarantino made Death Proof. It happens to the best of them. It’s that it happened with Batman that makes it a bigger problem. Which brings me to…
Why it fails as a Batman movie
The Dark Knight Rises really is as bad as Batman & Robin.
Sure Batman & Robin has bad production value, too much camp and homoeroticism (for a character the even Grant Morrison acknowledges is gay?), terrible acting and horrible writing, but the way characters are mishandled is really where the movie fails.
The Dark Knight Rises works much the same way. Take his disregard for the breadth and depth of the Two-Face character’s history in The Dark Knight. Now apply that to Selina Kyle, Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. It’s enough to frustrate even a lesser fanboy. Selina Kyle is demoted to the role of sidekick, her only purpose is to save Batman’s ass at the end of the movie. Jim Gordon is demoted to the role of errand boy, chasing down trucks in the streets of Gotham. And Alfred leaves Batman’s side, a shameful exercise in redeveloping a character for film if there ever was one. If not for Nolan’s success with Ra’s al Ghul, the Scarecrow and the Joker, I’d say there was an open contempt for comic books. (That he calls the Gotham football team the Rogues and has the opposing team come from Rapid City, not Metropolis or Central City, only emphasizes this.)
Okay, so Nolan hollows out characters with steeped histories in the Batman universe. Where does he put that focus? On Bane, getting him kind of right but only with the passion of someone who leafed through the few comics the villain is featured in. League of Shadows member (Legacy). Check. Break Batman’s back (Knightfall). Check. And there’s our Bane. To keep the “realistic” tone of the Nolan Batman movies, there’s no Venom, which undercuts Batman, who still gets his back crushed by a Venom-less Bane.
That leaves two utter failures in terms of using Batman universe characters, Robin and Talia al Ghul (aka Miranda Tate). Joseph Gordon Levitt plays John Blake, a Gotham cop who draws outside the lines. In the closing moments of the film, it’s revealed that John Blake’s name is Robin John Blake. This hurts for two reasons. First, John Blake is the only character in the film who doesn’t whine and cry his way through the picture. He’s the guy who tells Batman to man up.
You can feel the Robin thing coming from a mile away, but sitting in the theater you just kept hoping it doesn’t play out that way. Let him be Jean-Paul Valley, who becomes Batman in the Knightquest saga after Bane breaks Batman’s back in Knightfall. No. Instead we skip ahead to Robin becoming Batman like Dick Grayson did, without any drama… and without being any Robin we’ve ever known. Even at the last second, before they reveal his name is Robin, I was still hoping they would say Jean-Paul. Nope. Screw you, Batman fans.
Then there’s Talia al Ghul. Miranda Tate as Talia is an even less surprising reveal than the Robin reveal because anyone with a basic knowledge of the Batman universe knows that if there’s a League of Shadows, Talia can’t be far behind. The dynamic between Talia, Batman and her father (Ra’s) is always interesting. She doesn’t just blindly follow in her father’s (Ra’s) footsteps. She doesn’t avenge his death, and she actually loves Bruce Wayne. Other than one rather depressing roll in the hay, which in the end is all part of Talia’s scheme, we never get a moment’s hesitation from Talia. No actual moment of love. No questioning her father’s legacy. And then, she’s dead. Moreover, because Selina Kyle and Talia al Ghul split the role of love interest and villain. Neither character is fully formed. They’re both just there. They’re just plot devices. A failure that reverberates throughout the motion picture.
I know this is the finale that Nolan wanted about as much as I did. The Joker should have been there. It should have married the first two movies. But Heath Ledger is only part of the problem. When it comes right down to it, The Dark Knight Rises has the same problem as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand before it. The scope was as big as the egos behind them. But whereas studio interference can be blamed for those projects, the failure here falls squarely on the shoulders of Nolan, his brother and David Goyer who came up with the story.
If you want the real grand finale to the Nolan trilogy, just go play the video game Arkham City. I’m sure that’s closer to the movie Nolan and company wanted to make. Instead we got this: A movie that fails in every way it possibly could.