This review shouldn’t need to be written for another Nolan movie, but there is the recent release of The Dark Knight Rises to be considered. The new movie isn’t so surprising considering Nolan’s previous work. In fact with only a few minor things the themes and approaches I expected to be most prevalent were. The Dark Knight Rises is not a particularly good movie, in fact The Dark Knight is probably the better film in the Nolan trilogy, but rather than being quick to only deride this film I will start with some positives.
First, Catwoman is a really enjoyable addition to Nolan’s movies. In fact she is very nearly a break from Nolan’s usual characters and particularly his usual women characters. The simple fact of the matter is that Catwoman is just more fun. Anne Hathaway isn’t doing much, she’s mostly easy on the eyes, but I can appreciate the joy and vigor of her character. It’s so refreshing to have a character who is different in the pleasure she gets from what she’s doing put next to all these stone-faced weirdos. Again, watching Anne Hathaway be that character could literally be a national pass time--she has thigh-high boots with 6 inch heels and a tight suit.
The only other characters in Nolan’s previous movies that actually have a vague notion of pleasure in what they do are always the most refreshing. This was the case with Maroni in The Dark Knight. Every time Eric Roberts was on screen it was obvious how content and pleasing the experience of being a mobster was to the character and to the actor. His flippant lines like “I thought the DA just played golf with the mayor” break up what is the monotony of that movie’s character interactions. Nolan doesn’t seem to take pleasure in his characters, neither do his characters seem to take pleasure in their lives. The Prestige, Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight they’re all about all these tortured souls and his characters get to the point of be really unrelenting and perverse. I really don’t care for such a trying gauntlet of character all the time, and it really shows Nolan’s limitations as a writer/director.
The second most positive thing about The Dark Knight Rises, and probably also the most unexpected, was having Bane as a physical equal to Batman. Bane is this unknown villain, and there aren’t any expectations for him rather shoes to fill. He really delivered, though, in only one department and that was as this physical equal to Batman. Basically Batman never has a fair fight, in terms of ass-kicking units Batman is unmatched. Until Bane shows up. I fully expected Bane to break Batman’s back, but having them fight was vastly more interesting because they were some obviously well matched. Nolan does deserve credit in this area, the ball could have been dropped and the fights not have been as hard hitting. I’d like to stress at this point that Bane as Batman’s physical equal is basically the extent of my appreciation for the character.
One final positive note I have for this movie was the revivalist angle of the first hour. I was amazed by how old fashioned some of the scenes seemed until Batman made his return to crime fighting and the movie took a turn for the overwrought and altogether worse. Some of the wit and antics around Catwoman, having Wayne manor with a more reclusive billionaire-genius, and most importantly an underground lair with worthless minions banging rocks together all contributed to an enjoyable viewing experience. I was ready for a black turtleneck that proclaimed "HENCHMAN" and I shouldn't have been so optimistic.
Bane’s minions and subterranean lair were far and away the most satisfying and illustrative revivalist qualities. For a little while The Dark Knight rises felt like an unlikely throw back to some of the more kitschy approaches of earlier iterations. Gordon goes down a sewer and stumbles upon a clandestine army of mindless workers banging rocks together and living in fear of their mysterious leader. It called to mind the classics such as Dr. No. It seemed in that moment with nameless, faceless, fearful technicians running about that if Nolan had gone with the Penguin instead of Bane he wouldn’t have shortchanged his audience on a submarine and avian mind-control plot. I really wanted to see just how far Nolan would go with that approach. Unfortunately not far enough.
It’s difficult to tell in The Dark Knight Rises if Nolan was trying to be a little less serious and relish in an amount of absurdity and extravagance or if he really just overstepped the line and made this movie way to big. How much more Nolan had to do with the characters and in what degree is a bit of a mystery. The fact of the matter is that this movie is so epic, ridiculous in every way to the film’s detriment that either Nolan was being cavalier with caution and recognizes that this movie isn’t as serious as his other works try to be, or he thought that this was indeed a fitting end to what I think is a bit of a baffling phenomenon of a trilogy.
Here’s the thing, Batman is the savior of Gotham--I know that--but in this movie he actually has to save Gotham. Batman has to save 12 million people from a bomb and a madman. And he has to climb out of a bottomless pit in Asia with a broken back to do it. And the problems are so obvious I don’t think it comes down to a matter of the literal logic, the philosophical underpinnings of the characters that are making this a lesser film.
Bane proclaims that he is returning Gotham to the people by holding the entire city hostage and setting up a guerrilla police state. I think that the League of Shadows angle is more legitimate and interesting than the nihilism that was so dominant in The Dark Knight, but Bane’s plan seems pretty counter intuitive to his allegiance and ideology. His investment and maintenance of the populist anarchy is a little comical. Consider, after fifty days of looting and riots in a people’s Gotham if 6,000,001 of Gotham’s 12 million hostages filed a petition with Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) saying that they wanted to rebuild one of the bridges or even contact the US army in favor. Bane would likely have no choice but to put his bomb away.
But what is more painful to watch here is the absurdity of the scale--millions of lives at stake, a literal war on the streets, a nuclear bomb--compared to the minimalism of the response. The army is on the bridge and they don’t move in. Batman is Gotham’s only hope; thematically sound but outrageous on this scale. All of Gotham’s police are trapped underground for 80 days, and although people on the outside are dropping notes down drains to talk to them, they can’t get them out. Blake’s plan to evacuate Gotham--a handful of savvy orphans spread the word block by block. I was laughing at all the wrong things.
The rest of the movie’s plotting is altogether topical. This movie will do well because it speaks to people now. Occupation uprisings, economic terrorism, pre and post “war time” drivel--Nolan turns to topical filmmaking once again not realizing the inconsistency with the previous film. The Dark Knight I’ve said was a Post-9/11 work, I knew that The Dark Knight Rises would be very Post-Economic-Crisis. We’ve been here before and movies always reflect the time they were made. The Dark Knight Rises is far from the first of this movement, but I think that Bane’s posturing and preaching on the subject will ring less true than the timely but clear writing of Margin Call, a movie that is literally about the financial crisis as it happened.
It is so irritating that Nolan sweeps people up on an all-time bandwagon with such timely themes. I would urge him to reflect more on the ultimate rather than proximate in his movies but he has a clear obsession with what is happening around him that has little to do with uncovering something more about people or the world in a more than topical way--why we still read The Grapes of Wrath after the depression. Moreover I think I’d urge audiences to really understand Nolan’s movies and not read into them the ultimate notions that aren’t present. This iteration of “Gotham’s reckoning” will be less potent the next time something bad happens on a national scale.
I’d like to make one final point on the subject of The Dark Knight Rises. On the condition of many of the most popular movies these days in general, really. And though I’d like to distinguish my final point from the safe-Hollywood-crap-machine argument I’m often confronted with, the fact is people have seen everything about The Dark Knight Rises before, it’s been sold to the populace before, by the same people for the same price. Unlike The Godfather which was a financial, critical, and awarded success when it came out--a truly visionary work--the practice in movies right now doesn’t seem to reward real vision so much.
Warner Brothers has reaped the bounty of Harry Potter for the past ten years. A usually good and always successful franchise. Unfortunately it was ultimately limited by the number of books there were. It could really only be stretched the one extra movie and one extra dimension when all was said and done. Warner Brothers milked it for every penny, rolling out a campaign based on urgency to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 when in withDVDs and streaming there is no such thing as real urgency to see a movie. Needless to say, it worked for them. The only other money maker Warner Brothers had besides Harry Potter was the Nolan Batman movies. And they have thus bought their audience through a remarkably similar campaign. Like the plutocrats in The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers is trying to make bankroll to cover their ass until the next big thing comes along.