So, The Dark Knight Rises, then. A film that has been ‘coming soon’ since August of last year. Teaser trailers… more posters than you can shake a stick at… It all boils down to this. This film. This event. Christopher Nolan’s crowning of the most legitimate of comic-book franchises. 2008’s The Dark Knight was a serious crime thriller, don’t you know… just, with people in fancy dress. The thinking-man’s (and thinking-woman’s) summer blockbuster, if you will. And now, four years on, the conclusion. The conclusion. To borrow from the Scott Pilgrim ad campaign, an epic of epic epicness.
Yes, it’s very epic.
By succeeding in making a comic-book franchise into the stuff of serious film critique, Nolan has become a kind of Hollywood superhero himself. To knock him seems petulant. To scoff at his brainier take on popcorn cinema invites criticism as a kill-joy, someone out to ruin everyone’s fun. And Nolan’s efforts to raise the attention spans of mass audiences is entirely laudable. Thank-whoever that there’s someone at his level asking something of a cinema crowd. 2010’s Inception is a testament to his ability to craft a consumable product that presents more to its viewers than just attractive colours and shapes interspersed with one-liners and cod character beats. Whilst by no means perfect, it was a breath of fresh air amongst the bland usual suspects that clutter this time of year.
So, with two gigantic successes under his belt, The Dark Knight Rises can’t fail. It won’t fail. It will be massive, and people will love it.
Guess I’m the kill-joy.
My problem with this film is a problem I have with a lot of Nolan’s output. It’s like a machine. It’s dense, it’s complex. Great. Both admirable traits. But… that’s all it is. The first 90 minutes or so – the length of a lot of features in their entirety – is all about nailing plot points. Building to the next bit. Seeding what’s to come. Even more-so than Memento, Inception or The Prestige, this is the Christopher Nolan film most focused on giving the audience the next piece of the jigsaw. “Look,” Nolan says to us, “Look how intricate it is. Look how impressive.” And yes, yes it is impressive. It fits together and it makes this thing. But what is this thing, and why should I care about any of it?
Events take place 8 years after the end of The Dark Knight. Wayne Manor has been rebuilt, though Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives in exile, hidden away in oversized rooms surrounded by grand furniture. Gotham is prosperous, thriving under the false legacy of Harvey Dent, a lie perpetuated by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). That is until Bane (Tom Hardy) comes to town, a reject from the League Of Shadows (see Batman Begins) and heir to Ra’s Al Ghul (see Batman Begins again). He is, as he suggests in the trailer, “Gotham’s reckoning”. He’s going to bring it down. Y’know, because. So, the Batman is needed again. But is Wayne up to the task?
Also in the mix is cat-burglar Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Hathaway is good. Very good. So much so in fact that it’s a shame she isn’t given more. Again Nolan sacrifices character development in favour of cramming in exposition for his big plan. Bane’s plan. Naturally, it’s convoluted. There are other new characters flitting around also. Marion Cottilard plays Miranda Tate, who is showing an interest in Wayne Enterprises’ new energy initiatives. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a role as honest copper Blake, who still sees inspiration in what Batman was trying to achieve. And of course there’re Alfred (Michael Caine) and Fox (Morgan Freeman), grabbing what screen time they can as father figures once removed.
It’s a big cast. And though Nolan can be credited readily with giving everyone more-or-less equal screen time, what it means is that everyone ends up being short-changed a little. This movie is 2 hours, 45 minutes long, and it feels at once bloated and rushed. In an effort to outdo The Dark Knight, Nolan seems to have fixed on weaving a story as weighty as can be. More, more, more! Except for Batman, of course, who, like in The Dark Knight, barely gets a look-in.
Perhaps it’s unfair to bemoan how little Batman there is in this movie, considering the lengths Nolan has gone to in order to focus on Bruce Wayne. For this there can be no faulting The Dark Knight Rises, as it brings things full-circle, bolstering the groundwork laid in origin-story Batman Begins. Bale is dependable as ever, though never remarkable as he has proven he can be in other roles.
And so to Bane, who, though wonderfully portrayed by Hardy (a considerable feat thanks to the handicap of that mask), feels unfinished. His back story half-sketched. He feels like some distant sibling of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, only more oddly gentile. His plans seem fittingly reminiscent of our own turbulent times. Occupy Wall Street and all that. Yet the man is harder to grasp. Likewise Selena Kyle is drawn with only the bare minimum of what is required to service THE PLOT. That machine, again, grinding away.
Don’t get me wrong, this movie is impressive. Very impressive. There were times when I thought to myself “hey, maybe this is going to turn out to be the best of the three”. Most of these moments came in the action-packed third act, after I’d sat doggedly through the fairly gruelling first and second. But then an ending that disappoints, as major characters seem to disappear into the background and a sincere finale is undermined purely for the sake of a call-back to a moment engineered early on. A moment, I might add, that screamed out from the get-go that it was going to get paid off somehow at the end.
A note about the score. Batman’s theme, through Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, is a brilliantly propulsive and simple piece that drives along relentlessly. It ratchets up in a cycle, never finishing. In this sense complimenting the incomplete nature of Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight Rises is much the same. It relentlessly builds toward what’s next, even at its end, and in doing so never stops to enjoy what’s happening now. A film so concerned with getting somewhere that it never stays put anywhere long enough to get involved. I wanted to love this movie, but it makes it very, very hard work.