To offer commentary on The Dark Knight Rises is to go back to every part of the movie and discuss it. Therefore, I will say that this is not a review, but more a discussion of what works and what does not within the film, and contains MAJOR SPOILERS below. You can read my spoiler-free review here. Please do go see the film since it’s a breathtaking achievement in terms of visuals and sensory overload, and then come back here to discuss and think about what works.
(I will not be discussing the horrific tragedy in Aurora, Colorado either. I cannot offer enough information or connections worthy to it, and anything I say about it will just seem superfluous since far better news organizations are covering it with larger breadth and depth. You can read Gabriel’s account on his home town here. All I can say is that I’m terrified and angry and bitter at the same time, and there are not enough words to convey my sadness. My prayers go out to the victims and their families.)
Seriously, spoilers ahead. Stop now or forever be angry at yourself.
I have serious reservations about this film. See, I wrote about The Dark Knight for my master’s thesis, partly because I found its political themes and questions about the causes and consequences of terrorism and hero-worship to be an invaluable simulacrum when compared to the then-present Bush administration. Partly because I love the movie and find it to be absolutely perfect on every level. But I don’t feel that same analysis applies to The Dark Knight Rises, which simply cannot be the same movie as The Dark Knight due to changes in expectations, time, environment, culture, and especially me. I’m 28 now and don’t have time for films the way that I once did. I accept that my changed views on life may contribute to how I view this film, but I attempted to analyze it without letting too many extraneous factors affect how I viewed it. And it’s not like I severely dislike it. Quite the opposite. I heavily enjoyed the film, but have to admit that it contains its share of flaws. Moreover, since this is a film by the normally sharp and exacting Christopher Nolan, those flaws are more harshly reflected against The Dark Knight Rises.
What I love about the movie is bombast. When I see several explosions rip through Gotham City and an entire football stadium ripped apart, I can only stare in utter horror at this. And that’s an accomplishment in and of itself: Simply feeling an emotion when watching onscreen spectacle. So many films are content to throw effects and empty dialogue at the audience with the hope of some of it sticking. Here, Nolan is following a clear agenda and a directed throughline, and it carries him to a logical conclusion of Bruce Wayne leaving the cape and cowl, along with the guilt over his parents’ murders and the death of Rachel Dawes. While he may wait inside his prison (first self-made, then a physical one), Gotham City falls apart underneath its rotten foundations. In order to cleanse Gotham City, Bruce Wayne must forgive himself, overcome his fear of maturity and growth, and become Batman to properly kill him and rebuild.
It’s just a shame that he had to get over it while ejecting from a nuclear explosion after going through the same character arc twice in the film.
Logical leap: How does Batman escape the plane? We don’t need to see it, but the proximity of the cut of him looking content and resolved in the cockpit to the explosion outside of Gotham’s harbor gives one pause. Yes, I understand that Nolan was using the gestalt principle here and performing misdirection with the audience. But it’s a cheap move that could have been addressed by simply having him look back wistfully at Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, decidedly not Catwoman and ostensibly a necessary moving part that revitalizes every scene in which she appears) and the embattled Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, wearing his sins like a cross on his back).
Furthermore, he never needed to go through the same character arc twice in the film. He begins the film as a broken Bruce Wayne-cum-Howard Hughes analog, hobbled by physical wear and emotional exhaustion. Rachel is dead, the city has accepted his alter ego as a murderer of its favorite son, and he is utterly alone in this world despite the efforts of Alfred and Miranda Tate to break him out of his shell and actually do some good in it. But only the promise of international terror and intrigue stirs him from his exile, along with Officer John Blake’s sympathetic discovery of his true identity. This is enough to rouse him from his slumber, a call back to Frank Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns. Batman returns to save the day and stop Bane from effectively destroying Gotham’s wealth and infrastructure.
Then Bane breaks Batman’s back, and we do it all again. Only this time, it’s a prison of the League of Shadows, hell on Earth. The well that Bruce falls into at the beginning of Batman Begins is the one that he must metaphorically escape in this one. While it works thematically with the other films, in this particular segment of the story it is probable overkill, an overtly on-the-nose segment that less effectively drags the film down and allows for an improbable passage of time.
Think about this: Instead of exiling himself, the film could have had Bruce Wayne broken as the Batman by Bane immediately after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, whereupon his isolation and financial collapse makes sense. This means that his ability to forgive himself and redeem himself in the eyes of Gotham City’s denizens can also be achieved, but without a need to repeat this story twice in an already-long story. All the events of the film can still be achieved, but without the bloat of regurgitation.
But I don’t think I’m a better writer than Nolan, not now or ever. And the scenario above is entirely hypothetical, one that is a poorly cobbled-together collage of story elements from an otherwise sterling screenplay. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that, like J.J. Abrams’ critically divisive nostalgia piece SUPER 8, one more draft of the screenplay would have produced another perfect film.
Furthermore, this conclusion feels like an actual ending. Batman gives up the mantle, but others can take it over. The story arc of John Blake (a Tim Drake/Robin analog, and one I’m upset I didn’t pick up on in previous thoughts about the film’s buildup) is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement. Instead of creating a Mutt Jones-like artificial heir to the Indiana Jones mantle a la INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, Blake’s arc feels organic and earned. It’s not cheap theatrics or eye-rolling like some critics have complained. Like Tim Drake in the comics, he naturally deduces who Bruce Wayne truly is by comparing his unfortunate orphan circumstances to his own (though John’s father wasn’t killed by Captain Boomerang…or was he? Let’s see JOHN BLAKE BEGINS in 2013, Warner Brothers!). He’s also a hero throughout the film, a truly good man who fearlessly faces evil and risks all for the good of the city. When he comes across the Batcave in the final moments of the film, he has committed enough good deeds that his elevation on the platform is simultaneously thuddingly heavy-handed, earned and admirably corny. If John Blake becomes Batman in future installments or a Justice League series, I’ll be satisfied with this turn of events.
And it’s earned by doing something that comics fans and DC Comics can never truly do, and that’s allowing Bruce Wayne to have a happy ending and move on. By symbolically dying, Batman represents something bigger than himself, harkening back to Harvey Dent and the lie behind his death. Even though it’s a lie, Batman becomes something bigger than himself, fulfilling the need for a symbol without further destruction of his body. There’s a reason why Bruce smiles back at Alfred at the café in the film’s denouement (beyond the fact that it was telegraphed in the first act, which frustrated me and simultaneously delighted me). It’s because he’s earned something no Batman could earn in 70 years of publishing history: a way out. And yes, he does earn it. Regardless of whatever other problems that the movie may have, Bruce Wayne has earned his day in the sun with Selina Kyle. Seeing him smile at Alfred may have been telegraphed, but I forgave it because it was acceptance and movement that needed to happen. If one thinks about it, it’s rather extraordinary that the studio would allow Bruce to no longer be Batman at the end.
In Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert’s excellent two-part comic book tale “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?,” Batman dies. The result? He always comes back as Batman, destined to forever reprise his role as the Dark Knight. It’s a fitting end for a comic book since they are predicated on stories that never end, merely stretching themselves out for eternity without really allowing for their characters to move beyond their true archetypes. I’ll probably receive some flak from comics fans for this, but it is this reliance on watching Bruce Wayne forever run through his paces that pushes me away from continuing to read these comics. It may appeal to hardcore fans and younger initiates, but I have grown and matured and developed over time, and I want to see my characters do that in entertainment. If I cannot see it, then I am no longer interested in further reading.
What Nolan injected into this film was a true conclusion to Batman, which is amazing to me. It’s the story of how a man falls so low he loses his identity to the need for vengeance, but then rediscovers who he truly is in the process. While it wasn’t a perfect trilogy, what is? Instead, I celebrate it for what it dares to imagine and the ability of it to actually be fantastic in its execution. There was nary a misdirection in Nolan’s single-minded goal of answering the question “What drives a man to put on a Batsuit, and what are the consequences of such an action?”
Speaking of misdirection, Miranda Tate (Marion Cottillard) was Talia Al Ghul.
Yep, that happened.
Really, that’s all I can say about it. It wasn’t delivered with care, nor thoughtful insertion. If anything, the twist was a great bit of misdirection on Nolan’s part, but it doesn’t truly add anything to the tale. It’s a late-game change-up of villains that brings the film to an almost-thudding halt. If anything, it strips the goodwill from the audience for Tate’s character artificially, taking what could have been a very organic moment and instead cheapening it with theatrics (I shouldn’t complain about theatrics when the movie being analyzed has a BATPLANE in it, but nonetheless…).
Perhaps this was me, but again I liked seeing Bruce happy. He seemed happy with Miranda in the film (and since she’s played by the delightful Ms. Cotillard, I have to ask this: WHO WOULDN’T BE?), and to strip him of this potential earned happiness and access to his namesake just seemed cruel to me. But again, I accept the movie’s choice as one determined by Nolan in the end. If I’ll celebrate that the brothers Nolan got to see their vision play out onscreen without much studio interference, then I’ll accept that this was their choice.
Elephant in the room time. Even if I argue that we should only focus on the film as it’s presented, we now are going to think about how different it would have been if the brothers Nolan could have truly achieved their vision without unfortunate interference in their vision.
How would the movie have been different if Heath Ledger had lived to reprise his Oscar-winning Joker character?
Let’s not list the ways that the film could be different. There lies the mouth of madness. But we can’t avoid the fact that a reprisal of the role would have been appreciated by fans, and most certainly by Nolan himself. Instead, we lost the brightest and darkest element of the series before we had a chance to see the indelible performance of Ledger.
Ledger’s uncaged Joker makes Hardy’s controlled, stiff Bane look less threatening. However, that may have been the point of the Joker. As chaos made flesh, the Joker was unpredictable and scary, while Bane has an endgame that is assured from the start as an end to the League of Shadows’ goals for Gotham City. He may have dominated the screen when he was on it, but Tom Hardy simply could not match Ledger’s manic deconstruction of every person around him. Instead, Bane breaks people on the outside, which is a far less compelling realization of terror than the attack on ideology and goodness that was the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. I can physically recover from seeing a bomb blast; I’m less likely to be better when my friends’ killer tells me which of them begged for their lives before he garroted them.