The revolution will be televised: “The Dark Knight Rises”July 21, 2012
Okay, here are the rules for this one: I’m going to try not to divulge too much more than the trailers, commercials, and the Mission: Impossible preview already did. I won’t give away any critical plot points or spoilers. I can’t guarantee you’ll go in totally unspoiled if you read this, but you won’t have the movie ruined.
So let’s get this out of the way right now. The Dark Knight Rises is a great movie, and the best—possibly only—conclusion to a trilogy since The Return of the King. It’s debatable whether or not it surpasses The Dark Knight, but mostly your opinion on that matter is going to depend upon whether or not you can accept that Heath Ledger’s galvanizing performance was lightning in a bottle. But even compared to that film, TDKR at least holds its own. It’s a great movie, and just as anchored by Nolan’s unflinching and complex worldview.
Set eight years after the events of TDK, the film shows us a Gotham far different from what we’ve seen in the past. The mob has been demolished, its soldiers and peripheral scumbags arrested and jailed. The streets have been largely cleaned up, and the Batman? Well, he’s Public Enemy #1, having taken the rap for killing Harvey Dent, whose legacy as a crusader for justice beget the crime and sentencing measures that returned civil order. Bruce Wayne has lived as a recluse in the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor (Howard Hughes’ name is invoked often).
Alas, evil is about to rise again, first with the mysterious activities of cat-burglar Selina Kyle, and eventually with the arrival of masked mercenary Bane. Initially, Bane’s activities are limited to Gotham’s sewers, but they are enough to bring Batman out of seclusion. Bad idea, since the Bat suffers a beat-down, which leaves him damaged and impotent as Bane’s real masterplan is revealed. In a masterstroke of urban terrorism, he cuts Gotham off from the rest of the world, and encourages the trapped citizenry to remake the city as they see fit. I won’t go too much further, except to say that it all builds to an epic struggle for the very soul of Gotham—and by extension civilization.
If TDK’s view of a push against crime that quickly becomes an escalating battle against the brute violence of chaos itself was informed by the War on Terror and our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then TDKR is informed by the 99 Percent Movement, the Arab Spring, and every revolution that quickly spiraled into wanton thuggery. It would be easy to simply tag Christopher Nolan a right-wing apologist (people did this after seeing TDK as well), but that would be folly. Nolan’s political view is harder to parse out than that, and there’s no small amount of ambivalence in his supremely chilly filmmaking.
The puzzle of Nolan’s worldview, in my opinion, stems from his fascination with the essential tension between the individual and society. Nolan’s Batman films have never presented Batman as a lone guardian—particularly in TDK—but as a man filling a void until the social structures can gain a foothold and reassert their authority (maybe coincidentally, this is also the guiding philosophy of counter-insurgency warfare). Unlike Spiderman or any of the Avengers, Batman just wants to make things better, so he can quit. In TDKR, Nolan expands this vision.
In TDK, there was a lot of talk about heroes. People argued whether Batman was a hero or a criminal, while the overriding concern was the need for Harvey Dent to be the hero Gotham could believe in. The Dark Knight Rises addresses heroism as something that must be anonymous, so people can draw strength from it. At several points in the movie, Bruce Wayne insists that the point of Batman is that he could be anyone.
Likewise, TDKR is about the frailty of the things we believe in. The economy, society, even the myth of Harvey Dent all break down. Like the measures taken against the mob in TDK, many of the good intentions in TDKR are perverted into tools of anarchy. Society, Nolan seems to be saying, is always complicated and frail. When faced with disillusionment, we have the choice to either commit to making them work, or to withdraw, embittered. The latter route, this film shows, opens the void to exploitation and opportunism, as Bane’s New Gotham Order soon resembles a Third World Banana Republic (one character even refers to it as a failed state).
Indeed, for all the rap this movie has taken for being anti-99 Percent, Nolan throws in quite a few scenes that show his belief in the obligation of the individual to society. Bane’s sewer-army thrives, in part, by the castaway kids as a result of the Wayne Foundation’s cutting off funding to a halfway house for troubled boys. In another scene, Bruce Wayne dismisses Alfred’s entries that he leave Bane to the police, saying they don’t have the resources or skills to unravel his plans, to which Alfred fires back, “They would, if you would give them tools and the means!” Bruce has ignored his own obligations and pursued a selfish agenda, the movie argues, and he suffers mightily for it.
Okay, so taking a break from the heady stuff, we also have excellent performances by everyone involved—Anne Hathaway is particularly good, easily blowing Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal out of the water—and provide the emotional anchor for a film that’s got a lot on its mind. It’s also got the best (and best choreographed) action scenes of any of Nolan’s Batman films. Hallelujah! Christopher Nolan finally figured out how to film a fight scene that isn’t visually-incomprehensible.
In the end, The Dark Knight Rises is not the light, goofy adventure we got with The Avengers—Jesus, what a let-down that would be—but it is a masterpiece of pop-culture. It’s an ambitious, deep, and urgent movie. It’s not just the perfect conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy—tying up the themes and relationships of the previous films—but the final component of one of the most prescient pieces of cinema of the new millennium.
And at no point does Christian Bale put on guyliner and strut down the street, while making finger-guns at the pretty girls he passes. I mean, that’s an automatic passing grade, right there.