“You have to invest if you want to restore balance to the world.”
Review by Ken Burke
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy ends in a near-apocalyptic manner as Bruce Wayne almost loses everything only to decisively triumph over a subplot-crammed story.
It’s been just over 2 weeks since I saw The Dark Knight Rises which has given me a lot of time to contemplate its quality, its fit within the Batman trilogy that Christopher Nolan has helmed since 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s blockbuster The Dark Knight (still #4 in the All-Time Domestic Grosses list at a bit over $533 million, with only Avatar [James Cameron, 2009], Titanic [Cameron, 1997], and this summer’s The Avengers [Joss Whedon] surpassing it, and #12 on the Worldwide All-Time list at a bit over $1 billion), and its unintended but tragic connections with the massacre at the Aurora, CO theatre midnight screening. It’s not that I needed that long to think about all this (but maybe it’ll help in the substance of the review), it’s just that right after seeing how Nolan’s highly-anticipated finale played out Nina and I left town for a long-planned, movie-theatre-and-electronic-devices-free escape to Southern California beaches (Pismo, Hermosa, Redondo) and the Disneyland Resort (which implies a bigger budget than we were operating on because it costs enough to go to the 2 theme parks so our lodging was in the pleasant but more economically-feasible Alpine Inn, where you get a marvelous view of the backside of the fantastic new attraction—with 2 ½ hr. lines!—Cars Land). During that respite I periodically thought about Nolan’s film, with its grimly-relevant takes on Recession-fueled economic crises, Occupy-fueled social confrontations, maniac-and-revenge-fueled assaults by cinematic villains and deranged graduate students with way too much access to firepower (if you’re a Second Amendment enthusiast we might as well part ways right now because I’m ready to repeal the damn thing based on all the carnage that’s been done in the name of “the right to bear arms”), and heroic acts done not only by those with enhanced resources but also the unnamed champions who simply try to protect the unnamed potential victims from personal harm in city streets and public gathering places.
All of this potentially brooding raw material could have given rise to a review as dark and stormy as Nolan’s depiction of the eternally-assaulted Gotham City, except that it was being simultaneously nudged over to the positive pole by sun, surf, properly-engineered thrill rides, and the occasional opportunity to watch Olympic victories in a state of late-night-motel-TV-enhanced-exhaustion as Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, and other enormously-talented athletes demonstrated human triumph as a counterweight to human horror. So, where does that leave me with The Dark Knight Rises? Probably a little more respectful than after the long-ago screening, respectful of the film’s total intention and impact, a little more focused on its many accomplishments and a little less concerned about how the many plot twists in the first half make it hard to appreciate the whole package when you’re trying to reconcile all of the divergent narrative directions at the end after the beginning was so fragmented yet the conclusion was so streamlined and well-resolved. I liked it a lot when I saw it; I have an even better feeling about it—despite the horrible association to grotesque real-world violence it will always carry—now that it’s been percolating for so long in my distracted brain, which is beginning to take command again of my body after my feet required primary attention for so long in those Disneyland lines. The Dark Knight Rises will never be quite the triumph for me that Nolan attains in The Dark Knight or Inception (2010; you can debate Nolan’s best for yourself with a very affordable 5-disc DVD pack I bought recently at Fry’s Electronics which has these 2 plus Batman Begins, Insomnia , and Memento , another Nolan triumph that I’d have to rate even higher than his current release and one which, like Inception, holds up under multiple viewings and interpretational debates), but it’s profound, powerful, and a hell of a lot more than you’d expect from a superhero movie which is simply consistently well-crafted such as The Avengers (even though Tony Stark rivals Bruce Wayne in being an intriguingly-disturbed 1-percenter, out to help society while also ruling it).
Wayne’s (Christian Bale) finances figure prominently in the first half of The Dark Knight Rises as our new supervillain Bane (a very bulked-up Tom Hardy), in league with evil industrialist John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), attacks both the Gotham City stock exchange (which clearly is intended to represent the New York Stock Exchange just as Gotham represents the more dangerous aspects of New York City in one focus of the DC universe while Superman’s Metropolis represents a more positive aspect of it—despite the Man of Steel’s constant criminal foes—with some real confusion when the actual NYC occasionally pops up on a map in a DC comic [at least Spider-Man’s geography is clear to us as he lives in a fictional version of an acknowledged Manhattan and its connected boroughs]) and Bruce’s fortune through some manipulated toxic investments, resulting in a near-collapse of Wayne Enterprises and the introduction of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), whom we ultimately learn is the real evildoer of the film (I’ll just have to assume that anyone reading this by now has likely seen the film, given that it’s already amassed over $354 million domestically in just 2 weeks of release to place it at #21 on the All-Time Domestic list) so that despite his power and anarchy-prone actions we find at the end of it all that muscleman/mask-mumbler Bane is dangerous and demented—as well as capable of being just as treacherous to his employer as was the “bad” Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966), because both of them kill their first bosses as narrative circumstances evolve—but he resembles The Joker in simply wanting to spread chaos in retaliation for the hardships he endured years ago in prison while the real criminal masterminds here are the even more demented capitalists: Daggett, a corporate raider who sets out to destroy Wayne simply because that’s the law of the economic jungle, and Tate, who’s also on a destructive mission against Wayne but because she knows he’s really Batman (a lot of characters here prove capable of putting 2 and 2 together to discern his secret identity, although community-protector Police Commissioner Gordon never gets there on his own, giving pause as to how it’s only the criminally-insane who can make these deductions rather than those who are supposedly smart enough to protect the public welfare; it’s more balanced in The Amazing Spider-Man [Marc Webb] where not only do a good number of folks easily know that it’s Peter Parker under the mask but also he seems eager to tell anyone who’s halfway curious), responsible for her father’s, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), death back in the first installment of the trilogy; yet it’s only through her previous financial success that she’s able to infiltrate the Wayne empire and gain access to his trove of technology toys because she wants to detonate a fusion bomb that will destroy Gotham along with Bruce. (Talk about never underestimating the fury of a woman scorned!) Thus, Bain is a big, bad bully with a mean streak wider than the football field that he blows up in one of the film’s most visually stunning scenes, but ultimately the real distain here is for the evil social elite who care not even for their own kind, let alone the rest of us, in their desires to enhance their own situations and wreck havoc in our lives as collateral damage to their private passions.
Yet, our only hope for survival in this film, as we find ourselves in empathy with the beseiged citizens of Gotham City, comes from Bruce Wayne, another of the filthy rich brigade—maybe not so much with available cash flow after Daggett’s sabotage of Bruce’s portfolio, done with a set of fingerprints provided by Occupy-attitude-sympathetic cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but he’s still in possession of an operational base and weapons systems that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan could only dream of having. Bale is simply brilliant in this role, whether in his more commandeering, posed persona as a leader of high society in the previous 2 Nolan Batman films, his broken-body-and-spirit depressive in the early stages of this episode as his wounds from the battles with the Joker and other criminals have left him as a directionless recluse, or as Batman returning to battle the blight of Bane both before his first defeat leaves him as a wounded prisoner in a seemingly inescapable hellhole and then in his final confrontation with an approximation of the forces of Hell itself as Miranda Tate seems to have outsmarted the legions of decency with her scheme to pulverize Gotham City using the nuclear device stolen and reconfigured from the underground vaults of Wayne Enterprises. Other actors offered reasonable interpretations of the vigilante lawkeeper, with George Clooney probably the best manifestation of the earlier versions of Bruce Wayne (Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher, 1997), Val Kilmer as the best Caped Crusader (Batman Forever, Schumacher, 1995), and Michael Keaton best remembered as just having the gumption to even attempt the role (Batman, Tim Burton, 1989; Batman Returns, Burton, 1992), but for me Bale is by far the best choice for both the debonair commander of a social event as Wayne or the vengeful guardian of justice as Batman. He clearly conveys the sense of a man with nothing really left to lose, whether we’re talking about his deceased parents, his murdered love Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight), his stolen fortune, or his life as he apparently gives his all to carry the bomb out to sea in his newly-designed Bat(plane) so as to once again save the innocent citizens of Gotham from the madness of megalomaniacs. When dealing with the determined forces of Bane and Tate, especially when the former articulates their philosophy that the city “must be allowed to die” through his actions of “necessary evil” that will provide “Gotham’s reckoning,” you don’t have much room to calculate your options, you just have to counterattack with every able-bodied person and available weapon you can find, as when Gotham’s finest (a clear acknowledge of the sentiments still expressed about NYC’s public servants in these post-9/11 years) finally are freed to battle Bane’s (really Tate’s) army of conscripted criminals even as Batman makes his final decision to preserve his metropolitan community. Just as the Olympians of many nations have been pushing themselves to the limits for the last week in tribute to both their home countries and to the spirit of sporting competition itself (at least the majority, not the few attempted manipulators who tried to better their chances in later rounds by intentionally losing earlier ones), so does Bruce Wayne rise to his ultimate level in this film, refusing to be defeated even as his situation seems hopeless and there are few who even understand that he’s acting on their behalf.
Even in supposed death, though, Batman’s identity remains a mystery to most of Gotham City’s residents despite being known by Tate, Bane, and a roomful of Bane’s henchmen as Wayne’s back is injured in his early battle with the muffled-voiced behemoth when Batman is unmasked. I guess we just have to assume that all of those goons died with their leaders in the subsequent street-battle chaos because no one seems to connect the dots later when a statue is raised to the “late” Batman, the city savior, while a quiet ceremony is all that marks Bruce Wayne’s empty memorial grave next to his parents with attendance from the few who Wayne has knowingly revealed himself to: Gordon, weapons-engineer-extraordinaire Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and decades-of-devotion-to-the-Wayne-Family butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine—if nothing else this cast overflows with acting talent [Bale, Cotillard, Freeman, and Caine are all Oscar winners] that further elevates the proceedings above even a well-produced standard comic book action movie). At least one positive character also deduces Batman’s identity by himself, the young idealistic cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who inherits the Batcave and its arsenal at the very end of the film, after we’ve learned that his full name begins with Robin, allowing us to at least speculate that he may take on the role of Gotham’s protector in future cinematic explorations of this narrative, only without Batman around as his mentor nor Nolan continuing as director. As successful as this franchise has been we can only assume that Warner Bros. would want to explore further options with the only other fundamental Batman franchise character not included in the Nolan trilogy but whether audiences would respond without the Dark Knight and the vision of Nolan (and his co-screenwriter brother, Jonathan) remains to be seen.
Who is seen in this film to great advantage, though, is the fabulous rendition of “Catwoman” Selina Kyle as embodied by Hathaway. Although she’s never referred to by that name in the film (just as a “cat-burglar” or “The Cat” in newspaper headlines) her costume, her ambiguous position between out-and-out criminal, social crusader, and—finally—Han Solo-type returned-warrior-in-the-nick-of-time-to-save-the-primary-hero comrade identify her as the character previously played in various sultry manifestations on the large and small screen by beauties such as Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweather, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Halle Berry. But while she still sports a skin-tight leatherish costume with a cat-eared mask and tall high-heeled boots she carries no whip and keeps her implied allusions to a dominatrix (one of the reasons why she’s likely had such a long success in her comic-book manifestations with her borderline porno appearance) at a minimum. Instead she offers a sincere Robin Hood-like challenge about socioeconomic disparity to Wayne even as she’s stealing his mother’s pearls from a vault in his home (along with impressions of his fingerprints for the Daggett-Bane stock market “cat”astrophe), feels great guilt after she serves as the bait for Bane’s Batman capture, sees that her hopes for social equalization are not really part of Bane’s crusade at all, and ultimately roars back in just in time to save Batman from Bane’s final conquest although she easily and unceremoniously just blasts him away rather than wasting any more time on him (reminiscent of Harrison Ford, not as Han Solo in the Star Wars films but as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981], simply shooting a burly swordsman who attempted to challenge him to yet another fight after Indy had spent far too much time that day already trying to save the Ark of the Covenant from Nazi plunderers). Ultimately, she and Bruce become a team, not only in defeating the Tate-Bane army but also in their personal escape from the worlds of politics and urban protection as they both go under the radar after Bruce’s “death” to a lifestyle that implies neither of them have fallen too far into the realm of the misbegotten 99%.
Unlike the slightly superior The Dark Knight, where a singular focus could be more effectively put on the social instability that haunts our world where either a brilliant or doggedly-determined psychopath can ruin lives needlessly in Oklahoma City, Austin or Waco, TX, Littleton or Aurora, CO, a focus that takes on a chilling personification in Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the mad but aimlessly violent Joker and the wrathful anger that can come when such violence invades and ruins the lives of those attempting to protect society as with District Attorney Harvey Dent turned murderous villain Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), in The Dark Knight Rises director Nolan gets a bit bogged down with a plethora of villains, a spectrum of commentaries on current socioeconomic conflicts—carrying implied condemnations of some of the superrich as noted above but also with how Bane’s version of Occupy-type protests can deteriorate into anarchy and mob violence that reflect the social chaos of the French Revolution—and enough high-action scenes to exhaust even those who could spend all day on Magic Mountain rollercoasters, but in the end it all comes down to sheer determination on the part of Batman, “Catwoman,” Commissioner Gordon, Detective Blake, and the hundreds working in conjunction with them to roll back the madness that could allow a huge city or a single movie theatre to be held hostage to the acts of the demented, who are ironically well-armed through laws intended to protect individual liberty. But, as in our real world, it’s the individual acts of courage that really count here. If the kangaroo court that enforces “citizens’ democracy” in Bane-“liberated” Gotham City is all too reminiscent of Madame Defarge and the retaliations of the downtrodden at the climax of Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities (1859), then the co-screenwriter Nolan brothers also borrow from Dickens’ nobler sentiments at the end of that novel as Gordon eulogizes the “fallen” Batman (and Bruce Wayne) with Two Cities’ closing lines: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Nolan seems to have aspired to also do a far, far better film than he had yet concocted in order to bring resolution to the arc of Batman’s entwinement with Gotham City; he certainly concluded his trilogy in successful fashion overall, despite the plot complexity which somewhat bogs down the streamlined force of the final scenes with their The Lord of the Rings-like multi-conclusions to bring closure to this rendition of Batman which is not the never-ending saga we find in the comic books and the previous set of films. Whether even Nolan could have surmounted the challenge of following up on the journey into evil’s dark heart that he and Heath Ledger achieved in The Dark Knight is debatable, as are the merits of the current film, depending on whether it may seem exalting or a bit inadequate. I’d say it deserves to be commended for attempting so much, achieving most of it so successfully, and helping us soar with the determination of Batman and the Olympic medalists rather than being undone by the likes of Bane and the Aurora gunman. The Dark Knight Rises may not be the sublime Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) that tops all in 2012 but it’s still a worthy presentation of a worthy protagonist, the kind we need now more than ever.
If you’d like to explore The Dark Knight Rises in more depth here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk2IteR2QxQ (a 13 min. featurette on the film)
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