Though it's normally best to get straight to the point with reviews The Dark Knight Rises (hereafter refered to as TDKR) presents something of a quandary. How do you jump right in to speaking about this particular film when Christopher Nolan's last Batman film has so long ceased being "just a movie". So we begin with a three part preface...
What?!? Nolan can blow seven reels of a non-origin Batman film before Bruce suits up and you object to me blathering on for three paragraphs before I review the movie? Double standards!
First, I believe that Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Catwoman is one of the greatest performances of the 1990s, the very definition of what an actor can do when they understand their auteur's vision, get the heightened play of specific entertainment genres, and are capable of imaginative stylization. It pissed me right off that people tried to pretend that no one before Heath Ledger had ever delivered Oscar worthy work within the comic book genre. So Batman Returns is my favorite Batman movie (yes, I know it has flaws. Shut up) and I entered the movie naturally resistant to Anne Hathaway's Catwoman.
Second, I saw the movie alone on Saturday, the morning after it opened. I failed to convince any of my friends to go with me and wasted my second ticket. To my great shame even though I think it's stupid to let fear change your routines (I was on a plane exactly a week after 9/11 as scheduled) I did briefly find myself thinking about where the exits were* against my will and flinched at the frequent gun battles in the movie. When I returned from the movie a friend snarkily asked me "So was is worth risking your life?" and I wanted to punch him. In a non violent way. See, every movie is worth risking your life for because movies are totally safe. Movies do not kill people, people do. People with access to firearms especially which is a lot of people given our nation's embarrassingly pro-tragedy gun laws.
*I'm super happy to report that I've been to the movies twice after this and never once thought of this.
This is a LOT of baggage to take into a movie already. I get that. And then there's the small matter of my teflon resistance to understanding the genius of Chris Nolan and residual frustration with fanboy culture that demands that I do. I was discussing the push and pull between mandated blockbuster movie culture and blogging demands last week with Rob, a reader, on facebook who paid me the nicest compliment:
I like the balance you strike. Sorta: this is here, can't ignore it, we're all gonna see it, Christian Bale is gonna sound funny, and we move on.
TDKR essentially begins with Bane (Tom Hardy) hijacking a plane and kidnapping a scientist for nefarious purposes. This scientist will be able to transform a fusion device's kindly purpose (powering Gotham with inexpensive safe energy) into a nuclear weapon of mass destruction. But the movie won't get to those plans for an hour or so.
Tom Hardy has the unenviable task of following up two amazingly successful Batman villains into the multiplex. Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow doesn't get much press these days but the crowd reaction when he appears onscreen in TDKR reveals that I'm not the only one who cherishes that performance/character. And no matter how gifted any actor is, Heath Ledger's The Joker would be impossible to follow not just from brilliance but from the mythological super-sizing that occurs when a gifted actor dies young. Though Hardy was placed in a losing position to begin with Nolan sabotages his efforts by burying the rising star's gorgeous mug under a creepy multi-valved mask for all but 1.5 seconds of the movie and often burying his muscles, too, in costuming. This great crime against the cinema is another reminder that Chris Nolan is very nearly a sexless filmmaker. His filmography suggests that he probably never thought of Hardy's lips at all nor realized he was robbing the star of so much of his screen power; it's like blindfolding Bette Davis for a whole movie or putting Catherine Deneuve in a bald cap! Hardy himself doesn't help matters choosing a voice for Bane that sounds a bit like Sean Connery doing Darth Vader hosting Masterpiece Theater in a sketch comedy. It's less unsettling than it is odd, which can't have been the plan.
My qualms about Bane aside, the opening setpiece works well in setting the tone for the expectedly ambitious and visually arresting movie. The image of one large plane suddenly hovering over a smaller one, the subsequent sick-making verticality of the victimized aircraft, and Bane descending dowards toward his victim, has unusual punch. It suggests immediately that we perhaps ought to think of The Dark Knight Trilogy as less of a serialized one-two-three adventure and more like a stacking of Batman on Batman on Batman, until Nolan is satisfied with his imposingly erected monolith, a skyscraper-sized House of Worship for disciples of the superheroic.
Speaking of the man in the cape, where'd he go?
TDKR initially threatens to shove the billionaire hero (Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne, Benevolent Capitalist but more on politics in a moment) into a supporting role in his own movie. Batman Returns also tried this tactic twenty years ago and despite that weirdly maligned film's small string of truly inspired moments -- Nolan is far more adept at ensemble-juggling than Burton. I didn't take a stop watch into the theater but were it not for a repetitive half hour inside a Middle Eastern dungeon where Bruce heals from Bane's back-breaking beating and strategizes an escape (also impossibly vertical... and then just impossible but that's another article entirely), I'd easily believe you if you told me that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman all have as much screen time as Christian Bale. Best in show honors go handily to Hathaway, who manages a Catwoman that doesn't feel much of anything like past incarnations and fits organically into Nolan's tone. She's angrier than past Catwomans and less sexual, too -- even her quips and flirtations have a kind of disdainful rage buried in them that's a marked departure from Pfeiffer's genius interpretation via splintered demented good girl/bad girl psyche.
Nolan doesn't shortshrift any of his players . Even Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Marion Cotillard in small verging on prop roles -- hell, even Matthew Modine way down the call sheet -- are all given enough attention to make their individual miniature arcs work. Nolan manages all this without distracting you from the simple fact that this is still Batman's (and, to a lesser extent, Gotham's) story.
Nolan's generosity with his team and enormous ambition (does any other superhero franchise successfully make their city's whole character and fate into a persistently compelling theme?) are both items for the plus column but they don't come without drawbacks. The running time of 164 minutes is trying even under the best circumstances in a third film, and especially tiring in the film's weakest moments. Nolan's films are never, to my mind, the equal of his ambitions and TDKR is less an exception to that rule than a textbook example. Despite a decade of well greased practice, he still pushes contradictory political messages (off-putting when they aren't just confusing), his emotional and psychological content is still weirdly limited to man-to-man angst (which is part of the reason he has such trouble with female characters though Hathaway rescues TDKR as best she can from its own exclusively male gaze as potently as Carrie Anne Moss rescued Memento from its sexlessness -- the only Nolan film that really needed a libido to function) . And when you're cowl deep in action sequences its hard not to notice that Nolan hasn't gotten any better at making action sequences coherent.
As was the case with The Dark Knight's semi-truck flipping, TDKR's action always work best in isolated moments since the editing technique is from the modern shattered mosaic school -- it doesn't matter if it makes sense so long as it looks cool! I'm not blind, it does look cool. I especially loved the Bat cycle with the physics defying wheels that Catwoman steals and the Batman hovercraft thingie, too (I don't remember the names of these things #nerdfail). They provide the action with fun eye popping images here and there.
The most troubling aspect of TDKR is its muddled disturbing politics. It's too easy to complain about the violence-loving hypocrisies of comic book movies so I won't. (That's hardly an entertainment tactic that Nolan pioneered or even championed really -- it's just something that's always been). But Nolan's master plan to graft the superhero genre on to the real world often backfires with weirdly fascistic overtones. TDKR's storyline seems to be riffing on The Terror from the extremely conservative POV of "god, revolutions for the people suck!" and Catwoman's own speech, pre-movie famous from its first trailer appearance...
How did you think you could live so large and leave so litttle for the rest of us?"
...seems to embody both the currently hot topic of Occupy Wall Street and the fake 'war against success' that Romney and the Republicans are trying to sell us on to get us to vote for the best interest of billionaires and sign up for a dog eat dog existence for the rest of us. The widening chasm between the haves and the have nots -- a bigger scarier hole than any super-villain detonated football field --which powers modern progressive activism is eyed suspiciously by TDKR. At first it appears that Bane and Catwoman share a political drive to level the playing field and at first it appears that only the billionaires Miranda (Marion Cotillard) and Bruce (Batman) are heroes, putting their own money towards items like the fusion reactor which will help all the small people. Eventually TDKR pulls the rug out from under all of these conceptions since 3/4ths of the players have their own agendas: Bane just wants anarchy and violence; Catwoman just wants to start over and resents authority in general; and Miranda is secretly Talia Al Ghul and after a city-wide massacre. None of this would stick so unpleasantly if the film weren't also so adamantly the story of a Billionaire Hero who always swoops in to save the city from its collective anarchic impulses, usually stirred up by lower classes or foreigners or villains like The Joker and Bane who are the worst nightmares of capitalism seeing absolutely no value in money (GASP!). Just like his Benevolent Billionaire father (Linus Roache cameo!), Bruce understands that Gotham is its own worst enemy and he must continue to help the people who just can't rule themselves. Aided by Commissioner Gordon of course who is also above the law... even if he feels a bit guilty about it.
I considered watching Batman Begins (which I've seen 3 times) and The Dark Knight (twice) again before watching the final Batman film (for a couple of years at least) but was quickly glad that I hadn't since they're visibly present throughout TDKR. It's nearly impossible to escape them given the self-referencing both comic and dramatic, the flashbacks and/or hallucinatory cameos, and the plots that never run out of thread as they're yanked up from 2 ½ hour film to 2 ½ hour film to 2 ½ hour film. We're stacking movies on movies remember; Batman Begins is the foundation, basement, Bat cave and sewers. Dark Knight the wild elevator with abundant new floors with the unceasingly prime real estate of cityscape and river views. TDKR adds several more floors and purchases air rights above the building, too. It's somehow a brilliantly fitting end to the trilogy that the climax involves Batman flying up and away from Gotham rather than driving through its streets.
I wish the movie didn't have its current epilogue preparing us for the adventures of Robin the Boy Wonder (Joseph Gordon Levitt's do gooder cop, who also suffers from the common superhero affliction of murdered parents) . The coda softens the daring tonally faithful climax with a weirdly heartwarming "Don't worry he lives!" goodbye. I won't lie and say I wouldn't line up tomorrow for a Batman movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role but this is pure fantasy. Nolan keeps tells us that he is after a more realistic approach and this is fantasy with a capital F. We all know Hollywood and they'd rather begin again -- origin stories forever! -- than continue this particular story without Nolan's Midas Touch.
Oscar Chances?: That's another 1,000 words am I right? I am endlessly weary of the internet's strange obsession with The Academy owing Chris Nolan for The Dark Knight given that I didn't consider the film one of the five best of its year (if any blockbuster had a right to bitch about the weird ease with which The Reader and Frost/Nixon slipped into the '08 shortlist it's totally the transcendent WALL•E.). I didn't even think The Dark Knight was the best or runner up or runners up runner up in the Best Superhero Movie of the Aughts contest! (That'd be X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles in no particular order.) But putting all that behind us, I do recognize that the sheer force of its angry wall of fandom and the estimable endurance of the mainstream media's bandwagon bitching about the self same "snub" is something to consider. AMPAS is not an impermeable monolithic fortress but an organization made up of people with different opinions who are, like any other people, subject to influence by way of public opinion. So... maybe. Maybe they feel they owe him. Maybe they don't.
At the very least The Dark Knight Rises should have no trouble finding a handful of technical nominations. Contrary to the internet's belief system, the Academy actually likes Batman and especially The Dark Knight. The past seven films have shared 15 Oscar nominations and 3 wins and roughly half of that tally comes from the movie everyone claims was snubbed. Most filmmakers would kill to be snubbed by way of 8 nominations and 2 Oscar wins.