“If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely… A legend, Mr. Wayne.” (Henri Ducard, Batman Begins )
If there is one thing Christopher Nolan understands better than most, it is that a superhero should not merely rise above the rest of humanity, but embrace the failings of humanity as well. They must endure their doubts and fears, and allow the mask they wear to help them transcend their own shortcomings. Without this conflict, the glamor of the comic book film means little more than a temporary distraction in a dark, air conditioned theater. The Dark Knight Rises wants to be more than the meaningless blockbuster fodder shoved down our throats this time of year. The film wants to delve into philosophical issues of humanity’s morality and study Bruce Wayne’s psychological impulse to sacrifice himself for the good of the city. Never mind that Christopher Nolan’s film Batman Begins already accomplished this, and that the closing film of the trilogy treads water instead of covering new ground. Or the fact that Batman has been removed from the shadows of the first two films, left to battle a spiritless villain in broad daylight, thus removing all the mystery of his character. For the love of the first two films, and for everything that goes right in Nolan’s latest, perhaps it would be an act of kindness to gloss over the film’s shortcomings. However, for all of Dark Knight Rises‘ noble intentions, I am afraid I must instead borrow from a well-worn speech: I come to bury the Batman, not to praise him.
The Dark Knight Rises opens with what I can only call a grievous misstep, introducing Bane’s character, played by Tom Hardy, in an almost identical fashion as Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). The music swells from the start, and Bane enters a plane filled with CIA operatives, disguised as one of his own henchmen in a black hood. As one of the CIA threatens his groundlings for information, Bane reveals himself and informs the CIA that it was his intention to be caught. As he utters the words in a cold and menacing growl, reinforcements swing down on ziplines from above, ripping the wings off the CIA’s plane, while Bane methodically kills everyone in the cabin. Thus, in its opening moments, the film offers a rush of adrenaline and a promise of mayhem, introducing a villain that possesses both a capacity for violence and a level of extreme intelligence. Through Bane’s effortless guile, the audience can easily anticipate the anarchy that will soon be wrought on Gotham City.
However, Bane is simply not the Joker. The Joker reveled in death and chaos. He savored each moment, and Ledger’s inspired performance made The Dark Knight a better film than it should have been. Hardy, for all his efforts, cannot manage the same level of fascination because his character is ultimately joyless. At first, I thought this meant I did not like Bane as a villain but as the movie went on I found this was not the case. Bane is simply a shell, an unthinking husk that acts on the adopted ideologies of Ra’s al Ghul, and because of this blind acceptance I can see in him something terrifying. No, I am afraid that Bane, in and of himself, is not the problem here. The problem is that Nolan has once again indulged in a glutted theatrical runtime with unnecessary plotlines, much as he did with The Dark Knight, and no longer has Heath Ledger’s performance to buoy his film.
The fact that Hardy’s character opens the film, much as Ledger did before him, only accentuates what the series has lost. Not only does Dark Knight Rises lack a truly complicated villain, but Batman himself has forfeited much of his occult persona as well. The dark knight’s return to Gotham is met with hundreds of squad cars chasing him through the streets, bathing him in the glow of helicopter search lights as his image is plastered on every television in a five mile radius. While I think the notion of turning the city against Batman offers a lot of dramatic potential, the payoff never happens. Instead, Batman’s standing as a mythic figure diminishes simply by being seen and allowed to appear tangible. Not only that, but when he fights Bane in the climatic finale, he does so in broad daylight in the middle of a street crowded with people. When did Batman become so pedestrian? What could have possessed Nolan to allow his dark knight to engage in a lackluster kung fu fight to the death amidst a mosh pit of Gotham citizenry, moments before the film ends? To call the ending anti-climatic would be a disservice to the surrounding action, but it certainly remains the weakest final battle within the trilogy.
Lest I gripe about the film too much though, I should note that The Dark Knight Rises has long stretches of impressive filmmaking. The most fascinating moment in the film takes place when Bane exiles Bruce Wayne to the underground jail that he himself grew up in. While mending from serious injuries, Wayne watches on an old television as Gotham devolves into a lawless state, the poor rising up against the rich and casting them out onto a thin ice drift that surrounds the city. Wayne must find a way to recover his strength and scale a decrepit stone well that provides the only exit, a nearly impossible task that forces him to confront his fear of death and inability to save the city. With that said, the sequence resonates because Wayne offers everything of himself in order to once more embody the legend of Batman, sacrificing his own vulnerable, broken body for his ideal. As he rises, he remembers the well he had scaled down as a child, surrounded by the bats he had once feared. Now, he climbs to freedom, and a score of bats fly up from a dark opening in the well, disappearing into the sunlight. In this moment, Wayne is reborn and the audience feels it happen.
The moment of clarity is fleeting, but undoubtedly there. And Selina Kyle’s character (played with surprising moxie by Anne Hathaway) gives the film a much needed levity, as Christopher Nolan’s penchant to take comic book characters and reinvent them in a natural way shines through her. However, the film still stands as a series of tradeoffs. For every scene Hathaway steals as the con artist Selina Kyle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Detective Blake has a scene with little justification for existing. For the brilliantly paced tête-à-tête between Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Michael Caine), in which Alfred abandons Wayne for fear of watching him die, the viewer must also suffer through a rushed romance between Wayne and Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, which awkwardly wedges in on any romantic impulse involving Hathaway’s Kyle. The film buckles under the weight of its own ambition, tries to do too much and does too little, but when it soars it is a thing of beauty. If the Batman of the modern era must die, then let us bury him. Let us consider both the legend and the man, embrace both with all flaws inherent, and move on.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
For a very different take on the final episode of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga see Daniel Lindvall, ‘Fascism for the 21st Century’.