The Dark Knight Rises: a Bleak, Bold and Unflinching Vision
The Dark Knight Rises is filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s A Tale of Two Cities featuring Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as Sydney Carton with a cape and a cowl and fictional Gotham City as his 18th century France and thinly veiled reflection of today’s bruised and battered American society.
Both Bruce Wayne and his city must endure nearly three hours of relentless, systematic destruction at the hands of the masked terrorist Bane before making their tortured rise to restoration in this ambitious, flawed but emotionally satisfying end to Nolan’s brilliant Batman trilogy.
Like a Dickens novel, The Dark Knight Rises is grand, audacious and messy in its narrative and thematic reach; overstuffed with richly detailed characters and excessive exposition; burdened with gratuitous dialogue, and impressive – yet bloated – action set pieces. Despite its flaws, the movie hooks you with its bleak, bold, unflinching vision. From the beginning of his Batman Trilogy, Nolan’s aim was to deconstruct the assumption that the super-hero genre could only serve as cinematic Viagra to entertain teenage boys with an endless, mindless parade of costumed men fighting CGI monsters. Instead, Nolan and company prove you can mine pop culture material to create a legitimate drama with grandiose musings on pathos and redemption.
The Dark Knight remains the best movie in the impressive trilogy. Nothing in Rises compares to the propulsive, narrative energy of the second installment steered by the iconic, unhinged brilliance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. This film is less successful on its own merits but structurally and emotionally exquisite when bookended to the two previous films.
One would be wise to revisit Batman Begins as a necessary refresher for the plot machinations in Rises. The first film served as the “superhero origin story” positing Bruce Wayne as an emotionally traumatized, young billionaire whose parents’ death fuels a near-paralyzing obsession to cleanse Gotham of corruption and crime. Bruce abandons his privileged life and treks the world to understand the criminal mind, eventually discovering villain Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in a remote prison. Ghul perfects Wayne’s physical training and also mentors him in overcoming his fears by transforming himself into something more than a man – a legend, “The Batman.” Wayne eventually dons the cowl and defeats Ra’s and his terrorist organization, The League of Assassins, who believe Gotham’s sins make her beyond redemption and worthy of destruction.
If Batman Begins was the construction of the Batman myth, then its sequel The Dark Knight gleefully destroyed and subverted it with the emergence of Batman’s moral foil and arch nemesis, The Joker, a modern Nero with face paint and a scarred smile, madly dancing as he burned Gotham.
As an agent of chaos, Joker used anarchy as his instrument to expose the hypocrisy and moral failings of Gotham. Although captured by Batman, Joker leaves behind an “avenging angel” personified by the disfigured District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who succumbs to madness as the homicidal Two-Face.
To protect Dent’s reputation and maintain “The Dent Act,” an oppressive law enforcement measure that would clean Gotham’s criminal enterprises with limited due process and lengthy prison sentences, Batman takes the blame for Two-Face’s murderous rampage and falsely admits to killing Harvey Dent. Batman’s frequent ally, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), acts as an accomplice in maintaining the lie.
Even Alfred (Michael Caine), Wayne’s loyal, wise butler and surrogate father figure, engages in well-intended deception. To protect Wayne from heartbreak, he deliberately burns Rachel Dawe’s letter in which she rejects Wayne and chooses Harvey Dent as her partner. The Joker’s final calling card representing the fall of Dent as Two-Face bears a lasting mark as evidenced in the first scene of the new movie. We revisit Commissioner Gordon at Dent’s funeral lying to Gotham with the film’s opening lines: “I believe in Harvey Dent.”
The final chapter moves us 8 years forward and the emotional and physical burden of the deception begin to wear down Wayne and Gordon, as well as Gotham City that celebrates “Harvey Dent Day” and the successful incarceration of over 1,000 inmates and subsequent end of organized crime.
Wayne is now a Howard Hughes-like recluse, hobbling with a cane and reduced to a hollow shell of his former self. His only link to the outside world is his loyal confidante Alfred, once again elegantly portrayed by Michael Caine. Gordon, separated from his wife and child, is forced to make saccharine political speeches praising Harvey Dent, but he wears his guilty confession in the form of a letter exposing the truth about his role in the Dent/Two-Face cover-up. He keeps the confession close to his chest, ever waiting for the right moment to reveal his sin.
Although well-intended, each lie is exposed in this film and has profound consequences that ultimately inspire the characters to “rise” from their ignominy towards something resembling redemption.
For Wayne/Batman, this fuels his once debilitating and unhealthy obsession with a renewed purpose and hope. Fans of Nolan’s previous films understand his fascination and meditation on “obsession.” Specifically, all of his protagonists simultaneously create and sustain a purpose and a self-imposed prison due to their inability to unburden themselves of trauma. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character cannot forgive himself for the death of his wife, and – like the spinning top – he teeters on the edge of collpase in trying to purge the pain and memory by repeatedly entering the dream world. In Memento, Guy Pearce’s amnesic protagonist accepts false memories just to give himself purpose by obsessively questing to find his wife’s killer.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s naïve obsession to avenge his parents’ death as “The Batman” and simultaneously rid Gotham of crime and inspire good in her citizens has instead left him lonely, emotionally crippled and physically broken. He no longer hides behind the Batman mask, but instead voluntarily exiles himself in the expansive Wayne Mansion. Wayne, now the hermitic cynic, is afraid of living life and deceives himself into believing he can no longer serve any purpose. “You’re not living, you’re just waiting for things to go bad again,” says Alfred sensing the fatalism which Nolan deliberately hangs over the movie ratcheting the audience’s expectations for a tragic ending.
Nolan borrows Dickens’ thematic and structural use of foils throughout the movie. Bruce Wayne’s public persona is that of a reckless, billionaire, philanthropist playboy, but in reality he is an emotionally scarred, disciplined moralist and borderline ascetic.
The movie tracks Wayne’s personal journey of self-realization as he decides to finally bury the mask and wear his true face. In order to do that, he must sacrifice his current mask of the lonely, despondent Sydney Carton with the hopes of living the life of a fulfilled and content Charles Darnay.
We are introduced to the villain Bane as the physical and intellectual foil of Wayne/Batman.
Bane is Madame Defarge on steroids, wearing an S&M mask and sounding like an emphysema patient with a gargled Eastern European accent. What he lacks in memorable personality, he makes up for in sheer brute, intimidating force and muscular presence that “breaks” the Batman at the end of the movie’s first act. Unlike Joker who was an agent of chaos, Bane is a purposeful terrorist orchestrating devastating acts of violence plunging Gotham City into Martial Law. Resurrecting Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Assassins, Bane’s assault on Gotham is terrifying and far more dark and sinister in its execution than any other PG-13 rated summer blockbuster in recent memory.
Bane and his terrorists first attack the Gotham Stock Exchange which resembles Wall Street. This is Nolan’s unsubtle nod to America’s anger towards the reckless greed and unchecked malfeasance of the financial industry that helped usher our current economic calamity. Bane eventually attacks Gotham Prison and frees prisoners who were incarcerated due to the bullish and aggressive laws promising security at the expense of due process, transparency and fairness. Again, this is another topical and fair criticism of both the Bush and Obama administrations, however Nolan never condones or celebrates the acts, and he never leans liberal or conservative. After all, an argument can be made that Batman’s vigilantism, flouting of both domestic and international laws (In The Dark Knight, he kidnaps Lau, the Chinese accountant, in Hong Kong), and the unwarranted surveillance of all Gotham citizens at the end of The Dark Knight make him an endearing super hero for right wing Conservatives.
Furthermore, it would be inaccurate to read Bane as a representative of the 99%. Nolan is careful to show how Bane manipulates the economic grievances of Gothamites and the corruption of elected officials and law enforcement to turn the city against itself. In a brief, harrowing montage, extremists pillage, torture and murder members of the 1% and later condemn to death anyone deemed guilty by a jury-less kangaroo court. Bane and his terrorists aren’t interested in defending the interests of the 99% – they are “Gotham’s reckoning” and see the city’s destruction as a “necessary evil” in furtherance of their ideological purge. This would make them not unlike certain American “cultural warriors” and elected officials, but I digress.
As the film’s other quasi villain/hero, Anne Hathaway creates a memorable and delicious Selina Kyle, a dangerous, sly and morally ambiguous cat burglar with shifting allegiances and a gift for self preservation. In a film full of fantastic, layered performances, her “Catwoman” emerges as one of the best often charging the dour tone with sex appeal and wit. As a representative of the 99%, she fancies herself a Robin Hood in black tights, brazenly attempting to steal Wayne’s mother’s pearls from his mansion. Wayne sees a mirror in Kyle as a survivor hardened by life’s cruelties but not without empathy and a sincere desire to have a fresh start and begin anew. The characters’ mutual infatuation with one another, both as Wayne/Kyle and Batman/Catwoman, reflect genuine spark and chemistry thanks to the actors strong rapport.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a major role as a young, idealist cop named John Blake who, like Wayne, was an orphan. His character’s earnestness and unclouded moral compass remind both Wayne and Gordon of their younger selves and hope for a future legacy.
The film’s technical work, cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s pulverizing score, and the sterling acting work by returning faces, such as Morgan Freeman, and new recruit Marion Cottilard as Miranda Tate, a billionaire ally and potential love interest for Wayne, are all aces.
The film has its fair share of plot twists and surprises, but fans of Batman mythology should feel rewarded with the reveals.
During the film’s rousing and thoroughly fulfilling final minutes, Gordon recites Dickens’ final lines from A Tale of Two Cities: “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 and company earn my applause for creating an emotionally resonant, darkly realistic, brutal and memorable cinematic trilogy that dared to ask and answer: “What if a modern man fought crime in a Bat mask?” The trilogy washed away the atrocious memory blot of Joel Schumacher’s garish and embarrassing rendition of Batman as a Pride Day reject.
Instead, it has proved that comic book mythology can be elevated to great cinema provided it is rendered with intelligence, sophistication, chutzpah, and a profound respect for the modern, pop culture-obsessed audience that is more than capable of appreciating such an ambitious attempt.
Although The Dark Knight Rises is not the best of the trilogy, Nolan’s vision of what Batman could be is a “far, far better thing” than any other cinematic interpretation, and his trilogy’s resolution is “a far, far better” end than most, including myself, could have ever imagined.