THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Dir. Christopher Nolan)

Verdict: 2 stars (out of 5)Torrent it to Procrastinate

Before the death threats start rolling in, let me clarify something: I haven’t liked a Nolan movie since Memento, The Dark Knight was rescued by one of the strongest villains portrayed on screen…and The Dark Knight Rises was total garbage, in a way so complete that it even made me look more favorably upon its predecessor. I’m probably one of the few people who thinks that giving Christopher Nolan hundreds of millions to make a movie is a terrible idea: in his Dark Knight trilogy and Inception we get convoluted nonsense for plots, constant and inconsequential violence interrupted either by a character saying something utterly childish with a morose seriousness – “BUT WE CAN’T ESCAPE LIMBO!” or “THIS CITY JUST SHOWED YOU IT’S FULL OF PEOPLE WILLING TO BELIEVE IN GOOOOOOOD!” – or by a long diatribe explaining a plot you never cared about in the first place.

So The Dark Knight Rises sees Nolan return to all of his terrible habits. First, for some reason this movie failed in post-production, since almost EVERYONE who speaks either talks deeply on purpose (Batman), has a gas mask clamped to his face (Bane), is old and foreign (Batman’s prison companions), or infirm (James Gordon) – this means that there is an incredible amount of mumbling, and whole sentences go by with you only catching every couple of words. Bane sounds cool as tits, but whenever he says more than a few words you struggle to keep up with him…and of course we have Christian Bale using his big-boy voice in that utterly insufferable way whenever he ‘takes the black.’ In a movie with a plot this messy, hearing what characters are actually saying is more than a little important.

Here’s a sample of what the movie’s dialogue sounded like:

 

The seriousness of Nolan’s recent movies is also becoming a major problem: when you have a movie about a guy who dresses in a costume to fight crime or a movie about a guy doing dream-within-a-dream espionage, a complete dedication to seriousness will create unintentional humor, which undoes a lot of your work at making your movie-world seem viable and somewhat plausible.

If you’re going to insist on making Bruce Wayne this self-serious, you’re going to have to avoid the childish PG-13 rating and go for a hard R, because you’re going to need buckets of blood and shell casings to make the violence actually feel consequential. In The Dark Knight Rises I could only help but laugh when a horde of policemen run into a crowd of hardened, genocidal mercenaries with machine guns who then only seem to be able to shoot at the cops’ fucking feet, thereby missing the entire crowd – no, wall – of oncoming policemen.

Mr. Nolan, if you want us to take your Batman as seriously as he takes himself, you’re going to actually have to have a few people die onscreen. A PG-13 Batman movie that doesn’t have a sense of humor about itself can’t help but produce some laughably ridiculous moments – case in point: Bane can apparently destroy the stock market with one ipad, completely entrap Gotham’s police force underground, beat the living shit out of Batman without effort and rule Gotham single-handed, but can’t fathom that Batman might escape a prison with a huge fucking hole in the center of it, the same hole that someone in Bane’s past used as a means of escape! I guess he’s not aware that, being the villain, he’s designed from the outset to fail.

In short, the unintentional humor in Nolan’s movies makes them…well, shitty. Nolan gave us Leonardo DiCaprio screaming “Those were not normal projections, they’ve been trained for god sakes!” as if dream-people are actual threats, and in The Dark Knight Rises he does no better: Batman answers Bane’s climactic question “So, have you come to die with your city?” with “Nooo…I’ve come to stop…YOU!” before both of them engage in a childish fistfight that will somehow determine Gotham’s fate. It’s hilarious how seriously the movie handles these moments – I mean, at least twenty film production professionals had to read that line, watch that line, and go “that looks great, let’s not change a thing.”

What made the Joker so enthralling in The Dark Knight was that he precisely refused to “risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight” with the Batman, ensuring that his villainy would live on even if he didn’t – and it did, as Bruce Wayne retreats for eight years as a result of his confrontation with the maniacal clown. On the other hand, Bane starts out as a promising villain who seems to be both smarter and stronger than Batman, but his initial intelligence and brilliant strategy don’t amount to anything. Instead, the climax boils down to an over-hyped fistfight that becomes what the Joker scorned in The Dark Knight: a childish fistfight for Gotham’s ‘soul.’ The problem of The Dark Knight Rises‘ villain is encapsulated in the realization that the Joker uses the term ‘Gotham’s soul’ in a deeply ironic way, while Bane prattles on incoherently about the city’s ‘soul’ with an utmost seriousness.

And this leads me to the movie’s main disappointment: Bane, a strong central character who is shoved to the periphery in the last forty-five minutes of the film. I loved this villain, as he is the polar opposite of the Joker in that he’s a physical match for Batman, incredibly intelligent and has a plan that he works pitilessly to realize. And in the first half of the movie, Bane provides that same incredible, villainous center that Joker did for The Dark Knight – his arc culminates in the movie’s finest scene where Batman and Bane meet for the first time and Bane utters that amazing line “You think darkness is your ally, but I was born in it.” Bane opens the movie demonstrating his technical brilliance and terrifying ferocity, which makes it all the more enraging when a much less-interesting and less-developed different League of Shadows villain takes away all of Bane’s inertia by claiming credit not only for his diabolical plan, but for his motivation for carrying out that plan.

The movie undoes all of its work to provide us with a strong central villain when it portrays Bane as a quasi-sympathetic pawn of the League, and this contradictory transition becomes more horrifying than the antagonist himself. Alfred’s warning to Batman that Bane is a man “too extreme for the League of Shadows” made Bane seem incredibly dangerous, especially when coupled with an enthralling tale of how he was born in a prison from which he would eventually escape – yet this new villain ironically muscles Bane out of his own origin story, making him a pathetic secondary character. Imagine if the Joker in The Dark Knight was revealed to be a mere pawn of the criminal elite, and you can imagine the disappointment when you watch Bane become an ineffectual shadow of what we thought was an actual, independently brutal villain.

Akin to what he did with Two-Face in The Dark Knight, Nolan introduces a terribly boring antagonist in the last chapter that further muddles the plot and forces the conclusion to keep limping on long after we’re tired of trying to make sense of the movie’s non sequiturs and deus ex machinas.

Which brings me to the movie’s plot. What we get is a simple doomsday-device plot with generic, vague political overtones about the 99% revolting against the 1%. The movie tries to make you forget it’s core simplicity by making both Bane’s plan to blow up Gotham and Batman’s plan to stop him amorphously complex. Bruce Wayne, for a reason so stupid it’s barely intelligible, puts a nuclear reactor right underneath Gotham so that it might (like, in the future) one day provide a clean and unlimited energy source for the city. That’s too good a chance for Bane to give up, and he proceeds to make this reactor a functioning atomic bomb, using it to lord over Gotham and pretend he’s giving the city back to ‘the people.’ The movie also resurrects Batman Begins‘ nonsensical motivation for the League of Shadows’ wish to destroy Gotham (the ‘it’s so evil it must be destroyed so it can be reborn’ type of misanthropy) and uses it to explain away Bane and those behind him. It was a vague, unsatisfying motive the first time around, and I have no idea why it’s being used again.

Anyways, the bad guy with the bomb has his day, Batman is out of commission for so long I forget I’m watching a Batman movie and not a James Bond one, then Batman returns and tries to come up with a plan smarter than Bane’s, things go boom for a good hour, and good guys eek out a win. Very simple, but very poorly told – Bruce Wayne has some gadget that can erase people’s pasts, which lets him give the thief Selina Kyle (a.k.a Catwoman) a reason for being in the movie, Jim Gordon can seemingly go wherever he wants to interfere with Bane’s plans even though every merc in Gotham is hunting for his old ass, and Bane is somehow able (unbeknownst to the cops) to infiltrate Gotham’s entire infrastructure to raise an army of blue-collar workers who inexplicably become his faceless drones.

South Park, as always, perfectly captures why Nolan’s plots are so pompous, yet simple, making them frustratingly inept and thus prone to hilarious parody:

 

I was also hoping that the eight year interlude between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises would give us a Bruce Wayne/Batman that’s at least tolerable, but after a few brilliantly poignant moments with his butler Alfred, Christian Bale goes back to giving us more of that same, morose and utterly banal Batman. Bale’s Batman has always been an odd void in the Nolan movies, a character we wouldn’t want to be left alone with not because he’s particularly dangerous, but because he’s so boring. Without the rich, full-realized characters that surround him – James Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox, Selina Kyle, the Joker, and (at least for this film’s first half) Bane – Batman becomes completely vacuous. The psychological depth of Batman that’s praised by this trilogy’s biggest fans is nothing more than a very bland ethical and emotional posturing that never really leads anywhere. The only moment Bruce Wayne becomes an actual character is when he interacts with Michael Caine’s brilliant Alfred, and their relationship is perhaps one of the strongest features of Nolan’s Batman films, particularly this last one. Without Alfred, Bruce Wayne becomes a one-note caped crusader who only superficially recalls the philosophical quandaries of heroism and vigilantism before raising his body count.

Surprisingly, the movie handles the Selina Kyle/Catwoman character very well: she’s witty, sexy, dangerous and has a sense of the absurdity of the world in which she lives. I actually wish that Anne Hathaway was Bruce Wayne’s love interest (as Rachel Dawes or Selina Kyle) throughout the films. Again, Michael Caine is perhaps The Dark Knight Rises‘ saving grace, as he delivers an incredible emotional weight to his scenes with Bruce Wayne and is actually the reason why there’s any catharsis at all in the movie’s hilariously hyperbolic ending. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are likewise astounding, doing everything Christian Bale fails to do: they flesh out believable, sympathetic characters that make us emotionally invest in the Batman story.

But in the end, we are given a plot that’s convoluted not because it’s too complex, but because it’s too poorly told and conceived (akin to Inception). We also have explosions so commonplace they make us yawn, fight scenes where so many elbows block our view that the camera must have been attached to Batman’s fucking armpit – except for one shot where it beautifully shows Bane, at a distance, pummeling Batman against a pillar – and background music that is just a recording of Hans Zimmer going bat-shit on the bongos. And it will all make more money than any movie in history, and possibly more money than the Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City videogames that completely outdo the Nolan movies in every way imaginable.

Perhaps what’s so frustrating about this film (and the trilogy in general) is that we are given a film that has all the elements – grit, plot, villains, multidimensional ancillary characters, and a big budget – it needs to give us an incredible, 21st century Batman film experience, yet what we get is a movie that suffocates us with its mediocrity. And in a way, that makes it a harder film to see than any Transformers sequel.

 

Movie that do it better: The Avengers, obviously, Kick-Ass (actual violence WITH hilarity, a godsend of a movie), the Batman videogames, The Dark Knight (only by virtue of comparison), Sin City, V for Vendetta, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Memento, The Prestige, Matt Damon’s Bourne trilogy, X-Men and X2: X-Men United, any fan-made youtube video of them wearing a cowl while speaking from the bottom of their throat.