Victory has defeated you: PAR watches The Dark Knight Rises (Spoilers)
The Dark Knight Rises moves with all the grace of an elephant festooned with cinder blocks. It’s a giant, lumbering thing that never seems to know how to move from scene to scene, but the overall story within the mess should be enough to keep the interest of most movie goers. The amount of emotional payoff you’ll find in the last third of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is directly proportional to your investment in Batman as a character. It's also hard to judge this film on its own, since the characters and plot owe so much to the films that came before it. The Dark Knight Rises picks up directly after the events of The Dark Knight, and then scoots a number of years into a future where Bruce Wayne is a limping recluse with a dying company and Gotham City is all but safe from crime. It may take an hour or so and a slightly implausible leg brace to get to the action, but things pick up when a new villain is introduced to Gotham City. Then the story lurches to a standstill again during interminable scenes set in a sunken prison and an isolated Gotham City. There are amazing moments here, but the film moves in fits and starts, making it hard to sit through the entire running time of almost three hours.
Nolan’s genius lies in his villains
Before we tackle The Dark Knight Rises, let's take a short look back. Nolan’s first Batman film worked due to the fun the director found in showing how Bruce Wayne became Batman. The introduction of Ra’s al Ghul and the idea of Batman as a “failed” initiate in the League of Shadows was brilliant, and went a long way in creating a character that felt fresh. It was an origin story done right, complete with an impressive version of Scarecrow played by Cillian Murphy, a villain Nolan wisely brought back for a cameo in the second film. The Dark Knight, and please go back and watch that film before seeing The Dark Knight Rises, was a movie that was saved by Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker, a character whose only goal was showing how much easier it is to push people towards evil and chaos than it is to inspire them with the symbol that Wayne worked so hard to create. It was a dark, moody film that explored how the creation of something good can inspire equally dark energy. If Batman hoped to show people what was good inside the city, the Joker wanted everyone to look into the abyss.While The Dark Knight suffers from its own awkward pace and a reliance on the Joker being nearly clairvoyant in order to move the plot along, the performances were pitch-perfect, and the twist of switching the locations of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes when Batman is giving a choice of who to save was a masterful nod to the chaos of the Joker. What’s more tragic than forcing a hero to make an impossible choice, only to have him find he couldn’t save the person he loved? We’ll never get to find out how the trilogy would have ended if Nolan had the option of another film with Heath Ledger, but the addition of Tom Hardy as Bane was inspired. Once again an actor is able to take a villain from the Batman mythos and give him new life and, while we may still remember the cartoonish versions of Bane from some of the other films or television shows, the Shakespearean tragedy and power that Tom Hardy brought to Bane makes the character irresistible. He’s not charismatic as much as he’s a force of nature, and we understand why the men who work with him find it so easy to die for his cause. The opening action sequence introduces Bane to great effect, and shows off Nolan's gift for staging physical effects. Nothing about this movie feels like CGI, which is a wonderful change of pace from superhero films like the most recent Spider-Man. His backstory is interesting, and the way the film slowly fills in details of how he came to be is handled very well. It’s important that he seem to be a credible threat to Batman, and when the movie finally puts them together and allows them to fight one-on-one it’s demoralizing how easily Bane is able to take Batman apart. Theatrics and the threat of darkness are cheap tricks to someone who grew up in the dark and was trained by the League of Shadows, and it’s fascinating to see how important those tricks are to Batman in overpowering his foes when he’s up against someone immune to intimidation and can match him punch for punch. Batman as a character exists to be something larger than life, as Bruce Wayne always points out, so having Bane’s thugs watch Batman get beaten so easily is uncomfortable. Bane doesn’t just crush Batman’s body, he makes the act of doing so look simple. The characters have believable reasons for going after their respective goals, but often seem to go down the path of most resistance. Catwoman just wants to get rid of her criminal record, and Wayne is sure there is substance to that longing, but what is she going to do for the rest of her life? How did she become who she is, and what are her grand goals outside of escaping her police record? We never find out, making her something of a cypher. She’s also something of a class warrior, and delivers a few 99 percent-ready monologues against the powerful and rich. Her exasperated comment about the haves not going broke the same way as the have-nots, given after Bruce Wayne notes that he gets to keep his mansion despite being broke, was a funny moment, but she’s a lightly drawn character that seems to become a good person because Batman kept reminding her it was an option. On the flipside, her goggles that flip up to become cat ears were adorable, even if we’re never shown what the heck it is they DO. The Dark Knight Rises is a film that seems much better than it is when you’re in the theater and overwhelmed by the epic scale of the IMAX screen and booming surround sound. Bane’s speeches and vocal effects are hypnotic, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that dumping Batman into a prison where one can escape by climbing out is the ultimate version of telling the hero your plan, dumping them into an escapable trap, and then walking away. This is doubly true when Bruce Wayne seems to be able to heal any grievous wound to his body via a montage of push- and pull-ups. The problem is that so many of the circumstances and plot points in the film look great and help keep the themes consistent, but they don’t add up. Does Bane really need to take over the stock exchange to fake those transactions, or was it mostly an excuse to use that great line about there being no money there before re-introducing Batman? The nuclear device also seemed to be built from the ground up to be the perfect plot device in a superhero movie, complete with tense shots of the external clock counting down. It's hard to get a sense for the passage of time in the movie, even when characters go out of their way to state how long Gotham City has been under Bane's control. Those months with no police, no rule of law, and flickering power must have been hellish for the people of Gotham, but that drama seems glossed over in favor of extended shots of the police stuck under the city, and endlessly patrolling pseudo-Batmobiles. Christopher Nolan knows how to direct amazing action scenes, but I'll be damned if he doesn't also know how to cause the momentum of his own films to screech to a halt.
I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises much more than it may seem from my thoughts here, and the movie is filled with striking imagery. It’s hard to find fault in the pacing and plot decisions when the visuals and pitch-black tone of the film are so overpowering, especially when seen on an IMAX screen. Christopher Nolan has delivered an inspired take on Batman as a character and as a story, and I doubt any director is going to be able to deliver anything similar to these three films in a very long time. In a world of inflated 3D profits, the Batman series has been proudly 2D. The Batman series is clearly aimed at adult sensibilities, while the likely more profitable Avengers film is relatively family friendly. If these are three movies about the redemption of a city, the third movie does the least with that premise, including the odd distance given to Gotham City once it’s cut off from the rest of the world. The final few moments descend into mawkishness amid a few fun revelations, and Nolan seems to lose his nerve when it comes to making the hard decisions about how to end the stories. There were chances to do some brave things with the end of the story but they were mostly ignored, to the detriment of the series. These movies may not be as good as conventional wisdom suggests, especially after repeated viewings, but they are still very, very good. When a man tries to become something more to save the soul of the city, and monsters are created and attracted to that city based on his actions, perhaps the only way to restore balance is to hang up the cowl. This isn’t a story about Batman, this is a story about someone trying to do something extraordinary, and having that decision destroy the few things he had left to care about. It’s about answering the question about why we fall, with all the clumsy fumbling we do trying to find reasons to get back up.