The Dark Knight Rises

The super-serious superhero series reaches its noisy, hollow climax

The Dark Knight Rises


Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway
Time Out rating:
Japanese title: Dark Knight Rising

‘But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal… you become something else entirely.’
Batman Begins

‘Why so serious?’
The Dark Knight

When we last saw Batman, he of the tight black suit and chronic need for a lozenge, the Caped Crusader was fleeing into the night, the fuzz in hot pursuit. Gary Oldman’s promoted-to-Commissioner Jim Gordon declared that Gotham City’s 'silent guardian, [its] watchful protector' would become a pariah, allowing the memory of deceased District Attorney (and recipient of comicdom’s worst facelift ever) Harvey Dent to remain untarnished. Like any good messiah, the Dark Knight was willing to die for our sins – figuratively, if not literally. Not yet.

As the third entry in Christopher Nolan’s game-changing trilogy opens, we’re told that eight years have passed since Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) mothballed his Batsuit. The late DA remains a beloved icon – he’s even earned his own holiday, named (what else?) Dent Day – and Gotham revels in an era of peace and prosperity. Wayne himself has become a Howard Hughes–like shut-in, hobbling around with a cane and sporting the requisite recluse accoutrement of swashbucklerish facial hair. Audiences, of course, know a storm is coming, and not just because pretty jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) actually says, 'A storm is coming.' Rather, it’s the guy introduced in the film’s incredible opening who telegraphs that trouble is brewing. Having weaseled his way onto a CIA rendition flight, a masked, muscle-bound mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) & Co. abduct a VIP passenger by systematically taking over and dismantling the plane. This is why you shoot an action sequence in IMAX, people.

As The Dark Knight Rises nudges Wayne once more unto the Bat-breach, however, that aforementioned gap between Batman’s retirement and return ultimately means less to the proceedings than what has transpired since Nolan resuscitated the franchise in 2005. When the director rebooted the character after a disastrous outing in the ’90s (one word: Bat-nipples), superhero movies were already flirting with new levels of realism and edginess. But Batman Begins signalled that it was possible to dive even deeper into the abyss with an iconic do-gooder, and brought comic–writer–artist Frank Miller’s conception of this damaged, near-psychotic vigilante to life in ways that previous screen versions either wouldn’t or couldn’t.

Limits were pushed even further in 2008’s The Dark Knight, a bleak blockbuster both anchored and eclipsed by a bravura, bat-shit performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker. Though the film was padded with Bond-like excursions to Hong Kong and that wonky bit involving bombs on boats (somewhere within this bloated 152-minute epic is a brilliant 90-minute movie), the bar was irrevocably raised. Suddenly, you were practically required to treat superhero films as something closer to psychological noirs than Pop Art punchlines. Those of us who saw the potential in subversively examining questions of good versus evil in today’s America via men-in-tights movies breathlessly wondered what Nolan would do for the final act.

The answer is, add more solemnity, straight-faced speechifying and high-volume spectacle, and leave out much of what made the other two films intriguing, despite their flaws. For some, the fact that Nolan throws in a few amazing set pieces – besides the stellar plane sequence, there’s a bomb attack that ends with a football field collapsing and a chilling long shot of bridges blowing up in synchronicity – and introduces a nifty new flying vehicle called 'The Bat' will be more than enough.

But grand scale or no, this feels like a blockbuster on autopilot more often than not, curiously detached and self-importantly somber even by the director’s standards – and without the cerebral heft of his best work. We’ve come to accept both the series’ penchant for groanworthy dialogue ('I found out about your mask') and Bale’s look-how-intense-I-can-stare take on the enraged hero, but there’s no live-wire performance à la Ledger to balance things out. Instead, we get Bronson’s Hardy, now mostly mumble-free, trying to add depth to a half-baked Bane with his plummy, imperialistic Brit-rot voice, and Hathaway’s screwball-bantering Catwoman, a comic-relief turn that’s all lukewarm levity.

Anyone hoping for an extension of The Dark Knight’s explorations into post–9/11 morality will have to make do with some clumsy exploitation of Wall Street schadenfreude, along with the notion that all that Occupy righteousness and Tea Party rage will lead to a Stalinist revolution. This is po-faced comic-book campiness, except it's dressed up in funereal colors and attempting to pass for profundity. And once fate deals our protagonist a serious blow and Gotham City becomes a metropolitan gulag, the narrative’s attempts to play a weak prison-break storyline against a weak WWII–resistance drama simply drags the movie down even further. Everything that Rises must converge, yet by the time the third act slouches homeward, you are not exhilarated by the sense of a journey ending; you’re exhausted by so much sound and fury ultimately signifying you-know-what.

Allow me to drop my own mask for a second. When I reviewed The Dark Knight upon its release, I wrote that if anybody were capable of lifting superhero movies to the next level, it was Nolan. He was trying to make more than just a summer movie, and had devoted himself to an ideal: the genre can produce the equivalent of The Searchers, and such a thing would help raise these movies the way John Ford’s film did for Westerns. (Why so serious? Because these films have the capacity to be taken seriously, just like their graphic-novel counterparts.) To paraphrase Oldman’s weary Gordon, I still believe in Nolan; there may not be a more intellectually ambitious Hollywood director working on such huge mainstream, studio-film canvases. I hope the gajillion dollars this movie makes pave the way for the more challenging stories he has yet to tell.

I’m not so sure about the genre any more, however; there’s now a sense that, with so much dough and fandom on the line, its conventions can constrict even the most creative artist. We may be able to get CGI fun out of the comic-book canon and even the occasional auterist work like Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, but my faith that a truly important piece can be gleaned from these tales of costumed champions has been broken. Maybe these big-budget superhero tales simply aren’t destined to rise above a certain popcorn-movie level even at their most ambitious and morally ambiguous. Maybe better-than-average really is the best we can hope for.

The Dark Knight Rises opens nationwide on July 28, with advance screenings on July 27

By David Fear
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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