Pieces. There are pieces of a great movie in The Dark Knight Rises. And “pieces” seems like an apt word, as director Christopher Nolan is notorious for loving his puzzle movies. But honestly, in the man’s eight-film career, Dark Knight Rises might be the first film where the pieces just don’t fit together.
Such is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the greatest strengths of Dark Knight Rises’ loose narrative and characters that float in and out of the story is that it feels far less constrained than the rigid plotting of The Dark Knight. If you were in disbelief over Dark Knight’s jam-packed narrative or exhausted by its roaring pace, Rises’ jazzier riff on Batman’s resurrection should harken back to Batman Begins’ winding tale of the hero’s origins. It gives the film room to breathe, and for the viewer to contemplate the events of the film (particularly its second half.) At the same time, it risks viewers responding like I did – drifting amongst the numerous plot threads, losing the urgency I feel so keenly in Nolan’s other films.
Not a lot of plot is necessary to understand Dark Knight Rises, and again, it works far better minus spoilers. In short, we pick up long after the conclusion of Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne now an eccentric billionaire hiding from society’s eyes, Batman long been put to rest. He quickly faces a dual threat, however – first, the mysterious monster-criminal Bane arrives in Gotham, rallying the city’s impoverished and downtrodden for a secret initiative. Second, Wayne’s isolation has allowed Wayne Industries to fall into shambles, generating less money and funding fewer social programs. In weird ways, it’s almost this second issue that’s more interesting – Wayne has become so obsessed with martyring himself, he has forgotten the good he can do for Gotham as a philanthropist.
Bane’s arrival in Gotham allows Wayne to return as Batman, and re-opens the central question that haunts Dark Knight’s conclusion: Does the world need Batman? Or is it better off without him? That’s not the only idea here – Dark Knight Rises wrestles with many weighty themes: how industry needs to function to support social good; how privilege makes people in power incapable of understanding the oppressed; how severe divides in class and wealth make it easy to redirect social breakdowns into violent fanaticism. Nolan leaves the answers to these questions open – whether that speaks to the complexity or the incoherence of the film’s political perspective is largely up the viewer.
And I have nothing against the addressing of these ideas. Much like with Dark Knight, the film actually gains a lot of points from me for so clearly addressing the nation’s current, fractured political state. The difference in Rises is that Nolan seems to struggle more to envision the class-divide in America in the same electrifying way that he commented on post-9/11 tensions in Dark Knight. Gotham splits in Rises – the have’s versus the have-not’s, the law versus the rebels. But the way this conflict is envisioned – random groups of cops, thugs, and everyday people, tucked into pockets of the city, unaware of where to go next – doesn’t enliven these concepts. Instead, it dilutes what the threat is – the thugs, a nuclear bomb, Bane himself? Yes, the battle lines are confusing in these situations, but it becomes damn hard to thrill an audience when the fight becomes this vague.
That said, while the narrative struggles to find footing – particularly what is done with Bruce Wayne in the film’s third quarter – there’s no denying that when Nolan wants to capture a moment, he still astounds. Beautiful imagery abounds in the film – from shots of a shadowy Wayne in his empty mansion, to the desolate streets of an abandoned Gotham, to the spectacle of the beyond-high-tech Batwing (just “The Bat” here) navigating the city’s skyscrapers. At times, Nolan still rattles you to your core with brutal combat between Batman and Bane (the best fight scenes of the series), and when the stakes become clear in the film’s climactic moments, you’ll still find your knuckled wrapped tightly around your seat’s armrests. And just the image of Bane himself should manage to haunt memories in much the same way Ledger’s Joker did.
The performances themselves are a mixed bag, though. The image of Bane is amazing; what has been done in re-altering his voice can have ill-effect, though. I was genuinely horrified when I heard Hardy’s creepy rant in the film’s prologue when it was shown before Mission Impossible 4. With the alterations, I found his lines almost goofy in the same scene – at times sounding like a hillbilly with a Norwegian twinge (and this is coming from someone who was never even bothered by Bale’s Batman voice.) But the voice issues work themselves out over the course of the film, and the ultra-beefed-up Hardy is never less than an intimidating presence. Bale is excellent – possibly his best yet – as a shattered, confused Wayne, trying to find his way in this new crisis. Sadly, the weak link here really is Anne Hathaway, proving fan fears true. I like Hathaway in a number of roles (Havoc and Rachel Getting Married, in particular), but she just doesn’t have the teeth or attitude to make Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) seem appropriately dangerous or intriguing. Marion Cotillard fares better as Miranda, a fellow billionaire looking to invest in Wayne Enterprises, but she largely plays the role as Cotillard as usual. Gary Oldman is strong – and sad – as a now aged and tried Commission Gordon. Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, and Juno Temple are also dependably solid performers, but the rambling script often doesn’t give them enough to do to really flesh out their characters (particularly JGL, who has a surprisingly large role as a young, determined cop.)
I wanted to love Dark Knight Rises, and maybe my less-than-glowing response is the result of those expectations. I hoped it would be my favorite film of the year, and as a diehard Nolan fan, I wanted to see the man deliver a third masterpiece after Dark Knight and Inception. I wanted to send this Batman away on a great note. I’ll see it again, and I hope my opinion changes. But as of now, it’s a wildly inconsistent film for me. Nolan’s gift for making movies of overwhelming magnitude, his richly imagined worlds, and his investment in culture and politics continue to fill me with excitement. But Rises’ meandering narrative and its bland new characters just don’t connect with me. It just doesn’t quite feel like the conclusion to The Dark Knight trilogy that we need right now, not the one we deserve.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).