The Dark Knight Rises / Christopher Nolan / 2012 /

Active Ingredients: Cinematography; Bane
Side Effects: Emotionally and morally muddy; Alfred; Pacing and action

It seems as though Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight Rises, a comic-book action blockbuster like so many others, will forever be associated with the senseless shooting at a Colorado movie theater. “The movie theatre is my home,” Nolan wrote in a reaction to the shooting, “and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” In the wake of the tragedy, movie fans and others from around the world have theorized possible connections to Batman or to film and the media in general, but Nolan’s statement reminds us that the shooting was a horrible event, alas, like so many others, that could have happened anywhere at any time. Nolan’s films don’t preach violence, no more than any others, but The Dark Knight Rises will nonetheless unfairly become the symbol of one man’s violence. In a modest effort to divorce a piece of pop entertainment from a much more serious issue, I’d like to close this preamble and consider The Dark Knight Rises as I would any other film.

Looking back on Christoper Nolan’s Batman trilogy now, after its completion, the distinct ideas governing each film are striking. In The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, the goals are always the same: destroy the ring, destroy the Empire. Nolan’s trilogy, however, represents three independent efforts, both aesthetically, but more importantly morally. Batman Begins considered fear and overcoming fear to create a legend. The Dark Knight is about chaos and abandoning the legend. The Dark Knight Rises, however, seems to be about all of this and more. Creating the legend, abandoning it, destroying it, without an understanding of how or why any of these goals are important. Nolan’s first two Batman tales are thematically sound, almost to a fault. The Dark Knight Rises, meanwhile, was necessary to complete a trilogy but not to complete a story.

8 years after the events of the previous film, Bruce Wayne has become a shut-in, giving up his Batsuit to maintain the lie of Harvey Dent as a folk hero. (The people of Gotham, it seems, are quite gullible and have no problems switching allegiances when asked to.) His trusty butler Alfred has always had Bruce’s best interests at heart, but this time it’s a real strain to understand how, as he encourages him to abandon Batman for good in a few scenes of unearned emotion. Still, Batman returns to stop the efforts of the terrorist Bane, an interesting combination of brain and brawn, but the least complicated character in the trilogy.

As always, Nolan has filled his film with talented actors, a few of whom reliable safeguard the movie’s momentum. Christian Bale finally feels comfortable and natural as Batman, while Tom Hardy gives Bane serious gravitas despite being restricted behind a mask. The best scenes in the movie, then, are the most simple, where Batman and Bane fight as archetypical good guy and bad guy. The problem is that Nolan has so painstakingly set up his Batman universe as a gritty place where the line between good and evil is blurred, and surrounds these simple characters with conflicting, muddied and underdeveloped moral and ethical concerns.

Too much goes on in The Dark Knight Rises, but that wouldn’t be a problem if any of it landed as solidly as it does in The Dark Knight. That earlier film’s opening bank heist, for example, is a breathless, exhilarating scene, which delivers some of the film’s best thrills while contextualizing the character of The Joker. An analogous scene in the this film fails on both accounts. Since most of the film’s subplots (a prison, a school bus full of kids) and setpieces (a raid, a giant battle) miss the mark, it’s momentum is destroyed, creating a blocky string of discrete dialogue and action scenes. It’s a confused final chapter to an otherwise strong series, and probably Nolan’s weakest film.