Author’s Note: I woke up this morning and found out about the shooting in Colorado after I posted this review. The movies have always been a place of escape, of safety. They may not be for a long time after this. I hope that everyone who is injured pulls through and that the movies can be safe again. I hope that people can still enjoy the film, and I hope that we can still go on enjoying art as we always have.
It was always going to be hard.
There are some acts you can’t just follow. A lot of trilogies find their footing in an exceptional second film and then lose some ground in film three. The original Star Wars, Spider-Man, the X-Men trilogy, and to some extent The Lord of the Rings all feel this effect. The first film is about finding the voice of the series. Establishing the hero and the supporting characters and giving that hero a motivation. He gets through his first obstacle (villain) and is set up to do more in the future. The second film can do more, expand the world of our hero slightly. It introduces new players in the game and gives our hero a harder obstacle. It is truly unclear as to whether or not he will succeed. There is always some sacrifice he has to make, some challenge he has not yet overcome. Resolution, in its total sense, is reserved for movie three.
The first two movies in the Dark Knight trilogy follow this pattern, but I don’t know what The Dark Knight Rises resolves, besides itself. Director Christopher Nolan reached such a pinnacle with 2008’s The Dark Knight that it was simply too high to rise above. And so Rises goes instead with an involved attempt to link itself to the mythology of Batman Begins, effectively becoming a sequel to that first film instead of to the second. And in doing so, Rises gets lost in its own commentary, its own machination. It moves to a place that is all at once too far from The Dark Knight, and too close to it.
In Nolan’s Gotham, the world is controlled by villains. In Batman Begins it was controlled by the mob paying off the system. In The Dark Knight, the Joker created chaos and psychological warfare, because, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” In Rises, the world is controlled by Bane, a man of intense belief and idealism, with stated goals, and who favors physical, brutal war. In a lot of ways he is the opposite of the Joker, and also a cheap facsimile of him.
Every story has its own set of rules. You’ll hear me say this a lot because it’s one of my favorite parts of fiction. In a very English-nerd way I could tell you that it all goes back to Aristotle, but even I realize how boring that can be for some people. But I will tell you that once a fictional universe has established its rules, breaking them can ruin a story. Now I don’t know if Rises truly broke the rules, but it certainly pushed them to their utmost limits. There is something just so incredibly unbelievable about this film. What the Joker did to Gotham made sense. There was build up and an understanding of the why and the wherefore and connections to events from our collective experience. What Bane does to Gotham seems so absurd that I initially wondered if it was really happening, or if Bruce Wayne was just having a nightmare. And when the improbable turned out to be the truth, I found myself lost in a wave of skepticism and disbelief. And so the movie just sort of lost me.
I find it hard to review this movie without spoiling its rather complex plot, because I believe that most of the fault lies in that plot. I can say, completely spoiler-free, that I walked out of that theater wondering exactly what the movie was about. I know that it had themes. Revolution, class warfare, civil strife, nuclear disarmament, individual purpose, spiritual enlightenment, and more. It had story, so much story. Too much story. There was so much going on and it was all happening it once. I had trouble following, a problem that was not at all helped by the often incomprehensible growl of Tom Hardy’s Bane.
The movie also feels overly-long because the pacing is off. It drags for a good hour in the middle and repeats itself too often. However, the last half hour picks up in a way that will lift you out of your seat. Despite my problems with the plot in general, Nolan certainly knows how to build to a climactic confluence of events. The acting is wonderful, as it was in both the previous films. No one can hold a candle to Heath Ledger of course, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. And Joseph Gordon Levitt, as the ordinary yet extraordinary Officer John Blake, shines far above the rest. It is such a shame that this universe won’t continue so that his character could find new growth.
This was an action film for sure, but not really a superhero movie. I have used that statement to describe The Dark Knight, but in that case I meant that the film transcends the genre, rather than side-stepping it the way Rises does. Nolan was trying; indeed, you can almost feel him behind each frame, pushing the story at you, trying to make you feel it the way you felt The Dark Knight. But it is possible to try too hard. He knows how to play on our societal fears, to tap into cultural archetypes and make films that speak to our world as a whole yet also to each individual person who sees them. But in Rises he had so much to say that it really just runs together into a bit of a mess that is confusing and at times incomprehensible. Some men just want to watch the world burn and in a weird way, I think Christopher Nolan is one of them. He fills the movie with so much chaos that inevitably we are just watching a fire rise across the screen, and not Batman.