Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (3.5/5)

By now even those who dislike Christopher Nolan’s Batman triptych have been so beaten into submission that, in lieu of screaming “uncle,” they have conceded that the trio of films serve as a sort of repository of all of the anxieties running through the first decade or so of the new millennium.  They may disagree about the quality of the films themselves, but after seven years everyone agrees that these movies have established themselves as important cultural artifacts.  In particular, I’ve enjoyed that Nolan has somehow managed to hoist his personal vision of the world in front of millions and it has still connected with large swaths of audiences.  The blockbuster as personal missive approach to filmmaking has become increasingly rare, because either the audience or the studio have rejected those directors (see: Lee’s Hulk, Singer’s Superman Returns, and Raimi’s Spiderman series).  These days it seems as if Nolan is one of a few directors with the clout to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his own personal vision.

So where does The Dark Knight Rises, the epic finale square with its predecessors?  Does it consistently meld its fantastical premise with a real world aesthetic like Begins?  Does it successfully tangle with questions of ethics like the sequel?  Well, not exactly.  At two hours and forty-five minutes, the film is unwieldy (how could it not be).  But it still manages to stick its landing, providing a satisfying and logical conclusion to one of the most distinct movie series of the last ten years.

The Dark Knight Rises plays out like a dialectic of the first two films, stringing along the two main threads of the previous installments – the League of Shadow’s terrorist attack and the moral fall and death of Harvey Dent – and combining them.  Because the people of Gotham still believe in Harvey Dent’s martyrdom, the lie concocted by Batman and Gordon at the end of The Dark Knight, they have come together and passed something called the “Dent Act,” which has helped clear the streets of criminals.  It isn’t exactly clear what was in the Dent act, but apparently it was controversial enough for some politicians to push for repeal.  The dramatic cut in crime has formed a city that no longer needs Batman as its protector, and Bruce Wayne hasn’t worn the cape and cowl since the end of the second film, eight years ago in movie time.  After a stunningly shot jail break in mid air, the film opens with a large gala at the Wayne mansion, but Wayne himself is absent, leading one party-goer to suggest that he may be growing out his finger nails and filling jars with urine in solidarity with Howard Hughes. 
During the gala one of the maids, suspiciously played by the headlining starlet Anne Hathaway, makes her way into a largely abandoned wing of Wayne manor.  Of course, Hathaway is playing Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman (although that name is never used).  And after a confrontation with her reclusive host, she slips out with some pearls and copies of Bruce Wayne’s finger prints.  The pearls are for her while the fingerprints are for a mysterious new player in Gotham who happen to be a front for the League of Shadow, the same terrorist organization that trained Bruce Wayne and then later attempted to destroy Gotham in the first film. 

Like a lot of people, I was skeptical of Hathaway’s ability to play Catwoman.  She has a tendency to find roles that take advantage of her mostly chipper attitude, and I wasn’t sure she would be able to convincingly beat up guys twice her size on screen.  Luckily, my skepticism was misplaced.  Hathaway is easily one of the best elements of the movie.  Most of Nolan’s Batman films are shrouded in a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity, an element that is both refreshing in a blockbuster but also, at times, oppressive.  Hathaway provides a respite from the heavier aspects of Rises because she’s one of the few characters who seems to actually enjoy herself from time to time.  When she first stumbles upon Wayne during her burglary she starts by playing innocent, but when he calls her out on her lying Hathaway’s entire demeanor shifts, from the way she speaks to how she holds herself.  Throughout the film Hathaway plays Selina Kyle as mercurial, and we never really know which side she’s on or whether or not she has gained or lost the upper hand.

The central protagonist, however, is Bane, the new leader of the League of Shadows.  Rumors about Bane suggest that he comes from a prison pit in one of the more brutal corners of the world.  It is nearly impossible for any prisoner to scale this pit and gain his freedom, and although many of tried, Bane is the only one who has made it out alive.  Bane’s approach to leading the League of Shadows is different from Ra’s al Ghul’s.  Where Ra’s obscured the violence of the terrorist group through reasonable sounding rhetoric and Liam Neesom’s proper British accent, Bane himself appears to be brutality incarnate.  Without hesitation he guns civilians down but seems to prefer killing people with his bare hands. 

His followers also have a religious-like devotion, dutifully sacrificing their lives upon a simple request, which Bane makes in the same perfunctory manner that a boss might when asking for a TPS report.  But it’s not exactly clear why Bane himself garners such allegiance from his acolytes beyond the mythology surrounding his emergence from the pit.  Tom Hardy, who has put in some great performances in his career, is constrained by a mouth piece that not only serves to obscure his facial expressions, but also distorts his voice, which ends up sounding like Sean Connery with laryngitis.  The end result can look menacing in a fight, but when Hardy has dialogue to deliver, his tools as an actor are hobbled.  This is no more apparent than when Bane gives an impassioned speech to Gotham’s downtrodden, but the audience can’t even see his mouth move, and his vocal range is electronically suppressed.

Bane’s goal is not only to break Batman but also to hold Gotham hostage, cutting it off from the outside world and allowing the city residents to turn on each other.  After a vicious battle against Batman where Bane methodically dismantles his opponent, the League of Shadows proceeds to blow up any egress from the city and arm a nuclear weapon, which they are prepared to detonate if the U.S. military takes action against them.  The sequence is impressive in the way that it manages to make the stakes suitably and improbably high, a difficult task coming off of the threat of the Joker.  While Batman is trapped in the same prison that once held Bane, the citizens of Gotham plot to bring down the League of Shadows.

Bane’s ideology and the film itself are peppered with pseudo-populist sentiment about inequality and class.  Selina Kyle, who has had to scramble to survive her entire life, resents Wayne and his high society peers.  And when Bane has finally cut Gotham off from the outside world his first move is to release all of the prisoners from jail.  Unfortunately, the film’s handling of class issues is muddle at best and downright moronic at worst.  After Bane releases Gotham’s prisoners, waves of the resentful underclass spread out over Gotham smashing the homes of the city’s economic elite.  But it’s unclear if all of this terror is a part of some Marxist dialectic, or if they’re just angry prisoners.  The film suggests that the Dent Act, which is vaguely defined, has prevented parole for many of the prisoners and has in turn stoked much of their anger.  But later, these criminals form a twisted version of the judicial system in a kangaroo court headed up by none other than Dr. Crane a.k.a. the Scarecrow.  We’re supposed to be incensed by a court whose sole purpose is to sentence its subjects because the verdict of guilty has already been determined, but we’re not asked to question whether the Dent Act affected potentially reformed convicts who may have lingered in jail for years, or wonder about the potential for false conviction present in most attempts to create a tougher, more rigid judicial system. 

All of Nolan’s philosophizing has the bong scented whiff of a dorm room soliloquy.  In the previous films the ethical and moral questions were wonderful thought puzzles buried within exciting action movies, but here the very premise of these concerns fall apart the moment you think about them.  The obvious contemporary parallel to the film’s class anger is the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2008 financial crash.  But is the inclination to open prison doors and suspend the right to a fair trial really all that similar to increasing the top tax bracket by three percent and reinstituting economic safety guards put in place after the Great Depression, like the Glass-Steagall Act?  Nolan himself has distanced the film from real world events and claims that much of it is based off of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities.  And at times it seems as if Chris and his brother Jonathan want to be writing novels instead of making movies (which would explain the incredible amount of exposition that at times bogs down their plots).  But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem that, unlike much of Dickens’s work, the moral quandaries found in this film are not well thought out.
But despite all of this, I enjoyed the film.  When it started to wobble, and it does from time to time, the movie got a boost from the emotional resonance that carried over from the first two movies.  Nolan does not treat this Batman series as a movie studio franchise, a fungible property that can be turned out by any number of studio approved directors.  If anything The Dark Knight Rises puts a cap on the series, and anyone would be hard pressed to awkwardly continue Nolan’s story except for Nolan himself (and my guess is that he will be out of the Batman business for some time).  This is a situation where the studio should wait a decade or so, give the audience some distance from Nolan’s vision of Batman, and then completely reinvent the character with a young and hungry director.  Whether you loved Nolan’s movies or hated them, you must admit that the character has so clearly become his in the public eye that it will take some time before anyone will accept a Batman film that isn’t helmed by Nolan.  Rises may not reach the heights of its predecessors, but its surprisingly moving denouement proves that it is possible to spin fully realized characters out of a world of superheroes. 

Addendum: in the next week or so I will have a brief write up detailing my thoughts on all three of Nolan's Batman films.  This short wrap up will allow me to discuss the relationship between all three films in more detail.  

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