Author's Note: As the sporadic posting at this blog indicates, in recent months I've struggled to find the headspace — and sometimes just the computer time — to write about movies. In an effort to remedy that, I plan to shamelessly ape the Film Doctor with note-based reviews from time to time when my schedule makes it difficult to organize my thoughts into a single, condensed package. What follows was my first attempt at doing that, but it turned into a ramble, plus some notes. Put another way, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn't have time to write a short review, so I wrote a long one instead. Sorry.
The following is full of spoilers.
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is a courtroom movie disguised as an action film. Between bouts of fisticuffs, the characters are constantly grandstanding — assigning blame, deciphering motives and defending seemingly criminal actions. Something is definitely on trial here (sometimes literally), but what?
The short answer, of course, is Gotham City, which each villain in Nolan's Batman trilogy has described as an unredeemable kingdom that must be wiped out. But are the citizens of Gotham stand-ins for us? Are Nolan's Batman movies calls for sacrifice and service? Are they indictments of corrupt government? Are they portraits of terrorism? All of the above? None of the above?
More than ever, I can't tell.
And for all the complaints about Nolan's tendencies toward erratic action sequences, plot inconsistencies and one-thing-at-a-time cinematography (criticisms that sometimes have been taken too far but that are hardly baseless), the biggest weakness of Nolan's Batman series is that it's packed with characters spouting ideologies and yet it lacks a distinct underlying message. (Indeed, sometimes I wonder if Nolan is even aware of the messages he's sending.) Generally speaking, the last thing Nolan needs to do is to become more blatant; already, his films have a nasty habit of leaping from carefully manufactured ambiguity to brazen articulation and back again. Still, if there's an ideological through-line in the Batman trilogy, I can't find it, unless it's as simple as this: symbols are powerful.
Some of my confusion with Nolan's themes dates back to The Dark Knight, in which Batman insists that it's better if the people of Gotham hate him (their actual savior) instead of Harvey Dent (their perceived savior). "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain," he tells Jim Gordon, a line that sounds astute but ignores that Batman becomes the villain by choice, not inevitability. The caped crusader's reasoning doesn't make sense to me, but then neither does Gordon's ensuing assessment that Batman is "the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now."
"So we'll hunt him," Gordon continues, as Batman figuratively ascends into the heavens by riding his customized motorcycle off into the light, "because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's our silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight."
Think about that for a second: In a few sentences Gordon says Batman is a hero, isn't a hero and is a hero — er, excuse me: not hero, a dark knight, as if that's different. This is the kind of stuff that makes me think Nolan isn't interested in communicating a big idea so much as in hitting emotional notes to satisfy individual dramatic moments, much like the R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe often wrote lyrics based on the sounds of the words, not their meanings. If this suspicion is true, the ideologies of Nolan's characters say little about our real world and what Nolan thinks of it, because they're nothing more than plot devices shaped to create a mood.
How else to explain Bane's curious terrorist plot in The Dark Knight Rises? An outcast of the League of Shadows, Bane is nevertheless intent on fulfilling Ra's al Ghul's mission to destroy Gotham. But he attempts to do so in the most curious of ways. First he acquires a time bomb and creates a blockade to prevent escape from Gotham; then he taunts the people of Gotham with said bomb and invites Gothamites to rise up and take matters into their own hands; and then he promises that the bomb will go off in a few months regardless of any attempt to revolt.* Which begs the question: Why should the people of Gotham rise up and against whom? Once Bane puts them under the threat of execution, isn't he the only oppressive force in Gotham worth fighting? Who does Bane think he's preaching to?*(Update: In the comments below, Joel notes I have this wrong; Bane doesn't announce publicly that all of Gotham will die no matter what. My bad. I think the larger point remains, however.)
And what's the point of letting the citizens of Gotham live for a few more months when you've already determined to kill them later (unless it's just time to let Batman heal up)? It can't be to give them hope (the logical idea behind incarcerating Batman in a prison that invites escape attempts), because Bane eliminates the possibility of hope: They will die. That is a certainty. And it makes everything else an empty sideshow. (Doesn't the League of Shadows have other kingdoms to vanquish?)
Of course, Gotham's citizenry rises up anyway. Well, sort of. In one scene, a few wealthy 1-percenter types are manhandled outside their high-rise apartments while looters rummage through their belongings. But do the looters look like 99-percenter types to you? Nah, they look like a mob of hardened criminals. Ditto for rabble attending the sentencing hearings held by Jonathan (Scarecrow) Crane, one of the villains from Batman Begins. And ditto for the folks liberated from prison by Bane in protest of the Dent Act.
The people aren't rising up here. The people aren't making a statement. Because the people of Gotham City are almost impossible to find in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan's final Batman film is all cops and robbers, and superheroes and super-villains, and criminal minions and orphans. Can't forget the orphans!
This is a glaring oversight not just because so many of the film's subplots revolve around the mood and morals of Gotham's citizens but also because what Nolan's Batman trilogy does best is ground the series in a tangible reality. Borrowing from Chicago's skyline in the previous film (something that seemed odd coming out of Batman Begins) and using the cityscapes of Pittsburgh and Manhattan here, Nolan's Gotham City has a distinct brick-and-mortar character that most CGI-dominated blockbusters sorely lack. Yet because Nolan doesn't allow us to know the people within the city, Nolan's Gotham lacks a soul.
Maybe it's that way by design. Maybe the people of Gotham are an elusive MacGuffin. Maybe all Nolan is interested in is examining the mood and morals of Bruce Wayne and Batman. If so, so be it.
To that end, Nolan's series has never been darker or deeper than the moment during Batman's first brawl with Bane when he lets out a primal scream between blows. The emotional and physical toll of heroic service has been a consistent theme throughout the trilogy, evidenced by injuries and scars and lots of brooding, but that scream says it all. In a fight that begins with Bane calling Batman by his secret/public identity (Bruce Wayne), that scream is the sound of man and myth colliding. (Appropriately enough, the fight ends with Batman's mask shattered, symbolically obliterating any distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne.)
Personally, I'd have preferred to see that scream at the end of the film — a culmination of everything Bruce/Batman has been through. (Likewise, I'd have preferred for Bruce to escape the prison in the pit not by letting go and untying from the rope — although there's some nice symbolism in that, too — but by finding some alternate route, as if the reason grown men kept failing where once a child had succeeded was because they were fixated on an inviting but impossible leap and had ignored the possibility of a different path.) But, hey, it's not my movie.
What I find so compelling about Nolan's trilogy is that it's dominated by struggle. Batman has some cool toys that give him and edge, and he has battletested confidence. But he sacrifices his soul to achieve victory, and it rarely comes easily. That puts Bruce/Batman in sharp contrast with the big-hat-no-cattle heroes from this year's The Avengers who seem preoccupied with scoring style points and spouting off cocky one-liners and lack the capacity for emotional vulnerability. (No, the Hulk looking grumpy doesn't count.)
Still, I have to believe that the emotional stakes of this trilogy would be even greater and the drama even richer if only Nolan would allow his films to take a breath once in a while. Hans Zimmer's emphatic score doesn't double-underline the significance of every scene quite as consistently as in Nolan's Inception, but Nolan still pilots his film like it's the bus in Speed, as if everything will fall apart if he takes his foot off the gas for just a moment.
To be fair, Nolan's suspicion might be correct. A 164-minute movie gives the attention-deficient people in the audience a lot of time to check Facebook and Twitter.
So maybe Nolan's Batman trilogy does tell us something about these times.
If so, Nolan might not be the filmmaker we need right now. But he is the filmmaker modern blockbuster audiences deserve.
* The Dark Knight Rises provided me with two very pleasant surprises. The first is the tremendous performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I didn't know was going to be in the movie), who demonstrates a knack for interchangeably supporting scenes and carrying them, as the situation requires. The second is Anne Hathaway. I've pretty much always liked Hathaway, but I feared she might be to this series what Sofia Coppola was to The Godfather trilogy — a lightning rod of fanboy disdain and a scapegoat distracting from more fundamental problems. Heath Ledger's Joker is such a hard act to follow, and I wasn't confident that Hathaway could be dangerous enough to take seriously in such a grim series. So I was overjoyed to see Nolan allow Hathaway to play to her strengths as Catwoman — all curves and charisma. It turns out that Nolan's Batman trilogy actually needed a dose of sexy fun (and femininity), and Hathaway brings it. (That said, while Gordon-Levitt could easily support a spin-off series, I think Hathaway's Catwoman is better as a palate cleanser than a main course.)
* As for Bane, well, I missed being able to see Tom Hardy's face, but he gets a lot out of his eyes, his bald dome and his unreal physique. The voice, which sounds to me like Walter Matthau doing an impression of Sean Connery while stuck in an air duct, definitely takes some getting used to, but for me what's off-putting isn't the accent so much as the sensation that the voice is coming from everywhere at once and not from Bane specifically, as if his facial mask is equipped with Dolby Surround.
* With his IMAX-friendly wide shots and patchwork quilt of cityscapes, Nolan does a marvelous job of making Gotham seem sprawling. But he undercuts that, too, in the scenes in which Jim Gordon and friends can easily track the various possible bomb containment vehicles simply by jogging a few blocks.
* Look, I know he's Batman and everything, but when the last place we saw Bruce Wayne was just outside a hole in some far-off desert (and, really, did Bane need to go all the way there to drop Bruce off?), and when Nolan's screenplay makes a big deal about how Gotham is cut off from the rest of the world, it's dramatically inexcusable for Bruce Wayne to reappear in Gotham, with time quickly running out before the big ka-boom, by casually walking up to Selina like it's the end of a Nora Ephron movie.
* I'm also disappointed that Nolan, who is so fixated on amplifying intensity, would craft a scenario in which, after three months of living under the threat of a bomb, Jim Gordon and friends would go through a big adventure to deactivate the remote trigger on the bomb and buy Gotham ... a whopping 11 extra minutes.
* I would have been fine with wondering if Batman survived the blast over the bay. But once we cut to Alfred at the cafe, I'm glad Nolan didn't mimic his ending from Inception by having Alfred's ambiguous expression as the final shot. As Hollywood-conventional as the ending is, generally speaking, for a series so dominated by darkness to wrap on such a carefree image is actually pretty ballsy. (Or, I don't know; maybe it's a sell-out. I suppose if I were deeply invested in this series, I might feel let down.)
* There's at least one instance in The Dark Knight Rises when I would have preferred for Nolan to go with the hyper-cutting that made the fight scenes in The Dark Knight so disorienting. In the scene in which Batman rescues Gordon-Levitt's Blake, we see Batman surrounded by a bunch of guys with guns. They all fight him one at a time, of course, and don't fire their weapons, as if they don't know how to use them. By using relatively few shots, Nolan makes it glaringly obvious that there's an armed man just off screen on the front-left of the action who inexplicably watches Batman kick ass for a while before stepping forward to get his own ass kicked. Some hyper-cutting would have covered that up nicely. It would have drawn complaints, too, sure. But the scene would have been better served.
* I haven't seen Batman Begins since its release. I've seen The Dark Knight several times and own it on DVD. I have no doubt I'll see The Dark Knight Rises again, although I don't have a burning desire to do so immediately. All of that said: In this era of series that I don't care about (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, Bourne, etc), including superhero series I don't care about (Spiderman, Ironman, etc), I have to give Nolan's Batman trilogy major props: Usually I give up on these series or stick with them only out of obligation. Although three movies is more than enough, I'm genuinely sorry to see the series go. Underneath all the speechifying, there's a gritty ferocity to these pictures that I cherish.