The Dark Knight Rises…and Falls

In Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan rebooted and revitalized a tired franchise, turning Bruce Wayne and his alter ego into an interesting character. In The Dark Knight, he turned the wealthy superhero into a mythic figure and created one of the screen’s great villains. In the third and final chapter of his trilogy, the filmmaker succeeds primarily in being loud–with occasional grace notes of character development.

The Dark Knight Rises was the first movie I’d seen theatrically in nearly three weeks. A vacation, followed by surgery, kept me out of theaters. Now I wish I had restarted my movie going with something better.

The movie isn’t all bad. A handful of well-written, well-acted scenes shed light on darknight_risesseveral central characters, including, of course, Bruce Wayne. When you think about it, the whole Batman concept only makes sense if you assume that Wayne’s brain lacks something important. A sane man of such massive wealth would find safer and more effective ways to create a better world–think of Bill Gates. Nolan apparently agrees, and Christian Bale plays Wayne/Batman as a deeply disturbed and driven man.

He’s also initially a physically broken man. Being a superhero–especially one with no actual superpowers–takes a toll on one’s body. He seems to heal awfully quick, though.

Anne Hathaway gives the movie some much-needed style and humor as Selina Kyle–otherwise known as Catwoman. She’s sexy, funny, easy to root for, and great in a tight spot (and in tight clothes). She’s also morally ambivalent in a movie where everyone else is either all good or all bad.

I wish she had been the main villain. That would have been a movie worth watching.

Instead, we get Bane (Tom Hardy), a colorless strong man who never rises above worn-out villain clichés. He kills lots of people, has devoted followers, and plans mass destruction, but so what? There’s nothing clever or interesting about him. Hardy’s non-performance is made worse by a mask that hides his face and makes his voice difficult to understand. Every time he says something mean and threatening (and he never says anything else), I wanted the threatened person to say "What? I can’t understand what you’re saying!"

The action scenes are big, loud, and accompanied by a musical score comprised darknight_rises_banealmost entirely by drums. I’m not talking about creative percussion, but a deep, endless rhythm of deep boom, boom, boom, intended, I suspect, to make us realize how important and bad-ass everything is. On a positive note, Nolan doesn’t overdo the CGI, but I felt at times that he was showing off his budget. "Look, I was able to blow up all these buildings that are blocks away from each other and show them all go off in one big aerial shot." Yet there’s nothing as exciting as the Mac truck flipping over in The Dark Knight.

Another problem: The movie is so reactionary that it borders on fascism. Nolan managed to play it both ways with The Dark Knight–both progressives and conservatives felt that the movie validated their world view. Not so in Rises. When Bane takes over Gotham City, he does so with the vocabulary of  the Occupy movement, promising liberation for the masses and an overthrow of the wealthy and powerful. He doesn’t mean it, of course, but his speeches make the common people go wild and attack their betters. Yes, we really do need the 1% to keep order.

Even the Imax, for which I crossed the Bay and paid a high ticket price, disappointed. More of the film filled the giant Imax screen than did the earlier film, but to less effect. It just didn’t look as impressive anymore, largely because of overuse and shortcuts. He even used the full height of the screen for close-up dialog scenes, but I don’t think they were actually shot in Imax. They were too grainy for that.

(Some of you may wonder why I, a fan of digital projection, would cross the Bay to see a movie in 70mm Imax, when the same picture is showing in digital Imax a short bike ride from my home. Simple: Not all digital systems are superior to all film formats. For details, see The Digital and Deflated Imax Experience.)

Nolan ends Rises in such a way as to kill the franchise (at least until the next reboot). But the ending also suggests the birth of a whole new franchise. Unfortunately, it won’t be about Catwoman.