Batman and Bane are BFFs. Spoiler!
NO SERIOUSLY. I AM GOING TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET (WHICH, WTF?) THEN STOP READING THIS NOW.
This has taken me almost a week to get to because I needed to let this movie, and the entirety of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, settle in a bit. I realized that I was going to have a lot to say about these Batman films in general, whilst trying to get as much review of The Dark Knight Rises out as possible.
This is the first Nolan Batman movie I’ve reviewed. I would have been eaten alive had I reviewed The Dark Knight because it simply a ridiculously overrated film fraught with the same fanboy bullshit that ruins rather than celebrates. Moreover, I never thought much of Batman Begins and have been an outspoken detractor of that movie since 2005. Knight is the more controversial movie to dislike, with the real nutters making death threats or just plain old trying to quote you to death with John Nolan and David S. Goyer’s melodramatic, ham-fisted dialogue. As much as it interests me and might provide some larger context for how I will approach criticism of Rises, I am not here to review the trilogy as a whole let alone spend too much time on the first two. I hope that by talking about the strengths and weaknesses of Rises, I will be able to elucidate some of my thoughts on Begins and Knight anyway. If there’s some point that needs clarification or argument, please don’t hesitate to give me that feedback via the comments section of my blog. Fair warning though, I’m just going to make fun of you if you get all fanboy on me.
See, Alfred? It’s not wet. Told you.
Here’s the thing. People are saying The Dark Knight Rises is not only the worst of the three in the trilogy, but the worst film Chris Nolan has made (see: Film Crit Hulk being wrong). This is simply incorrect and, I think, based on 4 years of discussion, reflexive over-appreciation, etc over The Dark Knight. That movie has blossomed into a fucking institution unto itself and there’s no way that Rises stood much of a chance of having the same impact. This is for a variety of reasons but I think anyone who doesn’t acknowledge this element of the hype and hyperbole surrounding these movies is just being dishonest. Probably with themselves.
Now whether or not Rises is the best of three is largely a matter of variant mileage. All three movies are different in a number of ways, though I’d say the vast majority of fans would consider Knight to be superior to Begins. I certainly do, though the same flaws, almost all writing flaws, mar both and seem to stand out more in Knight because it is frankly a bigger movie. Rises is consistent with its forebears in having the same tendency toward cheats, fake-outs, overwrought dialogue and overstuffed plotting. You can’t look at bits like Bruce suddenly appearing in Gotham after escaping Bane’s prison as anything other than a plotting cheat. They needed him in Gotham and figured the audience would roll with it without requiring any connective scenes. I get why they made that decision, I really do. I don’t even think it was the wrong one. I’m just saying that all three movies are full of decisions like that and they’re not the better for it. That said, Rises is the first time I’ve felt like one of these movies transcended those script-based weaknesses.
That’s right. I’ll be the guy who says Rises is the best of the three. I suspect I’m not alone. Whether I am or not, this review will largely be about explaining why I think this. I know that I have a minority opinion on these movies in general and I’ll try to keep this from becoming a treatise on why they are, in general, overrated. Good luck to me.
Bane is a frustrating character because he works even when he doesn’t. There’s a classic villain buried underneath the film’s murky politics and Tom Hardy’s gonzo vocal choices.
Let’s get the biggest thing out of the way first.
I think the cure to the stupidity that sort of plagues these movies, half derived from their comic book origins and half derived from structural weaknesses, is spectacle. Rises is the first of the three films that embraces its own nature as a superhero movie and goes truly big. Yes, I’m aware that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) travels the world in Begins and that there’s a larger overall sense of a “world” at all in these movies. That isn’t what I mean. There’s a theme of escalation that is obviated in Knight but runs through the whole trilogy. In Rises, that escalation reaches the point of critical mass. It allows for ideas and scenes, such as the “war” between the cops and the criminals and key scenes that hearken back to WW2 resistance movements, the French Revolution, and various times that police, rightly or wrongly, have had to challenge armed insurrections and violent dissent. This stuff is what makes Rises surpass the trilogy’s weird and sudden shifts toward leaps of logic, bombast, and incoherent plotting.
The one thing that has always really worked about these movies is that they are about principles and ideas. More so than other superhero films, the Nolan Batman trilogy has concentrated on the mythos and myth-making side of our collective relationship with society, heroism, and the ever-present conflict between chaos and order. In fact, until Rises, this was accomplished at the cost of much of any emotional resonance beyond the very general and almost primal senses that Batman has always evoked as a character. Batman is a complex character and gets at something in us that may not necessarily be good. Rises acknowledges this and finds a way to create emotional resonance past Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Alfred (Michael Caine).
Gotta take this opportunity to give Matthew Modine some love. Most people know him from Full Metal Jacket but he’ll always be William Shore and Birdy in my heart.
One of the key instruments of getting at that emotional core better than before is in the extended cast. Knight gave us a Batman movie with what was almost an ensemble. Unfortunately, only the ideological component of the movie really worked. I did buy into the idealism of the Dent-Bats-Gordon alliance and I did feel moved by how it didn’t work out. I never cared about Rachel Dawes, though. Never cared about Wayne’s weird fixation on her (a mistake reverberating all through the trilogy, I think). Never cared about the love triangle. I don’t think anyone did. I think it would have been a bigger problem without Joker, though. Part of the reason I think Ledger well and truly saved that movie.
It’s Rises that finally made me care about any of that shit. In one of Alfred’s few scenes, Caine and Bale have an acting-off where we see a deeper and more true facet of Bale’s performance than we have in any other scene in the movies (and it is a singular scene even by the end of Rises). This is where Alfred tells Bruce about the letter, one of two hidden truths from Knight documented in letters and resurrected to haunt people in the present day of Rises. Bale manages to, via sheer acting, make me feel everything required to get the emotional reality of the character in the context the scene addresses. It falls a bit short of making me look back on the emotionality of the previous movies more fondly, but it sells Bruce’s haunted post-Rachel life and Alfred’s deep anguish about the lie, about Bruce’s fucked up life, etc. I think it’s the kind of stuff that people forget is in these movies while they focus on quoting the “hero they need/deserve” speech so far past its expiration date that the whole idea that speech is trying to communicate just becomes lost in all the fucking stupid ways people try to reapply it. Guh. Fandom.
Anyways. Having Rises depend so much on the previous two movies is also key to why it works better. The socio-political stuff is still consistent with the ambitious material of Knight while the more comic-booky elements of Begins (genocidal ninjas, etc) come back full swing and in a way that is shaped, for the better, by Knight. More specifically: Bane (Tom Hardy) is a nice mix of the sensibilities that molded Ra’s al Ghul and Joker. He’s got the ideology stuff and the gritty grounded stuff. Ra’s al Ghul never felt like quite the threat Joker did because he was a specter of ideology more than anything else. Joker had an ideology too, but it never floated far above the reality of the character. Bane combines the best and worst parts of both those approaches and this is why he both works and doesn’t.
Bane sounds like Seth McFarlane in Hellboy 290% of the time. The other 10%? Nightmare fuel.
Again, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Bane’s voice doesn’t work. I’m sorry Chris Nolan. I’m especially sorry Tom Hardy. It just doesn’t. The German Butler thing just isn’t scary nor does it become scary precisely because it’s not scary, though a scary guy is using it. There are a few moments where a more raw, guttural Bane comes out. That’s when the voice works. Most of the time, though, Bane is making big speeches or saying stupid shit (his dialogue on the plane, in his intro, is cringe-inducing bad) and it’s always in that ridiculous accent.
It’s a monumental task to stay with the character, to believe in what the movie is trying to make him, when you want to laugh or roll your eyes or punch a duckling every time you hear him talk.
Beyond that, though. Beyond that.
Bane is actually a tragic figure. When we finally, literally 5 minutes before he is dispatched in the best way possible, learn about his true origin, it’s too late. Having the character be all mysterious doesn’t work so well here as it did for Joker, especially since the world-building aspect of that origin is so weak. The execution is grand, and the prison stuff is some of my favorite stuff in the movie. Anyways. Bane’s origin humanizes him, and it humanizes Talia al Ghul. The reveal and the handling of the character, of both characters really, works out of context. Unfortunately, the positioning of the reveal (structural!) and the insight it grants does a lot to undermine a full effect that would have been strange and possibly beautiful. The way it is, though, erodes the effectiveness of both the movie’s villains.
It’s a major flaw. Maybe the biggest flaw in the movie.
But let’s get to stuff that isn’t a flaw.
So yeah, the villains are a bit weak. Before she’s Talia, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is little more than a cypher for Bruce’s shot at a better, post-Batman life. The life Alfred wants for him. She’s also kind of a plot device, which keeps her around sort of awkwardly until it’s like “surprise, but not really!”. That said, her motivation is part of what I was talking about above: the superior and elevating emotional resonance of this movie (compared to the other two).
See. Talia’s motivation may seem simplistic and dumb, but I don’t think it is. Her plan and the details of which are a result of writer dumbness, not character dumbness. Her motive, though, presents a dark reflection of Bruce’s. Truth be told, Bruce also has a simplistic motive, and a subsequently simplistic morality (more on this later). His methodology is what makes his actions and overall mission compelling. Talia’s nature as that dark reflection (acting because of the fate of her parents) is just one part of the equation. The other half is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He is also a reflection of Batman, but one that is actually a vision of what Batman truly could and should be. Blake takes all the origin of Bruce Wayne and makes completely different choices, choices that forge him into a man who is more whole and the only feasible successor to Bruce Wayne given the way the movie addresses his psychological issues and their destructive effect on him.
So with these two characters, you have a sort of core thematic tether for Bruce Wayne. Both of these supporting characters get less development overall, of course, because the movie is still about Bruce. They are here to remind us of what Batman isn’t and what Batman stands to be, and they are here to connect the theme that Bruce needs to let Batman go. This is all dependent more on emotion than on ideology. Somehow, though, the emotional and the ideological reach a fusion with the spectacle that catapults Rises to a place where all this stuff works together in a clear, affecting way. So affecting that it finally makes the irksome structural issues matter way less.
And I haven’t even mentioned Catwoman yet.
Aside from his sort of symbiotic narrative relationship with Talia and Bruce, Blake shares a similar amount of focus and screentime with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, stealing the movie). These two, taken together, are the principle elements in the other half of Bruce’s arc in Rises. Blake is similar to Dent in that he’s someone who could make Batman, or at least Bruce Wayne as Batman, unnecessary. Selina is, though the movie doesn’t do as much as it could to make this work, more like Bruce’s soulmate. She’s a woman who has had to make compromises, who has had to learn to live by a set of her own rules, and who has to go through a conflict between being what she is and getting a fresh start. Her arc informs Bruce’s arc insofar as it leads to the desire for and acquisition of that fresh start. Without Selina, the only ending that makes sense for Bruce is death.
And honestly, that’s what I predicted. The only thing I actually didn’t call about the end of this movie was that Bruce would live. I predicted it would go basically like it did (Blake taking up the mantle, etc) except I figured Bruce would die. Given Knight, it seemed like the logical conclusion for the character (and logic has always seemed to be more successful, if not mattering more, in these movies than heart). Nolan pulled a fast one on us, I think, and did it with the same roguish attitude that Bruce does with his loved ones and Gotham itself when he tricks them all. Nolan not only made it okay for Bruce to live, but made it (in the span of one movie, significant when there are three to think of) absolutely vital to the character that he does.
A lot of work, both successful and not, is done to get the movie to this point.
There’s a certain amount of arrogance underlining the construction of this movie. I think it’s part of what’s turning some people off. The Nolans and Goyer started with ideas like “Gotham cut off from the world” and ran with them, sometimes doing a sloppy job of making this “big idea” stuff make sense in the movie. Rises is the kind of movie where if you take events and think about them for too long, the structure of the whole starts to unravel. It’s a house of cards, in other words, but I am in the likely minority for thinking that this is entirely appropriate. After all, you sit there and think about a multibillionaire vigilante ninja battling other vigilante ninjas who are bent on the destruction of a city cuz what the hell, that’s what they do… and it all falls down at some point. Rises asks you to go a step further in terms of your suspension of disbelief. I’m not entirely comfortable with this myself, but I think it’s a problem for all three movies and I feel like it’s weird that people ignored it in Knight but have become fixated on it in Rises. Especially since I think Rises is the one of the three that is best equipped to override that bothersome shit.
Also problematic, I think, are the movie’s politics. Yes, Nolan et al drew inspiration from the French Revolution and A Tale of Two Cities. I get that and I get that the first thing they’d say if they came under fire for the politics of Rises is exactly that. They’d hide behind it as if it masks the issues and themes that period (and that novel) have in common with the present. There’s a lot of awkward stuff in Rises and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to connect it with socially conservative, even fascist, ideology and policy. Knight was more easily connected to the post 9/11 era of surveillance, security, and unchecked destruction and it had a similar position on the “Right” of those issues. Rises tackles income disparity, injustice, and corporate-controlled society as if railing against it is just a facade for nihilistic aggression toward the status quo. I get that Bruce goes broke but he’s never a 99-percenter. Likewise, Selina’s attitude is undermined by the plight of Gotham: rich people are still people and Bane is killing ‘em and shit. In fact, that this is the point Nolan is trying to make is certainly a fair reading of the movie (and my preferred one, if I were in the business of cognitive dissonance) if you ignore a lot of other shit. Bane’s assault on a stock exchange and his public rhetoric pretty much spin any other reading back around on you. That this is a cover for Bane and Talia’s mindlessly destructive terror plot makes it even more uncomfortable.
Shit like clean energy being a “bad thing” because it “might” be dangerous. A cypher for the nuclear power debate, or more directly an appeal to fear-mongering (beyond understandable caution) with regard to the pursuit of clean fusion?
Shit like the Dent Act, that which saves Gotham from crime, being a crazily fascist measure. The only difference between Blackgate and Guantanomo Bay right in the middle of NYC is that GB prisoners are often tossed in without a trial. That Blackgate’s population aren’t terrorists but mafiosos and so on sort of evens this out, though.
The movie is not really critical about these elements. It just has these fairly obvious facsimiles of real-world stuff and presents a take on them that is all too close to whatever the Red State party line is.
So yeah, the movie wears its politics on its sleeve and they are not politics I agree with. The fanboys don’t care, or they believe in this stuff simply because there’s some speechy dialectic about it in the movies. The average filmgoer who doesn’t stand much of a chance of disliking Batman doesn’t think about it. The critics are divided on it: some balk and others support it cuz it aligns with their view.
Then there’s me, and maybe a few others like me. I see it as no big deal. I talk about the politics in order to establish that they are there and to argue, I think effectively, that they are an undeniable part of the movie.
That said, I’m not critical of their presence. I’m critical of the politics on their own but The Dark Knight Rises is not a poorer movie for its politics. There are plenty of heroic narratives, super and otherwise, that present a liberal/progressive message and it makes sense to me that the cons, whatever I think of them, would have their superheroes too. Batman’s always been the (barely) closeted fascist of the comic book pantheons. That his movie’s politics are often fascist should be no surprise and at the end of the day, it’s just one point of view. You don’t have to like it to like the movie. I don’t like religion, but I don’t count a movie out if it comes down on religion’s side (examples: Signs, Into the Wild, Tree of Life).
And you shouldn’t either. Rises‘s politics are wrong. But you still shouldn’t fault the movie on those grounds. But they are wrong.
So hopefully this has been fun to read. Hopefully I’ve made my case for why Rises is the best of the three. If nothing else, I think I’ve explained why I think it is. I could get into the details of the plot and talk about why x doesn’t work or y does for another 3000+ words. I could catalog all the false moments, the plotting and structural hiccups, and the instances of political messaging just as easily as I could list off all my favorite parts. This review wasn’t about either of those things.
I feel like that material is something I want to save for discussions with friends, for dynamic arguments (not static ones in essay form) and rewatches of the movie.
That said, if you disagree with my criticisms about the weaknesses of this or any other Batman film and think I have not offered enough textual evidence, please hit the comments and call me on it. Same goes for if you want to point out something I may have missed or want to know what I thought about this (or that!). I think that Rises stands a good chance of being the Batman movie we can all talk about sanely, so I hope that’s what happens.
If you wanna call me names or threaten me like a two year old missing their dollies, just know that you don’t owe Batman, much less these movies, so much that you need to feel personally insulted if someone doesn’t like something about them, or doesn’t like them outright. You can like Rises no matter how bad it is, or dislike it no matter how good. It’s the intelligible arguments that matter, the stuff that doesn’t go away just because you like or dislike the movie.
I aspire to that level of discourse and so should you.
Elsewise, gtfo off my blog and back to where you came from.