Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
DP: Wally Pfister
Editor: Lee Smith
Score: Hans Zimmer
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman
Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 45 min.

The Dark Knight Rises is entertaining, enough so that I like it better when I'm watching it than when I'm thinking about it, but it lacks the ability to truly excite me, and it weakens a little every time I see it. 

The film is not offensive in any particular area, but the way it chose to illustrate its central theme inadvertently created an arc that feels incomplete and myopic.  Like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises shows Batman facing off with villains who look at Gotham and decide that it needs to be destroyed, while Batman looks at it and decides that it deserves to be saved.

Part of the problem is that The Dark Knight Rises doesn't engage with the actual populace of Gotham nearly as much as either of the previous two films, but I think the bigger problem is the arc it sets up for Batman.  We learn that Bruce Wayne hasn't donned the mask in the eight years that have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and that his body is starting to deteriorate from the physical stress of being a vigilante who jumps off of buildings and beats people up.  Not only is he losing physical capacity, the villains are attacking him as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman; they're out to ruin him financially, and we're shown an extended sequence demonstrating that as Batman, Wayne is powerless to stop them from doing this.  The first act culminates in Wayne trying to end it by facing the villain with violence, only to be soundly defeated and have his back broken.

This series of events, in my opinion, amounts to an argument against Batman's use of violence, and a challenge to him to find another way of fighting back against Bane. We're repeatedly shown that Bruce Wayne is losing the physical strength to fight and that the villains are attacking him in places where violence can do nothing to stop them. This would be fitting for a sequel to The Dark Knight. That film contained the two best scenes in the entire trilogy: the scene in which the Joker's plan is foiled by citizens of Gotham displaying moral fortitude, and the scene in which the Joker insists that Batman "completes" him. Respectively, these scenes show the potential for civilians to contribute to the public good, and the twisted nature of Batman's own vigilantism - two areas in which the rest of the trilogy comes up short.

The villains in The Dark Knight Rises even take advantage of actions taken by Batman and Commissioner Gordon to advance their own ends.  Catwoman becomes the stand-in for working-class citizens in the film, and we're shown how she's taken advantage of by the same people who are trying to attack Wayne economically.  I don't think it was Christopher Nolan's intention to do this, but the first half of The Dark Knight Rises raises questions about whether Batman's violence is at all sustainable, and whether it actually empowers Wayne to solve the real, core problems facing Gotham.

However, after all this, everything changes.  There is a major turn in plot, and suddenly things can only be solved with violence.  I don't object to the presence of violence in an action movie, but it doesn't work for the film to start developing a conflict that challenges Batman to solve it without violence only to change course in a way that demands Batman go back to doing everything the same way he always did. This even makes Bruce Wayne's character arc to change from one of self-contemplation and internal change to one consisting solely of physical rehabilitation so he can fight with his fists again. Again, I don't think this was necessarily Nolan's intention, but I can't help but read the film this way.

Then there are moments that seem like they were misplaced from a longer version of the film, introducing points that are never followed up on or seemingly trying to conclude arcs that never took place.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake, a police officer who becomes an ally to Batman and Commissioner Gordon, and we're shown one scene that suggests he may have latent overly-aggressive tendencies (which would have been in line with the themes the film introduces in the first half).  But the film never follows up on this.  There's also a scene in which a character who did nothing more than offhandedly offer a few lines of exposition is killed (he is so insignificant that this is not a spoiler), and for some reason the camera treats him as a martyr.

The film seems politically opportunistic, reflecting timely political themes, but giving them only vague, cursory treatment. The movement Bane starts in Gotham resembles the Occupy Wall Street movement the same way Batman's actions in The Dark Knight resemble national security measures taken by the Bush Administration; in other words, it doesn't resemble the Occupy movement very much, but enough that people have noticed.

I don't hold the film responsible for being more politically thought-provoking than it is, but its cavalier treatment of politically relevant material is a little vexing when the film uses images like an army of police in a literal battle with an army of civilians (in which the police are the heroes). It also uses a plot structure in which an authority figure's attempt to be honest with the people proves only to serve the villain; the film's treatment of the statements made at the end of The Dark Knight is the same as its treatment of Bruce Wayne: superficial, pointless critique followed by unearned vindication.

Some of the film's detractors have raised questions about whether Bruce Wayne's physical rehabilitation makes any sense (it doesn't, it is in fact ludicrous), or how certain characters managed to traverse the geography of the film's world.  I would say these things don't take much away from the experience, though the film does have a slightly warped sense of time and space.  Even if some of the plot logic is dubious, the film plays out in a way that lets the audience fill in the blanks easily enough, if they are so inclined.  There is one shot in particular from the end of the film that I simply cannot bring myself to accept, but I can admit that it's not that big of a problem in the grand scheme of things. 

The Dark Knight Rises is an enjoyable ride the first time, and may be a case of a movie that is meant to be watched without thinking about it too much.  Enough is spelled out in dialogue for this to work, and Christopher Nolan himself said he aimed to move people in a broad sense rather than convey anything political.  Still, viewing the film multiple times sours some of its elements the same way thinking about them too much does, and the fact that it feels like many incomplete thoughts grafted onto each other prevents it from being viscerally powerful.  Because of the film's popularity and the circles I move in, I ended up seeing it six times in the year it was released.  To the film's credit, it never became unwatchable any of those six times.  But I could definitely live without seeing it again.

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