Rise and Descent: Judging the Batman Trilogy’s Final Flight

(NOTE: It’s unfortunate one can’t talk about The Dark Knight Rises without talking about the tragedy from last night, and that the enjoyment of art, an act meant to combat the darkness, fear and uncertainties of life, must be obscured by the actions of a sick, troubled individual. My heart goes out to those affected by the Colorado shootings, the families and friends of those who wanted nothing but to see a film they were excited for. I pray no one has to experience this again, in theatre, at home, or anywhere else. This article is my humble attempt at denying the shooter his selfish, harmful quest for publicity and media attention by drawing the conversation back to more productive grounds: to art, film, and the shared experiences of human culture.)

The Batman franchise has had its ups-and-downs on the big screen, from the Gothic Tim Burton fairy tale that kicked it off through the catastrophic, campy whimper called Batman and Robin which nearly killed the series and the superhero genre, but whatever you say you can’t call it uninteresting. No other superhero has undergone so many transformations representing so many philosophies while retaining the same appeal that draws so many people to theatres with each outing. “The mask is a symbol,” Bruce Wayne says in The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s radical, landmark trilogy and the latest take on the masked crusader. It doesn’t matter if he’s Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, even George Clooney, terrible casting choice be damned. Batman/Bruce Wayne transcends any specific face, tapping into some subconscious, connecting force – Campbell’s “monomyth” maybe, or Freudian’s “superego/id,” it doesn’t matter. He stands the test of time where other heroes wane and ebb. Superman was as big a symbol in his heyday, but there came a time when he could no longer relate. Batman meanwhile has proven timeless and adaptable.

Which is why The Dark Knight Rises can’t be discussed just as a matter of “Is it good or not?” It comes off such a huge cultural legacy, not limited to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but including Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Batman: The Animated Series, Adam West’s Batman, Frank Miller’s Batman, the whole slew of Batman memorabilia… that it’s pointless to wonder if the film is better than its predecessors. That’s a non-factor now. Even when restricted to Nolan’s previous output, his interpretation has evolved so much as to deny easy quality comparisons. Batman Begins was the first serious exploration in film of Batman’s origin and the psychological trauma feeding into Bruce Wayne’s gradual creation of his vigilante alter-ego, yet it maintained the series’ pulpy, comic roots with villains based in mysticism and ancient conspiracy coupled with a healthy slew of one-liners. Nolan’s darker thematic interests – the post-9/11 socio-political undercurrents – had yet to develop as he focused more on giving his vision of Batman a firm foundation. Only in The Dark Knight did Nolan’s Batman become a reflection of present-day anxiety; he stripped the optimism away to show us a neo-noir world, a gray landscape without true heroes, only true villains. It wasn’t fun but it overflowed with exciting thrills: the chases, explosions, and shootouts set adrenaline rushing while they kept people reflecting on the gloomier side of existence.

And The Dark Knight Rises has to tie both those approaches – and all the approaches before them – together in a satisfying conclusion, a task no superhero film has attempted until now.

It’s not in the nature of comic books to end, and their film adaptations have followed suit. They continue indefinitely and only “finish” when one continuity is cut off and rebooted with another. Spider-Man 3 only became an ending in hindsight, when Raimi never got to make Spider-Man 4 and it turned into Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man. Who knows when The Avengers universe will resolve into anything but more sequels for its heroes. The Batman series too has been plagued with resets, steps back, and modifications. Among The Dark Knight Rises‘s other accomplishments, it’s the first time a Batman film has made it beyond a single sequel. Before it brings a legacy to an end, it has to learn, without precedent, how to make that end.

You see then my trouble, and the trouble of many other critics right now. Knowing that, perhaps we shouldn’t ask whether The Dark Knight Rises is better than The Dark Knight but what it does differently. Let’s start there before all else.

The film begins with a sweet-and-sour image of the world after the events in The Dark Knight. Eight years have passed and Batman, framed for Harvey Dent’s death, vilified by the public, has retired. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hides in his mansion away from all public life, leaving Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to preach the false gospel of Dent dying a hero. Brainwashed to the new reality, Gotham City has enacted a series of laws in Dent’s name cracking down on crime. Prisons are stuffed with crooks both big and small until Gotham’s streets seem sparkling clean. Of course, behind the sparkling facade there’s still the corrupt politicians, two-timing mobsters, and small time hustlers who have always existed and continue to work discretely, more cautious than before and under greater protection.

The dreadful weariness of The Dark Knight is multiplied tenfold in Rises. It’s hard to see any hope from the start, let alone after Bane (Tom Hardy) appears with plans to wholly annihilate Gotham City. While Heath Ledger’s Joker slithered around Gotham, the invisible, omnipotent puppet master whose small physique hid a twisted, untamed intelligence, Bane strolls openly, hands tucked in his collar like a bigger, rougher, more muscular Napoleon, a conquerer with devil’s wits. He is sharp, articulate, and arresting. His insectile, skull-hugging mask takes nothing away from his intelligence – if anything it emphasizes it, amplifying his voice to cover arenas. Ledger got to play the series’ most iconic villain with knockout success, but Hardy takes a less-known figure and makes him his own terrifying beast.

Bane is so powerful, and his plans for Gotham of such magnitude, that when Batman resurfaces he endures the most painful, excruciating torture any film has ever put him through. If The Dark Knight Rises does one thing more – but not necessarily better – than the previous films it raises the stakes through the roof. It’s an urgent, desperate work, barreling along in even its slowest moments with the possibility of the grimmest consequences, and this momentum justifies the nearly three-hour run time. It’s never boring or meandering because the odds are always against us. Everything can go wrong at any time, and only a few things, done exactly right, can save the day.

But I won’t, and can’t, call The Dark Knight Rises “dark and gritty,” not like many have labeled it. In the midst of the rubble, anarchy, and gunshots we see moments of such unbridled joy it dawns on us, yes, Batman is the creation of comic books, he’s a fantasy, a chimera built from our deepest dreams about a force of justice, mercy, and law that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The Dark Knight Rises build upon the first Dark Knight‘s desperation, yes, but it also borrows from the straight-faced merriment of Batman Begins. It not only ties several characters and events from the first Batman into the finale but allows us to have fun again as we did in 2004. We’re not just thrilled at the kinetic explosion of action but invigorated. Nolan knows a completely dreary work would leave an audience feeling similar, and so The Dark Knight Rises cracks with smart one-liners and clever fights that alternate between hair-raising suspense and shots of levity. Even Bane, responsible for the film’s darkest moments, treads the line between camp and menacing with his posh, Sean Connery-flavored delivery. Like all good villains (Ledger’s Joker included) Bane makes us laugh as much as we cower.

The additions of Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Officer John Blake (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) are Nolan’s genius strokes in preventing The Dark Knight Rises from turning into a dirge. Selina Kyle, never officially called Catwoman in the film, nevertheless adopts the character’s best traits, steering away from the repressed-girl-turned-wild-succubus approach popularized by Michelle Pfeiffer (and beaten to death by Halle Berry) towards a slimmer, more humanizing image. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Kyle has no childhood trauma or psychological hang-ups that force her to dress like a dominatrix. She dresses up in (non-revealing) leather, beats up mobsters, and clambers across rooftops because… Why not? Who’s to say she shouldn’t? Anne Hathaway captures that bristly independence without falling back on hackneyed femme fatale tropes, and her athletic prowess offers refreshing contrast to the sluggish heavyweight brawls of Batman’s male characters. People worried about Nolan’s streak of masculine-themed stories will be pleased to know his most prominent female character is also his finest, and currently the best take on Catwoman in the Batman films.

Officer John Blake seems a lot riskier, since he doesn’t look to have much to do with the Batman mythos. He’s not an entirely original character, nor is Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate though more than that I won’t say, but Blake works because he’s the first time in Nolan’s Batman we have a character who’s plucky, confident, and hopeful despite his personal tragedies. Whenever Batman is not on the scene (and The Dark Knight Rises requires this be most of the time), it’s Blake who plays the hero, running around Gotham connecting the dots between Bane’s schemes and smaller crimes popping up around Gotham. That he’s played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt with all his charisma and stern optimism sweetens the deal. Blake makes us believe in spite of everything that maybe, just maybe, things might turn out all right.

I have little to add about the returning players, be it Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman or Michael Caine. They’ve already proven their worth and continue to deliver strong performances. The technical side of the film – Hans Zimmer’s score, Nolan’s direction, Wally Pfister’s cinematography – is also what you expect from a Christopher Nolan blockbuster: only the best bar-none.

So can we answer that original question: is The Dark Knight Rises as good as, better than, or a shadow of The Dark Knight and Batman Begins? Not really, no, unless the answer “It’s all and none of the above” satisfies you.

The film did not leave me with that same feeling of “Wow! What did I just see!” that came with The Dark Knight. There’s not even the piqued curiosity of where we can go from here like Batman Begins because there’s nowhere else to go. This is the end of Nolan’s Bat-narrative. It’s not sloppy, certainly, nor does it derail so completely like the Pirates sequels, Star Wars prequels, or Spider-Man 3. We get every sense Nolan wanted to reward fans with a fitting, satisfying conclusion to what turned out to be an epic saga, and he worked strenuously to avoid any shortcuts or cheap moves. In that regards I suppose he succeeded.

But when all is said and done I can only muster a nod and quiet “Nice!” instead of an “Oh my God that was amazing!” or even a straightforward “That was great!” The Dark Knight Rises provides the closure we need to not feel cheated, but beyond that it’s an emotionally flat triumph.

I can think of a few reasons for why: maybe the scope of the plot, vast, at times apocalyptic, keeps us from focusing on any person’s individual story arc. With so many key characters pursuing goals around Gotham – even around the world – there’s no time to sustain an emotional moment before the next story beat comes crashing down. Maybe the political subtext, with commentary on class warfare, law enforcement, socialism, nuclear power, and capitalism vs. anarchy, comes off too preachy and ham-handed compared to The Dark Knight’s subtle nods to the War on Terror. It’s less Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and more Ayn Rand, with characters telling us their politics rather than conveying it in action. Maybe the film’s resolution hits the right notes too well. It trades out risky maneuvers for a comfortable landing, and while that’s the safe route there’s a part of me that wishes Nolan went for a ballsier, more polarizing finish.

Or maybe The Dark Knight Rises can’t be judged by a traditional system of quality. As the third in a series, it’s doomed by no fault of its own to have less steam, less impact, and less magic than the first two installments.

The only “threequel” I’ve seen that exceeded the first two was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and that had the benefit of coming on the heels of two obscure Westerns made before anyone knew who Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood were. Otherwise, it’s near-impossible: audiences have enough expectation built up from previous context to be let down no matter what you do, there’s little room left for surprise, and unless you switch up directors or stars – neither which were options for The Dark Knight Rises – you’re caught working in your own shadow with nothing to pull you out. It’s an oppressive, thankless job continuing a film series after the first sequel, and it’s a testament to Nolan that he kept his head through it all, even though at the end of the day it must be confessed The Dark Knight Rises is just a good film. A great film? I don’t know. A bad film? I don’t think so, but… See? I’m stuck in ambiguity.

Maybe I’m the wrong person to talk to: I’ve admired all the Batman films that have come out so far – Yes, including Schumacher’s campy, homoerotic Batman – but none of them have blown me away or left me awestruck. I’ve viewed every film, including The Dark Knight Rises, with a cool, interested detachment, and while I can admit to their artistic, technical, and creative achievements none of them have moved me to sing unending praise like Spider-Man 2, Kick-Ass, or X-Men: First Class. It’s like The Avengers: The Dark Knight Rises accomplishes the goals it sets for itself and I recommend you see it and make your own decision, but a great movie? No comment.

~Serbian-Filmmaker~

P.S. Although Christopher Nolan has ended his tenure with the Batman franchise, the series’ legacy, its character’s popularity, and Warner Bros. financial interests all mean there will inevitably be another Batman from a different director with a brand new cast. I do not dread this like some probably will, but will only say if Warner Bros. decides to step away from Nolan’s urban realism and pursue the mixed-pulp-and-Gothic impulses of The Batman: Animated Series universe, then until further notice – I.E. if it becomes clear the film’s direction is wrong and misguided – I am on board with the next step in Batman’s never-ending pop culture evolution.

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About serbianfilmmaker

I am an amateur film critic and aspiring amateur filmmaker who also appreciates quality music, literature, television... I live, essentially, in an insulated art world, and the least I can do is try and share my perspective with the world-at-large.
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