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Critical Distance: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

At the center of all three of films is a deep tension regarding heroism and its tangible impact on the mass corruption infecting much of society’s institutions.

Critical Distance: The Dark Knight Rises
Photo: Warner Bros.

Due in part to the late Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Joker, The Dark Knight’s huge box-office performance cemented writer-director Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman legend as a zeitgeist-defining spectacle. The three films in his Batman trilogy have aroused a wide range of responses, spanning such topics as the director’s aesthetic approach, the self-consciously realistic tone of the films, and even their political underpinnings. In fact, the bounty of critical conjecture and fan praise that followed The Dark Knight was in many ways more important than the film itself, which has become an indirect measure of success in our current age of blockbusters.

Given the enormity of The Dark Knight and the circumstances under which it was released, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s third and final entry in the series, was certain to generate similar buzz, despite also shouldering an enormous burden to meet unreasonable expectations. The film represents the most sprawling installment of the series, as well as the most vulnerable to criticism. While critical and audience reactions have been mixed, I found it more emotionally involving and less aesthetically jarring than The Dark Knight. Yet, despite my enjoyment as I watched it, I came away from the experience curiously having retained very little of its frenzy of plot and action. The reasons for this are similar to those that plagued the earlier entries. In short, the film is a muddle of images and ideas. As such, however, The Dark Knight Rises is more significant than the previous films in Nolan’s trilogy. I would even go as far as to say that it’s a defining statement regarding its director, not necessarily due to the concerns and ideas he embeds into the film, but for what it says about his concept of storytelling. I arrived at this somewhere over the course of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, during which many character and story arcs converge and expand amid endless jawing about social equality and revolution, before finally deflating and signifying nothing.

At the center of all three of films is a deep tension regarding heroism and its tangible impact on the mass corruption infecting much of society’s institutions. This was most potently explored in Batman Begins, which established Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a man engulfed by a fear that society has cast on him. He comes under wing the League of Shadows, where he learns to conquer and embody his fear. Upon his return Gotham City, Bruce channels his corporate and financial resources into an effort to become a symbol of fear that crime lords would fear. Batman Begins reflexively explores Joseph Campbell’s hero myth in a definitively post-9/11 world; it questions the notion of the hero while also sustaining its resonance. Nolan stretches this concept further in The Dark Knight, wherein the Joker (a.k.a. an “agent of chaos”) maneuvers within organized crime rings as well as the city’s police force and nearly successfully destroys the city’s symbols of hope, pushing Batman to the brink in the process.

The Dark Knight Rises continues along the same lines as its predecessors, offering up another villain that seeks not power, but annihilation. Batman’s foe is Bane (Tom Hardy), an excommunicated member of the League of Shadows who seeks to finish the work that Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson) started and destroy Gotham. His mission and methods are not unlike those of the Joker, but Bane is different in two key respects. First, he’s a physical specimen the likes of which Batman hasn’t faced, which results in a more threatening fistfights between the two. More importantly, though, rather than exploiting the crime bosses like the Joker did, Bane enlists the working class as his henchmen. He calls construction workers and other blue-collar types—along with the imprisoned—to his cause and stirs tensions within the social power structure that defines Gotham. (In Bane’s first act of terrorism, he sends the financial markets into upheaval before escaping the stock exchange with the help of a construction crew that paves the way for his exit.) The film never shows how Bane amasses so many followers, but his revolutionary rhetoric coupled with a domineering presence suggests it wouldn’t be too difficult. Lurking in the sewer system, Bane systematically destroys the city from the ground up and establishes a new social order in which the exploited rise up to reclaim the city.

Obviously, this is topical stuff. But Nolan is keen to avoid any affinity for a political position and instead opts to, in his own words, “throw a lot against the wall and see what sticks.” He wants to provoke, an idea that I will return to later. First a few words on how The Dark Knight Rises plays out and plants the seeds of its own contradictions. The film notably starts strong, with Batman in a self-imposed exile after taking the fall for Harvey Dent’s in the previous film. With Batman gone, Bruce Wayne has also disappeared from city affairs. He’s become a recluse and is physically withered due to his physically punishing past as Batman. Despite pleas from Alfred (Michael Caine) for Wayne to let go of Batman, the rise of Bain forces Wayne to don the costume again. Along the way, there are new characters and several subplot—too many to list here, but suffice it to say that the film takes several strange turns in setting up a third act that comes across as somewhat detached from rest of the film.

In all three films, Batman engages villains who exploit various social sects in attempt to unleash nihilism on the world. But in its final stretch, The Dark Knight Rises realizes the visions of both Ra’s al-Ghul and the Joker and shows Gotham in the throes of chaos. It’s Batman’s job, then, to restore social order. This wouldn’t seem so out of place if the films hadn’t worked so hard to establish these very systems as corrupt at their core. The film vaguely alludes to how institutions need to be fixed from the inside and on the shoulders of good people, but this and other philosophical puffery is lost amid what eventually comes down to Batman beating up bad guys and restoring the status quo.

I won’t deny that the film puts forth some compelling ideas. Nevertheless, it’s so haphazard in wielding them that it’s hard to discern anything meaningful for their inclusion. This is consistent with Nolan’s approach with the previous two films. However, those films seemed to be building toward something definitive—a grand mosaic that would be complete when third film arrived. Nolan prides himself on his narrative layering, as is evident in nearly all of his previous films, but The Dark Knight Rises is ever more a breeding ground of half-formed and contradictory ideas. After all, it doesn’t take much to provoke and inflame, but to transmit loftier notions into a narrative requires great skill and effort, neither of which Nolan displays.

To his credit, Nolan has a knack for introducing several alluring elements and placing them in motion with each other. In The Dark Knight Rises, the best of these is the character of Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway). But like so many other aspects, Kyle fades in and out of the movie to suit the needs of the plot. The character is compelling, and played with playful mystery by Hathaway, but becomes just another tool for Nolan’s grand narrative manipulation, during which Nolan’s offers glimpses at many metaphoric concepts but quickly buries or dispenses with them in favor of others. He doesn’t settle on anything. That may be why his movies are so ephemeral. The best of them have the ability to enrapture while you watch them, but they quickly evaporate thereafter.

Nolan’s grab-bag approach extends beyond narrative and thematic structure. In both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, his aesthetic has been criticized for lacking acuity. Each film contains memorable sights, but Nolan jam-packs them with a glut of story and over-explanatory dialogue that any visual splendor the films create is incidental. In Nolan’s shrewdly economical filmmaking method, each frame is a vehicle by which to communicate an idea or a story element. His films therefore lack a cinematic touch. (Compare any one of his major set pieces to one by, say, Brian De Palma and notice how different they feel. I’m not even talking about the underlying sensibilities the directors are trying to evoke. I’m more interested in how they make uses of the medium’s tools to achieve a sense of flow.) Having said that, The Dark Knight Rises represents a slight improvement over the previous films in terms of its movie-ness. For example, Batman’s encounter with Bane in the sewer is a great sequence, channeling dread and brute strength into a devastating one-sided fight as water pours all around the combatants. However, despite a handful of memorable sequences, the film still feels like a disconnected series of scenes and feelings, moving without direction.

The absence of orientation (visual, thematic, and otherwise) haunts The Dark Knight Rises. A fine example of this is how Nolan depicts Gotham City. Its endless skyline at times resembles Chicago, at others New York. Gotham could be any city. It is every city and it is no city. This is a powerful allegory throughout the films, but Nolan undermines it so greatly by bringing in elements of the outside world. At one point, Nolan references how the president of the United States (in a cliché shot of the president in the White House press room) responds to Bane’s attack on Gotham, as if Gotham is just another city in America. Some might argue that this is in keeping with Nolan’s effort to fashion a gritty, plausible world. But just because Nolan is after a contemporary sense of realism, that doesn’t mean that he must eschew all symbolic pretenses and spell out every story point. Can’t Gotham just be a metropolis that’s both part of the world and a representation of it?

These may seem like minor quibbles, but they get to the central problem with Nolan’s senses of filmmaking and storytelling that The Dark Knight Rises typifies. Throughout all three Batman films, he straddles lines between realism and legend, idealism and corruption. But he doesn’t see them out and instead resorts to shallow literalisms that help him more believably tell the story. When I first saw Batman Begins, I was more enamored with Nolan’s concept to imagine a modern hero through the prism of a world overrun with institutional corruption. I was willing to overlook some of the problems of execution and ride along with the film’s attempt to carve out a new space in the superhero blockbuster lexicon. But now that I see the arc of all three films, I think less of the ideas on display in Batman Begins. Nolan has pursued some of those ideas, but he’s done so in a static manner.

Nolan’s Batman films are ambitious works, no doubt. But their ambition is to be ambitious, rather than committing to and developing the variety of themes and concepts they present. That Nolan has a tangential interest in ideas doesn’t make his movies good or even particularly smart. I suppose within the context of typically obtuse summer blockbusters, one could argue that the Batman films are refreshing. But given their self-seriousness, Nolan’s pastiche of buzzwords and fleeting images exist only to be finessed into convoluted plot structures and serve to reinforce their own illusory nature. Nolan can therefore be considered the ultimate showman. His notion of storytelling is to confuse and overwhelm before eventually revealing how the many pieces he’s juggling eventually cohere. His films are designed primarily to show off what a great storyteller he is. The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most striking expression of the filmmaker’s aptitude for creating the impression that something important has happened, when in fact it amounts to little more than an elaborate magic trick.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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