After a few weeks of diligently avoiding spoilers, I finally saw Dark Knight Rises. I feel a bit like the Robot Devil having watched it: ‘This opera is as lousy as it is brilliant!’
On the one hand, it rounds out the trilogy’s exploration of authority, chaos, and ugliness. In the first, Ra’s al Ghul has an ancient order of economic ninjas who attempt to euthanise decadent cities through destabilisation. In the second, a lunatic anarchist attacks Gotham with economic games and Harvey Dent becomes a supervillian because he is no longer pretty. And now we’ve go the third: the ancient order of economic ninjas are back lead by a guy who is evil because he’s ugly.
On the other hand, not a single thing in this film makes a lick of sense. What follows is a spoilertastic review of the film which should have been called Dark Knight Grows Beards. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. It is fun. But it’s not good.
In Batman Begins, we saw a long and complicated plot build up to Ra’s al Ghul’s attempt (somewhat successful attempt) to destabilise Gotham City. It’s testament to Liam Neeson’s complete ownership of that role (seriously, the guy was superb) that you were so engrossed with his cause that you never stopped to think: ‘Wait… Your big target is Gotham City…? Why not take out the whole of the US?’
To an extent, that’s because Gotham in these films represents the whole Anglophone world. Ra’s thinks the English tradition of capitalism is corrupt and needs something to trigger it into a new phase. Because capitalism encourages complacency and normalises inequality (freak me, Foucault), it would require an abandonment of reason through fear in order to create a new society. Thus, he teams up with Scarecrow (who is also awesome) to induce the revolution chemically. Then a wealthy industrialist maintains order with his fists. Because capitalism is awesome.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the first of the trilogy was my favourite. It was rich and philosophically interesting, and also managed to have enough action and Bat-POWS! to make the whole affair exciting. The weak spot was Batman: Christian Bale struggled to show any kind of development. He just pouts. Look at him in any film, pouting away. He’s the male version of that Twilight/Snow White lass whose name I keep forgetting. The difference, of course, is that people seem to think that he’s a serious actor.
Then we had the second film, The Dark Knight. Because Heath Ledger had died, everybody felt the need to treat this film with kid gloves. Again the whole world, Gotham City, is held hostage and made to reflect on what it thinks about order and chaos. In this space, Batman puzzles through which side of the ledger he’s on: is he part of the chaos side with the Joker or is he on the law and authority side with Harvey Dent? Blah, blah human nature and rational choice.
This was also the weak point for characters. Why does Harvey Dent go evil? He loses a girlfriend, so he kidnaps Jim Gordon’s kids…. Okay. It’s sort of the Anakin Skywalker mode of going evil: ‘You’ve just stopped Mace Windu from killing me. Now you’re completely evil so go kill some children for me.’ Christian Bale, once again, found that character development was for minor characters, because he’s the goddamn Batman. And then there was Heath Ledger… It’s hard to know to what extent the problems with the character were a result of rubbish scripting or whether Ledger was just incapable of anything other than lunacy. There’s one tiny moment, right at the start of the film, where Ledger conveys some depth — the ‘I’m not crazy. I’m not’ line — but you can fast forward through every bit of his dialogue and not miss a thing. (Also: Mark Hamill and Jack Nicholson were the best Jokers)
So where do you go from here? You’ve had somebody try to destroy the world for extremely noble and rational reasons: misguided ideology. You’ve had somebody try to destroy the world for nihilistic anti-reasons: we are selfish, fearful animals.
Now how can a villain try to destroy the world?
Nobody’s tried nuclear bombs yet; let’s do that!
And that’s pretty much the entire plot of Dark Knight Rises. For reasons that make absolutely zero sense, Bruce Wayne has invented a futuristic energy source which is simultaneously a nuclear bomb, and somebody related to Ra’s al Ghul has decided to set it off.
Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, has become a bearded cripple. He no longer has any cartilage in his knees so he’s hobbling around his mansion, growing a beard and moaning about the death of Rachel (whom he forgot to mourn in the last film). It’s eight years later, so putting away the Batman cape has resulted in a zero percent increase in super-crime… apparently. But it’s okay! Instead of beating up the poor and mentally insufficient with a masked vigilante, the leaders of the Gotham City have enacted the ‘Harvey Dent Act’ which seems to deny criminals some sort of procedural justice… Or something. It’s not quite clear.
Jim Gordon is wracked with guilt over this deception of the public… but not because it results in less procedural justice for criminals, but because he has to publicly venerate the name of the guy who tried to kill his kids. He’d be okay with the Act if only it weren’t called the Harvey Dent Act.
Oh, and for some reason, Wayne Enterprises is no longer turning a profit. At first, this confuses Bruce. He asks Lucius Fox about it, whose response is: ‘Don’t you remember? You decided to invest a huge amount in a project you decided to mothball.’ Bruce thinks, ‘That’s right. Now I remember why we’re not making a profit.’
There are lots of these events. Neither Gary Oldman nor Christian Bale have the ability to bring you along with them for the ride. Comic book films demand a suspension of disbelief. Caucasians are gods if they come from Krypton. A mutated gene can give you the ability to shoot laser beams from your eyes. Skin-tight, cleavage-revealing attire is pragmatic for kung fu fighting. To get around this, writers give us rich characters who give us plausible reactions to the implausible world around them. When the characters fail to make sense on the non-supernatural level, it makes it harder to get into the swing of the film.
Evil manifests itself in Bane, a deformed but charismatic evangelist. A lot of comments have been made about his indecipherable dialogue which, true, is a problem. But all of the dialogue — with the exception of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine — in this film is difficult to understand. On the other hand, none of the dialogue is particularly memorable so it’s no great loss.
Bane is somehow connected to Ra’s al Ghul, having escaped some sort of desert prison deep underground in Saudi Arabia.
And here’s where we get into a major problem with comic book movies. I come to the film already knowing who Bane is. Bane is a Latin American wrestler who derives his freakish strength from a nefarious chemical called ‘Venom’. Bane sits at that fun intersection between the brute and the brain: he is highly intelligent and yet sorts out his problems by smashing them.
The character in the film isn’t that Bane. That’s fine: re-imagining comic book characters is what made Tony Stark so wonderful in the Iron Man films. But there was a link between the character in the comics and the character in the film: Iron Man is a tycoon genius who makes a robotic suit to shoot baddies. If Robert Downey Jr had portrayed Tony Stark as a lovable street urchin who finds a magic lamp which grants him a wish to be made entirely of iron, we would no longer have a film about Iron Man the comic book character.
I don’t get why they didn’t just create a new character: the Mumbler. It’s not like something like this hasn’t been done before. In the animated series, Paul Dini created a new character, Harley Quinn, to occupy an interesting (if worryingly misogynistic) space in the rogue’s gallery. Now, everybody loves Harley Quinn (mostly).
Instead, it creates a problem for those of us who knew the background story. There’s an ongoing mystery about the identity of Ra’s al Ghul’s child (revealed in a dream…?). In the comics, Ra’s al Ghul has a very well-known daughter, Talia, but not a kid called ‘Bane’. Why? Because Ra’s al Ghul is a centuries-old, vaguely Middle Eastern guy and Bane is, as noted earlier, Latin American. Fortunately, there’s a hitherto unknown female character who happens to have a mysterious background living in Gotham…
Character problems aside, Bane (and the mysterious puppet master behind Bane) has an evil plan: he’s going to steal the nuclear bomb and take Gotham hostage. He’s going to tear down the symbols of authority and release all the prisoners, giving Gotham back to the people… somehow. He’s cut Gotham off from the rest of America by blowing up the bridges, and threatens to blow up the nuke if anybody leaves or enters Gotham. Gotham better get good at primary industry fairly quickly.
In this sense, he fulfills Ra’s al Ghul’s glorious plan. Destabilise the evil economic systems which oppress murderers and rapists… Hang on… That can’t be right. Oh, wait. It is. By magic, the former criminals have set up a new legal regime enforced by their access to weapons provided by Bane, with Bane declaring it to be a new, egalitarian society where the poor rip down the rich. Or something. This bit doesn’t make a lot of sense and it’s difficult to see this as the culmination of Ra’s al Ghul’s plan, despite Bane’s constant assertions that it is.
Having achieved chaos (by releasing the murderers and rapists and giving them weapons), Bane gloats at how chaotic it’s all become… and then plans to let the bomb go off in five months time anyway.
So what’s the point? Why destabilise Gotham? What does that prove? Murderers and rapists are terrible people and shouldn’t be given any power? I’m pretty sure we already knew that. I think there’s supposed to be some sort of reflexion of the old system in the new: disempowered people don’t get fair trials. But it’s clumsily enacted. And, besides, it’s all going to be blown into radioactive dust in a few months anyway.
As a result, this baffling trainwreck of a film has nothing in the way of character development. There are far too many characters and far too few people asking questions like: ‘Hang on… How does the random copper know that Bruce Wayne is Batman but Jim Gordon doesn’t? How did nobody realise the concrete was explosive? How did one concreting company monopolise all of the essential capital works in Gotham? Why did Batman save Fox and Gordon, but completely forget about the woman he fancies? Speaking of whom, why didn’t the world’s greatest detective run a background check on her? How did Bruce’s cartilage grow back when he was in the prison? How does punching somebody in the back fix their vertebrate? Who the hell is running this prison? Why does it have HD TV? Is the prison within walking distance of Gotham? How did Bruce get back into Gotham when Bane threatened to blow the place up if anybody came into Gotham from outside? Why is the nuclear bomb being driven around Gotham instead of being hidden? Why does Bane keep one bridge unbroken? Why don’t any of the rich people use the helicopters that we’ve seen used in other films? Why are any of the bad guys doing what they’re doing?’
When all is said and done, the film is fun. It is baddie-punching giggly fun. There are awesome scenes with the various Bat-weapons which inspire the classic thought: ‘This would be amazing in a video game!’
And then there’s Anne Hathaway. I didn’t understand a single thing about this Catwoman. Her stock standard line was ‘You don’t understand anything about me!’ Which, to be fair, is true. She’s poor but she’s super wealthy…? She’s working with Bane and with Batman? Is she also flipping a coin like Harvey Dent was?
On the other hand, she’s this movie’s Liam Neeson. She’s one of the few people in the film capable of giving any sort of depth to their character. This results in an awkward scene of Hathaway dancing with Bale. It looks a lot like she’s practicing with a cardboard cutout. Did Bale want to be somewhere else? Did he forget why he showed up to work that day?
In conclusion, the film is not a masterpiece but it is enjoyable.