Let’s Discuss: The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is the most anticipated movie of the year. It has received critical acclaim, as well as its share of negative comments. In a new feature, BP writers Scott Nye, Kyle Anderson, and Daniel Bergamini will discuss their reactions to this monumental film. PLEASE NOTE: SPOILERS!
More than anything else, I’ve long felt that Christopher Nolan is – or rather, once was – a master structuralist. When one looks at Memento or The Prestige, one thinks first of their non-chronological arrangement, but he was also precise, one might even say delicate, in how he dispensed information. The Dark Knight, more and more, seems like a real turning point in Nolan’s work. The pace became much more aggressive, and the patience he once possessed seem to fade like the polaroid picture in the opening shot of Memento. At least with The Dark Knight, he had a purpose – the momentum stood for Batman’s inability to keep up with or make sense of The Joker. Nolan used the very structure of his film to get at his protagonist’s psychology, a recurring motif throughout his best films. With Inception, the pace was merely bludgeoning, and now, with The Dark Knight Rises, it’s downright deadly.
Batman’s greatest challenge this time isn’t a villain, but life itself, and his inability to define what it means for his mission to be finished. Would it end with his life? When crime is stamped out? One seems too soon, the other too distant, even impossible. From a storytelling perspective, Nolan’s pace elides a great deal of the passage of time – weeks, even months go by in a couple of rushed, bombastically scored minutes – and we as an audience aren’t given the chance to sit with Gotham in its darkest hour. But thematically, the pace, which could have represented life passing Bruce by, continues well past his inevitable enlightenment (indeed, it skims past the process through which he learns it, treating his spiritual awakening as an extended Rocky-style montage) and hammers away right on through the end. Nolan’s sense of scene-building is as fine as ever, and Batman’s first fight with Bane is one of the best sequences he’s assembled, but it feels like he’s totally lost the sense of how to build a film; he’s merely giving us information without telling a story.
I definitely have more to say about the film, but do you guys have any thoughts on this? Other general feelings towards the whole?
Having recently revisited Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I realize how pacing and structure have always been an issue with Nolan’s Batman trilogy. As you mention, The Dark Knight is flawed when it comes to its pacing. This I agree with. However, looking back at Batman Begins, that film features a significantly more problematic structure. It is obvious how uncomfortable Nolan is with the superhero genre with that first film. And with The Dark Knight, it is improved as he feels more assured with the story he is telling.
However, I do not see The Dark Knight Rises as having the most problematic structure or pacing, in fact I see it as the most accomplished of the three films. Everything about this film is bigger, and appropriately it is structured like an old fashioned epic. The lapses in time did not feel off but felt needed to give the film an appropriate weight. It may be the end of a trilogy but the story here takes on far more than the previous films.
The Dark Knight Rises is the best of the trilogy and does not suffer from the flaws of the previous two films. Everything about it was an improvement from the previous films. Clearly, Nolan is not entirely comfortable with the idea of his films being superhero films. This film does not appear to be at war with itself and feels like the first time he is entirely sure with what his film is.
For me, the biggest questions I raised were: 1) Does The Dark Knight Rises succeed as the end of a film trilogy; and 2) Does The Dark Knight Rises succeed on its own merits, and I would say a resounding yes to the first and a regular yes to the second. Nolan’s own predilections regarding unraveling a story in an interesting way, such as in Memento and The Prestige, are much more at work here than they were in his previous two Batman films, especially The Dark Knight. There is certainly a lot of material to cover and perhaps he made it a touch too complicated for himself but that’s the way he thinks. I really appreciated the way the film was not simply a continuation of the film before but a true ending, weaving in themes and threads from Batman Begins. It absolutely felt like the conclusion of a long novel rather than merely the end of a short story.
The pacing problems, for me, were not nearly as objectionable here as they were in TDK. In fact, from a script and story standpoint, I feel like Rises was far superior; with every character’s motivations being much more clearly defined and dealt with. I never fully bought the Bruce/Rachel/Harvey thread that was so integral to The Dark Knight and hence felt that Harvey’s descent into madness was rushed for the sake of Two-Face. Here, the greater impact of Harvey and Rachel permeates the whole proceeding but it’s much more about ramification than anything else. Bruce has to deal with his obsession, despair, self-doubt, duty and fate, much more than ever before. Maybe a few extra scenes where Bruce wallows in this could have intensified it but it was dealt with in a satisfactory way, certainly in the context of this being a nearly-3-hour superhero movie.
I appreciate that this is the only film in the series that is actually a mystery. Bane’s overall motivation is fuzzy until suddenly it isn’t and then everything we’ve seen up to that point is changed. It might not be as massive a revelation as Memento or The Prestige but it’s not less impactful. It’s a huge, defeating moment for Bruce and it galvanizes him as to his final move. I also appreciate that this one, like the first film, is actually about Bruce but, more than that, about Batman and what he means to Gotham City.
Batman Begins sets up the obsession, corruption and avarice that starts Bruce and his ideology in motion. The Dark Knight was about how Bruce’s ideology affects the city, for good and ill, and how it creates monsters like the Joker who possess an entirely opposing ideology and, further, how those two totally contrasting viewpoints play on Gotham’s only true “good man.” The Dark Knight Rises show us that the city’s need for Batman and his ideology is entirely separate to Bruce’s need to be Batman; separate but no less deep. From the beginning, Nolan has set up that “Batman” is a symbol for hope and this movie was entirely about Bruce finally coming to terms with what being a symbol for hope actually means.
I could definitely talk more about Nolan’s actual direction and filmmaking, but I’ll take a breather for others to respond.
Well, I guess I’m the lone dissenter. I do agree with Kyle’s assertion that this is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy so let’s look at how it concludes. Needless to say, there will be spoilers. By far the most interesting break with conventional, comics-based continuity is that Nolan brings Batman’s story to a definite end. All told, removing the eight-year break between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s mission as Batman lasts only, what, eighteen months? Maybe two years? It’s an interesting take on the character, but it definitely posits Bruce Wayne’s obsession as a young man’s game, a sort of extended indulgence many trust fund kids have the luxury of pursuing. Many have mentioned that this leaves Bruce as a man in his thirties with no marketable skills or assets – given his personal bankruptcy, it’s a little mysterious as to how he and Alfred even get to Europe but he wouldn’t exactly be the first millionaire to live the high life long after the well’s run dry.
While this is all nitpicking, the larger implications of this omission are fascinating. The Dark Knight revealed Nolan to be firmly conservative, politically speaking, though no less thoughtful for it and the very set-up of this film is a right-wing dream – that the forces driving the 99% are radical terrorists bent on, if not the destruction of the world, then certainly that of Gotham City. Bruce, on the other hand, is posited as deserving of his place in society for what he does with his money – largely subsidizing his company’s assets for his personal whims – and his eight-year stretch of nonproductivity is already somewhat noble. Alfred, long the conscience of the Batman mythos, begs Bruce not to throw away his life with any more excursions into the night, which results in a rather sudden break in their partnership and Bruce (and thus the audience) immediately loses the series’ most valuable voice. Bruce is then left to do pretty much as he pleases and the final image of him relaxing in a European cafe while a member of the lower class does his dirty work is either the greatest indictment or the greatest celebration of a certain type of lifestyle.
I do want to discuss that member of the lower class, the rather innocuous John Blake, an orphan turned cop with a secret name as boring as the one he gives (the revelation of which caused a decided mix of groans and cheers with my crowd). Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a newcomer to the series who is accorded, in my eyes, rather undue privilege within the story. As well as Nolan wraps up Bruce Wayne’s story, he skims over so much of the details of that, and totally discards Jim Gordon, who had heretofore practically been the series’ second lead. Simply assigning much of Blake’s tasks to Gordon, who also has the benefit of being a fully-fledged character (Gordon-Levitt’s doing what he can but he’s salvaging a sketch) would have given the film much more weight as part of the series. Blake’s purpose seems largely like an insurance policy, a guarantee that Warner Brothers can go ahead with Nolan’s vision of the Bat-world while still being something of a reboot (not unlike the tack being taken with the Bourne series, the performance of which I expect WB will be watching carefully) and with a younger lead, at that.
The further I get from the film, the less I think of it. The few aspects that really, truly land are so grossly outweighed by the film’s lumbering aggression, both thematically and narratively. I truly loved Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, perhaps Nolan’s most compelling female character to date (though Hathaway’s screen presence and rare ability to sell the clunky one-liners get all the credit here), and the reversal upon her initial appearance in the film is one of its many great crowd moments (everything in the prison is another). She elevates every scene she’s in and finally gives Bale an equal to play against. Tom Hardy was right when he said that making a Batman film is a very assembly-line production but the note he finds as Bane is never less than interesting. The IMAX sequences are pretty stunning – though occasionally haphazard; when applied to a full scene, such as Batman’s reappearance or his initial showdown with Bane, they’re revelatory. But the further the film staggers, the more ungainly it becomes, piling on reversals (Marion Cotillard gets a great moment for those who know who the hell that character is supposed to be but a meaningless revelation for those who don’t) upon contrivances (Bruce’s reappearance in Gotham following his jail sentence falls just short of magical realism) upon more reversals. Many have stated how much more closely tied this is to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight and I’d agree with that but for all the wrong reasons – they’re both woefully unformed.
You bring up many issues and flaws, but maybe most important is the political stance of the film. It shapes your viewing of the entire film, and I would assume that is for the worse. Many, including yourself, see it as absolutely right-wing in its message. This did not even cross my mind upon first viewing. Bruce Wayne may have been born into luxury; however that does not automatically make this a right-wing fantasy.
On the contrary, as throughout the series, Wayne has struggled with his place in society, among the poor and the suffering. The Dark Knight Rises focuses on this struggle and in the end is more interested in giving Wayne his peace than making a strong political message.
It is reading far too much into the film to think that Wayne ending up in Florence with Selina Kyle is some sort of masturbatory conservative fantasy. It is even brought up in the film, as Kyle says to Wayne, that even the rich suffer in luxury. That would seem like obvious hypocrisy if that is how Nolan intended the message of the final scene to come off.
While the hero of the film may be a billionaire, it does not automatically restrict the film from having a more complex message. Wayne is willing to give up everything for the people of Gotham and this is ultimately more of a character struggle than a political one.
That being said, the reason why so many disagree with the political stance of the film is due to its structure. It is a messy film, with far too much happening. Nolan should have become more focused as it seems the grandeur of the film got the better of him. It is, however, that grandeur that I love about the film. It may be a mess with conflicting political messages but it is a damn great mess.
The Dark Knight Rises finishes the series with the strongest of the three entries. It is not perfect but, in my eyes, neither are the first two.
I saw the film a second time on Monday (in IMAX this time) and specifically paid attention to what people had been complaining about in the film (pacing, structure, etc.) and even recognizing all of these things, I still found it incredibly enjoyable. And the triumphant ending, regardless of how “illogical” it is, still affected me in a positive way. I thought the IMAX-shot sequences played very nicely.
To address some of the points, I feel like with most of Nolan’s work, he tells you the hows and whys that matter and omits the ones that don’t. How Bruce Wayne escaped the blast, got to Europe and is living comfortably (or got back to Gotham from the “more ancient part of the word” for that matter) isn’t nearly as important as the fact that he did. I think Scott hit the nail on the head with the magical realism comparison only I think that’s entirely the point. The whole movie feels like some kind of weird dream in a really cool way. Nolan’s jumped off of his love of dreams, memory and deception from his previous movies (Memento, The Prestige, Inception of course) and made Bruce’s story in this a huge visual metaphor. Bane breaks Bruce’s back, he passes out, then suddenly he’s in a pit in the middle east that belongs to Bane, then in the next scene Bane is back in Gotham. The entire prison sequence is a visual representation of Bruce’s scarred psyche. Notice he sees an hallucination of Ra’s al Ghul and it’s through this vision that he even knows about al Ghul having a kid in the first place. He learns things through the dream and takes leaps of logic as a result. Nolan is not stupid and is keeping things deliberately vague with regards to this whole section. Where he was exactly is not nearly as interesting as what he does while he’s there, that he rebuilds himself in a dynamic way and then returns ready to fight. As far as Blake is concerned, I think Nolan’s done a really ballsy thing by showing us the origin story of another Batman (or Robin, though that’s much less interesting to me) the whole time without us even really knowing it. I don’t see it as he’s leaving a backdoor for someone else to continue his world but showing that Nolan’s Batman IS just a symbol. He’s the Dread Pirate Roberts. While we’re seeing the end of Bruce’s journey, we’re seeing the beginning of Blake’s and what would Bruce Wayne would have been if not for his family’s vast wealth? Just an angry cop who wishes he could change things. Because of this and Gordon-Levitt’s fine performance, Blake is a very compelling and important character. I do agree, though, that Gordon wasn’t served very well in this film but he’s a somewhat broken man as well. He’s had to shoulder the weight of all the city’s crime and the knowledge that he’s had to lie to get things accomplished and he’s done it all alone where once he had a partner, even if it was a man in a mask. In this, though, he’s used as a mentor for Blake and in that way he does pretty well. He’s still the noble man, even if he has gotten his hands dirty.
As for the larger question of the politics in these films; they aren’t about Democrats vs. Republicans but about the far left vs. the far right. Well, by their very nature, superhero stories, much like a great many westerns, are Right Wing. A single man or small group of people trying to restore order to a “lawless” town and protect people outside the law is a very Right Wing mentality. Any vigilante is veering toward fascism. If your hero is going down this path, then your villains have to go the other. Anarchy is left-wing concept, and Bane’s (fictitious) scheme to “give Gotham back to the people” is as well, though further from the edge. There are very deliberate allusions in the film to Communist Russia of the post-War period. Yes, Gotham will belong to its people but if no one can leave and people are living in varying states of squalor (some still keep their homes), then it’s a prison. But as Bane said, he’s giving Gotham the illusion of hope, using redistribution of wealth and the tearing down of authority figures and fat cats to appease the lower classes. That there are parallels to the Occupy movement is just a way for the themes to resonate. Again, Nolan is about broad strokes and themes. I don’t see the film as being “unformed” at all. In fact it might be his most-formed movie. It’s just a different form than we’re used to seeing.
I do want to clarify for those assembled that there’s nothing automatically wrong with a conservative approach to Batman. By his very nature, he’s a conservative/right-wing character (a billionaire playboy whose obsession with punishment results in him removing power from government structures to suit his own conception of society, using fear and violence as his major weapons). Nolan found a beautiful expression of this in The Dark Knight by taking current fears regarding terrorism and security, applying right-wing-championed measures (extreme interrogation, civilian surveillance) and allowing them to succeed in spite of the reservations of a few. In The Dark Knight Rises, he threw caution to the wind, allowing one of his heroes to annihilate a villain with a gigantic gun, with nothing but a one-liner to assuage any lingering doubts that they broke not just with societal mores, but Batman’s ONE RULE in approaching criminals. It’s a much more simplistic expression and troubling beyond one’s political alignment. I agree with Kyle’s point regarding certain genre standards. I just thought they, in this film, were rather thin amongst a lot of pretentious (I don’t use that word lightly) talk.
I guess the last thing I would want to say, is on the question of whether or not this film deserves to be picked apart. Earlier this summer, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was released. Upon first viewing, I was very positive. It was not until I began to look back that I realized what an utter incoherent mess the film was. It was a film that deserved to be ripped apart, as it was riddled with significant plot holes.
The Dark Knight Rises is a messy film, but the questions left unanswered are not significant enough to leave the film unwatchable. Nolan may have taken on too much, but it seems many are being too hard on this film. Even if the film was structured slightly better, it seems no matter what some people would still be disappointed with the film when compared to The Dark Knight.
The film is a great accomplishment in filmmaking, from the cinematography to the score. Occasionally it is not perfect but if more blockbusters could be as well made as this, we would be much better off as film fans.
I’m with you there in principle – plot holes, contrivances, gaps in logic, etc. all fall under the heading of “stuff you don’t like if you already don’t like the movie.” They can be amusing to pick apart, but on the whole I find the practice a rather fruitless endeavor, almost the definition of missing the forest for the trees.
I’ll agree with that. I think I’ve been thinking about this movie too much and it’s started to affect my enjoyment of it. At the end of the day, it’s still a superhero movie and it’s still way above the norm for the genre. I think I’m gonna take a break from it and not think about it again until I’m watching the Blu-ray.