Superhero movies often suffer from a problem of perspective. Set as they are against the backdrop of Clark Kent and Peter Parker’s newspaper offices, the upper crust palaces of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark or the military-industrial science labs of Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers, they are all sociologically conditioned by a white middle class imagination that tends towards a simple view of criminology and global injustice. Their time is usually spent “cleaning up the streets” of its petty crimes until some globe- or city-threatening crisis comes along for which their powers are especially needed and by which their powers are put to the test in some way. This sociological point has been made before, never so pointedly (to my knowledge) as by the web-comic SMBC.
Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer announced early in Batman Begins that they were sensitive to this issue, as in this exchange between Bruce Wayne and the man later to be revealed as Ra’s al Ghul: “When you lived among the criminals, did you start to pity them? / The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.” They then proceeded to build an entire film around the question of economics and justice, with Batman and Ra’s al Ghul embodying two contrasting responses–the latter embraced the cruel amorality of scarcity, the former spent himself to combat it.
The Dark Knight Rises plays to the strengths inherent to this origin story, and more effectively so than the The Dark Knight in its attempt to evoke pyscho-social tensions between chaos and order. Critic David Edelstein infamously elicited the chthonic rage of fandom with when he panned that film, noting that its psychological pretensions “play as if they’d been penned by Oxford philosophy majors trying to tone up a piece of American pop.” Whereas some will no doubt find Rises intellectually under-cooked compared to its predecessor, I found its ideas more cinematically effective because they are presented in a “show, don’t tell” manner. Not that there isn’t plenty of pontificating in this 2.5+ hour film, but rather that the ideas have been more neatly integrated into the story.
As the film begins, Gotham has been bat-less in the eight years since the death of Harvey Dent. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, still awesome) continues to perpetuate the myth of Batman as his murderer in order to sustain political capital for anti-mob legislation, but has become a hollower version of the righteous enforcer seen in the last film. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, having retired the costume for the sake of a Gotham kept clean through legitimate channels. This post-mob detente ends abruptly with the appearance of Bane (Tom Hardy), a brilliant muscleman donning a Darth Vader mask and the same League of Shadows training we watched Batman undergo in the first film.
As developed by Nolan and Goyer, Bane comes closer to Batman’s doppelganger than the Joker. The latter rejected the League of Shadows on principle, the former was rejected by the League because he was unprincipled. One was born into a life of privilege, the other a life of abject poverty and suffering. If the Joker was a cipher for “chaos”, Bane, who needs constant pain medication due to a botched surgery, stands in for “suffering” and the anti-social rage it often breeds. As such, he presents both a crisis for the city and a personal crisis for Wayne/Batman, both of which must be overcome to see order restored. I trust it is not giving too much away to say that the Dark Knight rises to the challenge.
The film shows us the Gotham only dreamed of by the Joker–a chaotic wasteland run by a warlord and a kangaroo court which sentences the wealthy to death for their presumed guilt. It takes place on a larger scale than either previous movie, at times in danger of becoming a dystopian revolution film that happens to involve Batman. It’s exciting stuff, charging ahead at a breathless pace which spends all of its more than one-hundred fifty minutes effectively. Unfortunately, director Nolan seems content to set up his epic set-pieces (Gangs of New York-style clashes between cops and criminals, armored vehicle shootouts among downtown high-rises, collapsing football stadiums) and point the camera at them. From the stylist evident in The Dark Knight and Inception this comes as a bit of a let down.
The film has a strong supporting performance in Anne Hathaway who, though never named exactly as “Catwoman”, does more than enough to entertainingly fulfill that role. She’s a fun femme fatale that Hathaway conveys with minimum camp and believable competence. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom Nolan seems to be gearing for major stardom after this and Inception, is compelling as an idealistic cop that partners with the Comissioner. Marion Cotillard shows up in a kind of love interest/corporate ally role that would be duller with a less gorgeous woman, and series’ reliables Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine remain stalwart sideline actors. It is the latter who packs the biggest emotional wallop in the film, bringing his wounded Cockney to bear on the cost of Bruce Wayne’s actions to the people who love him the most.
The Dark Knight Rises succeeds as a robustly entertaining summer film with plenty of spectacle and a frightening and poignant villain. There are some minor plot-holes, but if you’re the kind of moviegoer who gets caught up in the action you won’t be thinking of them until the lights come on. By shedding some of the philosophical pretense of its predecessor and embracing its rousing blockbuster destiny, the third film in Nolan’s Bat-trilogy effectively brings the narrative to its epic conclusion.