As before, profuse spoilers are to be expected.
After seeing TDKR again and also hashing it over with co-workers as the work week resumed, I think I’ve “digested” it a little more. It’s been interesting to see the wide range of opinions on the film, from one person who thought it was awful and that the Spiderman reboot was better, to perfect and the best of the series. I have to say I’m in the middle.
What it keeps coming down to, more and more for me, is the siege of Gotham. I think the movie has me up until that point. But when Bane starts to enact his master plan, the movie gets really fuzzy for me.
You have two rising (o-ho!) currents during this segment of the film: the tightening of Bane’s grip on Gotham City, and the fear and anger and convalescence of Bruce Wayne in the pit.
Side Thought: Ostensibly the pit is in Morocco? Because “deshay basara” is Moroccan Arabic for ‘He rises, he rises’. Makes sense that Morocco would produce the very French-sounding Talia al-Ghul and the indeterminately European Bane.
Side Thought 2: Despite it being way too high-volume in the mix, I actually really loved Bane’s voice.
So anyway, these are the two surging currents that give the film its manic midsection before things climax. Here’s where things get problematic.
1. The nuke. It’s just not a good plot device. It’s a giant ball with a glowing red timer, good god. A whole litany of terrible action movies have used this type of thing as a way of generating a sense of risk. I think the writers really slipped up here. The “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics, which provided the inspiration for the destruction of Gotham’s bridges and the total abandoning of the city, did not require a nuclear bomb; in fact, it rather cleverly made it so the government was the one blowing up the bridges, rather than some force from within. This was lazy writing. The film did not climax when Batman makes his heroic decision to fly the bomb out to the ocean; it climaxed when Batman returns to the city, sets fire to the bridge and starts his counterinsurgency.
2. Occupy Gotham. Bane’s reason for using this equalization-of-resources rhetoric while keeping secret that everyone is going to die anyway? The punishment of Bruce Wayne, murderer of Ras al-Ghul. Really? That seems like adding a lot of risk to your plan just to torment one guy. I suppose there’s some aspect of punishing ‘the people’ and making a farce out of American society before blowing it up. But it never truly crystallizes that way. I never thought the film was particularly anti-Occupy. It’s not really particularly anti-anything. Nolan himself in a recent interview said they were just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck, and it really shows. Clean energy? No, it could be a bomb! Redistribution of wealth and resources? Careful, that could be violent and actually hurt people! Like… what?
3. “The people.” This has been one of the biggest problems with this trilogy. The Dark Knight did better at it than the other two and is just one more indicator of that film’s superiority over its older and younger siblings. The people are just a MacGuffin in these films. They get used as a kind of moral currency, but in The Dark Knight Rises they are rarely anywhere to be seen. We see the orphans. We see the cowering stadium audience. We see a rich guy getting dragged out of hiding and we see brief shots of these kangaroo courts convened by a known psychopath. Otherwise all I remember seeing is a couple seconds of the wealthy looking confused outside of their parkside apartments and some teenagers partying and Anne Hathaway looking sadly at a ransacked house. You don’t get to see what ‘the people’ are really doing or going through. The police are just sitting there eating, we don’t know what they’re going through either.
And why did people just go along with this? The guy who set this whole thing up clearly had a nuclear bomb and had murdered a lot of people. I suppose they could be cowering in fear, but why didn’t we see that? Were those kids partying in the apartment just taking advantage of a bad situation and looting/partying? How does Jonathan Crane’s dummy court deal with cases of rape and sexual assault, because oh I don’t know I’ve heard those can happen during massive societal upheavals? And perhaps most importantly, when someone threatens an entire city with nuclear annihilation, why does nobody have exactly that survival instinct described by the prison doctor — that fear of death — why does nobody in 12 million have that enough to fight back? Is this the film’s real comment on the American people? That we need wealthy protectors, we need a Bat-Dad who can beat up that bully Bane?
I don’t like to use the word ‘man’ when ‘person’ is more accurate, but in this case, “The 12-million-man MacGuffin” really rolls off the tongue. Which brings me to my next point.
4. Men. Sure seems like they are 90% of Gotham City’s population. And the film’s two female characters, to me, stole every scene they had, and yet were still not given their real due. They didn’t get enough development, didn’t get any character arcs. Talia al-Ghul’s character depends entirely on your having seen Batman Begins. That is literally the entire foundation of her character. We get this late reveal that she’s the determined child who escaped from a hellish prison, but it rings so incredibly hollow, especially because emotionally we’ve already registered that child as Bane and seen all the awful and horrific things Bane can do. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle was fantastic, and we don’t need to know a lot about who she was before, or her origin story, but it sure would have been nice to see her more mixed up in the chaos. Remember in The Dark Knight how every character was pushed to make some moral choice by the end of the film? Yeah, nobody has to do that in The Dark Knight Rises. For Selina Kyle it’s stay and fight or leave, and she stays and that’s well and great, but it’s serving the story. We have no clue what that does for her as a character, nor do we really grasp why she’d be running around with Bruce later on.
5. The Pit. Again, I’ve never seen a token back-breaking in a film before, but there it is. And what’s Bruce wrestling with in there, anyway? There’s no conflict, no struggle really. Just upward motion. He doesn’t wrangle with anything, not really. He’s angry. He fears death, OK. Here we go, jump! Aaand scene.
6. Christopher Nolan’s Manic Puzzle Box. This is, I think, a fair descriptor of his last few films. They are bombastic, gigantic puzzle boxes with many moving pieces and a manic, rising energy that never abates. Unfortunately, though this worked so well for The Dark Knight, it has a sense in The Dark Knight Rises of being an almost 3-hour-long montage rather than a film with particular sequences and movements. A siege is a slow process, Christopher Nolan. You can take your time.
7. The Moral Siege? Really, it keeps coming down to the siege for me. It’s the would-be moral center and thinkpiece of the film, and the film should have lingered there. It should have shown us long takes of Gotham under occupation, should have sent us deeper into the lives of the ordinary person, and most of us all, should have given us more to chew on about our socioeconomic realities, who we are as a people, where we are going. The siege was simply James Bond villainy in the end, with a comical bomb. And though I like the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne cares more about ‘the people’ in the abstract, from a distance, that’s never really played up either, especially as a counterpoint to Bane’s supposed liberation of the people. How much more powerful would it have been if people voluntarily followed Bane and denounced Batman? Then, the betrayal of Harvey Dent would have had more narrative weight. And the character of Talia al-Ghul could have been used in much more interesting ways. Even as a heroine.
These films have always set up a battle of ideas. Batman Begins had the most truly basic of all three: when the forest (Gotham, America, the American City) grows too wild, do you simply burn it down or do you fight to save it? The Dark Knight staged a much more in-depth interrogation of the moral fiber of the city and its hero. I’m holding up The Dark Knight a lot here, and it is the superior film, but it also suffered from the manic puzzle box thing at times. Only difference was it used that format to its advantage. In this one I feel like they just tried to shoehorn Batman Begins into the style of The Dark Knight and the result is a patchy mess. It was a film without a sense of identity. It pulled from headlines, it pulled from its predecessors. The one place it never really seemed to pull from was the natural creative ether. It was thrilling and enjoyable, but somehow it was not very fresh. It didn’t feel like the product of spontaneous creativity and intellectual probing or even a real sense of fun — the motorcycle chase early on is weirdly boring and devoid of affect — it just felt rote. Maybe we’re feeling the absence of Heath Ledger here, in a sense; maybe this is the effort to pick up the pieces from a story that lost its true star. That’s where Bane needed to be a kind of rogue antihero. I wanted to root for Bane. I wanted him to stage a real takedown of Batman. Rags-to-more-rags, coming from nothing, breaking the ultracapitalist Bat. But Bane did not embody any principles, not really. To be sure, the grievance against Gotham is real; we all know the festering metropolis, the American excess at the expense of the poor both domestically and on a much wider scale globally. But just trying to shake the Etch-a-Sketch is too easy. And this is why the siege is so problematic for me. Because that’s where the movie was about to fly and about to shine, and that’s exactly where the beating heart of it went dark.