In the context of the tragic events that occurred in the aftermath of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, it may seem to be a slight to review and discuss the film associated with these acts. Yet, after taking a moment to pay respect to the victims and their families and eventually coming around to the rational conclusion that this violence was caused by a man and not a movie, it becomes apparent that we would do the filmmakers and ourselves as a society a disservice if we chose to ignore the film’s own significance as a standalone piece of art.
If we chose to view The Dark Knight Rises strictly from under the horrific shadows of Aurora, we would only be granting the disturbed shooter Holmes a more significant role in defining our culture than he deserves. So, by all means, let us pause to pay our respects and contemplate how we can make our society a safer one. However, we should not grant Holmes victory by promoting him—a disturbed murderer—to the role of a terrorist whose acts instill a fear of leaving the house. I refuse to acknowledge Holmes from here on out, choosing instead to mourn and persevere.
In his past two Batman films, Christopher Nolan has faced the Caped Crusader with the two extremes of the political spectrum. In Batman Begins, the hero (Christian Bale) faces off against his former mentor, the terrorist Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) whose semi-fascistic plan involves sacrificing Gotham City in order to illustrate the decadence and corruption of America. Batman is tasked with defining himself against that political position. After all, Nolan’s film asks (just like most good Batman stories), how thick is the line that separates a man who wills himself to power through murder (Ra’s) versus one who does so through morally coded violence (Batman)?
In The Dark Knight, Batman is faced with the antithesis to his empathetic approach to controlled order, the Joker (Heath Ledger)—an agent of chaos embodying anarchy. In this encounter, Batman finds himself in a more direct engagement with his moral code as the self-assigned protector of Gotham, allowing himself to torture—yet refusing to murder—the terrorist that holds his city on the brink of disorder while orchestrating an unethical yet arguably pragmatic mass surveillance system. As one of my friends observed, Nolan’s movies (and especially his Batman trilogy) deal with men attempting to define, establish, and control a power dynamic . . . which Nolan often undercuts by making such an attempt an exercise in futility.
The Batman of The Dark Knight Rises finds himself disavowed by the city thanks to a revised, manufactured power dynamic that he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) have perpetuated for eight years. Taking the fall for Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) crimes at the end of the previous installment, ensuring that the printed legend behind Gotham’s “White Knight” would go untarnished, Batman finds himself an outcast in a city that has found peace time under a false pretense. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically battered by his existential crisis that involves, as his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) notes, “Not living . . . just waiting for something bad to happen,” the purposeless Bruce Wayne has secluded himself in his mansion. After the arrival of a sexy cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) and Bane (Tom Hardy)—one of the philosophical descendants of R’as al Ghul—Wayne finds it necessary to don his cape and cowl once more but the passage of time has left him unprepared.
What follows, without spoiling too much, are a series of literal and metaphorical leaps of faith for Wayne/Batman. Can he allow himself to walk away from his powerful position atop the rooftops once peace is restored by the white light of truth, and trust that the citizens of Gotham will do the right thing? Can he allow himself the life, friends, and lover that he has denied himself?
I was pleasantly surprised by the film, which I was concerned—based on early reviews—would implode under its own tonal weight and be a largely emotionally cold, humorless experience. Thankfully, it isn’t. Hathaway’s turn as the surprisingly sexy and mischievous Selina Kyle adds a levity to the proceedings not seen since Batman Begins (for all of the Joker’s “jokes,” The Dark Knight was rather humorless). Moreover, The Dark Knight Rises—like Batman Begins—is much more tightly constructed than The Dark Knight (which, as I described in my retrospective review, is chaotic with regard to its narrative) because it focuses on Wayne/Batman and the arc his moral dilemma produces more so than any of the predecessors. This gives Bale some breathing room to explore the hero in his best performance as the character yet.
The main areas in which the film disappoints are the action sequences and the slight bloat of the film. The action sequences, staged more classically than those in The Dark Knight, are not incredibly exciting or visceral (at least, the Batman vs. Bane sequences). Moreover, there is an incredibly jarring continuity error during one scene in which—over the diegetic duration of eight minutes—Gotham City goes from day to night. Secondly, in its attempts to play the role of the third and presumably final film in a trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises both thankfully and—at least to those who will try to view it as a standalone film—frustratingly attempts to provide answers for nearly all the questions the series has asked thus far. This makes it a fulfilling finale yet a bloated, singular film (it reminds me a lot of Return of the King).
I may be one of the few critics to believe this but—particularly within the context of rewatching the first two films again this past week and realizing that The Dark Knight is, like Harvey Dent’s legacy, a flawed idol of what the superhero movie can be—The Dark Knight Rises strikes me as being the most emotionally fulfilling of the three films and yet it only succeeds because of what came before it. Of course, we shall see if these impressions shift slightly after re-watching the film as many times as I have watched The Dark Knight! But, while it may not have the best action sequences or the remarkable presence of Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Rises provides the structure, the heart, and closure to the series, making it the most significant in my opinion.