It’s been said that The Who By Numbers was received very poorly by both fans and critics when it first came out, in big part because it was a good album that suffered from the curse of not being a great one. The most succinct statement I can make about The Dark Knight Rises is along the same lines: it’s a very good movie afflicted with two things: a) it comes in the shadow of an outstanding one, and b) it’s forced to serve as the final statement for a franchise that changed the way people thought about comics and cinema. Small wonder many people wrung their hands or stuck their fingers down their throats.
I wasn’t surprised that people would be so divided over the film, but I was a little amazed at the way that divisiveness shaded over into outright hostility. A number of online critics pointedly left it off their lists of 2012’s best films, if only because there were so many other interesting things going on cinematically that year (Holy Motors, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, etc.) that throwing praise at a movie that hardly needed the boosterism probably seemed like wasted breath. It wasn’t as if you needed to champion a film that had already raked in the gross domestic product of a small nation. But what we have here is (as someone else said) the Batman we deserve rather than the Batman we want.
The Batsuit comes back out of cold storage for one final throwdown with Gotham's newest enemy: Bane.
You can’t leap between rooftops forever without it taking a toll on you, and indeed the first glimpse we have of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), seven years after the end of the previous film, is of a Howard Hughes-esque husk. Hiding behind facial hair and doddering between the mostly empty rooms of the rebuilt Wayne Manor, he has chosen to let Gotham do right by itself now that the Dent Act has put most of the city’s big-scale organized crime out of commission. But he now finds he has little to do except throw his money at boondoggles like an apparently worthless fusion system and become that much more of a shadow in his own life. It isn’t in Bruce Wayne’s nature to sit things out, and he knows it; he just doesn’t know what to do about it.
He gets all the motivation he needs in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a figure introduced to us in the movie’s sphincter-shrinking opening action scene as the abductor of a prominent Russian nuclear scientist. With his gargoyle-face breathing mask, his steroidal physique, and (most incongruously) his chirping British accent, he’s Darth Vader crossed with an earlier Tom Hardy role, Bronson. He leads a wing of the newly-resurrected League of Shadows into Gotham to once again bring it low, and his first mission is draining the coffers of Wayne Enterprises at gunpoint. Like the Joker before him, he does this in part by buddying up with other criminal elements in town, and then cutting them off at the knees once they’ve served their purpose.
What turns Bruce’s head the most is not what happens to his company or even his city, but how two other total strangers (apart from Bane) come into his life and upend it. The first is a policeman, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young, fresh-faced, straight-arrow cop spared from the streets by one of the Wayne family’s own charity initiatives. He has qualities that Bruce responds to unconsciously — not just that he’s a good apple in a barrel known for being full of bad ones, but also because he has the brio to walk right up to the front door of Wayne Manor and ask for Bruce to do the right thing.
The other is Selina Kyle, professional thief and (ha! ha!) cat burglar, who also walks right up to Bruce in his own house under the guise of being hired help for a party and steals family heirlooms right out of his own safe. Her real mission was as a hired gun: to obtain Bruce’s biometrics so they can be used as part of Bane’s master plan, but she doesn’t intend to just turn over the goods and be disposed of. What’s more, her handlers may know of a computer program that can clear her record — it’s named, in one of the movie’s less imaginative touches, “Clean Slate” — and the very man she ripped off, Bruce, may well be one of the few who can put it in her hands. He can give it to her in exchange for Bane's lair — which he finds, all right, at the cost of being crippled even further and being forced to watch Gotham cut off from the rest of the world by Bane and his men.
While Gotham is cut off from the outside world,
an equally-isolated Bruce Wayne struggles to free himself.
A constant complaint about The Dark Knight Rises is how little the Dark Knight himself is actually in it, but for a good reason: the story is less about Bruce being Batman than about how the concept of Batman has reached its limit for him. What's more, the previous two films also worked the same way. Even if Bruce had the suit on that much more, his heroics as Batman were always constrained by the growing complexity of such a project. It frustrated people — some of them self-identified comics fans, some not — who just wanted to see Batman being a hero, even if that sort of derring-do is impossible to watch today without us asking questions about the long-term consequences of such a thing. The problem with just delivering the fun without the consequences is that it plays itself out in extremely short order — it trivializes questions that can't help but come up from ten seconds' thought about what happens in a story like this.
Many of the same people complained about the way the second half of the film plays out, with Bruce languishing in a kind of Escher-esque dungeon while Bane and his men run amuck in Gotham. I actually liked the way things unfold here, with Blake and a ragtag team of cops above ground trying to organize resistance while the rest of their comrades remain entombed under the city, while Bruce has to not only get his damaged back repaired via primitive medicine (here's a cringe-inducing hint: it's more or less how we used to fix our TVs) but break out of a dungeon that's been designed to tempt people to do exactly that. It pits himself against himself at least as much as it does any outside enemy.
Back when I wrote about The Dark Knight I noted how the action in the film isn't really the point, but that it sometimes comes close to feeling like mere meat thrown to the fans to shut them up while the movie goes about its real business. Rises feels even more like that, with at least one key action scene — Batman chasing Bane from the stock exchange — being remarkably uninspired. The film tries to make up for it with the broad-gauge Armageddon of the second half, beginning with the implosion of a football stadium and the destruction of all but one of Gotham's bridges, and working its way up to a nuke going off. It actually does work, because by that time the film has also set up many other interleaved bits of tension that raise the stakes on a personal level — e.g., Blake with a busload of kids, trying to talk his way across the one bridge left out of Gotham.
The other problem is Bane, or rather, how the film chooses to deal with him. (Warning: spoilers.) The more we learn about him, the more we see he’s simply a chesspiece — not a flaw by itself, but the way the movie handles both him and the manipulator leaves a weirdly perfunctory takes in the mouth. The backstory for the two of them is neatly done, right in line with Nolan's penchant for storytelling sleight-of-hand, but once those two are yanked out of the film, they leave behind a bit of a vacuum, one only compensated for so much by the pyrotechnics around them.
I am writing the concluding paragraphs of this review right on the heels of various speculative announcements about Warner Brothers producing the next iteration of DC Comics-based films — namely, Justice League. It's a curious feeling. Rumor has it right now that Nolan will be trusted with the keys to the entire kingdom, something I had suspected would happen eventually given the man's track record with the material (and, again, as rumor has it, the results of his overseeing the Superman redux Man of Steel). If this happens, it will make the Dark Knight films seem like that much less of a self-contained project and more of a stepping stone to other things. If that happens, it will be curious to look back over this trilogy and see, not a trilogy, but a new kind of prelude.
In my previous reviews of the Dark Knight films, I talked about how they work as a kind of sociological fantasy: what happens if someone does step up and do this sort of thing? Is it practical or sustainable? The short answer to the latter question seems to be "no", but only because it's also clear being a superhero was never meant to be something someone ought to do full-time. The trilogy ends with Batman having statues erected to him, honoring the once-vilified — but also hints that there are others who are more than willing to continue what Bruce Wayne started, because his work could never really be completed anyway. Human nature being what it is, it's not like we'll ever not have a need for people to make themselves into legends ... and, I hope, people willing to become legends when the need arises.