Review: The Dark Knight Rises, 2012, dir. Christopher Nolan

There’s no good starting place for discussion of The Dark Knight Rises. In addition to its individual girth– the film clocks in at a nice, round two hours and forty five minutes– TDKR represents Christopher Nolan’s final contribution to the Dark Knight’s rebooted franchise. Does the film stand as an acceptable farewell letter to both the bat and the man? The results are disappointingly mixed. Nolan has bid farewell to the caped crusader with a bloated, top-heavy, structurally unsound film, but one that delivers in the action department and offers some of the best performances from its regular cast to date. For summer popcorn fare you could do much worse, but this is Christopher Nolan; we’ve seen him yield far better results playing in this exact same sandbox.

Of course, the sandbox is much more crowded this time around, and on top of that things have gotten pretty dull around Gotham City  The Dark Knight‘s wake. Eight years have passed since the events of that film; in the interim, Batman and Bruce Wayne have both gone into hiding by pure coincidence, while the city government has passed the Dent Act, a nebulously defined piece of legislation responsible for depopulating Gotham’s streets of organized crime. Bruce always envisioned a world in which the Batman wouldn’t be necessary, and Nolan makes his wish a reality before super villainous storm clouds roll in and force the world’s greatest detective out of retirement.

Reaching not especially deep into the wonderful rogues’ gallery Batman enjoys on the page, our antagonist du film is Bane. We’ve actually seen this character before– Joel Schumacher employed him as a tertiary antagonist in 1997’s tragically awful Batman & Robin— but here the musclebound criminal is both filtered through Nolans’ lens and embodied by Tom Hardy. Like Heath Ledger’s anarchic Joker, Bane is a terrorist, but his ideology actually has direction and reason. Rises isn’t about chaos; it’s about inciting revolution. Most of us still remember 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement, and while the youth protests and sit-ins of that phenomenon little resemble Bane’s brutal, cunning, unforgiving tactics, they’re both interested in the same thing: class inequality.

There’s a degree of folly in trying to pin down a comic book movie as a work of its time, particularly with political themes. Frequently, they work better when used to examine broader topics of heroism and humanity. But no rule exists forbidding the mixture  of deep-rooted and contemporary social issues into pulp-based mixtures superheroic stew. Taken at face value, The Dark Knight Rises stands out as a well-made bit of popcorn entertainment, a grandiose, operatic action film that should satisfy most audiences despite being somewhat overlong; going beneath the surface, the film is a product of its day and acts as a discourse on social revolution, a mash-up of big, weighty ideas and exceptional action sequences. In other words, it’s boilerplate Christopher Nolan.

But not all is well in Gotham this go-round. If Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have their share of flaws– and they do– The Dark Knight Rises easily stands out as the messiest movie of the bunch. Rises feels cacophonous, loud and brazen and brimming with ideas but utterly lacking the careful craftsmanship Nolan typically brings to his cinema so as to mesh each element of his pictures together. What’s most baffling about Nolan’s failure to sufficiently bind together Rises‘ thematic and dramatic drives is that all of the material needed to do so in the film exists; the failure lies entirely in his hands. The film ends up being disharmonious thanks to Nolan’s directorial proclivities.

Maybe that’s the downside of being one of today’s most cerebral filmmakers. Nolan tends to put his concepts before his plot, and tends to treat his stories as puzzles before narratives. A good brain-teaser can be loads of fun, but the problem Nolan runs into here is that he doesn’t have a good brain-teaser to throw at us. In fact, he cheats with the riddles he tells in Rises; the solutions undermine them, and therefore undermine the story that he’s telling. It’s one thing to lie to characters in your film, and another to lie to your audience. Nolan does both remorselessly, and that wouldn’t be so bad if his laziness didn’t also render the political overtones of Rises completely meaningless. In making a Batman film that plays more to the character’s comic book roots, Nolan has abandoned the intellectual flourishes that define the rest of his work– it’s big, dumb filmmaking from a much, much smarter filmmaker.

To the credit of Rises, not everything is so sloppily handled. In between the film’s baffling, repetitious structure and its hollow political sentiments, there lies some of the best acting in the series to date. Bale, more in command of both Batman and Bruce Wayne than he’s ever been, bounces off of a massive supporting cast, ranging from Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar, Selina Kyle (a foil of sorts to Wayne, though she faces her own ennui with sardonic delight and endless one-liners), to Michael Cain’s loyal, loving Alfred, to Hardy’s monstrous heavy, and more. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a triumphant introduction as an idealistic young buck on the police force whose optimism is tested against the harsh reality of enforcing law in Gotham, courtesy of Gary Oldman’s scarred and nearly obsolete Commissioner Gordon.

The big problem is that these actors all perform in the service of something muddled, but it’s impossible to deny their excellence. The Dark Knight Rises has a great film woven into its bones, and among its character portraits and exciting action set pieces there are numerous clear glimpses of what Nolan’s send-off to the franchise could have been. But Nolan loses control of his picture much too quickly and can’t reestablish his dominance here; Rises runs amok, and while the results may be entertaining, they’re slapdash and boorish. The subtext here is strong, but the connective tissue needed to make it matter proves weak.

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24 thoughts on “Review: The Dark Knight Rises, 2012, dir. Christopher Nolan

  1. I respectfully disagree that the film is messy. I’ve seen it twice and am marveled (no pun intended) at Nolan’s complex structure and making all the elements work so well. No, it’s not perfect, but it aspires to be a huge cinematic mosaic dealing with ideas that often don’t have easy answers. Is it as good as either “Batman Begins” or “The Dark Knight”? I’m not sure that matters because this is a piece of an overall story that the trilogy tells, and wraps it up wonderfully. I was completely engaged in the story throughout and emotionally moved at the end. A “disappointing” Christopher Nolan film is still heads and shoulders above most (dare I say “99%”?) movies that Hollywood churns out.

    • Yeah, it aspires to be a huge cinematic mosaic, but that’s my problem– it doesn’t get there despite its intentions. Rises wants to tell the story of Batman’s fall and figurative resurrection, and it does so in the most oddly roundabout ways possible; there’s a break in continuity from the last film that puts Rises on the back foot right away, and I wonder if some rewrites on the script level could have saved the film from playing like a broken record. (Apart from the way the film structurally loops back on itself, it feels like a mild rehash of the events of Begins.)

      Is this better than most Hollywood stock blockbusters? Sure, but it’s not as good as it should have been. There are very few directors in the world whose worst works engage me more than the best works of their contemporaries, and while Nolan is certainly a director I hold in high esteem, his failed movies don’t have that sort of allure for me.

        • Unless you consider Following and Insomnia to be good movies. The former is just kind of loose and stunted, while the latter is flat-out uninspired and thoughtless in comparison to the superior original.

          I also don’t think Begins is all that awesome, either, but only once you get into the climax.

          Next to the you have the Mementos, the Prestiges, and the Inceptions and Dark Knights. Which all justify his career, but don’t necessarily wash over the weak spots in his work.

          • “Following” was his first film and was done extremely low budget. Given the restrictions, I thought it was an interesting character study. Was it a great film? No. But neither was it a failure. Also, I thought “Insomnia” was excellent. I haven’t seen the original, though I’d like to, and on the making-of documentary, Nolan and the screenwriter discuss how they approached the story differently than the original. Again, I can’t compare the tow, but regardless I found it very compelling and I appreciated his craftsmanship in making the film.

            • First– I have no idea why, but my spam filter keeps on picking up your posts. Really weird. I’m trying to figure it out, because I hate having to pick legit comments out of there.

              Following being interesting doesn’t preclude it being a failed effort, for me, and while I acknowledge that it’s a low-budget debut, its issues aren’t budgetary. Maybe Following is just Nolan starting out as a filmmaker, but that doesn’t ease the issues I have with its narrative.

              I just don’t see any value in what Nolan brings to Insomnia, apart from his craftsmanship, which I can’t really attack. Technical expertise doesn’t cover up poor storytelling, though, and while the films are fairly close, I think Nolan misses the entire point of the exercise in the climax.

  2. I got your back here Andy.

    “Rises runs amok, and while the results may be entertaining, they’re slapdash and boorish” is spot on.

    The movie is way too long, with way too many supporting characters and subplots, and way too much time between action scenes. I have terrible problems with Bane, I find him almost comical.

    But you’re right, the acting here was good. I dont blame the cast at all…

    Good review! Glad to finally see it hit! I went looking for it that weekend and was disappointed it wasn’t up. I look forward to your take on things

    • Thanks Fogs– sorry to have let you down on release weekend! Full disclosure: I saw this almost two weeks ago while I was out of state on business. The week this came out, I was in Vermont on vacation, and therefore unable to attend the two press screenings I had invitations to. It just took me time.

      In the end, I tend to see all movies of this sort for closure and so that I can be part of the conversation. As a critic, it’s tough not having an opinion on releases that own so much real estate in the public consciousness. Not that I don’t like blockbusters, but they’re not often movies that I fall head over heels in love with– outside of the very best ones, of course.

      Bane works for me physically, and if we were “in” on his deceit much, much earlier in the film, he would work for me as a false ideologue. I think that latter bit is Nolan’s fault, and I suppose that so too is Bane’s voice, which is horrible. Sorry, I don’t care if anyone wants to argue for the theatricality of his speech, it just sounds bad. I’ve given Bale some crap in the past for adopting Bat-voice when in-costume, but it works in the context of the film. Bane’s voice doesn’t. At all.

      Length isn’t so much a problem for me overall, but I don’t think a lot of that time is used well. And I don’t think the emotionally resonant things tie together well.

      • I agree, especially on Bane.

        On the space in the public consciouness thing – this one was SO much of the conversation that I actually got sick of it. LOL. I literally had TDKR burnout for awhile there. 😀

        • Yeah, really. After a point it just gets exhausting talking about, but at the same time you really NEED to be able to talk about it. It’s a double-edged sword.

  3. Great post. It’s nice to see a different perspective on the film, one that so many people seem to share. I adored TDKR but worry I’d feel the same as you if I watched it a couple more times and really examined the content. Hopefully this won’t be the case though 🙂

    • Well, I hope not, because I don’t want to be even a little responsible for ruining anyone’s enjoyment of this film. But I obviously had a very strong negative reaction to it, even if it’s a decent enough movie. It really should have been more.

    • I’m still waiting to read a convincing argument defending the craftsmanship and thematic elements here. Nolan plays it all far too loose for my liking.

  4. I was particularly surprised by Anne Hathaway. Appearing so early in the film, and actually blowing me away with her mixture of sexy seduction and Olympic level acrobatics – or are they one and the same – I was immediately engrossed.

    I loved the film. Any plot inconsistencies passed me by because of Nolan’s ability to manipulate plot mechanics to drive the narrative. That said, some of the dialogue was clunky and it was painful seeing Cotillard trying to make some of her lines appear authentic. But I thought this was another well oiled machine from the “Nolan Factory of Excellence”. A great way to end a great trilogy.

    • That’s my entire problem with the film, though– Nolan isn’t telling a story, he’s manipulating plot mechanics, and he’s doing so in an attempt to override the film’s numerous inconsistencies. If this movie had come from someone else, I might have liked it more, but Nolan is capable of so much better.

      Apart from that, I do agree about Hathaway. She’s great. I wouldn’t mind her getting her own spin-off of this, but given how the film ends I find that unlikely (and I don’t think an origin story in Gotham would make sense based on continuity).

      • I absolutely take your point Andrew and I think, somewhat like my feelings towards Prometheus, there is baggage to these films (and the film-makers) that ultimately lead to expectations that, when not met, limit a film’s ability to appeal. With The Dark Knight Rises I wanted a strong antagonist battling a damaged “hero”, fighting his own inner war against an interesting backdrop (Gotham City in a state of relative peace, resentful of Batman’s exploits, not celebrating them).

        I think that relates with your statement: “Taken at face value, The Dark Knight Rises stands out as a well-made bit of popcorn entertainment, a grandiose, operatic action film that should satisfy most audiences despite being somewhat overlong…” Perhaps I wasn’t willing to look too deeply into the cracks… though I’m not denying that there are some. That and the fact I saw the film at the IMAX might have had something to do with me being overawed by it all!

  5. TDKR is messy the first time you see, but then again, what Chris Nolan film isn’t? It was simply that nothing was clear at first. After seeing it a few more times, I have to say that everything makes perfect sense. And, now that it makes sense and I understand, I can say that The Dark Knight Trilogy makes it on the list of my favorites, as well as the greatest of all time.

    • I don’t for a second believe that TDKR is the sort of film that benefits from repeat viewings. There Will Be Blood benefits from repeat viewings. 8 & 1/2 benefits from repeat viewings. Oldboy benefits from repeat viewings. Nolan isn’t doing anything tricky or slippery with TDKR whatsoever, so I’m not sure what I’d be getting out of a repeat viewing except for further validation of my belief that the movie is made with mediocre craftsmanship.

      He’s capable of better. Also– Nolan movies that aren’t messy? The Prestige. Memento. Inception. The Dark Knight. Even Following isn’t messy. It’s just boring. The guy is a great craftsman, but this film isn’t an example of one of his best. As to it being one of the best trilogies of all time, I’ll strongly, strongly disagree with that, if only because it’s a bit premature to pull the trigger on that. Apart from that, going back twenty to forty years in cinema history yields a wealth of trilogies that are head-and-shoulders above Nolan’s Batman trilogy; I’m willing to call it one of the best modern trilogies, sure, but “all time” is a huge leap.

        • Discussion is the lifeblood of any blog. To not reply to viewers of your own blog is to say you don’t care that they’re taking time to leave you a comment. In other words, it’s generally a bad idea to never reply to your viewers. You want to make sure they feel welcome and come back to comment more. If nothing else, I respond because I like talking about and debating the better merits of movies, and this isn’t about me not being able to take a hit because you’re not saying anything about my review, but rather about the film. And I’m more than happy to contest and discuss and mull over opinions that are contrary to my own. That’s part of being a critic, I think.

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