If you fear plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, and yes there is quite a plot to spoil, begone.
As I mentioned before, I had to give the movie a second viewing before reviewing it. Nolan’s style is an assault on the senses, demanding that you see his movie twice to grasp all the details. There were so many tiny things that disturbed me the first time. But seeing it again, the movie smooths itself out in your mind. The movie creates questions and then seeing it again answers them.
I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone curbed their expectations. Everyone knew there was no way this movie would surpass The Dark Knight.
And movie goers are often burned by the third movie of a trilogy. Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Matrix: Revolutions. And whenever the third movie doesn’t feel terrible, it’s frequently because the second one was, like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Ocean’s Thirteen.
But only two movies would have felt artistically incomplete. Sometimes when I write, I can relate to that sense of… wishing a story would simply be over. A tale you thought would take only a few pages turning into dozens. And your life becomes consumed with a desire not to leave an incomplete tale behind.
It was not difficult to imagine Nolan feeling much the same.
The dramatic moments of the movie were muddled to me only at first. I don’t know whether this was from the rush or the IMAX experience, but the second time I held them in much greater appreciation. Christian Bale is on point, but the movie’s most shining moments go to Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway.
Anne Hathaway’s character was brilliantly put together on the screen. There was her manipulative side that could only be described as genius. Her body language was perfect. One look at her face and you knew what she was going to say before she said it. There was an anger here, and she became the spokeswoman for the lower class who struggled against the bourgeoisie. I will elaborate more about the importance of this later.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt also needs some acknowledgement. On a hunch, he figures out who Batman really is. Some might scuff at that, especially since much of the movie involves Blake relying almost completely on instincts over hard evidence. Foley refers to Blake as a hot head, a possibility mostly explored at the end, as the rest of the movie Blake’s anger is no more than sarcastic comments and disrespect for conventional police methodology. Levitt has a difficult time portraying anger effectively, a problem that has persisted since (500) Days of Summer. Although the film ends with a mention to the name “Robin”, I’ve a feeling that Nolan would quietly prefer the darker, more evolved “Nightwing.”
Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to play supporting roles. Not huge, but trying to fill in the Batman’s shoes while he was away. There wasn’t much time on the screen for either man to shine, although Freeman brought his usual wit and charm, while Oldman effectively portrayed the gnawing guilt. At two hours and forty five minutes, the movie is too long to expand the roles of their characters. The movie is ambitious enough as it is.
It’s Michael Caine who has the most heart-wrenching moment of the entire movie, during Alfred’s admission to Wayne about destroy Rachel’s letter. Alfred admits what he did knowing that the cost of his cathartic confession will be his friendship with Bruce. The moment is such a sharp about-face for Alfred. In Batman Begins, he was reluctant and voiced his reservations, but went along. In The Dark Knight, Alfred has begun to believe that Gotham needed Batman. But here, it was clear that Alfred had accepted Batman’s retirement, just not Wayne’s, and touches upon themes of redemption and inescapable truths.
Tom Hardy‘s twist on the Bane creates a strange mix of emotions. There is a sinister aspect to him, like a calm wrath he holds in check and unleashes with coolly delivered cruelty. And yet there is that bizarre twist of intellect and charisma that matches it.
Then there was the morbid voice. A friend described it as an “Auto-tuned version of Deckard Cain from Diablo“. I agreed. But at the same time, I imagined the difficulty of trying to understand a low, growling voice during Bane’s speeches.
Voice aside, the effort to create a memorable villain succeeded. There is a primal recognition to Bane. He needs but lay his hand upon you and speak, without even violence or threats, and you are swiftly informed just who is the alpha-male. But the key to Bane’s success is his exploitation of people’s underestimations. The CIA operative in the beginning, Daggett and Wayne all do. And at great cost to themselves.
Escalation and Revolution
I’ve read that Christopher Nolan does not intend for there to be any political inferences from his work. But you cannot create some piece of art with a backdrop like this and not expect some implications from it. Politics are inherently created when two people disagree. And the debate over class and socioeconomic differences is nothing new. Today’s political climate may wear a new face but it is the same old tune.
Bane approched certain political themes, though he did not pounce upon them. His assault on Gotham was called a revolution. And was powerful enough to stir the interest of the U.S. government. This is keeping with the first film’s suggestion of escalation: Batman Begins was handled by the Gotham City Police. The Dark Knight built on that and called in the state government, with the Department of Transportation, and elements of the National Guard (see credits).
Think about the fact that Bane’s moment of “giving the power back to the people” occurred immediately following the National Anthem. Consider that we saw the military with war planes and special ops infiltrating Gotham. As concept artist Tully Summers put it, “The Dark Knight Rises is a war film.”
Now, it stands to reason that no one goes to war, much less a civil war, unless they are very unhappy with their current predicament. Bane’s early ranks were filled by converted mercenaries from Africa, and likely some (if not all) the remaining members of the League of Shadows. These formed the start of his military. But Bane’s goal of ‘justice’ against Batman and Gotham required more. Again, the first two movies provided that theme, the concept of chaos from within: Batman Begins with a drug-laced fog that promotes violent behavior. The Dark Knight‘s Joker attempted to, with the monster-within-us-all.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane tapped into the angry, frustrated and imprisoned. The use of the bomb developed by Wayne Enterprises, after trapping the police, allowed him to keep the higher authority out. Selina Kyle, the spokeswoman for the more proletariat members of Gotham, touched upon the resentment toward the rich in her, “Live so large and leave so little for the rest of us” speech, a emotional string that Bane grasped within Gotham.
In civil war, the loyalty of the people is among the most vital things both sides fight over. Bane’s public speech before the detention center is critical to that end. A revolutionary needs people furious over the current state of affairs, before he offers them a new path. It’s not enough to declare the problem, a solution must be given as well. His speech is full of rhetorical tricks. Strong, stirring phrases like freedom and liberation, powerful words that have personal definitions to the audience.
And dramatic examples of the very corruption he calls to be torn away.
It’s here that the truth of Harvey Dent is used as a cry of outrage that weakens arguments to the contrary and humbles resistance. An inescapable truth. There is a phrase I have heard once or twice in my life. “Speak Truth to Power.” It is a disturbing statement in this context, when the protagonists lie to maintain peace and safety. And the antagonists use the truth to fuel the opposite.
This is how faith is betrayed, and nothing hurts quite like it.
Now there are those, not unlike Oscar Wilde, who desire what is best described as freedom from the burden of necessity. That a right to life should come with the requirements to sustain it. Food, shelter, medical care, education and so forth. They believe that only when the material well-being of a man is accounted for is a man truly free. Bane’s men used the bomb to jerk the Federal government into providing supplies for twelve million hostages. Besides what was stolen and looted, food was provided. Power was available in limited amounts. There was shelter available aplenty. Gotham was transformed into a large, cell-less zoo.
From what we saw, this was the system that Bane brought to Gotham. Bane would not care whatever label is applied to his system of rule, given that his real interest was the total annihilation of Gotham. But the engine of destruction remains Gotham turning upon itself. The bloody purges of the upper class. Looting, murder. The mock trials against the opposition, led by Johnathan Crane, reminded me of the Reign of Terror.
Like Bane, Miranda/Talia (Marion Cotillaird) touches upon certain political views as she wears a mask of altruism. The nuclear device she invested in, meant to provide cheap, alternative energy for the good of everyone, is employed for more ironic purposes. The device was the elephant in the movie; once mentioned, we already knew where the plot was going. Behind the lies of charity and environmental issues, her desires are quite the opposite. Vengeance.
There is something full circle about Talia’s situation. Wayne lost his parents to a mugger and tried to kill the man responsible. Instead, he goes onto save Gotham from the League of Shadows. But he refused to save the life of Ra’s Al Ghul. Again, irony plays its hand. In trying to save lives, Batman created a dark mirror of himself in Talia, who blamed Wayne for her father’s death. The younger Bruce mocked justice and sought revenge at first before turning. Bane and Talia used justice to mask their own vengeful desires.
And retribution against Wayne is through. He loses everything from his fortune, Alfred, his company, his spine and his sense of invulnerability. He loses his freedom when he is cast in the Pit. And little by little, his city is burned, stabbed, shot and murdered. Although Bane had no direct hand in Alfred’s departure, the rest of his work to strip Wayne was quite complete.
Imagine if Alfred had elected to stay instead. Imagine if Bane had gotten his hands on Alfred.
One must applaud Talia’s patience as the movie’s turncoat. Even when she has all the advantages, when Wayne is taken to the Pit and Gotham is subjugated, she does not reveal herself. Not until the very end. I suspect the intended plan was that Bane and Talia would leave Gotham just before the explosion and visit Wayne in the Pit. His escape complicated that.
Compared to Talia, Selina Kyle’s rancor is less focused. Her anger is not directed at any one person, but is generally spread amongst the rich. Hating an idea spreads that rage against all examples of it, but to hate an individual gives one a target to strike against. But this kind of hatred is almost always built on stereotypes. At first, Kyle saw only the eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne. But when the truth was revealed that he is Batman, something in her stirs.
This proves merely the start of Kyle’s reconsideration. The ‘storm’ she had hoped for proves to be a rain of blood. Nolan spared a few scenes involving Kyle’s examination of people’s ruined homes to reveal the brewing cognitive dissonance within her. The classic warning “be careful what you wish for” wrecks an awakening on Kyle that starts to crack her beliefs.
Which leads us to the climax…
Redemption and Salvation
There were three, perhaps four moments of redemption in the film.
The first was Bane’s. The truth of his origin remains somewhat murky: He claims that he was born in the darkness, and called the Pit his home. But he also felt that protecting Talia was a mean to redeem the prisoners, suggesting he too committed some crime. The possibility of Bane being born in the Pit is an interesting one, hinting that Bane’s protection was borne of empathy for Talia’s similar history.
Selina Kyle’s desires were easier to relate. Again, we cannot tell whether she was lying or not about her past, as many of Nolan’s characters suffer from unreliable narration. But her actions obviously insinuate a desire to start afresh, as though a few mistakes early in her life led her down a path of crime. I know from personal experience that a criminal history can require an explanation on every job application, can become a rough interview question that must be tackled. Once started down that path, there’s no getting off of it. After years, perhaps decades of that, who wouldn’t want to be free of it?
Kyle’s moment before the tunnel was obviously the turn point for her character. There had been a satisfying construction of her reason for reconsidering that her change of mind was reasonable. After seeing everything that happened to Gotham, perhaps inspired by Wayne. I think anyone would be challenged to reconsider the power at their disposal and ask what they could do to stop evil.
“Anyone can be a hero,” was the phrase Wayne used. Foley embraced it, cowering at first before finding the steel to put back on his uniform. The freed cops could have left Gotham. But they didn’t, choosing to fight instead. Maybe Kyle figured the same.
And finally, there was Bruce’s redemption.
“Why do we fall?”
Each of the Dark Knight movies focused on moments of powerful loss from which Wayne rises again like a phoenix. The loss of Wayne Manor and Rachel’s death. This film was no different. He simply fell harder and rose higher than ever before. The difference between “Why do we fall?” and “Never give up” is that the former acknowledges that failures of some kind are inevitable. Wayne’s redemption from the pit and salvation of Gotham come from staying true to that simple if painful lesson.
The End of a Golden Age
As I finished this review, I cannot help but feel that Nolan’s retirement from the Dark Knight trilogy is the end of a golden age of movie making. Although there has been some talk about Nolan doing a movie about Howard Hughes and James Bond, he’s slipped into producing Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
It feels like this is as good as it gets for a long while. That maybe there’s nothing that is going to excite me quite like this for decades. That will deliver on so many levels of story telling. Sure, there currently are and will be more movies that interest me.
But there will be nothing like this for ages to come.