Director Christopher Nolan had to go bigger. But did he really? After the transcendent triumph of the 2008 “Dark Knight” it would be too much to ask for an even better film. And, sadly, while “The Dark Knight Rises” is an entertaining summer blockbuster, it isn’t what we all hoped for. Nolan and company end his Batman trilogy with a movie that will satisfy the hoards that rewarded “The Avengers” and frustrate diehard fans of the dark and deathly serious take that elevated the superhero genre to award worthy levels.
Set years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce Wayne has retreated to the rebuilt Wayne Manor where he has pulled into a Howard Hughes shell. But for some reason social events are still staged at his stately home while he pines away in an ante-chamber. When a shapely cat-burglar (Anne Hathaway) poses as the help and makes off with his mother’s pearls, Wayne is inspired to venture out and investigate this femme fatale. Meanwhile Gotham has all but eliminated organized crime in the city through the dictatorial methods permitted under a law passed in honor of Harvey Dent. Apparently, Dent’s brief tenure as Two-Face at the end of the last film resulted in his untimely death (was there any doubt). The secret of Dent’s fall from grace is concealed by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) who promulgates the Dent hero myth, which perpetuates the installation and implementation of the Dent law. The law keeps organized crime figures behind bars for long periods of time without parole.
Enter Bane (Tom Hardy) who decides to turn Gotham on its ear and release the prisoners to teach everyone the lesson that Ra’s Al Ghul promised in the first film. It’s all very dense and complicated and frankly a little too complicated as a myriad of characters float within a huge narrative meant to top the epic crime story that marked the last film’s epic success. And to be completely straight with you readers, it just doesn’t all add up. “The Dark Knight Rises” is not the sum of its parts and its sum is in more negative territory than in the black.
From the beginning, the villain, Bane, is not the terrifying monster that Heath Ledger created in the Joker. Given the significant prosthetics and the ridiculous mask or breathing apparatus that adorns the character, it is impossible for Hardy to convey any sort of range emotionally. And while the mask is an essential ingredient in playing Bane, it should have been re-thought by the writing team from the outset. The Batman mythology contains so many wonderful villains, why saddle an actor with talent like Hardy’s with the unforgivable task of making the mask work? And it is the mask itself that exposes one of the film’s central weaknesses–it’s where you should punch the guy really hard.
But the whole movie is meant as a metaphor and plays out like a social and political theater experiment. As the city is Gotham is taken hostage by Bane, mobs of people attack the rich and reduce the city to some kind of third world war-zone. It is a swift and cliche ridden transformation. Lost on no one is the obvious connection to the present economic downturn and the Occupy movement. Whether Nolan and his team intend this or not in creating an Occupy-like utopia, their narrative points up that what such groups are really after isn’t anarchy but the rise of a strongman. And a dictator has to be benevolent or all hope goes out the window. But sacrificed in setting everything up is the gritty credibility that made the last film so effective. It’s like every character in the film has forgotten any lesson learned from military history.
In one scene, a battle erupts on the streets of Gotham, and I kid you not, police officers stand armed with handguns facing down tanks and machine gun toting mercenaries. The ensuing carnage had me shaking my head. What are we going to see next the return of the calvary? It is almost too much to accept. If we learned anything from the North Vietnamese, for example, it was that guerrilla tactics work most of the time. Only if you can ignore the over-the-top stupidity and, yes, lyrical nature of these action set-pieces where characters race blindly into battle befitting some kind of Revolutionary War strategy, you might really enjoy “The Dark Knight Rises.” The bottom line is you have to drink the Batman Kool-Aid and just give in to its shortcomings.
But is all necessary? Well, yes, for a multitude of reasons most of which end at the studio feeding trough. Forget whether another sequel should have been made, because given the enormous critical and box office success of the last one, another Dark Knight had to rise. But the decision here to go bigger in every possible way is “Rise’s” undoing. And Batman gets really corny in the process. This film is ripe to be parodied without often even changing a single line of dialogue. But regardless, none of that even matters, it is a superhero movie, after all, and will be enjoyed by that wide audience. The shame is that the promise of the last film was that a superhero film could rise above its expectations and “Dark Knight” rises but not to the top.