By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
A great burden has fallen to Nolan’s Batman films. In a genre dominated by successful affirmative super hero films like ‘The Avengers,’ they remain the only deconstructive superhero films to still be successful with audiences. And this is no easy task—because it is fundamentally harder for audiences to like a film that challenges their faith rather than rewards them for it. Other attempts at superhero deconstruction, like 2009’s ‘Watchmen,’ failed miserably. The secret to both ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, I think, was that they sat precariously, but perfectly, on the edge of a knife between philosophy and entertainment—too much generic action and they would have become a confusing mess; too much overt philosophy and it would have become pedantic and muffled. It’s a miracle that both previous films stayed so balanced, but in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ the series has wobbled.
Let me be clear here: This is by no means an awful film. I don’t think it’s possible for Nolan to make such a thing. He fills ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with many great elements: a great villain, relevant social themes, clear and concise action. It’s all there: it just doesn’t mesh the way it should. Like the child who puts too much sugar in a recipe because he thinks it will be sweeter, Nolan fails in this film to remember that balance and proportion means as much as the ingredients itself.
Nolan’s Batman films, as a whole, intelligently ask the question: Is Batman a good thing? ‘Batman Begins’ consists of Bruce Wayne’s initial decision to become Batman. ‘The Dark Knight’ deals with the consequences of that decision. Now it’s up to the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to answer whether or not Batman is still “worth it.” This is the conflict of this film; it should drive it. We see it with Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, with a young cop, with Commissioner Gordon, and with many other characters. Everyone, it seems, except Bruce Wayne.
The film begins with a robbery at Wayne Manner that rather suddenly sends Bruce Wayne, a recluse who hasn’t put on the batsuit for eight years, back into Batman mode. There’s very little sense that Bruce Wayne is at all conflicted about this decision, even as Alfred begs him not to. Perhaps this is motivated in part by a young cop, Blake, who inexplicably knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman–because of a gut feeling–and tells Wayne to be Batman again. Afterwards, there’s no real doubt in Wayne’s mind that he should be Batman, and so the fundamental question of the entire series is answered very early on.
Two things come to mind after watching this section of the film. First, how is it that this cop is the only person that could figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman? In the past Nolan found clever ways to get around this issue, but here it just seems like lazy writing. Second, and more importantly, this film’s decision to answer the key question of the entire franchise so early feels like a mistake. Yes, most of us were probably expecting Bruce Wayne to conclude that Batman is necessary to inspire people, to remind them that the only true defense against either anarchy (as represented by the Joker in the last film) or tyranny (as represented by Bane in this one) lies in an individual’s choice to do good. But this should have been a grand climax to this film. It is not so here. The events of this first half hour of the film could compromise the entire plot, but instead we are given the shorthand version. And it seems so strange—Nolan had all the ingredients there, he just forgot about balance and proportion.
Despite this error in the first half hour, the next two hours of the film, which consist of Batman battling the villain Bane, still play out well despite now being devoid of the series’ main question. Nolan gives us a lot of good action and some great character moments. Though Bruce Wayne is no longer struggling with the idea of Batman’s existence, he still learns a few important lessons. Catwoman, as portrayed surprisingly well by Anne Hathaway, is a lot of fun. In particular, Nolan does a brilliant job with Bane, whom he creates to be an anti-Batman, someone with all the training and resources of Batman (who also wears a mask) who uses his abilities for the complete opposite goal. This dichotomy really works well, and on the strength of this section I was willing to forgive the film for its earlier blunder. Though he miscalculated earlier, Nolan remembers balance very well here.
And then in the last fifteen minutes of the film, things go down hill once again. It begins with a plot twist that derails Bane as the main villain, revealing that he was working for “someone else” all along. And this “someone else” (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for those who still haven’t seen the film) is then killed five minutes later, so that there isn’t really enough time to develop this twist. It feels cheap and tawdry, and it is something that Nolan should have known better than to do. A twist is fine, you just need enough time to make it mean something, and it doesn’t do so here. I really loved Bane as a villain, and to mark him down to “Number 2” so close to the end just doesn’t work. And the ending itself is a little confusing–still more plot twists manifest as Nolan tries to manipulate the audience from somberness to joy in a matter of seconds. It’s a little too much, even for Nolan, and so this part falls a little flat. Not a lot, but a little. And a little is all it takes sometimes. As in the beginning, Nolan makes the mistake of mismanaging elements. All the ingredients are there, he just didn’t have a sense of proportion and balance.
In that sense ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ultimately a disappointment. The series, which for two films had sat precariously on the edge of the knife, finally loses balance and slips off, and so this film falls short of being truly groundbreaking. But, to take some of my own advice, let’s keep things in proportion. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is still good, it is still entertaining, and there are still ideas and themes in it that are worth examining by writers much more capable than I; and so while it is not what it should be, it is good for what it is, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the legacy of the earlier films, nor Nolan as an auteur. This is still the definitive Batman saga, and it will be a long time before anybody tops it.
In one more bit of reflection, let’s look over this summer as a whole in regards to the superhero genre. Right before the ‘Avengers’ came out in May, I recalled thinking that this summer, with the ultimate affirmation (‘The Avengers’), what I thought would be the ultimate deconstruction (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), and a reboot of Spider-Man (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’) would be legendary and represent the height of this genre. And financially, at least, it was, as all three films did very well, which shows that the public still has a lot of faith in super heroes. But because of my disappointment with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (which was edited out of greatness) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (which was mismanaged), I can’t say, with full conviction, that this was the best summer for superheroes ever. Still, as Heimdall said in ‘Thor’, there is always hope; and with the continued success of superhero films, I still find myself excited for what the likes of Marvel and DC have in store for us in the years to come.