Call me old-fashioned, but I like my Batman movies to have Batman in them. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has always had a peculiar relationship with the Dark Knight. His approach was to set the character in a “realistic” world, or at least a world as real as one can get with a man in a rubber suit fighting crime. Despite a seriously flawed third act, Batman Begins brought an interesting new take on the character by introducing an exploration of fear with regards to how it molded Bruce Wayne’s personality and became a weapon he used against his enemies. However, The Dark Knight started to shift away from Batman, and instead placed the emphasis on the supporting cast, namely The Joker, Harvey Dent, and James Gordon. The template felt bigger, the stakes were higher, and the canvas was grander, and yet Batman felt like he was competing to be a lead character in his own movie. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has closed out his Batman trilogy with an intense, epic, grand conclusion filled with terrific performances, exhilarating action, thoughtful ideas, and almost no room for the caped crusader.
It’s been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight. The legend of Harvey Dent and the passage of the Dent Act have allowed Gotham to crack down on organized crime and bring peace to the city. The cost has been a moral weight on the shoulders of Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) and Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Batman hasn’t come out of hiding, and Wayne has become a recluse with a gimpy leg. Wayne and Gordon seem resigned to sadly live out their days, but Batman is forced to come out of retirement when the intimidating masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) comes to wreak havoc in Gotham.
That’s the baseline of the story, but there are a lot of other moving parts. There’s the cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who’s working to get Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints as part of Bane’s nefarious scheme; there’s the idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who doesn’t buy the lie that Batman killed Harvey Dent; and there’s Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a powerful businesswoman who wants to help the floundering Wayne Enterprises finish construction on a fission reactor, which could be used to bring clean energy to the city.
It’s a big game with a lot of players, and Batman doesn’t get any special treatment. It’s ostensibly his story, but the scope of the picture makes him feel like a very small piece of the puzzle. This smallness occasionally works to the picture’s advantage. We get to see the Dark Knight as Bane sees not only Batman but the whole world: tiny. Bane doesn’t hate Batman. He just sees him as an amusing fly in the ointment who deserves a little special punishment, but not as a serious foe capable of stopping the master plan. The powerlessness of Batman also adds to the enormity of Bane’s threat. If Batman can’t save the day, then who can?
And this question is where The Dark Knight Rises begins to show Nolan’s true feelings about Batman and how those feelings conflict with creating the culmination of the character’s journey. The series has always put Batman up as a symbol for Gotham. The hero’s journey is about Bruce Wayne coming to grips with death. Batman is simply the end-result; he can’t grow or develop. The problem with having Batman serve only as a symbol is that it pushes the focus on to those who perceive the symbol. Therefore, the story isn’t about the culmination of Batman’s journey, but the culmination of how outsiders view Batman.
Specifically, The Dark Knight Rises shows how John Blake views Batman. Because of the strange dynamic Nolan has created, Blake feels like more of a hero than Batman. While Bruce Wayne is figuring out how to get off his crutch and learn how to be Batman again, Blake is the guy who’s actively involved in working the case. He’s an forceful character played by a great actor, and it’s not until we’re about halfway through that it seems like the movie should be called John Blake Begins. Nolan wants to push forward a ridiculously populist notion that anyone could be Batman. It’s a gooey sentiment that people like Gordon and Blake can make a difference just by fighting crime.
But they can’t be Batman. The first two movies made sure we knew Batman wasn’t an everyman. He’s not Peter Parker. Bruce Wayne has, for all intents and purposes, infinite wealth. He’s had years and years of fierce mental and physical training. Batman Begins shows how hard Bruce Wayne had to work to become Batman. In The Dark Knight, Batman says he has more of a right to be a vigilante than a couple of regular guys because, “I’m not wearing hockey pads!” Now in The Dark Knight Rises, crime fighting is for everybody. Nolan wants to take the symbol of Batman as someone trying to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, and change it into a symbol of hope. The Dark Knight Rises wants us to love the idea of Batman—fighting crime for the good of the city—and forget the specifics of Batman.
The film goes about doing this by trying to strip Bruce Wayne down to nothing. It’s an admirable approach, but it takes far too long to get Bruce Wayne on his journey. The movie kicks off with a bravura set piece (and all of the action scenes are mind-blowing in IMAX), and there’s enough propulsive energy to keep the story moving, but the film goes through a remarkably clunky first act as we build up to the first showdown between Bane and Bats. Thankfully, there’s Hathaway providing the lifeblood to the film, and she’s an absolute joy. Her Catwoman is everything fans could want from the character: sexy, seductive, sardonic, sly, and dangerous.
Sadly, her presence is deeply diminished as the film enters its overwhelming second act where Bane’s big plan comes to fruition, and it’s at this point where The Dark Knight Rises forgets about “The Dark Knight” part of the title so it can go all-in on the socio-political dynamic Nolan seeks to explore. The film appears to suggest that the poor are coming to kill us all. Bane’s army of mercenaries is able to hide in plain sight by dressing up as janitors, maintenance men, construction workers, etc. They’re invisible to society, and now they’re rigging bombs everywhere so that the middle- and upper-class will no longer be safe and secure. This would be the cue for some serious social upheaval and seeing how Gotham society crumbles when Bane makes a play at anarchy.
Maybe we would finally see the rotted city that had been talked about in the first two movies but never seen. Nolan has always told us what Gotham is like. In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul says that Gotham needs to be cleansed in order to restore balance. In The Dark Knight, the Joker, Batman, and Gordon all believe that if the citizens of Gotham learned the truth about Dent’s murders, they would lose hope and tear the city apart. The Dark Knight Rises follows the same belief: Gotham is a hellhole that’s primed to explode, and Batman is the only bulwark against a madman who’s willing to tip the city over the edge. Except we’re never shown this Gotham in any of the movies. We’re shown glimpses of the Narrows in Batman Begins, and there’s a brief scene of social chaos in The Dark Knight Rises, but Gotham never feels like an awful place. It just feels like any major city.
And it’s a city with not much room for citizens. Rather than show a citizen uprising and truly follow through on his notion of social anarchy, Nolan simply sets up his war with two camps: Bane’s army vs. the cops. The cops are billed as the ordinary citizens, but they’re not. They have authority, they have weapons, and they’re the legal protectors of Gotham. John Blake is the common man in that he is not Batman, but that doesn’t make him an everyman. The Dark Knight Rises hints at serious social revolution, but ultimately falls in line with painting Gotham City as an abstract rather than tangibly showing us a complicated picture.
Nolan’s talent is making us feel that the film is complex, and that we’re looking at a vast, grandiose vision of a superhero’s triumph over evil. There is not a second in The Dark Knight Rises where I felt bored. I was captivated, confused, scared, energized, disturbed, uplifted, annoyed, amused, and disappointed at various points throughout the picture, but I was never bored. I can’t overstate how important IMAX was to the experience, and I worry that the picture suffers without it. For a movie where the villain is a physically imposing monster devising a plan to bring down an entire city, the IMAX format feels essential.
But more than any canvas, film format, villain, or social subtext, Batman is what should truly be essential. Much like it pretends at a depicting a complicated Gotham City, The Dark Knight Rises pretends that this is the culmination of a hero’s journey. Except how important can this journey be if it’s being pushed aside for Bane’s rousing speeches, widespread destruction, and rise of the common policeman against the common mercenary? Nolan admirably tries to bring the element of fear back into Bruce Wayne’s journey, but there’s no weight to the element because it’s divorced from every other aspect of the story. Fear is not a theme, but a character trait, and one that was only brought up in the first movie. There’s not enough time to truly let the subtext grow because there’s not enough time for Batman to grow.
By wasting time on introducing too many characters and their complicated plans, The Dark Knight Rises has to rush its way through a shockingly weak finish where Nolan indulges on fan-service, half-hearted payoffs, and an attempt to find a heart that the movie never really had (there’s a lot about the ending that bugs me, but I won’t go into spoilers). There are some teary monologues from Alfred (Michael Caine) in the first act, but there aren’t a lot of strong emotional moments. Without Batman, without a hero, there’s no soul to the picture. The Dark Knight Rises uses Batman as a way to get to a big villain, a big war, a big statement on class conflict, and a big damn spectacle. Batman is a means to an end, which means he’s not a hero or a legend. He’s just a function.