Why does Christopher Nolan labor under the delusion that the Batman character should transcend his comic book image, and that the comic book movie needs to be redefined? Does he not realize that, in taking this approach, he has robbed audiences of that which makes them so entertaining? Twice before, and now with The Dark Knight Rises, he has dragged an innately escapist concept kicking and screaming from the shadowy world of make-believe into the blinding light of reality, brutally forcing it to adjust to its new settings. The harsh, cold, brooding, allegorical Gotham City he has created is so lifelike in temperament and appearance that it’s impossible for me to accept the idea of a man dressed in a bat suit fighting crime with high tech gadgets and gizmos. That requires a certain degree of fantasy in order for it to work.
What disappoints me is that I seem to be the only one that feels this way. I never fully embraced the critically and commercially successful Batman Begins, and my praise for The Dark Knight, arguably one of the best reviewed films since Citizen Kane, was lukewarm at best. What most audiences and critics accept as narrative genius, I dismiss as weaknesses in plot, structure, character, and tone. It’s easy to appreciate the film for its individual components, including the performances, the action, the special effects, and the subtexts. But when put together, it comes off as an awkward societal melodrama, the gap between cartoon silliness and high drama never quite being bridged. It’s at heart a comic book, and yet Nolan treats it like a deadly serious tragedy and expects the audience to recognize it as such.
It doesn’t help that the plot is needlessly convoluted and that we somehow have to keep track of a slew of new characters, many of whom seem important and yet are featured in precious few scenes. It takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, at which point Bruce Wayne/Batman took the fall for district attorney Harvey Dent/Two Face, preserving the latter’s reputation. Police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows the truth and feels guilty about it, and yet he also knows that, through a law known as the Dent Act, organized crime in Gotham City has been virtually eliminated. Meanwhile, a disillusioned Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse within Wayne Manor and is now unaware that his company is struggling financially. He’s finally lured out of isolation when a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) successfully infiltrates his private safe and steals a pearl necklace that belonged to his mother.
She also steals his fingerprints off the safe and attempts to sell them to a member of an anarchist terrorist cell run by a mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking brute whose mask mechanically amplifies his voice, making him sound like a cross between Sean Connery and Darth Vader. His goal is simple: To take control of Gotham City. His methods, however, are quite complicated and rather brutal. In what comes off as one fell swoop, he destroys all bridges leading into the island of Gotham (a.k.a. Manhattan, a change from Chicago), traps the entire police force underground, assassinates several high-ranking officials, steals from Wayne’s armory, frees all inmates imprisoned under the Dent Act, and finally hijacks a reactor, which was initially developed by Wayne as part of a clean energy project but was abandoned when it was discovered it could be transformed into a nuclear weapon.
Wayne, as the newly emerged Batman, forms a shaky alliance with Selina, formerly Bane’s associate. She wants her police records wiped clean and the chance to start life over again. As this is being established, we meet several other characters, including: John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a newly promoted detective who deduces Wayne’s alter ego and wants Batman’s name cleared; Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist and the new board of directors at Wayne Enterprises; Peter Foley (Matthew Modine), a deputy commissioner convinced of Batman’s guilt; and Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), Selina’s friend and accomplice. Of course, we also are reunited with most of the original supporting cast, including Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane, the latter now judge and jury in a makeshift courtroom formed after Gotham descended into social chaos.
When Wayne injures himself, he winds up in the same prison where Bane spent the majority of his life. While there, Wayne learns his mentor-turned-enemy, Ra’s al Ghul, had a child, who remains to this day the only inmate ever to have escaped. The child’s identity is ultimately revealed, although I can’t say I was all that surprised by it. I can say, however, that I would have appreciated it much more if the film had been the escapist comic book adaptation it was clearly intended to be. The Dark Knight Rises has individual qualities worth recommending, but as was the case with the previous two installments, it proves that Christopher Nolan was not the right choice for this material. Unlike Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, which found the right balance between dark psychology and fantastic feats of fun, this new trilogy sulks like a moody teenager.