Let me start by saying that I’m glad if you like The Dark Knight Rises. I wanted to. I wrote a book about Batman Begins. I love The Dark Knight, and its ending makes me cry. I’m a huge Batman fan. I’m a huge fan of Christopher Nolan. I saw Memento in theaters. I’m a fan of both The Prestige and Inception. I dreamed several times, before its release, about The Dark Knight Rises. In the Venn diagram of possible fans of The Dark Knight Rises, I’m probably dead center, where all the circles overlap.
And let me also be fair: I’m going to say a lot of negative things here about the film, but I don’t hate The Dark Knight Rises. It has a lot of problems, and if I’m forced to give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” it’s the latter. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see a lot that’s good. Nor does it mean I won’t rush out to see the next Christopher Nolan film. I will.
Before we begin: here there be spoilers. In discussing specific points about the film, there’s no way to avoid revealing what happens at those points. If you haven’t seen the film and want to, go see it first, then come back.
It’s beautifully photographed. One would expect no less from a Chris Nolan film.
Rises also manages to up the ante, a seemingly impossible task after The Dark Knight, by deconstructing Batman and throwing Gotham into chaos.
Bruce’s sojourn, after being broken by Bane, is admirably existential.
The film also tries to wrap up the trilogy by connecting its threat to Ra’s al Ghul, from the first film. Hell, even the falling motif from Batman Begins gets a callback.
Hans Zimmer’s score is so excellent that it’s hard to imagine the film without it. True, the excitement it generates is mostly based on his score’s echoes of The Dark Knight’s music, but much of what works in Rises simply wouldn’t work without Zimmer’s score to accompany it.
It’s also nice seeing Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane and Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul, even if they have small parts, and this helps the trilogy feel like it comes full circle.
There’s more positive later, in the last section below. But let’s shift into what fails about Rises, moving from least to most serious.
Some of these failures aren’t too serious. For example, we might point out that the flying vehicle simply called “the Bat” doesn’t look nearly as cool as the Tumbler or the Batpod motorcycle, from the previous two films. In fact, the Batpod, with its wheels spinning sideways on quick turns, provides a lot more excitement in this film than anything the new flying vehicle does.
We might also complain that Selina Kyle seems to operate the Batpod without any training, despite what looks like complicated controls and an awkward, laying-down piloting position. This lessens Batman, suggesting that anyone could do what he does, given the same toys. True, Gordon does pilot the Tumbler in the first film, but he seems uncertain there, whereas Catwoman takes to the Batpod with ridiculous expertise. In fact, she even makes a quip about not needing instructions – almost like the filmmakers were aware of this problem and thought shining a light on it, through a line of funny dialogue, would wipe the problem away.
At one point, “the Bat” is targeted by heat-seeking missiles, which Batman deftly steers into Gotham skyscrapers – endangering, if not killing, civilians in the process. In a big movie cliché, the missiles seem almost exactly as fast as the Bat, despite that missiles are much quicker than what is essentially a high-tech helicopter. In an even bigger cliché, Batman steers the final heat-seeking missile into a villain.
Alfred’s resignation is a great moment. But it doesn’t seem consistent with his actions in previous films. If he never wanted Bruce to come back to Gotham, he never mentioned it in Batman Begins — where he helped Bruce create the Batman persona.
The film invests a decent amount in the idea that Bruce grew up in Wayne Manor. He quips about the room in which he was born. Alfred leaves Wayne Manor, then Bruce. No one mentions that it’s not the same Wayne Manor, which burned down in Batman Begins and was presumably still being reconstructed during The Dark Knight. The closest Rises comes to acknowledging the destruction of Wayne Manor is in a single photograph, perhaps damaged in the fire, early in the film.
Nolan has been criticized for his fight scenes consisting of rapid cutting, with lots of close-ups. This can sometimes make it difficult to tell where characters are or what specifically is happening. Nolan seems to avoid that mistake here. Unfortunately, the result is too often that the fighting looks impotent and unimpressive. Batman seems very much like a regular man in a suit when he confronts Bane for the first time. Perhaps that’s intentional, because Batman, who’s out of practice, loses that fight. But when he and Bane make their way through a battling mob and come face to face for their final battle, the result is equally unimpressive. The viewer has to pause a moment to realize, “Oh, I guess this is it.”
Where is the prison in which Bane and Talia grew up? Presumably, it’s in the same part of the world in which we found Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. In fact, the exterior of the prison was shot in Jodhpur, India. It doesn’t have to be set in that location, and we might guess that one of the corrupt local regimes seen in Batman Begins is savage enough to run a prison like this. But setting is important, and not knowing it detracts from Bruce Wayne’s rehabilitation there.
Then there’s the matter of how Bruce Wayne got there, which isn’t shown. More importantly, how does he get back? In Batman Begins, we see an adequate amount of footage of Bruce Wayne surviving without means, but he comes back to Gotham on a jet. In Rises, it seems like people teleport to and from this prison, despite being on the other side of the world from Gotham.
And how does Batman get back into Gotham, despite the United States military blockading the city?
It’s more than a little surprising that the military would go along with this blockade. It only does so because it’s concerned that Bane will detonate a nuclear bomb if anyone escapes. Yet the U.S. government has no evidence of this. Surely, it wouldn’t blockade an American city full of citizens purely because someone said he’d blow the city up.
In real life, rescue workers violate orders by diving into rivers to save people. In hostage situations, even when bank robbers have threatened to kill all their hostages if any escape, police officers hurry escapees to safety – rather than leveling guns and demanding they go back inside. Some soldiers might fire on American civilians, but others wouldn’t. Faced with people fleeing Gotham, it’s hard to imagine soldiers reacting as they do in Rises.
But then again, The Dark Knight has this same problem: the city’s only too eager to comply with the Joker’s orders, and the way that film’s “prisoner’s dilemma” plays out defies everything we know about human psychology. But here, Rises seems to preserve (and even exaggerate) the mistakes of the previous films, while failing to adequately preserve the good points that inclined even observant viewers to forgive these mistakes.
We could also gripe about Catwoman’s motivation. She’s seeking a computer program that will erase her records – not unlike the protagonist’s motivation in Nolan’s Inception. In a subtle move, this program is called “clean slate.” And it seems to be contained on a single USB drive, which hasn’t been copied and used a million times, which we might expect criminals to do.
We could also gripe that the film’s climax relies upon another Wayne Enterprises device, much like the previous two films. This one’s been converted to a nuclear bomb, which stains credibility and isn’t exactly subtle.
There’s also a point, when Bane’s running Tumblers through Gotham, doing battle with Batman and Catwoman, who ride their own Wayne Enterprises vehicles, when we wonder whether anyone in this universe has an R&D department. The previous two films have strained credibility on this point, but Rises really goes over the top. Wayne rival John Daggett has a minor role in this busy film, but he’s very much in the model of Tony Stark competitors, incapable of his own innovation and only capable of thievery. In the universe of Nolan’s Batman, there’s no R&D department except that of Wayne Enterprises.
In a film that seems intent on pleasing fans, we learn at the end that policeman John Blake’s legal first name is Robin, and he discovers the Batcave, setting him up as Batman’s successor. But he’s too old to be Robin, who was trained by Batman, nor was any Robin named either Robin or John Blake. Instead of feeling like an adaptation of the Batman mythos, such a reference makes the whole story feel more like an alternate history version of Batman that veers off in its own, random direction.
The end of the film is incredibly rushed. Yes, we see Gordon at the unveiling of a Batman memorial statue. But we don’t know if Gordon is fired as police commissioner, which a single line of dialogue predicts. We don’t see what happens to Selina Kyle’s friend Holly, a character borrowed from the comics who doesn’t seem to serve an important point in this film. We don’t see whether Lucius Fox is able to right Wayne Enterprises. We don’t focus on Talia or Bane’s dead bodies, to such an extent that viewers would be forgiven for not remembering whether they live or die. We don’t really see Gotham rebuilding, or reconnecting with the rest of the United States, let alone revenge attacks for what happened during Bane’s occupation. It’s all put back to normal with a single cut.
But these are all gripes compared to the worse problems with Rises – any one of which is serious enough to be seen as effectively demolishing the film. And they’ll get progressively worse as we proceed.
1. Bane’s Takeover of Gotham Makes No Sense
The way Bane takes over Gotham, separating it from the rest of the United States, strongly recalls the “No Man’s Land” storyline from the comics. That’s a suitable storyline for the final Batman film to borrow, given its high stakes.
But there are serious problems with the execution. With a single trigger, Bane’s able to take out all of Gotham’s bridges, as well as its football stadium, the entrances to the city’s sewers, and several additional spots around town that are only shown from overhead. It’s all wonderfully dramatic, but it doesn’t make much sense.
Granted, Bane’s goons are working construction, and we see a couple of them making explosives, instead of concrete. But how did such a massive plan of planting explosives at key points all around town, especially along bridges, go undetected? It doesn’t really make any sense.
Neither does it make sense the way Bane strolls out onto the mostly demolished football field. Did he plan for that section not to collapse? It’s sloped, like it was damaged too, meaning it’s probably not stable. Did he plan this? Given the hollow levels underneath the stadium, I suppose the explosives were also designed not to collapse any of the stands, despite that this would require a ridiculous level of precision, if it were even possible. But fine, okay, it’s an action movie – let’s agree to ignore this.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that Gotham’s an island only connected to the mainland by bridges. The geography of Gotham isn’t consistent between Nolan’s films, so perhaps we shouldn’t gripe too much about this. But the previous two films have both cut off bridge travel at key points, which emphasizes how this isn’t a new idea for the series. Even so, what about all the helicopters in Gotham? Do Bain’s henchmen blow them all out of the sky, even when they’re on skyscraper rooftops? Surely, securing an American city involves a bit more logistically than blowing up a half dozen bridges.
Part of Bane’s takeover of Gotham is his acquisition by force of Wayne Enterprise’s Applied Sciences division. Given all the security of that division, as repeatedly referenced by all three films, why is a Tumbler sitting directly over Bane’s underground lair – except so that he can make it fall through the ceiling at a dramatic point? Is Applied Sciences sitting at – or even storing Tumblers at – ground level? If so, wouldn’t it at least monitor the huge open space in the tunnels beneath the building? Why does Applied Sciences, which we’re told is off the books and basically exists only to service Batman, have all these new cannon-sporting Tumblers in the first place?
Even if we pardon all of this, it’s a major plot point that Gotham’s entire police department is stuck in the tunnels below ground for three months, during which Bane rules Gotham. Only a handful of officers are left above ground, prominently including Gordon and (new character) John Blake.
Granted, the police, having previously ignored Bane, wanted to swarm the tunnels. But didn’t they leave a good percentage of Gotham’s cops to handle crime above ground? What about all the cops who were off-duty at the time?
The film first shows people entering Bane’s tunnels through a simple manhole cover. Did Bane destroy every manhole cover in the city to prevent the police from escaping?
Of course, it’s not easy to survive below ground for three months, especially when you’re not carrying food and supplies. Those tunnels are quickly going to fill with human waste, and some of those cops are going to go insane. The film does rather conveniently say that those above ground have been able to get food to the trapped cops, but it’s not clear how they’d be able to do this and not rescue people, nor are we shown more than one hole through which food is passed. None of this makes sense.
We’re also shown that Bane is content to kill people with little provocation. Why wouldn’t he flood the tunnels with gas, killing the city’s entire police force? Why leave them alive?
None of this makes sense, and the film’s plot collapses once you realize it.
Okay, so neither Ra’s al Ghul’s nor the Joker’s plots in the previous movies were totally logical either. But at least the Joker’s plans could be justified as insane. Bane has no such excuse — and his scheme is so completely illogical that it fails the smell test.
Seriously, it relies on burying all the city’s cops underground for three months.
But here’s the final trump card: Bane’s going to blow up the city anyway. So why does he do all this to begin with?
Maybe he wants to keep people from leaving Gotham because he wants them present when the bomb goes off. But they’d be present anyway, if he just detonated the bomb as a surprise.
Maybe destroying Gotham is all part of his elaborate revenge on Bruce. He certainly wants Bruce to watch events in Gotham. But that’s a bit much, and you’d expect it to be underlined by the film, if that’s the case, since it would make Bane’s revenge plot all the more extreme.
Even if that’s the case, however, the takeover of Gotham still doesn’t make any sense. And it’s all irrelevant anyway, given Bane’s nuclear plans.
2. Catwoman Fails
Nolan’s often called an unemotional director, and it’s true that his films can feel a bit distant – a bit more like careful puzzle boxes than films that pull the viewer into an experience. Nolan does grief and pain well enough, not only in his Batman films but in The Prestige and Inception. But he doesn’t have a good record on depicting love, at least before it’s lost. That was a great criticism of Batman Begins, although this failure was generally blamed on actress Katie Holmes.
But in Rises, we’re given an ending to the Batman story: he fakes his own death and begins a new life with Selina Kyle, whose record has been expunged. Since she hasn’t appeared in the two previous films, one would think it important to characterize their relationship, since it winds up being Bruce’s destiny.
We don’t get that in Rises. The two have no chemistry. They pale in comparison between Michael Keaton and Michelle Pheiffer, who played Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns.
As a matter of fact, the two barely get any time together. She steals from Bruce Wayne. They briefly run into each other at a party, which unfavorably recalls a similar scene in Batman Returns. Catwoman then betrays Batman, leading to his destruction. When Batman returns, he says (in costume) that he believes in her despite her betrayal. But there’s no hint of romance between them. Then, in predictable but huge cliché, she decides not to abandon Gotham and rescues Batman at just the right moment. She follows this with a clichéd quip, but there’s no fireworks-stirring kiss. Instead, they split up to save Gotham… and the next we see them, they’re together in Italy.
Bruce doesn’t have to give up being Batman for love. But the woman with whom he starts a new life should feel like more than just an accessory.
In fact, this is kind of the entire point of the Italy sequences. Remember, during Bruce’s training period, Alfred hoped to see Bruce with a woman and kids. Presumably, he also wanted Bruce to love that woman and those children. That’s the point, after all: for Bruce to find happiness in a normal life.
Only he hasn’t. We see more of him mourning Rachel than falling in love with Selina. We’re left to guess that Bruce has moved on from Rachel’s death. We’re not shown it. We’re not shown anything, really, except that he’s with Selina Kyle, who feels less like a love interest and more like the girl who was in the right place at the right time. Hell, he had to go to Italy with someone, right? Might as well be the only woman in his final adventure.
I realize there’s a lot going on in Rises, and scenes between the two might have been cut for time. But Two-Face barely appears in The Dark Knight, yet the few scenes he’s in have real power. In comparison, despite a few quips, Rises has an almost utter lack of cool Catwoman moments. And “Hey, there’s a lot happening” isn’t an excuse for failing to characterize a romance that’s supposed to represent the happy ending Alfred’s always hoped for Bruce.
We might guess that Bruce is simply going through the motions. Unskilled in love, he’s simply latched onto Selina Kyle. Perhaps he’s simply performing for Alfred, in the same way he took cues for his role as Batman from Ra’s al Ghul.
That’s certainly an interesting idea – one more interesting than what the film presents to us. But it’s speculation, because the film doesn’t show us why he’s with her, simply that he is. That’s a failure that sort of invalidates the entire ending of Nolan’s trilogy.
3a. The Chronology of The Dark Knight Rises Makes Batman’s Career an Abortion
The Dark Knight Rises is set eight years after The Dark Knight. This gives the film a vibe not unlike Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns. And it’s undeniably interesting to watch Bruce Wayne hobbling with a cane, playing Howard Hughes instead of the billionaire playboy seen in Batman Begins. (Nolan’s been talking for years about doing a movie on the late-stage Hughes, and the references are unmistakable.)
But the idea is that Batman hasn’t ventured out since the end of The Dark Knight. That film was set about a year after Batman Begins. This means that Batman’s entire career was one year long, followed by eight years of retirement.
Sure, people in the Gotham of The Dark Knight Rises may still remember Batman as part of that crazy year in which Gotham began to transition from a corrupt, mob-run city into one firmly on the road to reform.
But this seems like a strange choice, to say the least. Basically, Bruce’s career as Batman was an abortion – a one-year period that ended in the repudiation of the entire Batman project. That might make sense, given that Bruce lost Rachel and saw the city torn apart by the Joker, who seemed to be responding to Batman’s presence. But Bruce both trained to become Batman and has been retired for roughly eight times longer than he was Batman.
Remember how Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had lots of people reacting to Batman’s return, wondering whether he was an urban myth? There’s nothing of this in The Dark Knight Rises, despite that Batman’s been gone for two entire Presidential terms. And unlike The Dark Knight Returns, Nolan’s Batman was only active for a single year. One would expect Batman would have plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding him, especially since Gotham’s teenagers probably wouldn’t remember the events of the previous two films.
Yet no one in The Dark Knight Rises recalls that crazy year, beginning with the city under threat in Batman Begins and ending with the city menaced by the Joker. It’s all rather fuzzy. There’s no sense of Gotham as a particular place with a particular history.
Because doing so would underline that Batman was only active for a year, and that’s not the impression Rises wants us to have. We’re supposed to feel that Batman still has weight, both in the city and in Bruce Wayne’s heart. We’re not supposed to think about how Batman’s career was a year-long blip between almost a decade of training and almost a decade of retirement.
But it is. According to the films themselves.
3b. The Dark Knight Rises Invalidates The Dark Knight
Maybe that’s an artistic choice, however poorly executed. But the choice to have Batman retired in Rises, retroactive to the end of the previous film, also invalidates the incredibly moving ending of The Dark Knight.
There, Gordon famously narrates “we’ll hunt him… because he can take it.” The idea isn’t that Batman’s retiring. It’s that he’s sacrificed his reputation for a greater good. Even early in the film, we see how Batman’s heroic status has led to copycats getting themselves killed. What Gotham needs is reformers like Harvey Dent, not more vigilantes. And Gotham’s exotic hero has inspired the Joker to become Gotham’s equally exotic villain. For Batman to work, he’s got to be on the outs with the police – a “dark knight” who inspires “white knights” like Harvey Dent, before his corruption.
It’s a brilliant realization. While it’s unconventional for Batman, it’s inarguable based on the evidence in the film itself. It’s shocking and radical, but it follows directly and inevitably.
Don’t forget that the movie’s called The Dark Knight. That’s not an idle choice. So when that film’s title finally comes on screen at the end, the title echoing Gordon’s narration as Batman speeds off, it feels like a punch to the gut. Sure, the Joker’s machinations involve some major plot holes, despite being thoroughly entertaining, and the film’s got flaws. But it’s all forgivable, because the movie’s ultimately a meditation on what it means to be a hero – and how, for Batman to have the effect he intends, he’s got to be a “dark knight” at odds with the law.
Which he never actually became, except by reputation, if he’s retiring when we see him speeding off.
If that’s true, when did the police “hunt him… because he can take it?”
Rather than take the heat of being hated, Batman quit. After a career of about a year.
This kind of ruins the brilliant ending of The Dark Knight – which isn’t only what that entire movie’s been leading up to, but what that film’s title is all about.
It’s almost like Christopher Nolan didn’t understand The Dark Knight at all. Or more likely, he simply chose to ignore the meaning of his previous film. He wanted to tell a story of a retired Batman, and it was simpler to say Batman had retired at the end of The Dark Knight than imply he had a few adventures in which he battled cops before retiring. After all, the audience might like to see that, and it’s harder to explain. So to streamline the third film’s story, Batman’s now retiring when he speeds off at the end of The Dark Knight.
This decision makes sense, if all one cares about is The Dark Knight Rises. But it kind of invalidates the entire meaning of The Dark Knight.
4. The Politics of Rises are Repugnant
Arguably, Batman’s inevitably a politically troubling figure. He’s a rich man who takes justice into his own hands. Yes, he beats up criminals who are worse than him. But he’s Batman, so he’s almost always right. Take that away, make him a real person in the real world, and he’s not much different from the Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: a vigilante. And vigilantes are as likely to shoot public officials as they are to stop the Joker’s rampage.
The three Nolan Batman films get progressively more troublesome, on this score.
In Batman Begins, Batman’s the ultimate self-made man. Yes, he inherited his wealth. But he didn’t inherit super-powers, unlike Superman. He makes himself a super-hero through incredibly hard work. He might use his money to get a costume and a vehicle, but he doesn’t during his training. He takes a terrible personal tragedy, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, and makes the world a better place with his own two hands, mostly by sheer force of will.
This plays into several conservative narratives, such as the idea of the self-made man. Or the idea that success is always or usually the product of hard work. Yes, successful businessmen tend to work hard, but plenty of less successful people work equally hard – or would, given the same opportunities. In stripping himself of everything and still proving himself, we might even speculate that Thomas Wayne had something of the same determination, which led to his wealth. Whether in business or in crime-fighting, talent and hard work win out. Of course, we know this isn’t true – having connections and luck is at least as important. But this is there, in Batman’s origin, if we want to see it.
So too can we see the failure of government. After all, Batman’s not necessary if the police are doing their job. But if you think they’re too constrained by pesky civil rights, or if you see government as intrinsically inefficient or corrupt, Batman offers a kind of solution. Some people buy a gun to defend themselves from their neighbors, when police and government fail. Others dress as a bat and fight crime. The thinking, arguably, is pretty much the same.
Of course, Batman gets a pass on most of this. After all, this is all intrinsic to the character. And Batman is a beloved and inspirational figure – even to those who, like myself, understand these implications. No one reasonable is going to say no Batman story should ever be told because these implications are present. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be aware of them.
The Dark Knight took some heat for its political themes. Criticism focused on Batman’s surveillance system, created by tapping into all of Gotham’s cellphones. Of course, Batman didn’t exactly have a warrant to do this, and the whole business seemed to recall the Bush administration’s scheme to circumvent existing laws and to wiretap phone conversations without even the minimal judicial oversight the current laws require.
The Bush administration justified this in the name of fighting terrorism. And in The Dark Knight, his surveillance system seems justified because he uses it to find the Joker.
Of course, in The Dark Knight, such power rests not with a malleable political executive, nor with a bureaucracy now known to have listened to private sexual conversations to laugh about them. No, that power rests with Batman, and he’s always right. Plus, he delegated that power to Lucius Fox, who destroyed the system after it was used that one time – used to save Gotham, one might add.
Of course, that’s rigging the deck. And like fictional presentations of torture, in which it extracts accurate information quickly that prevents a terrorist attack, Batman’s use of his surveillance system bears almost no resemblance to how such surveillance systems are used – and abused – in reality. It’s easy to approve of such matters, when it’s Batman trying to stop the Joker. It’s quite another when a cadre of unaccountable bureaucrats, even in the United States of America, are granted such power.
Yes, such a device was barely necessary to the plot of The Dark Knight. The script could have had Batman using other techniques to find the Joker. Unlike the political implications of Batman Begins, this wasn’t something intrinsic to the character or even to this particular story. But it did solve a plot problem, provide some cool visuals, and was the kind of James Bond-like device we expect from super-hero stories. So we could all comfort ourselves with the idea that Nolan was lightly interrogating these issues, rather than making some kind of political statement.
That’s not true with The Dark Knight Rises.
The Gotham of Rises has been cleaned up, subsequent to The Dark Knight, through the application of something called the Dent Act, which presumably makes prosecution of mobsters and criminals easier. It sounds like the kind of “get tough on crime” legislation that, in real life, usually leads to filling prisons with minor drug offenses at profound taxpayer expense. We may well wonder what civil liberties the Dent Act ignores and whether the Gotham menaced by Bane would qualify as a police state. We don’t have enough information to tell, but the idea seems to be that such measures, passed in the wake of mass hysteria, work.
From this status quo, the film’s villain works with manual laborers against the rich. He lives underground, in the city’s sewers and abandoned tunnels, which in real cities like New York is often inhabited by homeless populations.
His first major strike is at a stock exchange, where he and his crew sneak in masquerading as delivery staff and the like.
The correlation with the Occupy movement, which has protested the undue influence of the extremely wealthy over politics, is unmistakable. Occupy began as Occupy Wall Street, in protest of the financial markets that, despite causing the 2007-2008 economic collapse with financial instruments that were only possible due to deregulation, received federal bailouts and have yet to be re-regulated.
Critics of Occupy have called the movement a socialist one, as if concern for wealth disparity or the current historically very low taxes on extreme wealth were tantamount to hating capitalism.
So Bane, in taking over Gotham, refers to the people of Gotham, implying that they have the power rather than the police or the city’s wealthy elites. He talks of “revolution.”
During Bane’s occupation of Gotham, we briefly see Selina and her friend Holly in an ritzy apartment. After a reference to its former occupant, we’re told it’s everyone’s apartment now – a clear reference to some sort of communist ethos that bears more resemblance to paranoid fantasies of communism (in which no one owns anything and apartments might be held in common) than how communism has ever been practiced outside of the tiniest of communes.
Glenn Beck (and some other paranoid voices on the extreme right) have warned in specific terms that Occupy’s real agenda is to drag those they perceive as rich from their homes and to kill them.
Lo and behold, that is actually what we see Bane’s “revolution” doing in the film.
For those who watch United States politics, the reference is unmistakable. Whatever its reason for being in the film, the filmmakers knew its audience, in 2012, would note the correlation.
In real life, Occupy is a movement almost absurdly committed to non-violence. Sure, it has some extremists, like any movement. But if you watch footage of Occupy facing down policemen in riot gear, you’ll routinely see cops beating and pepper spraying peaceful protesters who, even in the face of this violence, do not respond violently – despite that such a violent reaction against such specific cases of police brutality would be wholly justified and, depending on the jurisdiction, arguably even legal.
Yet in The Dark Knight Rises, we see Bane’s working-class thugs executing people in the street.
In Bane’s Gotham, merely being rich is enough for you to be brought before a sentencing judge. In some sort of parody of post-apocalyptic jurisprudence, Jonathan Crane – known to fans of the trilogy as the possibly insane villain the Scarecrow – serves as judge, sitting atop a pile of debris. But this is only the most cartoonish mockery of justice. It feels less like an episode of Twilight Zone and more like the Quintessons in Transformers: The Movie. Guilt is assumed, and Jonathan Crane’s job is merely to give the defendant a choice between exile or death. Exile from Gotham means walking across the frozen river, which inevitably gives way. In sentencing Gordon, Crane makes the paradox clear, pronouncing the sentence as “death… by exile!”
This might even recall Sarah Palin’s absurd claim (echoed by many on the right) that the Affordable Care Act called for “death panels” for the elderly.
The movie clearly invokes Occupy, but only through paranoid demagoguery about the movement.
Within the span of a few weeks, Gotham has been turned from an orderly city into a dirty, trash-ridden cesspool that looks worse than the corrupt, mobster-run days of Batman Begins.
The depiction is so extreme that I’m surprised, frankly, that we don’t get shots of a disorganized mob looting beautiful Wayne Manor, casually tossing to the ground the family heirlooms we’ve been taught to cherish.
Clearly, this “revolution” of the people, in favor of the working class over the idle rich and the stockbrokers, has nothing to show for itself except violence and the worst sort of mob injustice.
No one raises a voice to say that this doesn’t reflect their desires. Nor to say that Bane has instituted some sort of parody of a revolution, rather than a government by the people, for the people. If there is dissent, it’s not tolerated in this arbitrary totalitarian regime.
No, the only other option the film presents is Batman. The man who, despite inheriting his wealth so that he doesn’t really have to do anything, is somehow the superior man of determination and singular vision.
And here, instead of watching against or even playing with the fascistic overtones inherent in the Batman story, The Dark Knight Rises decides instead to embrace them as fully as it possibly can.
As an army, Batman uses the police, newly liberated from the underground tunnels in which Bane trapped them. Instead of rebelling against this vigilante, until recently believed to have murdered District Attorney Harvey Dent, the cops instantly line up to take orders from him. Because he is the Ayn Rand dream of the rich and successful as having singular vision, and police recognize that. They are good people even if they are working-class, and good working-class people know to obey their betters.
And so the battle lines are drawn. On one side is the police, symbols of law and order, allied with the heroic, self-made man that is Batman. On the other is a totalitarian, cavalierly murderous regime that masks its utter hatred of wealth and success with popularist rhetoric, led by the super-criminal known as Bane.
There’s no middle ground.
But of course, even calling this a disastrous, murderous totalitarian regime is doing it too much credit. That’s not even enough to stack the deck. No, Bane’s been planning all along to blow Gotham up with a nuclear explosion.
I suppose that all of this has simply been Bane amusing himself, prior to immolating the entire city. He’s too smart to think it’s giving any of his supposed ideals a good name. So why is he talking about the people at all? None of this makes any sense, unless it’s to denigrate the idea that the working classes could ever take power into their own hands, without things instantly dissolving to a cartoon parody of dystopia.
The moral apparently being: even if you’re tempted to think for one minute that this parody of a worker’s revolution might eventually lead to some sort of responsible self-governance, forget it, bub. The ringleaders of such movements don’t care about the poor. They don’t care about the orphans, kicked onto the street due to lack of funds. All they want is to destroy, not to build. First, they’ll destroy the rich. And then they’ll kill everyone with a nuclear bomb or something.
In The Dark Knight Rises, those are your options. If you don’t like those orphans being kicked onto the street with no means of support, tough. Maybe someone rich will die and turn his manor into an orphanage. Keep waiting. In the meantime, listen to the people who want to change things, and this is what you’ll get.
Maybe you think I’m going to far. But this isn’t coincidence. This isn’t simply borrowing from current events to add relevancy to a story. Given the dynamics set up by the film itself, it’s far closer to a polemic.
I’m not saying The Dark Knight Rises is fascistic. But if Frank Miller made a sequel to Holy Terror in which the Fixer went after a cartoonish Occupy Wall Street analogue, it would look something like this.
If you want proof, it’s there in Bruce Wayne’s failed attempt to climb out of the pit, which is apparently the only entrance or egress to his prison. The climb ends in an impossible jump. (Why it’s impossible isn’t clear, given that we see a smaller outcropping along the wall, on which someone could simply walk at least part of the way to the next ledge. The wall’s also uneven, and it wouldn’t be too hard to fashion some kind of hand grip with which to scale it. But never mind.) We’re told that only one child has made this leap. (This also doesn’t make sense, since children are smaller and can’t jump as far. But never mind.) That child, we think, was Bane, born with nothing. And Bruce Wayne is told that, as a son of privilege, he can never make the jump.
Of course, he then musters up the spirit, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, and makes the jump. The way a self-made man would.
And then we find out Bane never made the jump. It was Talia all along. The daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, another self-made man who acquired profound wealth and status. It’s in her genes, you see.
Coincidentally, Bane dies not long after. He still bears the marks of his lowly origins. It’s right there, as plain as his face.
5. Rises Doesn’t Satisfactorily Wrap Up the Trilogy
A huge part of why The Dark Knight works is because, despite some inconsistencies between the two films, it flows almost inevitably from Batman Begins. That movie ended with the idea of escalation, that Batman’s presence would cause not only the mob to become more violent but for criminals to take on costumes and extreme identities like Batman. The Dark Knight might look like it takes place in a different city than Batman Begins, and we might well wonder what the Joker has been doing for the intervening year. But it takes this idea of escalation and runs with it.
Even Rachel’s death flows from this idea. If you’re going to become Batman, you’re going to have to pay a price. And the loss of your childhood friend and lifelong love is one hell of a price.
Ultimately, The Dark Knight finds that, given this escalation, Batman has to be an illegal vigilante. If he’s seen as a good guy, good people will be inspired to imitate him, which he doesn’t want. And the bad guys will have to up their game to fight him. To change Gotham for the better, Batman ironically has to be seen as a bad guy.
One film flows from the other. The two aren’t a perfect fit, but they’re of a piece.
Nolan made a lot of noise, after The Dark Knight, about how he was concerned that there weren’t an awful lot of good third films in movie series. If he was going to make a third film, he wanted it to feel like the conclusion of a single story.
In other words, the third film should take what Nolan had done to its logical, inevitable conclusion. It should flow from the previous two films, in the same way that The Dark Knight flowed from Batman Begins.
It’s no surprise, then, that Nolan returned to the League of Shadows. For Batman Begins, Nolan was especially concerned that the villain of the third act be tied to the first act, which led to Ra’s al Ghul being made Batman’s mentor. So it’s no surprise that he wanted his third film to feel tied to his first.
Bane accomplishes this quite well, and the revelation of Talia al Ghul, while not surprising to fans, echoes the revelation in Batman Begins that Liam Neeson’s character was the real Ra’s al Ghul. Their childhood stories worked for me – well enough that I found them, collectively, more interesting than either Bruce Wayne or Selina Kyle.
Bruce’s time in the same prison that birthed Bane and Talia also echoes how we first see the adult Bruce, in Batman Begins, in a prison. He’s going back to his origins, reinventing himself as Batman in order to come back stronger. Grant Morrison had Batman do much the same thing, in 52.
True, I wish the film better explained how Bane’s mask keeps him injected with chemicals to deal with the pain. We’re only told that it keeps his pain away, which isn’t enough. But Bane and Talia, like the best comic-book villains, act as negative opposites of the hero. If Batman’s a self-made man, they’re a self-made man and woman, despite her lineage.
Bane’s also a logical villain for the final film. After all, Bane was invented in the comics as the villain who was going to take down Batman – and then did, in a previously unprecedented way, in the arguably classic “KnightFall” storyline. Rises is smart to borrow from this, and it does “KnightFall” one better by having Bane take down Bruce Wayne as well as Batman.
The effect feels very much like Miller’s “Born Again” storyline on Daredevil, in which he brought that hero as low as he could go. That’s an easy model to borrow, and it’s been done plenty of times with plenty of super-heroes, even without consciously patterning the story after “Born Again.”
The Bane of the comics also has a connection to Ra’s al Ghul, having worked as part of the League of Assassins (as the League of Shadows is named in the comics) during “Legacy,” the first storyline to feature Bane after the resolution of “KnightFall.” True, Bane’s origins aren’t typically tied to Ra’s al Ghul, but that’s a logical choice to tie the trilogy together – just as it was logical to make Ra’s al Ghul Batman’s mentor in Batman Begins.
Similarly, Bane’s takeover of Gotham, borrowed from the “No Man’s Land” storyline, is suitably dramatic material for a final outing.
I also liked that Bane launches his revolution from the tunnels underneath Gotham, which for me recalled the too-often-ignored Batman: The Cult. This doesn’t mean I have to agree it’s logical to trap the entire Gotham police force down there, or that Applied Sciences is so vulnerable from below. The idea of a revolution, especially against billionaire Bruce Wayne, comes from the sewers, symbolically from the city’s untouchables, is especially resonant.
Rises even ties the trilogy together by having Catwoman steal Martha Wayne’s famous pearl necklace, another callback to Batman Begins.
And the repeated “rise” motif reverses the falling motif of Batman Begins — even if Rises fails to coalesce around this idea, the way The Dark Knight does around what its title means. There’s no transcendence here, but the themes of the series are at least superficially tied together.
All of this represents smart choices, on the part of Rises. But simply having the daughter of the villain from the first movie as the villain of the third isn’t enough to tie a trilogy together, any more than having the Joker as the villain of The Dark Knight would have been enough, on its own, to make that film feel like a logical extension of Batman Begins. That was accomplished thematically by following up on the notion of escalation, which in turn led – in a way that felt inevitable – to Batman becoming a fugitive from the law.
The idea, again, is to project the previous film(s) forward by asking where they would inevitably lead. The question is, if this goes on, what’s going to happen next?
Batman Begins ended with the idea of escalation. The Dark Knight ended with the idea of Batman being hunted “because he can take it.”
Well, can he take it? We don’t know, because he retired instead. Yes, we get one sequence in Rises, set eight years later, in which Batman flees scores of cops. But that’s not a new status quo. It’s simply a showpiece that’s quickly upturned as Bane’s threat forces the police to once again work with Batman. Why, they don’t even bother to resist the idea of becoming his cannon-fodder “army” once they’re released from their underground imprisonment.
So much for following through on what the previous film set up.
Moreover, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight rises set up deeper questions about Batman’s mission, particularly as it relates to Bruce’s legacy and what his parents would have wanted.
There’s a subtext to Batman Begins in which Bruce Wayne is actually going against his father’s legacy, rather than fulfilling it by helping Gotham in another way. Thomas Wayne was a philanthropist who set up the city’s monorail system, which we see the Waynes using in flashback. Bruce Wayne uses this money not for philanthropy but to buy hotels (to indulge his playboy cover) and to finance his one-man war on crime. In the process, Wayne Manor and Thomas Wayne’s monorail, both symbols of the Wayne family legacy, are destroyed.
Even at the end of the movie, Batman’s more concerned with the Joker than with the thousands of innocent civilians in the Narrows who were driven mad by the Scarecrow’s fear toxin – which would almost certainly have been Thomas Wayne’s prime concern.
There’s something powerfully Oedipal here, of the son symbolically killing the father to take his place. And that’s just what Bruce does in Batman Begins.
Only it’s not at all clear that Thomas Wayne would be happy with the way Bruce chooses to help Gotham City. Thomas Wayne, philanthropist, would probably not be pleased to know that his son has chosen to help Gotham by getting into fistfights and blowing things up.
The Dark Knight doesn’t strongly echo these themes, but they’re there implicitly. Instead, The Dark Knight carries forward the idea, left at the end of Batman Begins, that Rachel represents a normal life, which Bruce might have when he’s done being Batman.
Rises takes this up by showing Bruce still mourning for Rachel, which seems to be one of his reasons for having retired. And Rises tries to conclude this theme by giving Bruce something of a normal life with Selina Kyle, although this feels extraordinarily poorly executed and rushed.
Rises tries to tie this into the Oedipal idea from Batman Begins. Alfred expresses how he wished Bruce would have a normal, happy life – and opposes Bruce becoming Batman again, although this is pretty inconsistent with his behavior in the previous two films, in which he seemed perfectly content to help Bruce become Batman and carry on doing so, even after Rachel’s death.
But through its failure to depict Selina Kyle as an adequate replacement for Rachel, Rises fails to fulfill this theme. Yes, it gives Bruce a happy ending, but it feels arbitrary and forced – not at all like the inevitable destination of the trilogy.
So too does Rises fail to take up the idea of Batman being hunted, the way The Dark Knight took up the theme of escalation. Instead of being hunted, Batman retires, and the hunting is fuel for one scene only.
Most importantly, however, Rises fails to make good on the theme, present since the beginning, of Thomas Wayne’s legacy. True, that’s present in the third film. Because Wayne Enterprises can’t afford to fund its program for orphans, due to Bruce’s actions as Batman, he’s symbolically failed to live up to the responsibilities his father has left. We’re even told that these orphans, kicked out due to lack of funding, have joined Bane’s army.
This too gets a happy ending, when we see Wayne Manor turned into a home for orphans that bears the name of Bruce’s parents. But like the Selina Kyle ending, this too feels forced and arbitrary, rather than having the weight needed to feel like a successful resolution of these themes.
Ironically, the entire Bane plot is shot through with just the kind of concern for social class that might have made achieved such a successful resolution. After all, Bane’s army seems to represent the downtrodden. These are exactly the people Thomas Wayne wanted to help in a systematic way, and they’re exactly the people Bruce has ignored, in favor of high-adrenaline street fights.
And if you’re going to deconstruct Batman, by breaking him both physically and spiritually, as well as bankrupting Bruce Wayne and making him lose his company, wouldn’t you want to make Batman question his entire mission – his choice to become Batman in the first place?
After all, that’s implicit in the first movie, in which Batman saves the city but only by destroying the public transportation system Thomas Wayne built, in order to help the poor and the working-class.
It’s implicit in the second movie too, in which Batman’s presence has deformed the local criminals, spurring the rise of the Joker.
Would it really have been so threatening to fans, had Bruce questioned whether becoming Batman was a good idea after all? Whether he’d contributed to the iniquity in Gotham, by ignoring things like public transportation in favor of making tanks – or a cellphone-based surveillance system that was only used once?
Why, under the hands of either a more able or a braver screenwriter, the entire takeover of Gotham could have represented a real, existential challenge to Batman. Some of these disenfranchised might even have complained about how hard it is to get to work, almost a decade after Thomas Wayne’s monorail was destroyed. We could have seen how Bane’s army was composed of people like the orphans who were kicked onto the street because Bruce was too busy funding Batman.
Instead, those orphan kids are reduced to a murderous, anti-rich mob that turns people over to the Scarecrow for sentencing. And instead of questioning how he’s created the army Bane leads, Batman leads the police to war against these same orphans.
Besides being hunted by the cops, Bruce’s total failure to fulfill his father’s concern for the downtrodden of Gotham was the one thing the final film absolutely had to address, given what had been set up by the previous films. Instead of addressing this and questioning Batman (as the previous two films did), Rises plays superficially with themes (like “rising” versus “falling”) and delivers the most hostile and illogical of right-wing fantasies in a way that ridicules everything Thomas Wayne and his Wayne Enterprises stood for.
No, there’s only the pretence of deconstructing Batman here. There’s only the pretence of a happy ending. There’s only the pretence of a culmination of the previous films’ themes.
One is left to guess that the previous two films left these themes implicit because Nolan didn’t want to deal with them. And left with the challenge of concluding his trilogy, he still couldn’t bring himself to deal with them, despite setting them up in such a way that they were the elephant in the corner, demanding to be addressed.
All the ingredients are there. The chickens have come home to roost. The way Bruce has ignored the legacy of Thomas Wayne all along has created an army of hopeless have-nots, which Bane has exploited to spur a revolution.
Consequently, the film either has to deal with this – and really deconstruct Batman – or cop out and make that army an unthinking horde, a neo-con’s wet dream, so that the only solution is for Gotham to rally around an Ayn Rand ubermensch to beat up this mob and, indeed, kill them.
Talk about stacking the deck.
Talk about pulling your punches.
And talk about missing an opportunity to really wrap up a trilogy, using what you’d already established as the foundations on which to build something masterful.
If Nolan’s taught us to expect anything from his films, it’s intelligence. His plots might be complicated and have holes, but they follow their own implications to their logical conclusions. Yet when it came to wrapping up this trilogy, this intelligence seems to have failed critically.
What we get instead is interesting and entertaining enough, but also misjudged on several points and incredibly politically disturbing.
But worst of all, it isn’t the conclusion of “the Dark Knight trilogy” at all. Rises feels more like a fan film, a possible ending, than something that carries elements from the first two films to their inevitable conclusion.