Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me. As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
I had planned for this week’s post to be a discussion of Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature, Stranger than Paradise. However, laziness and a weekend trip combined with my seeing The Dark Knight Rises last night to push Jarmusch’s artistic statement back a week in favor of Christopher Nolan’s not insignificant summer entertainment. I doubt anyone will complain. And, while I’m sure I’m one of very few people to have waited this long to see it, I know there are others who haven’t, so be warned: spoilers follow.
The Dark Knight Rises is the first of Nolan’s Batman trilogy to feel truly comic book-y for significant portions of its run time. I know that complaint sounds absurd considering how we’re talking about Batman adaptations. But Nolan’s grim realism previously only gave way to outlandish conceits in the climax of Batman Begins, with the steam device barreling down an elevated railway to spell doom for Gotham. The majority of that film and all of The Dark Knight had bigger ambitions, though. They were about grander concepts; the power of symbolism, cultural decay, post-9/11 paranoia, and testing society’s limits, among other things. True to form, The Dark Knight Rises features many heady ideas, but unlike its predecessors, it then sets them aside in favor of a sewer lair, catchy banter, and a literal ticking time bomb.
Don’t get me wrong, that ticking time bomb is one of the best I’ve seen at the movies, and it is part of a breathtaking series of set pieces that signify the highest of stakes for Gotham City. Its payoff is operatic, successful, and moving. It features wonderful performances by Christian Bale (as a part of a whole that marks his best work in the series), a converted-to-the-cause Anne Hathaway, and especially the film’s secret weapon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose impassioned and ill-fated pleas for help from his fellow police officers elevate an already great performance. It is in the comedown from this high in which the film’s comic book twist ending weakens the climax’s emotional impact.
Again, BIG SPOILER!
To fully execute its series-long character arc, Batman should have died when his aircraft carried the nuclear device out over the Gotham bay. The entire film had built toward that inevitability. Alfred tells a war-scarred Bruce he won’t make it if he resumes his vigilante ways after eight years in seclusion. Bruce is already recovering from a broken spine at the hands of Bane, weakening him further. In the run-up to the climax, Catwoman pleads with Batman to run away with her because he has already given Gotham everything. “Not everything, not yet,” he says, resigned to what should be his fate. And yet, be it Warner Brothers’ corporate nervousness refusing Nolan his preferred ending, or Nolan himself pulling back from a truly final resolution, there Bruce is at the end, raising a glass to Alfred, his death faked and everyone safe and sound.
Why is it so important for the hero to die? Because guilt and sacrifice are what drive Bruce. His almost sociopathic need to exact justice on an unjust world would never allow him to give up Batman forever, even if he got to come home to Selina Kyle every night. It’s not in him to stop living the righteous life. There is no happily ever after for Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, while nobody but Alfred and Selina knows the truth about his “death,” keeping Bruce alive cheapens for the audience the ascension of Gordon-Levitt’s John “Robin” Blake. Yes, Batman’s remark to Commissioner Gordon about Batman being a symbol and how anyone could be beneath that mask is true. However, without Bruce’s real death, inspiring Blake to take up the cowl means nothing from a storytelling standpoint. There is no true sacrifice, and therefore no true inspiration for Blake; he’s an imitation of Batman rather than the next iteration.
It’s a testament to Nolan, his screenwriter brother Jonathan, and the actors involved that I enjoyed the film as much as I did despite being as bothered as I am with the ending. After the dynamic action sequences of The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan has fully grown into his own as a big budget crowd pleasing director. He is less successful here in marrying those action sensibilities to his big ideas as he was in those two pictures, but he does include them. He shows plenty of skepticism toward the stock market’s and big business’ abilities to run themselves unchecked, while utilizing Bane as an example of how radical attitudes towards them might be even worse than the things themselves.
Perhaps not to the extent of Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker in The Dark Knight, the acting is superb in this installment. As I mentioned above, Bale is great as Bruce. His injuries add a vulnerability not seen in the last two films, and it complements and fuels the rage he feels as he can only watch from afar while his city burns. Anne Hathaway’s coy, tough-as-nails approach imbues Catwoman with a playfulness different from Michelle Pfeiffer’s take in Batman Returns, and her bravery at film’s end shows the complexity of the character who had usually only been utilized as a villain in filmed adaptations. Tom Hardy’s Bane, while tasked with the thankless job of succeeding Ledger as the villain, does a good job of providing a fascistic menace totally different from his series predecessors. Gordon-Levitt’s acting is the best in the film, and in some ways he is the main character. His progression from “hot head” cop to future Batman replacement is a fascinating one to see; he has gone from an “actor to watch” to full-blown must-see in the last few years.
A lot of The Dark Knight Rises works. The things that don’t — an unearned romance between Bruce and Marion Cotillard’s mysterious Wayne Enterprises executive, an unnecessary expository hallucination cameo by Liam Neeson, the underutilization of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, the aforementioned ending — are enough to make this film good instead of great. But Nolan’s virtuosic direction and magnetic performances by the other actors ensure that it’s not a debacle, either. I’d long worried this could become another example of second-sequel-itis (Superman 3 and Spider-Man 3 being the worst offenders), but I’ll take good-not-great any day over retroactively ruining the other movies in the series.