ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 11 – THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is clearly a film no one wanted to make, but all involved had to make nonetheless. Christopher Nolan’s star was in ascension: his status as serious auteur had been firmly established by the record-breaking, second film in what would ultimately become the definitive BATMAN trilogy (as of yet), and his follow-up, INCEPTION, served to reinforce this notion.* Superheroes seemed to be in his rearview mirror. He had never been shy about the fact that considered himself above this sort of material, but never too shy to use it as a springboard for his career. There was a commitment to make a third film all the same, though when queried about the direction the story would take – particularly in light of Heath Ledger’s untimely passing – Nolan remained cagey, or, at times, brutally honest: He didn’t know.
It wasn’t a surprising revelation. THE DARK KNIGHT ended on a tragic, ambiguous note, with Harvey Dent – Gotham’s last chance for ordered peace and prosperity – flat on his back in the traditional “Dead Supervillain at the End of the Movie” mode. Batman took the figurative fall for the guy who took the literal one, and vanished into the night, a fugitive. Literally anything could happen. The problem, from a writing perspective, was similar to the one faced by THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the major character killed in the second installment was played by an actor who was very much alive, and very much available, but now rendered unusable; the major character kept around for further expansion, however, was played by an actor currently rotting in a box. In both cases, it created a conceptual hurdle.
This isn’t to say that Nolan’s strength lies in plotting, the execution of story, or coherence in editing. BATMAN BEGINS brilliantly juggles temporal settings, weaving flashbacks inside of flashbacks; yet there’s never a disconnect with what’s happening, or when.** Credit for this deftly-handled technique goes to David S. Goyer, a screenwriter who has suffered the slings and arrows of Fanboys, and largely without justifiable provocation. BATMAN BEGINS is a linear story told in non-linear fashion, and its blueprint grants Nolan a course by which to direct the production. Goyer’s influence was greatly reduced in THE DARK KNIGHT, which abandons the previous film’s ambitious technique of juggling time and space, in favor of a far more straightforward progression of events; but the sheer number of characters and subplots, coupled with the abandonment of a traditional Three Act structure, renders THE DARK KNIGHT sloppy. It plays more like a binge-watch of four or five episodes of a BATMAN television show, as there are so many climactic set pieces that the movie ends and begins again to the point of exhaustion. The entire Tokyo subplot, for example, could be seamlessly removed without changing a single thing (other than to tighten the film as a whole).
When it came time for Nolan to reveal the details of his concluding chapter, they were underwhelming in the extreme. The first issue was the title: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. While there had certainly been fan speculation (as there always is), postulating such names as THE CAPED CRUSADER, or BATMAN ENDS, what was ultimately decided upon felt more like a corporate mandate than a creative choice. Everyone loved that DARK KNIGHT movie, and since we aren’t just using the name of the character in the title and putting a number after it, we have to make sure we don’t confuse people, because consumers are stupid. Let’s add a new word after the name of the last title; that way, no one can miss it! The DVDs will even sit next to one another on the shelf at Best Buy. Good work, team! I’m honestly surprised that Warner Brothers didn’t rename the first film THE DARK KNIGHT BEGINS, because that’s how shallow and artistically bankrupt the decision-making had become. Calling all three together the DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY is equally crass, and every time you refer to it as such, keep in mind that it was given that specific umbrella title because a major corporation thinks you’re such a fucking idiot that you can’t remember or associate Batman with anything but one particular movie. Hello, fucking idiot. How’s that DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY marathon you’re enjoying?
The title alone should have been an indicator that Nolan had checked out – indeed, his mind was already on INTERSTELLAR – but there were further troubling signs and portents. For one thing, the choice of villains came out of left field. Early reports on websites like this one suggested that Nolan’s penchant for “Real World-ing” his BATMAN films (not “movies,” guys) would best be served with the inclusion of a Zodiac-inspired take on The Riddler. In hindsight, this is better a stronger concept than what we actually got, because it seemed more in harmony with the director’s sensibilities than his WTF selection of Bane and Catwoman.
Bane. Fuck you, Bane. Fuck you straight to Hell. His creation and popularity was – like Venom’s – a product of the very depressing period in which the entire Comic Book industry nearly collapsed in the mid-90s due to X-TREME CHARACTERS and publicity-minded stunts (e.g., the death and rebirth of Superman; the crippling and rebranding of Batman; Spidey’s seemingly-endless Clone Saga, et al.). Bane was, and is, a nothing character. He’s got huge muscles, because artists like to draw huge muscles. He takes Super Steroids and wears a luchador mask, because of course he does. And that’s it. That’s all there is to him. Did Nolan select this character – and the iconic non-story in which he breaks Batman’s back – because the character is so fundamentally empty that he could be filled in with genuine characterization? Or did Warner Brothers look at their adopted company, DC Comics, and realize how many copies of the Knightfall, KnightQuest, and KnightsEnd trade paperbacks they could move in conjunction with the film’s release…?
Nolan did his usual work with Bane, which was the same as with all his previous villains: he found “reasons” to justify their existence in a way that satisfied him, personally. Bane’s Mexican wrestling mask becomes a breathing apparatus; his strength-enhancing drug becomes pain medicine. His nationality and backstory and appearance and everything else changes, except for the brand recognition of a name, and a squint-and-you-can-almost-see-it resemblance to an iconic villain. That’s it. It’s a soulless and thoroughly merciless, merchandise-driven case of extreme opportunism. The way in which Nolan appropriates and then fundamental redesigns the character so that he isn’t even the character anymore, retroactively casts a shadow on his approach to other heroes and villains seen in previous entries.
The selection of Catwoman feels more organic and in keeping with Nolan’s sensibilities, but the onscreen depiction muddies the waters of his overall mission statement. Selina Kyle is indeed more “plausible” as presented, and the stubborn refusal to use her official moniker betrays the director’s discomfort with playing in this particular sandbox; it’s impossible to get that shit out of your shoes, after all. Anne Hathaway is nonetheless given a skintight bodysuit that serves no Real World purpose, and she’s presented with hair down for maximum sex appeal, in spite of the obvious handicap such a choice would present in a fistfight. REAL WORLD, EVERYONE! She feels in many ways more out of place than Batman himself came across in THE DARK KNIGHT, as she’s the first – and only – character to arrive packaged as a “Comic Book Character.” Even Batman is shown less as a costumed adventurer than a vigilante using military-grade outfitting and gear to execute his plans. Catwoman just…looks hot, Because?
The reintroduction of the League of Shadows is similarly strange, as it fits snugly with the concepts established in BATMAN BEGINS, but more or less renders THE DARK KNIGHT irrelevant. A case can be made that Harvey Dent’s actions function as a plot propellant for the subsequent chapter, but it’s so minor that it could be substituted with a few lines of dialogue citing the events that climaxed in the first film -- it serves an identical function. The appearance of a particularly mundane take on Talia al Ghul picks up and expands upon the threads (and concepts) left dangling in BATMAN BEGINS, but nothing of genuine consequence is carried over from THE DARK KNIGHT. There may be character shadings, but that’s all they are. You might consider it THE BESTEST BATMAN FILM EVER, but it’s the one of the three that can be skipped without missing a thing.
Equally baffling is the sudden injection of Comic Book Shit. Gotham is cut off from the mainland, and Bane declares it an independent state. There is, nevertheless, a ticking time bomb, set to go off…in a few months. The lunatics and criminals are now in control of the city, but there’s no sense of urgency for Batman to return and save the day; but when he does, he’s flying a ship (a singularly ugly toy no child wants, called “The Bat”), and final urban assault in broad daylight manages to accentuate the more absurd costumed elements of the Caped Crusader’s motif. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES becomes as ridiculous as the final reel of THE AVENGERS, minus the knowledge that it’s supposed to be that way.
The final – and most notable – glaring element is the introduction and overwhelming presence of John Blake. Nolan likes his actors: he keeps them close, and brings them back for unrelated projects. The casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in INCEPTION virtually ensured his appearance in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, along with fellow newcomers Tom Hardy and Marion Cotillard. Early speculation (again, by obnoxious Fanboys on Reddit and AICN) held that Gordon-Levitt’s kinda-sorta-not-really resemblance to Heath Ledger promised a return of The Joker; most held that this was utter bullshit, and that there was no way that Warner Brothers would attempt another interpretation of the character again for at least another decade.*** Common sense prevailed, and Gordon-Levitt was revealed to be…The Riddler? Calendar Man? Someone else from the canon? No: the actor was playing “John Blake,” whose mystery status suggested a major reveal, given the actor employed. Gordon-Levitt was, after all, too big a name for a bit part. And this was the final film in the so-called DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY – what was the likelihood that Nolan would do something so bizarre as creating a major character who had never appeared in the source material?
We were all wrong, and we were all right. Blake was, indeed, a new character, and there was, indeed, a twist involving his true identity. Said reveal is saved for the final moments of the film, in a scene so groan-worthy as to make Thranduil’s farewell speech to Legolas in THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES look positively restrained.**** Without the revelation that Blake is (maybe?) going to become Robin/Nightwing/Batman is a sequel we’ll never see, the excessive focus on the character pushes Jim Gordon into the background of a three-part story that has been as much about him as Batman, and it likewise allows Bruce to lie in a bed throughout the saggy middle portion, just like the debilitated Commissioner. Blake is the only proactive character in the final chapter of a series about Batman.
Did Christopher Nolan check out? The film is just as messy as THE DARK KNIGHT, in that the structure feels similarly malleable. Editing choices seem random. An entire sequence involving Batman’s early reappearance after a seven-year absence switches back and forth between day and night. These are technical issues that suggest the director’s lack of quality control, but the creative issues are just as prevalent. The absence of a timely threat causes the narrative to lurch in a way its predecessor did not. Story points happen unrealistically (Bruce Wayne’s overnight poverty), or contradict themselves (Batman’s unseen entry into a walled-off Gotham). The inclusion of primary characters feel like contractual requirements, and the overall tone is a schizophrenic back-and-forth between 1) the modern-day mythologizing of BATMAN BEGINS and the Cop Drama in tights called THE DARK KNIGHT, as well as 2) Marvel’s record-setting output. It seems inconceivable that Nolan would lack the clout to prevent what feel like a series of mandates issued from on high (SEE: Sam Raimi); maybe he just didn’t care anymore. He had bigger fish to fry. Two or three BATMAN movies might represent his greatest accomplishments to date, but that was only by the consumers who’d helped put him in a position to do Better, More Important Work.
If there’s a particularly negative aspect to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES being such an inconsequential conclusion to a blockbuster franchise, it’s the twelve deaths and seventy injuries – to say nothing of the lifelong trauma of all involved or affected – at the Aurora midnight premiere. The shooter will go unnamed here because Fuck That Guy, but his decision to emulate Nolan’s concept of a Real World Supervillain slathered a shitty stench on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES that will continue to endure. Twelve people died, and seventy were injured. They did so to see a film the director couldn’t be bothered to care about.
*INCEPTION suffers from many of the same issues seen in the director’s body of work: borderline incoherence in the editing, a repetitious stable of recycled actors, and a sense of thematic or conceptual grandeur grafted onto a paper-thin concept. Most egregiously, INCEPTION never bothers to feature a specific antagonist, which all but bleeds the film dry of stakes, and gives the hero no one to face off against. It’s Cobb’s battle with himself, goes the popular counterpoint, but come on: this isn’t an arthouse flick, nor is a Stanley Kubrick joint. If anything, Nolan is so in love with his own concept that he fails to notice that it’s just A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, dressed up to look like THE MATRIX, and minus one Frederick Krueger.
**This method of jumping in and out of time periods would be repeated by Nolan in his next (and best) film, THE PRESTIGE, and to startling effect.
***As The Joker would say: Ha ha ha.
****”Go on your way, Legolas, but while you’re out there, go find a specific character who’s going to play a major role in the next film. I’m not going to tell you his name, because I’m trying to make this an Ah-Ha! moment for the audience. Note that I’m speaking very slowly, so they’re all guessing what name I’m about to say. Squint a little more, Legolas – it’s your best facial expression. Now, as I was saying, he’s a man of mystery, and I know who he is, but like I said, I’m not going to tell you…but I will tell you his code name. Is everyone listening? You in the back, get off your phone. Okay. His name – and note that I’m now speaking. Very. Slowly. Is. Striiiiiiiderrrrrrr.”
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)