Film Review: ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ But Not Very Far

(Originally published at www.lastwordblog.blogspot.com.)

WARNING!!! PLOT SPOILERS!!!

Media pundits assumed that fans would be disappointed by THE DARK KNIGHT RISES no matter what, due to the absence of (dearly departed) Heath Ledger. Ledger’s performance of the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT was deservedly lauded by everyone and their mother, and common wisdom leading up to the release of DK RISES said that Ledger would be irreplaceable.

But while it’s true that Tom Hardy’s performance as the villainous Bane won’t win another Oscar, he’s nonetheless the best character in the film (this is not much of a feat). The problem with DK RISES is not the absence of Heath Ledger, but that it’s a jumbled, incoherent mess. (It’s also explicitly fascist, as explained in this excellent article, but that’s a problem for political critique, not film critique.)

An analogy will help. Does anyone remember X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND? Aside from fundamentally incompetent direction by fundamental incompopoop Brett Ratner, the film fell apart because it was rumored to be the last in the series, so the producers shoved it freaking full of every possible character, trope, and subplot from the X-Men mythology that they could think of. The movie devolved into a series of cameos and lame, referential one-liners (last line in the film: Wolverine says of the Beast, “Not bad, furball.” SRSLY?!?!).

DK RISES is also the last in the franchise, and it suffers from the same kind of overstuffed, inelegant plot. The story goes something like this: Batman’s been retired for eight years. He spends the first third of the film limping and moping around his house in a bizarrely silly-looking mustache, then comes back from retirement for…well, no reason in particular, I guess (although if you read Frank Miller’s comic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, upon which DK RISES is based, Batman unretires because an attempted mugging reminds him of what adrenaline feels like). The plot wanders for a while until Bane breaks Batman’s back, blows up some shit with his army of fanatics, plants a nuke (built out of a fusion reactor, in a vacuously topical nod to Iran/middle-finger to environmentalists) in Gotham, and establishes a state of mob-rule a la Reign of Terror. Meanwhile Batman is rotting in an underground jail in Egypt or somewhere. (Best scene in the movie: Batman’s cellmate says, “There’s a vertebra sticking out of your back. I must fix it” and then punches him in the back and fixes it [AAHHH!! OBAMACARE!!!]). Batman mopes some more in jail, then escapes and returns to Gotham, where he teams up with Commissioner Gordon and Catwoman to defeat Bane and another surprise villain.

In DK RETURNS as in DK RISES, Batman is old, comes out of retirement, gets his back broken by a muscly skinhead, does some soul-searching, and uses his smarts to beat the skinhead. But in Miller’s comic this arc is tight and plausible. In Nolan’s new film, on the other hand, post-retirement Batman spends way too much time driving a poorly-rendered CGI flying car and having tearful conversations with his butler Alfred. These conversations revolve around dramatic tension the audience is expected to recall from the previous DARK KNIGHT film, and as such works as an example for how DARK KNIGHT RISES exploits its predecessor rather than telling a story of its own.

Other Character Stuff:

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets his own subplot as a Gotham cop, which turns out to be totally irrelevant to the main storyline. We find out just before the credits that he’s destined to become Robin, or Nightwing, or something, in some future film that will probably/hopefully never get made. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman isn’t too bad when they’re not giving her awful lines. BUT! Taking his cue again from DK RETURNS, director Christopher Nolan writes Catwoman as quietly queer…and then ends the film with Batman and Catwoman running away together as lovers. I’m not making this up. This is the conclusion of the film. Batman cures her lesbianic tendencies.

Structural problems aside, there are plenty of technical inconsistencies in the story. For example:

*Robin: how did you know to run to the sewer duct just in the nick of time to rescue Commissioner Gordon, who had disappeared earlier several blocks away?

*Catwoman: how did you know precisely when (i.e. just in the nick of time) and where to drive through the wall into the room where Bane was about to kill Batman? Especially considering that you’d been several miles away, and the room was amidst a giant street battle??

*Cops and Fanatics in said street battle: every single one of you is carrying a gun. Why is there no shooting? How is you Braveheart-esque melee-battle even a little bit plausible?

*Miranda Tate: so if you’re really Bane’s lover/ally, and you just pretended to be a foxy philanthropist for eight years in order work as a double agent against Bruce Wayne et al, why didn’t you show your true colors after Bane apparently defeated Batman/Wayne and subjugated Gotham? Did you know that Batman would escape from prison? If so, why didn’t you move to stop him?

*Lucius Fox: so you built a fusion-reactor-machine-thingy to create cheap, clean power for the city, but you and Bruce Wayne wouldn’t turn it on because you were so worried that someone might turn it into a bomb, yet you stored it in a giant empty room with zero security, directly underneath the city? Dude, were you worried it would be dangerous or weren’t you?

*Batman: so at the end of the film you put the nuke into your flying car and flew off over the ocean, so that the blast wouldn’t hurt Gotham. It’d already been established that the cruise control was broken. So you died, and everyone cried a bunch, but then in the last minutes of the film we saw that you’d actually fixed the cruise control and only pretended to die. So…WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS? What possible character motivation could you have for such an elaborate, pointless fake-out? Did you read the script? Were you just faking-out the audience? IS THIS MOVIE BECOMING SELF-AWARE???

My final gripe is how the film flirts with the 2008 debt crisis and the Occupy Wallstreet protests in a superficial way. Bane’s mob-state in Gotham leads to pogroms against rich Gothamites: we see workers and valets dragging pinstripe-suited rich dudes from their mansions. The problem with this tactic is that the character of Batman is fundamentally opposed to social justice: he’s a ne’er-do-well billionaire who spends money on high-tech weapons to fight (not solve or mitigate) crime, which is presented as an elemental force rather than a socially-produced phenomenon. Class warfare is a foreign concept to the ethos of Batman. And so, naturally, the film ends up equating class war with terror and death: if you reject American fascism, you’ll get foreigner fascism. For Batman and DK RISES, the only alternative to stable inequality is chaotic murder. I could go deeper into this, but Noah Brand has done a much better job in this piece from the Good Men Project explaining how DK RISES, and Nolan’s Batman trilogy in general, is explicitly and dangerously pro-fascist.

DK RISES isn’t an awful film. Tom Hardy does a great job as Bane, especially in a hair-raising first scene, and there are a few fun moments here and there. But as a follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS and DARK KNIGHT, it’s deeply disappointing as a piece of entertainment/art. And, like its predecessors, DK RISES advances a narrative sympathetic to neocons and fascists, in which good strong men battle bad strong men so that the people can enjoy stability.

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