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“You yourself fought the decadence of Gotham for years with all your strength, all your resources, all your moral authority. And the only victory you could achieve was a lie.” — Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson)
Unlike its predecessors — or any movie that has ever been released — The Dark Knight Rises‘ release was marred by a horrible shooting that occurred inside a theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight screening of the film that resulted in 12 deaths and 70 more injuries. I can still remember waking up the morning of the film’s release and dropping my jaw at the news, since this was almost an unprecedented occurrence. (I say “almost” because, frankly, if schools can get shot up, other places can too, obviously, but the idea that someone would shoot up a movie theater hadn’t crossed my mind.) The event put a damper on the opening weekend: I can remember going to see the movie that weekend with my uncle and cousin and everything just felt really weird. There was almost a feeling of survivor’s guilt or something — we were there to enjoy a movie that others had literally died watching. I enjoyed the movie, but I quickly forgot about it afterward since I frankly just wanted to distance myself from it all.
The movie still did really well commercially, grossing over $400 million domestically and over $1 billion total, but it wasn’t a zeitgeist movie like its predecessor. Unfortunately, it got attention for an awful reason through no fault of its own, which really is too bad. And because it was so inextricably linked with a shooting for such a long time, it had no place in the pop culture conversation. Pop culture is a bubble — something’s either in or it’s not — and people wanted The Dark Knight Rises out of the bubble; they didn’t want to keep talking about it for months on end like they did with the previous film. In fact, they didn’t want to talk about it at all — it was too weird (more like unpleasant) to do so. Looking back on it, I know I just wasn’t in the right mindset when I watched this movie for the first time. The movie had been hyped substantially, of course, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it, but once the shooting happened and the gun control debate raged across America (for neither the first nor the last time, sadly), it really was impossible to just go to the theater and watch it like any other movie. (Ironically, this kept the movie from being viewed as something special like the previous film — instead, it was “just another movie.”)
I saw The Dark Knight Rises again once it came out on Blu-ray, and was surprised at how highly I thought of it. I thought, “Wow, this is a great movie. I can’t believe no one talks about it anymore.” This was also around the time the Oscar nominations were announced that year, and The Dark Knight Rises got shut out completely, which actually wasn’t that shocking, as I recall. After The Dark Knight got eight nominations and missed out on getting four more (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Score) and many were left disappointed, The Dark Knight Rises got no nominations at all. At the time, I hadn’t seen The Dark Knight Rises since the previous summer, and since I couldn’t remember the movie that well, I didn’t have a problem with the Academy “passing” on it (though zero nominations was pretty harsh). But once I saw the movie again — completely removed from the Aurora shooting that became so inseparable from its theatrical release — I couldn’t believe it got so ignored. Well, actually, I understood why quite perfectly: if I wanted to forget the movie by the time Oscar season rolled around, surely a bunch of old Academy voters wanted to do so, as well.
Even so, The Dark Knight Rises turned out to be popular: it made money, and the fans liked it. While it doesn’t enjoy The Dark Knight‘s absurd fourth place ranking on IMDb.com’s Top 250 movies list (as voted on by users who rate movies on the site on a 1-10 scale), it’s still currently number 71, which even tops Batman Begins‘ current 129. That list reveals the depth of The Dark Knight‘s popularity, by the way — only The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II have higher average ratings. The list suffers from some recency bias, for sure — when a movie is released, users flood the site and give it 10 ratings — but given that it has been nearly seven years since The Dark Knight‘s release and it’s still number four, well, it says a lot about the film’s staying power, both as a movie and a cultural moment. Which meant The Dark Knight Rises had a lot to live up to, naturally. Second sequels are tough to execute, particularly when they are not built into the story’s foundation à la The Lord of the Rings. (It actually took director Christopher Nolan quite a while to even commit to doing a third Batman film; it wasn’t announced that he had signed on to the project until 2010.)
Because it was the middle film, The Dark Knight had some built-in narrative advantages, namely that it didn’t have to introduce its main character (or wrap up the trilogy either). This is how the Joker character could get so thoroughly fleshed out. (Unfortunately, while’s Two-Face’s face gets “fleshed out” — sorry, couldn’t resist — the same can’t quite be said about his character, but I discussed that already in my Dark Knight piece.) Each Nolan Batman movie is a fundamentally different film: Batman Begins is a character study, The Dark Knight is a more standalone “chapter” film, and The Dark Knight Rises is an epic. The Dark Knight Rises has an incredible sprawl that makes it difficult to disassemble upon the first viewing or two, since it moves at such a breathless pace and is always seemingly juggling multiple pieces at once thanks to Nolan and editor Lee Smith‘s frequent intercutting. In fact, it seems messy at first, but it’s ultimately not at all; each viewing reveals the script to be tighter and tighter, believe it or not, even though the narrative is considerably more complex than past entries in the series.
As far as scale is concerned, The Dark Knight Rises blows The Dark Knight out of the water (and lest we forget, The Dark Knight blew Batman Begins out of the water!). It’s a testament to the quality of the storytelling that all three movies remain so enjoyable in today’s “can you top this” blockbuster climate. Of course, it’s also a testament to the quality of the action scenes, which are executed well in all three films. While The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t offer a sequence quite as jaw-dropping and visceral as the chase on the lower level in The Dark Knight that culminated with the flipping of an 18-wheeler, The Dark Knight Rises is indisputably spectacular. Fittingly, the trilogy’s climactic chase sequence features each of the Batmobiles (Begins‘ Tumbler, Knight‘s Batpod, and Rises‘ Bat), but it does so in a way that doesn’t emphasize it — there’s a ton of cross-cutting and they’re trying to stop a nuclear bomb from detonating, so the movie smartly doesn’t say, “Look! It’s all three Batmobiles!” (The snapshot above is from the only shot in the film with all three Batmobiles. It only lasts around two seconds.)
The sequence is one of three that really, really, really demonstrate how insanely high the budget (reportedly a cool $250 million) was for this film. The first is the set piece that opens the film wherein Bane (Tom Hardy) and his men are placed on a CIA airplane along with a nuclear physicist and proceed to crash the plane in spectacular fashion. How? Well, the plane is boarded by pirate-like monkey men who swing down to the plane from above — thanks to a giant C-130 popping in as part of some elaborate scheme by Bane — shoot out the windows, attach cables to the sides of the CIA plane so it gets dragged along in the sky in the C-130’s wake, and set Bane and his men loose. Bane, of course, snatches the nuclear physicist and pulls him to safety aboard the C-130, grabbing one the cables attached to the plane and detaching it, leaving us to watch the fuselage of the CIA plane fall to Earth below. Call me crazy, but isn’t there an easier way to kidnap someone?
Nevertheless, the plane heist is thrilling to watch and is a fine opening to The Dark Knight Rises, even if by the end of it we have no idea what the hell we have just witnessed, or why, because the sequence is so damn convoluted from a plot standpoint — at first, it’s difficult to understand how this could possibly relate to anything in Gotham. The bank heist in The Dark Knight actually took place in Gotham, so we were more aware of its direct effect on Batman, but the plane heist involves people we don’t know in a place we don’t know. (And what’s more, we don’t see the nuclear physicist again for over an hour.) Because of this, the opening sequence doesn’t quite have the visceral impact the previous film’s bank heist had, even if it is significantly more epic. Both films introduce us to the villain by showing him in his element, but whereas the bank heist left us with a definitive look at the chaotic nature of the Joker, the plane heist leaves me scratching my head a little as to what Bane is really all about.
Of course, once the structure of the script becomes clear, it’s more than evident that leaving Bane’s character more of a mystery at the conclusion of this scene is the film’s intention. The Joker is introduced to the world of the Dark Knight trilogy at the end of Batman Begins, and it’s implied in the aftermath of the bank heist that Gordon and Batman have been tracking him for some time. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce hasn’t put on the cape in eight years, so he is entirely unaware of Bane’s existence, as is Gordon and the rest of Gotham. Therefore it’s important that we don’t learn too much about who Bane is, since it’s important from a storytelling perspective that we don’t get too far ahead of the characters’ perspectives that will eventually relate the story to us. Tellingly, the first time we actually get some intel on Bane is after Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) visits Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) does some research on what Gordon had described to Blake in the hospital. We find out he’s a mercenary, that he was trained by Ra’s al Ghul but was later excommunicated from the League of Shadows, and that he escaped a legendary, Hell on Earth prison called The Pit.
Midway through the film, we see Bane take Gotham hostage at the football stadium in the second of the three ridiculously expensive action set pieces. Parts of the whole city get blowed up real good (to use some proper English), and every bridge connected to
Manhattan island Gotham save one is severed, leaving Gotham in isolation. Bane then trots out the nuclear physicist from the opening heist sequence and breaks his neck, leaving the one person who can stop the nuclear bomb — hidden somewhere in the city and scheduled to detonate in five months as the reactor to Bruce’s failed fusion project deteriorates — dead and unable to do so. What follows is a bizarre Storming of the Modern-Day Bastille, in which Bane reveals that the Dent Act, a law enacted in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death, was based on a lie. Thanks to a resignation speech Gordon can’t bring himself to give in the beginning of the film that is later obtained by Bane when Gordon is captured, Bane knows the truth, and he uses it to devastating effect. The Dent Act has given law enforcement teeth, but it has come at a cost, and when Bane explains the cost to the citizens of Gotham, they realize they weren’t as willing to pay it as they thought.
Bane couldn’t care less about giving the people of Gotham freedom, of course — it’s all just a means of distracting the citizens of Gotham long enough for the reactor to deteriorate and for the bomb to explode. As long as the people are enjoying their newfound power over the previously rich and the city remains isolated, the red LED light on the bomb will continue ticking its way down to zero. Basically, the fusion reactor which Bane has the nuclear physicist fashion into a nuclear weapon has to deteriorate for about five months before it becomes unstable enough to explode. Of course, in a bit of somewhat murky plotting, the bomb could go off whenever Bane feels like it by simply pressing a trigger (the bomb is armed), but he wants Bruce to experience the maximum amount of pain by watching his city crumble under the lie that propped up the Dent Act. The reason why the plot is a bit murky here: why doesn’t Bane just blow up the city after only three months? Isn’t that long enough to show Bruce “the depth of his failure”? Why doesn’t he blow up the city outside the blast radius? Why don’t he and Talia (Marion Cotillard) seem all that concerned about surviving the destruction of the city? Where is it written in the code of the League of Shadows that you have to die along with the city?
The above questions are my only objections to the story’s otherwise very sound internal logic. Anyway, here’s how Bane explains to a crippled Bruce what is about to go down after placing him in the Pit:
I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope. So, as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to “stay in the sun.” You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to die.
Bane touches on a number of things here. First, I’ll address what many fans of the first two films found somewhat controversial: that Nolan and David S. Goyer elected to reuse/update the League of Shadows storyline instead of utilizing more of the types of characters in the Batman universe that were ultimately explored in The Dark Knight. Instead of the Riddler or the Penguin we got Bane, a significantly lesser-known villain to non-readers of the comic books. (I certainly had never heard of him.) I’d say this was the right call — The Dark Knight was afforded the opportunity to explore the Joker and Two-Face since it didn’t have to provide an introduction or an ending to the trilogy. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is supposed to provide a definitive ending — this is one of the two givens provided before any of the other details of the film could be set in stone; the other was that the movie would start with Gotham having achieved some semblance of stability and with Bruce Wayne on a Batman sabbatical. Since the second movie didn’t end with any specific narrative threads that need to be tied up in the final film, it’s only natural (and expected) for Batman to return to the center of the narrative in the third film.
Above all, what we wanted to know after the conclusion of The Dark Knight was: what will eventually become of Batman? As the film opens, we learn it has been eight years since the death of Harvey Dent and the cover up of his transformation into Two-Face. His sterling reputation — still untouched — is used by Gordon and the lawmakers to enact the Dent Act. We find Bruce Wayne collecting dust in the hallways and rooms of the rebuilt Wayne manor home, unable to move on from the death of Rachel. He thought he wanted to not have to be Batman anymore, but that’s because he wanted to be with Rachel…who’s no longer alive. Furthermore, the immoral means he and Gordon used to justify the Dent Act has left his conscience unclear — not only has the reason for his wanting to hang up the cape disappeared, but the way he achieved this end was completely unBatmanlike. It’s the kind of lie that eats away at you more and more the longer it is kept secret, which is particularly true here. It’s also why Nolan opted to open the film eight years after The Dark Knight: not only does enough time have to go by so that Gotham completely stabilizes, but Bruce has to have time to wither under the weight of the lie.
As a result, he is broken at the start of the film. Broken emotionally, physically — he’s just been existing without any kind of purpose. Alfred points this out to him in the early going, telling him that he has never moved on, that he has never went on with living. What gives this situation particular weight and import is something I discussed in detail in my piece on Batman Begins: Batman is his real personality, while Bruce Wayne has been his shadow, a projection that emerges when he is under stress. We all have a personality type, as well as a shadow type, and developing your shadow is an important part of personal growth — it keeps you from getting too comfortable by ignoring your weaknesses all the time. During the eight-year gap between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has been taken away from Bruce, but instead of working to inhabit his shadow more of the time by working on his public persona as Bruce Wayne, he sinks like a stone into isolation. Although it is never spelled out for us explicitly, Batman transitioning back into Bruce Wayne is what the final film in the trilogy — particularly its ending — is really about. How can Bruce really leave it all behind in a healthy way?
Once all this starts to click, the movie almost writes itself. A big “almost” there, given the complexity of the script — honestly, what script by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan isn’t? — but in terms of the broad strokes related to the resolution of the trilogy, they have an inevitable quality to them in the sense that you can’t imagine them happening any other way. Put simply, Bruce saves the day, gives up being Batman, and moves on, finding a replacement for Rachel in Selina Kyle’s Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who in an interesting bit of symmetry, spends the entire film trying to erase her past. At first glance, their (implied) serious relationship wouldn’t appear to have much potential (and looks like something of a stunt since it’s part of a twist revealing that Bruce is still alive after he’s assumed dead following the film’s climax), but underneath the surface they have much in common and know exactly who the other really is. Everything else in the movie is reverse-engineered from this conclusion, which makes sense, given that this is the final film in the trilogy and, after all, how the trilogy ends is of utmost concern.
The Dark Knight Rises also utilizes my favorite kind of resolution, which is ending a movie by establishing a new beginning. (The 2002 film City of God could be the best example — the realization that you have witnessed one cycle that will repeat over and over is strangely powerful. The 2003 film The Matrix Revolutions could be the worst example, simply because there was no reason to give a shit by the end of it.) Obviously, if Bruce leaves the bat cave for good, someone should take his place; the idealistic character of officer/detective Blake was created in response, and the film’s final shot features Blake (whose first name is revealed to be Robin shortly before the film fades to black) entering the cave and presumably taking over Batman’s duties after quitting the police force. But enough about how the movie ends. Now that we have sussed out the reasons why the movie ends the way it does, let’s discuss why it begins the way it does, and how the Nolan brothers eventually bridge the two (ironically by severing all bridges to Gotham during the film). Obviously, Bruce is broken at the beginning of the film — the only thing that can put him back together again is by becoming Batman again (and eventually letting go of the caped crusader on his own terms).
This is why I really don’t agree with the notion that the movie is flawed or inferior because it doesn’t feature a prominent villain like the Riddler or because it reuses the League of Shadows storyline: At its core, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t about that stuff at all. Instead, it’s grounded in character, which is fascinating to me, since that’s not how the film comes across at all during the first viewing; at first, it seems like an endless jumble of twists and competing storylines that frequently are intercut in a frenzied manner. Bane may not be as glamorous a villain as the Penguin, but he is the perfect antagonist for the given situation since not only is he physically superior to Batman, but he knows how to break Batman’s (and Gotham’s) spirit, as well. After Bane places Bruce in the Pit, Bruce asks him why he didn’t just kill him. Bane replies, “You don’t fear death; you welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe.” “Torture?” “Yes. But not of your body. Of your soul.” This hearkens back to Bruce’s training in the Asian mountains in the beginning of Batman Begins, when Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) recognizes that Bruce doesn’t fear death — and hasn’t since the death of his parents.
Bane proceeds to rip apart the Gotham Batman and Gordon worked so hard — and lied — to establish, leaving Bruce, crippled from an earlier fight in which Bane nearly destroys him, to rot in the Pit and watch it all on a TV Bane has put there to add to his misery. The Pit itself, incidentally, is quite impressive; it’s basically a massive well. Logistically, it makes no sense whatsoever — how would they get food to the prisoners down there? — but this is easily overlooked. (I wouldn’t want the cable/satellite installation bill for that TV either.) But the Pit manages to be more than just spectacular to look at, since it provides the perfect crucible for Bruce to reforge his identity. According to the prisoner doctor, only one person — a child, making the climb (and jump across a ledge) without a safety rope — has escaped the Pit, though countless others have tried (with a safety rope). Bruce tries to make the necessary climb and jump, but falls short twice. Finally, the blind prisoner tells Bruce that his not fearing death makes him weak instead of strong, since he’s not producing enough adrenaline to give him an extra lift on his leap. Bruce replies, “I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.”
The blind prisoner instructs him to make the climb “as the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.” It’s then that Bruce realizes that the numbness that he found solace in after the murder of his parents (and Rachel) may have been a necessary coping mechanism to help him bury his grief, but it has limited his ability to help others — especially in the years when he couldn’t put on the Batsuit before Batman Begins and after The Dark Knight. This is an amazingly wise insight on the part of the film, that Bruce’s not fearing death makes him weak. Similarly, someone believing (or not believing) 100% in God’s existence doesn’t make him or her strong either, since believing (or not believing) without doubting defeats the purpose. If there is no room for doubt, there is no room for belief (or non-belief) either — you’re instead treating it as fact, and fact can’t strengthen faith (or atheism). The only thing eliminating doubt completely does is reveal your own insecurity — you’re not comfortable enough to admit there are limits to what you can know, so you pretend to know one way or the other about God’s existence. This is precisely what the blind prisoner makes Bruce understand: that his not fearing death covers up his own insecurity about dying. And how can he expect to save his city from death if he is so insecure about it himself?
It’s human to be afraid to die. Personally, I don’t particularly fear being dead — I suppose I am enough of an existentialist to not be afraid of the concept of nothing; pre-existence certainly wasn’t unpleasant or anything, so I doubt post-existence will be either — but certain things related to death do scare me, such as the extreme pain that could possibly directly precede it or the idea that things I’d like to do with my life would not come to pass. At the very least, we as humans should be afraid of death in the sense that it keeps us from living. And so Bruce makes the climb (without the rope), feels the added shot of adrenaline, and leaps to freedom, sending the movie into the third act with his return to Gotham. But more importantly, he’s whole once again — not just physically, but as a person; he’s returning to Gotham not because Bruce Wayne needs Batman, but because the city does. This is markedly different from early on in the film, when Bruce trots Batman out of retirement basically because he was looking for a reason to do so. (Honestly, I don’t think I have ever seen so many cop cars on screen at once during the part when the police start chasing Batman instead of Bane and his henchmen. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. And by the way, that early chase scene is filmed in downtown LA instead of New York. I always get a kick out of seeing the switch.)
So much more that I haven’t even discussed — such as Miranda Tate’s betrayal of Bruce and the reveal that she is Talia, Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, and the child born in the Pit who escaped — fills the finer points of the massive story. Honestly, if I went to great lengths to unspool anything else from the film’s densely layered, complex narrative (which, as I already mentioned, is woven quite tightly), it wouldn’t add much to this write-up, since I would just be rehashing the plot. (As an aside, it’s incredibly hard to write about a movie that is this ridiculously convoluted in the way it’s presented. I think the reason why it was so overlooked by the Academy during Oscar season is that it its greatness isn’t obviously apparent — during the initial viewing (and let’s face it, Academy voters aren’t going to be watching it more than once before they vote) it’s all you can do just to keep up with the plot.) What I do want to accomplish by mentioning how much else I haven’t covered is to emphasize that ultimately the movie has quite a low center of gravity. Bane, Catwoman, the League of Shadows, the Pit — all are layers added on to a very human core.
The Dark Knight Rises has all of Christopher Nolan’s typical narrative devices, employing lots of twists and what I like to call “juggle cutting,” where intercutting is utilized to an extreme degree — as in, for relatively long stretches at a time — to create the sensation that several narrative threads are about to reach an explosive conclusion all at once. (Who can forget the image of the van slowly falling into the water in Inception, which is the film where Nolan really perfected this technique. It’s as if multiple balls are thrown in the air, are juggled for a while, and then nosedive together towards the ground, slowly succumbing to gravity’s pull.) The action, of course, is spectacular and the cinematography by DP Wally Pfister is stunning; more than an hour of the film was shot with IMAX cameras, more than twice the amount (28 minutes) in The Dark Knight. Even though it has been less than three years since the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I feel like no one really talks about it anymore. After all, it appears on a very short list of “threequels” that are legitimately great, along with The Return of the King, Toy Story 3, and The Last Crusade. The Dark Knight Rises is a masterwork of blockbuster cinema, frankly. Its ambitions are considerably higher than its predecessors or peers, and the film fulfills every ambition without exception.