(Note: I tried to keep this review fairly spoiler free, and definitely kept it free of any spoilers relating to the ending, but I do discuss the plot in general terms, so if you’re especially sensitive about any spoilers be warned.)
I initially thought I was going to have to watch The Dark Knight Rises again before I could review it properly. The reason for this inclination was simple enough: I wasn’t sure how to balance what I hated about this film and what I liked about this film. But it has since occurred to me that there is actually no way to balance these factors. They both exist, they are both incredibly strong, and neither of them especially affects the other.
On the basic level of the story and the way it’s told, I am extremely tempted to call The Dark Knight Rises the best of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and one of the finest superhero films I’ve ever seen. But this film, like the others in the series (moreso The Dark Knight than Batman Begins) doesn’t operate on that level alone. So I am forced to acknowledge the profound tension between my at times gleeful appreciation for what this film is doing and my utter contempt for what this film is saying.
The Dark Knight introduced a political subtext to this series when Batman (Christian Bale) used a vast surveilance network to pinpoint the Joker’s (Heath Ledger) location. His reluctant accomplice, Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is so morally outraged by the ethical implications that he tells Bruce he will resign after helping him this one time to stop the Joker. But even principled Lucius can only shake his head in appreciation as the system self destructs after this single use.
Happy ending, right? But its inclusion is jarringly awkward for several reasons. In practically any other incarnation of the character, Batman might have used, I don’t know, his skills as the world’s greatest detective to find the Joker. Instead, he uses a tactic that “unethical invasion of privacy” really doesn’t do justice to: this tactic largely destroys the concept of privacy by giving Batman access to literally every single cellular telephone in Gotham.
But more importantly, what is this saying? We see our hero using this beyond-unethical tactic to stop the Joker, but he really, really promised only to use it for that, and made good on that promise, because Batman is incorruptible. No problem, right? Oh, yeah, I should probably mention: this film was made around the same time the United States government was embroiled in debate about security measures that included words like “wire tapping” and “without a warrant.” But they really, really promised only to use it to catch terrorists.
Though I admitted to a certain amount of discomfort, I initially resisted reading this as a fairly unsubtle wink and thumbs up to conservatives. After all, superhero films quite often portray political realities in their own, separate worlds without necessarily intending to engage in the politics of the real world. Unfortunately, after seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I’m forced to consider this a pretty likely reading. The Dark Knight compounded this by having Commissioner Gordon and Batman make the decision, just between the two of them, to lie to the public (for their own good!) about the murders Harvey Dent committed, blaming them on Batman. Again, I was initially willing to look at this as merely an act of drama by a superhero film… until The Dark Knight Rises revealed that this lie was used as a pretext to enact draconian crime fighting legislation. It’s okay, though! It’s just a movie, so you know everyone who’s being kept locked up is really, really a bad guy… the problem being that a lot of people seem to carry that same certainty into real life, based on a lot of the comments you’ll hear from people while they’re watching the news.
Batman and Gordon’s lie to the people of Gotham becomes extremely relevant in The Dark Knight Rises, and I will admit that I started to hope that this film would concede the previous film’s lie to be unjust. It certainly seemed to be heading in that direction when one of the film’s heroes, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is disgusted by the cover-up and says as much to Gordon. Furthermore, Gordon himself is frequently shown chafing at the burden of maintaining his lie, and Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce’s father figure and one of the most morally upright characters in the series, seems remorseful about his own parallel lie in the previous film. But their remorse only plays a role in the first act of the film, and Blake later seems to have a change of heart about Gordon’s actions.
But the most damning thing about this film, and the thing I alluded to earlier that concretizes many of the previously merely-awkward threads of The Dark Knight, is the way in which quite contemporary socio-economic arguments are employed. Without getting into too much detail, the antagonists in this film sound an awful lot like members of Occupy Wall Street. The basic premise of most modern critiques of the widening gap between the wealthiest members of our society and everyone else (many of whom are increasingly unable to provide for themselves the basest of necessities) are repeated by the man who is leading mobs of people with machine guns terrorizing innocent citizens. (I must’ve missed that particular Occupy demonstration.) Don’t worry, though: a principled billionaire and the morally untouchable police are on their way to save us.
(Warning: sharp turn ahead.) All of that being said… I really, really enjoyed this film. If you divorce it of political context, the story elements are really firing on all cylinders. Bane (Tom Hardy) is given perhaps the most badass introduction of a villain I’ve ever seen, and this segues nicely into Bruce Wayne’s triumphant return as Batman. This stretch of the film actually had me feeling vaguely giddy, epitomized when Batman is shot at by a police officer, glares at that officer menacingly, and the frightened officer actually apologizes before his partner yells at him to get back in the car “before you hurt yourself.”
Far from being ruined like he was in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin or just portrayed half-heartedly like he has been in nearly every other onscreen interpretation, Bane here is every bit the ruthless and cruel criminal genius he was in the comics. Both the physical and mental aspects of the character are dominated by a marriage between the seemingly contradictory elements of calculation and brutality.
My greatest source of anxiety about this film was Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (not called Catwoman at any point in the film, but we all know that’s who she was.) Although I was not one of the many people who were bizarrely skeptical about this casting choice, Anne Hathaway is quite possibly my favorite actor on the planet, and Selina Kyle is probably my favorite Batman character of all time (it’s either her or Robin/Nightwing.)
I actually had no problem imagining her as Catwoman. In the action-comedy remake of the television series Get Smart, Hathaway portrayed Agent 99, a secret agent who was both conventionally deadly and willing to use her sexuality (on her own terms) as a weapon. After seeing that film, I basically wanted to be Hathaway’s character when I grew up (and that was before I knew I was trans; true story.) Naturally, Hathaway absolutely nailed Selina Kyle in this film. I actually think she made the character much bigger than the script did, at times absolutely dominating the screen. There are also at least two scenes where she employs one of my favorite tactics for female characters: giving off the image of vulnerability everyone expects to see from a female, and then immediately dropping the mask and looking deadly again as soon as no one’s looking. Scenes like this are some of the most vivid representations of the profound difference between society’s ideas about women and this little thing I like to call reality.
Inevitably, considering the weeks-long project I am currently engaged in to rank my all-time favorite superhero films (and least favorite superhero films), I find myself wondering where this film might fall. I can say for sure that it certainly does not fall on the latter list, because regardless of my discomfort with the messages of this film, it is excellent film.
If you can ignore the political statements this film makes, it really is an absolute thrill ride, and a fitting end to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. But is it possible to simply ignore the deeply anti-democratic themes of this film? Certainly many will defend this point by making the argument that it’s “just a superhero movie” and the political implications are unintentional, but I really think it’s too big of a coincidence to have back-to-back films that “just so happen” to have awkwardly conservative messages.
Christopher Nolan has cited Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a major influence in this film, and directly quotes the novel near the end of the film. I consider this eerily appropriate, but find I must turn to a different line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Perhaps only time will resolve my deeply conflicted view of this film. Or perhaps it will not be resolved at all.