Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises markets mediocrity
A better movie than The Dark Knight Rises would invite discussion of its content, but interpretation (“What’s that?” say Avengers fans) isn’t even required of this third entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise. A film of empty spectacle, its actual content (formulaic violence, humorless dialogue, unvarying solemnity) runs second to the blatant process of supplying a pre-sold audience with brand-name characters and predictable action.
Why bother detailing the film’s routine story when Nolan can’t get beneath its surface? Demoralized Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his fortune and retraces his previous torturous superhero training to protect Gotham City from another cast of overly familiar nemeses–sneak-thief Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), homicidal freak Bane (Tom Hardy) and an unlikely foe thrown in at the last half-hour.
The Dark Knight Rises only offers an economics lesson in how an entire culture gets indoctrinated into buying repackaged characters, set-pieces and hackneyed style, not a great modern myth. Instead, all the action-movie reflexes learned from James Bond films (the opening airplane stunt), Indiana Jones flicks (battles against world-historical evil) and comic book movies (innumerable, copycat origin-tales) seem for naught. Consumer amnesia rises.
When Batman was just a comic book figure, it appealed to youth and embodied an innocent sense of justice and necessary heroism. Then the graphic novel version, Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns, converted the fable into casual cynicism that Nolan treats in his now over-scaled sophomoric manner. “I’m necessary evil,” Bane hisses during one of his rampages, appealing to jaded youth and tilting Nolan’s interest away from storytelling and toward trite, cynical mood.
Even I mistook the franchise’s previous mass killings and implacably malevolent adversaries for significant (sickening) ugliness because they resonated 9/11 anxiety. But as The Dark Knight Rises plods toward the three-hour point and Nolan drops-in newsy gibes, it becomes obvious that his political evocations mean nothing. There hasn’t been a trilogy this shapeless and unresonant since The Lord of the Rings–partly to ensure another Nolan sequel (Dark Robin Lays an Egg?).
The 9/11 shockwaves of Nolan’s terrorist-bomb-laden Gotham City include an explosive football stadium extravaganza no deeper than a coming-attractions trailer and offhand references to Occupy Wall Street in Catwoman’s felonious rage against the upperclass. But none of these opportunistic gimmicks (whether a law-and-order subplot or underclass rioting) relate to any character’s dramatized feelings. Bale’s bummed-out crusader lacks convincing moral resilience (see his reluctant hero in Zhang Yimou’s stirring The Flowers of War instead). Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robin mopes in isolation. Hathaway’s one-note femme fatale never develops like Michelle Pfeiffer’s post-feminist hellcat in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Tom Hardy’s Bane, a Hannibal Lecter/Darth Vader composite, remains muffled; his motivations masked like his face.
This pseudo-apocalyptic marathon never pays off for consumers. The last half-hour is a series of rushed fight and chase scenes, none interconnected and all executed without amazement–just Nolan’s usual dull relentlessness. His montage of betrayals, revolts, annihilations–plus sentimental flashbacks–is not accomplished fun like Brad Bird and Tom Cruise’s kinetic cartoon Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol but, simply, a mess.
Kids don’t realize Nolan is peddling used goods (The Matrix III: Revolutions); or how short he falls of cinema’s classic visionary style and existential paranoia–which Fritz Lang mastered almost a century ago. For adults, Nolan’s continued exploitation of 9/11–from a shameless “Star Spangled Banner” tease to devastated urban landscapes–merely sells real-life horror back to us and without depth of feeling. (“What’s that?” Avengers fans say.)
Unlike The Joker’s maniacal outrages, The Dark Knight Rises is just dull, obvious calculation. Nolan’s cynicism is symbolized by a mushroom cloud climax that wastes one of the most profound specters of the modern imagination. In pop terms, Nolan hasn’t got the wit to “nuke the fridge” (Spielberg’s rich, still-misunderstood anthropological jest). But in commercial terms, the way Nolan turns comic book frivolity into hipster nihilism drops a bomb on our cultural economy.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair