The Dark Knight Rises offers something with no counterpart in Nolan’s career: it’s a hot mess. That is not to say it’s a bad film, and certainly not to say it’s the worst of Nolan’s career (that’s clearly Interstellar). But there is a mad unruliness to it that is utterly uncharacteristic of Nolan’s work. Nolan is, as I’ve said before, an enormously fussy director. His work thrives on constantly trumpeting his presence as an auteur, inviting the audience to feel smart for keeping up with him. This is not inherently a bad thing - it’s nothing that isn’t true of Steven Moffat, for instance. It’s just how Nolan rolls. When it works, as with The Prestige, the result is a gripping puzzle box. When it doesn’t, as with Inception or Interstellar, you get something more akin to a stupid person’s idea of what a smart movie is like. But The Dark Knight Rises is neither of these things. Instead it’s a film Nolan simply loses control of - that becomes a sprawling tangle of competing ambitions that doesn’t know what it wants to do even as, at any given moment, it’s doing it with characteristic hyper-focus.
To some extent this is visible just from its sense of what comics it’s adapting. Sure, Batman Begins had a vague relationship with Year One and The Dark Knight is in some tangential sense based on The Long Halloween, but for the most part they were built out of bespoke parts. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, is mashing together The Dark Knight Returns with Knightfall. These already two borderline incompatible works, offering two very different accounts of Batman’s limits. Nolan, however, combines them while also including Catwoman’s plot from Year One, the introduction of Talia al Ghul, Robin, and the lingering plot threads from the other two parts of the trilogy. This is nuts. These are not parts that have any natural reason to go together - instead it’s as though Nolan, out of clear-cut ideas on what to do with his third film, just raided all the remaining bits of the mythos that sounded interesting and put them in a blender.
The result is oddly satisfying. It’s not quite that Nolan is working outside of his comfort zone - it’s nearly impossible to imagine him doing a comedy, or even something that can fairly be described a small and intimate. Rather, it’s a strange combination of Nolan letting his hair down and having something to prove. The sense is that the need to top himself twice over has finally put a bit of pressure on him, and he’s not entirely confident of how to handle it, so is spreading his bets. But his attitude towards this is pleasantly relaxed - as though he’s just letting this film happen as his big obligation between Inception and Interstellar. And as a result, it’s a better film than either, because another way of putting that is that Nolan recognizes the impossible scope of this movie and so has decided to actually have some fun with it.
Certainly this helps explain the film’s take on Bane. I’ve not peered into the production history particularly, but whether consciously or not, Bane seems to be filling a narrative role that wants the Joker. Certainly it’s hard to imagine Nolan not using the Joker if it had been an option (recasting him being clearly off the table). And so reimagining Bane as an unexpectedly suave terrorist whose strengths are primarily in elaborate schemes is interesting. It’s not that he isn’t smart; his defeat of Batman in Knightfall is as much based on cleverness as brute strength. It’s just that the brute strength is clearly what the character leads with conceptually, as evidenced by Jim Aparo’s iconic backbreak splash. Which is worth comparing to the scene in the film, where the breaking of Batman’s back is not a climactic moment of raw and terrifying puissance, but a casual and contemptuous discarding of a beaten foe.
But even more than leading with Bane’s cleverness is the way in which he’s turned into a reprise of the Joker politically as well. But while the Joker was, if not exactly subtle, at least not a villain that demanded a political reading or GTFO, there’s really no way around reading Bane politically. The Dark Knight Rises mostly finished shooting before Occupy Wall Street kicked off, but by the summer of 2012 it was impossible to listen Bane’s speechifying about how “we take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity” and not think of Zucotti Park. But where the Joker offered a useful structural ambiguity, Bane goes down the most common path that overtly leftist villains get stuck on whereby their revolutionary rhetoric is just a front for a banally totalitarian scheme. The question of whether Bane is right or not is foreclosed by the fact that he’s lying anyway.
Well, mostly. Catwoman, after all, demonstrates the same basic revolutionary instincts as Bane, proclaiming early in the film that “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” And so her arc offers a secondary engagement with the politics of violently overthrowing the rich. Taken this way, her story ends up being firmly against class war, her early film politics abandoned in favor of shacking up with a billionaire at the film’s end. But here Nolan’s worst instincts cancel each other out - with Catwoman’s presence during Bane’s takeover of Gotham reduced essentially to a bunch of shots of Anne Hathaway staring moodily out of windows, such that her conversion from revolutionary socialism to gold-digging is mostly downplayed.
It is, of course, a slender reed at best to suggest that the film avoids its worst political instincts through sheer incoherence. Especially since, by any reasonable measure, The Dark Knight Rises is more blatant in its right-wing politics than its two predecessors, which we were hardly inclined to give a pass to. But paradoxically, while its politics are more blatant, it really is less about them than the previous two films. Indeed, if the film is about anything (and it’s not entirely clear that it is) then the clue is in the title. Unlike Batman Begins, whose title is mostly about its relationship to the Burton/Schumacher films, or The Dark Knight, which lacks any verbs, The Dark Knight Rises makes itself explicitly about some kind of redemption.
In which case the focus moves to the pit scene, and particularly to the bit in which Bruce is cheered by an adoring crowd of brown people shouting “rise up” while he leaves them in a hole to die. (He tosses a rope down, but this is so hilariously under-emphasized that it’s hard not to feel like it was a sop to someone who said “wait a minute, did he really just…” somewhere deep in the scripting or filming process.) Obviously we haven’t landed too far from the political problems, then. But in many ways what’s most striking about this is its utter contentlessness. The secret to Bruce’s rise is that he doesn’t use a rope when making a seemingly impossible jump. This not only does not have anything to say about the world, it makes no goddamn sense whatsoever. The stated logic - that you have to be afraid to succeed - was dodgy when Steven Moffat nicked it for Listen, and he improved the dialogue considerably. Here, Bruce asserts that he’s not afraid of dying so much as “dying in here while my city burns with no one there to save it,” which really doesn’t match up with “make this jump without a rope.” And likewise, his fall is not actually caused by some character flaw or mistake so much as by the fact that he fights Bane knowing his weak spot. (Although to be fair, not guessing “the mask” is a pretty significant mistake to anyone who’s ever played a video game.)
More broadly, though, it’s not really clear what rising means within this film. There’s an obligatory flashback to the “why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up” bit of Batman Begins, which I assume somebody found poignant and inspirational once. But the film isn’t about falling. The Dark Knight Falls would have been a much more obvious and entirely justifiable title, but instead he rises. There’s more than a little bit of an ascension narrative implicit in that word. And yet Bruce does not particularly ascend here. Indeed, he doesn’t even have much of an arc over the film. When it begins, he is not Batman anymore. When it ends he is also not Batman anymore, just for different reasons. Indeed, in this regard using Knightfall as source material becomes truly strange. Were this mostly The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce’s journey from retired to Batman again would be a rise. This, however, is not so much The Dark Knight Rises as The Dark Knight Sinks Then Bobs Back Up To The Surface.
This is coming perilously close to being a sneering takedown, and so it’s probably time to take a step back and note that I do actually like this movie. It’s just a film that needs to be taken as the sum of its parts, in the way that hot messes do. Because frankly, the real appeal of this film is that it’s actually fun. It’s the sort of film where Christopher Nolan solves the problem of having to top his previous action sequences and of the fact that his basic style of shooting Batman has been totally usurped by Rocksteady’s Arkham series by giving Batman a Batplane and having him fight a bunch of Batmobiles. If The Dark Knight had been willing to be dumb in the way that this film is, it might have gotten something as preposterous as Two-Face to work.
The other reason this film works, though, is that the parts add up to quite a lot even if they don’t actually fit together. Tom Hardy’s Bane is a campy delight made brilliant by the fact that Nolan plays him completely straight. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is a brilliant bit of casting against type that got tragically lost in the mounting and inevitable backlash against ambitious actresses. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a secondary protagonist role that could easily have tanked the whole film work, and even Talia al Ghul’s overly compressed revelation as the real villain and defeat is just about salvaged by dint of having Marion Cotillard playing the part. The set pieces - especially the stadium sequence - are spectacular, and the collapsed Gotham is a suitably mad carnival.
The result makes, if not sense, at least a coherent aesthetic out of the film’s politics and theme of “rising.” After all, the series’ authoritarian leanings are ultimately rooted in the basic act of fetishizing Batman in the Bush era. The incoherence of its central theme is similarly based on this fetishization - Batman’s fall and rise are contentless because they are simply the motions of an abstracted icon. Christian Bale is solid in the role, but he’s also weirdly extraneous to his own films, simply because he’s never been playing an actual character. And with The Dark Knight Rises, where Nolan is finally pushed to make a film with little concept beyond “here’s some cool shit that happens around Batman,” this tendency is finally allowed to just do its thing. The result proves little beyond that Batman is pretty cool. But he is. Most of what follows from that coolness is toxic bullshit, but that detracts from the basic enjoyability of the concept less than one might think or indeed hope. To mash together two Tom King projects: