The Dark Knight Rises flirts with potentially fantastic ideas, but shies away from taking them to the next level, writes Raja Sen
Comics gave up on the thought-bubble a while back.
Superhero comics took standard dialogue boxes, straightened the edges and sawed off the icicles pointing to characters -- giving us neat narrative rectangles, streamlined subtexty pizza-boxes, sometimes distinctly coloured for each flavour of character. Folks speak as they may, but the red box tells us what the red character thinks, the blue boxes do the same for the guy in the blue tights, and so on, this dynamic interplay of points-of-view allowing the better comic writers some thrilling narrative complexity.
As this is clearly not a technique suited to the screen, alas, these bits are often handled by filmmakers using voiceovers, omniscient narrators, or -- as should happen whenever a Deadpool movie is finally, inevitably made -- by characters breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with the audience.
Not Christopher Nolan, though. The acclaimed director hangs up his cape by giving characters in his Bat-finale those very boxes: they speak like they're all narrating. It's constant exposition -- characters talking tirelessly to take the plot forward instead of characters speaking like they should -- and can be most exasperating. His characters have too much to explain and imply; where's the time to talk when dialogue will likely be accompanied by sudden, jarring flashback?
At one point when the film's bulky villain towers over Batman and theatrically asks if the caped crusader has returned to get beaten up again, the hero dourly and quiplessly says "No, I came back to stop you." Okay then. The Dark Knight Summarises.
Then again Batman has never been about the words. Nolan's trilogy has been all shadows and spectacle, and his conclusion has less of the former and far more of the latter, thankfully. It opens with an audacious aerial action sequence that proves beyond doubt that the director must rightfully be handed the reigns to James Bond, and goes on to stage several sequences of tremendous scale and extreme visual flair. It's a breast-beating behemoth of a blockbuster -- at times it does feel a tad gimmicky, a tad Emmerichhy -- but its punch to the mouth impact, aided by Hans Zimmer's bombastic, bass-heavy score drowning out mostly ill-chosen words, cannot be denied. It is big summer cinema at its biggest.
It's also the most depressing superhero film. Nolan's Gotham is Chicago no more, but a blatantly undisguised New York City, complete with a Saks Fifth Avenue. It's a post-Batman city sheathed in soot and sin, one buffeted from criminals by The Patriot Act (here named after Harvey Dent, the District Attorney who died in The Dark Knight) but with a growing percentage of dissenters unhappy with the 1% who have it all. Even billionaire Bruce Wayne's retired to his mansion and stopped supporting orphanages. There is, as Anne Hathaway's told us already in the trailers, a storm coming. The harbinger of said storm -- revolution, even -- is a musclebound mercenary called Bane who, lamentably, speaks like old Sean Connery with a mouthful of toffee.
His unintelligible manifesto is plain enough to see, however: he wants to blow up Gotham.
Here's the worry, though: when you slap a countdown clock to a bomb and say it's going to go off in 23 days instead of 23 seconds, it suddenly feels like forever. Christian Bale, who is in fine form as Bruce Wayne -- equal parts concerned, reluctant and effortlessly charming -- takes an hour to pull the Batsuit on. He then spends a majority of the film outside it, which is perhaps a blessing; two lead actors babbling back and forth for two hours would necessitate subtitling. Indeed, there are times Bale's Batman -- who persists with his gravelly Batvoice even with people who know his true identity -- looks physically uncomfortable in the suit, his mouth frequently hanging open between lines. 'The World's Greatest Detective' this ain't.
As is the norm with Nolan's films, the cast is uniformly excellent, even when not utilised as strongly. Tom Hardy, for a start, is wasted as Bane; any pro-wrestler could have been hidden behind that radiator-grill mask and thrown convincing punches.
The great Gary Oldman is saddled with a fair bit of optimistic hokum, while Michael Caine, despite a caricaturish Cockney accent, gives the film some authentic, if maudlin, emotion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is solid as a cloyingly earnest cop, while the ravishing Marion Cotillard brings the heat. She is joined -- and surpassed, thanks to several shots of her spandexed posterior -- by the perfectly purring Hathaway, whose Catwoman works better than any other character. Both the Selina Kyle/Bruce dynamic and the Catwoman/Batman dynamic are sensational, genuinely sparky moments of sizzling old-school chemistry, complete with quotable words with jagged-edges. She looks good in prison saffron; he knows how to say Ibiza.
A cat-and-bat film would have been a sight more charming than this one about bat and man-with-mousetrap-on-face.
Yet that could never be an option for a franchise constantly looking to up the ante. To increase stakes. To heighten the pressure. Bane breaks suspension bridges like matchsticks and tightens his stranglehold over Gotham. It helps that his 99% appear all to be criminals, while Gotham's fatcats love their fur coats a bit much. It's all dark and dizzying and dramatic, often treading ground from the first two films in order to tie loose ends or to bring back already lauded themes. Batman is vanquished; the only law in Gotham is Murphy's Law. And this may have been terrifying if we weren't aware that the film couldn't possibly end on a downer. The climax, in particular, is upsettingly cliched: we'd seen it in a rival superhero film last year and an Indian spy movie this year. (Warning: Avoid clicking on those links if you haven't yet seen Nolan's film.)
The Dark Knight Rises flirts with potentially fantastic ideas, but shies away from taking them to the next level. Batman is stripped of his greatest superpower, his money, but he adapts to this situation with annoying convenience: a hot benefactor is found and, while Wayne Manor has its electricity cut off, there's enough juice to power all his Bat-toys, one of which in particular gives the hero a significant advantage.
A Kafkaesque court presides over doomstruck Gotham, but this fascinating setup is treated like an aside, seemingly there to allow the messianic Batman to walk on frozen water. Instead, all we have, outside of basic political allegory, is boom boom boom: but thank heavens Nolan paints on a truly gigantic scale.
An issue I always had with Nolan's series was that the action sequences were sometimes visually muddied, a tornado of blows and gadgets masked by conveniently dim lighting. That's been more than addressed in his finale, but -- as evidenced by watching Batman and Bane go at it in a slobberknocker -- being able to coherently watch every thrown punch also feels less remarkable. It all feels a bit unspecial. Or maybe we just miss The Joker too much, who propelled The Dark Knight into something far more than just a summer movie.
A lot of this one is too coldly efficient to be spontaneously joyous. It does have its moments, of course. Mega moments of jawdropping wonder and finely-tuned cinematic circusry. The first time we see Batman in the suit. The fiery logo signalling his return. The immaculate last shot of the film, which leaves no room for a post-credits nudge. Cinematographer Wally Pfister ought be hailed and celebrated for making the film look wondrous even when the narrative tone fluctuates wildly.
Despite taking himself -- and his version of the character -- far, far too gravely, Christopher Nolan gives us a sloppy double-decked hamburger of a film, with too much meat to fit one burger right, but a treat without question for those already in love with the Batman. A meal, then, for the cinematic 99%. If only he hadn't made the rest of us expect steak.