"The audience is expected to accept too many things we are and are not told."
- Mr. Plinkett, in his Attack of the Clones review
Well, it took me a little longer than I might have liked, but I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises. Possibly the most eagerly anticipated film since The Return of the King, like it the concluding part of a visionary director's critically and culturally acclaimed masterpiece, The Dark Knight Rises closes out Nolan's Batman trilogy, though without the absolute finality so many might have expected him to employ given his stated desire not to return to the franchise and the likelihood that those who own Batman will likely reboot the series rather than try and have someone step in and continue Nolan's universe without him. And as the credits roll and the curtain falls on the third act of Nolan's trilogy, amid all the clapping and whistling and general good-will, I found myself struck by a single, startling thought.
This movie is not very good.
Oh no, Batman. This time, I look down on you!
Oh, I enjoyed it. I most certainly left the theatre with a sense of pleasure, the sort of amped-up feeling of giddy energy a good action-adventure film is meant to inspire in the viewer. And I liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway, and Bane was fantastically done, and Morgan Freeman pretty much always turns in a good performance. But honestly, I found the first, oh, third of this movie to be kind of brutal. And the reason for that goes back to Mr. Plinkett's complaint, at the start of this post.
I'm not really going to spoil anything here, and the film's been out for, what, three weeks now? But still, if you haven't seen it, and you want to, go see it first. It is worth seeing, despite everything I'm about to say.
So, as should have been obvious the second Bane appeared, Rises is focused on the breaking of Batman, and his eventual triumph over the gravest threat he'll ever face. Strangely, however, Nolan starts off with Batman broken, and then builds him back up, and then piles on contrivances in order to make his eventual mid-movie defeat even more comprehensive so he can be, yes, built back up again. Not only does it make the opening, say, third of the film kind of redundant in the face of the far superior post-back-breaking rebuilding, it requires some really strange contrivances. Bruce starts off half-crippled, walking with a cane, living in seclusion in the east wing of Wayne Manor and half-broke. The last of these is sort of explained, though only after far too long, and in a way that sort of only raises even more questions, but the first three? Nothing at all. The implication is that Batman retired some time ago (making his taking the fall for Dent to up his credibility among criminals at the end of Dark Knight sort of pointless), so what happened to his leg? If it's an injury from the end of Dark Knight, a theory I've seen tossed around, why hasn't he had it fixed before? It apparently took about five minutes in a robo-knee brace, and it's been eight years. You're telling me he didn't want to be able to walk comfortably for eight years? And why doesn't he need robo-braces for his other knee, and his shoulders, and his elbows, all of which a doctor tells him have no cartilage left in them at all? But that's just the appetizer to the ludicrous isolation Nolan heaps on Bruce Wayne. First he loses control of Wayne Enterprises and all of his money, in a way that would be easily and immediately refutable in court. And his car gets repossessed (because Bruce flipping Wayne leases?), and his power is immediately shut off (because the power company doesn't need you to miss a payment before they cut you off), and he has no friends he can turn to because he's become a recluse for no reason, and he's not really Batman-ing anymore so he doesn't have that, and he has no hobbies, and he frankly has no life, at all. And Alfred is removed, in a scene that ultimately falls short of the emotional punch necessary because, quite frankly, Dark Knight was a while ago now and Rises hasn't actually rebuilt any of the immediate emotional foundation necessary to really make that conflict work. And Gordon is laid up for the entire opening sequence, and never interacts with Bruce or Batman at all, or really does much of anything. And Rachel is the only woman he could ever love, and she's dead, do you hear me, dead! Nolan just piles on more and more things, but if you actually stop and look at how it all hangs together, the whole thing just collapses under its own weight. It's easily as ludicrous as the Enterprise constantly being 'the only ship in range'.
Still makes more sense than these guys, though.
Those aren't the only catastrophes in the plot, but unfortunately I can't really get into the problems later on without hugely spoiling things. Suffice it to say that, compared to Ra's al Ghul and the Joker, both of whom had specific objectives in mind and both of whom very clearly built things up, step by step, in order to arrive at their desired outcomes, the villain's plot in Rises is a mess. The setup is fantastic, but once it actually goes into action much of its internal logic and morality, such as exists, just collapses. And by the time it's meant to be resolved you're left wondering what the point of it all was, on several levels, not least because the villains apparently have absolutely no plan in evidence to escape the massive consequences of their actions. Where al Ghul only decided to sacrifice himself once Batman had removed all other options to make his plan work, and the Joker never placed himself in immediate jeopardy at all, keeping himself constantly free to slip away to plot more chaos to inflict on the citizens of Gotham, Bane and his allies just sort of stand around, being evil and, apparently, suicidal for no real purpose. It's the most simplistic funny book villainy, and utterly unworthy after Nolan's efforts to craft truly ingenious evil in the first two films. I could almost buy it for Bane, but the man has an army, and apparently that entire army is also completely and unhesitatingly suicidal for no reason.
The pacing for this movie is also, frankly, embarrassing. The opening I was just complaining about stretches on for an interminable length of time, during which the only people doing anything interesting are Bane and Selina Kyle; for a movie called 'The Dark Knight Rises', the titular dark knight takes his extremely sweet time actually putting in a meaningful appearance. Batman, Gordon and Alfred are basically bit players in the opening, while instead we get weird interludes with John Dagget and his lieutenant, and some police captain talking about how Gordon's totally going to get fired (which never amounts to anything), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Blake just completely taking over the good guy's side of the film. It finally picks up once Bruce puts the mask back up, but then goes into overdrive; if the crawling opening has covered, oh, a few days to a week or two in far too great detail, the middle portion of the film suddenly leapfrogs over nearly five months in just a brief montage. The time frame is in some ways far too short, and in others unbelievably long, considering where everything and everyone is when the action actually resumes again with Batman back from his breaking and out to show the world that Gotham City still has a protector.
And in a larger sense, this movie throws off the pacing of Nolan's trilogy. Batman Begins is set, obviously, at the beginning, during Wayne's first real outing as Batman. And The Dark Knight picks up soon afterwards, with the Joker's presence having been suggested at the end of the first film and realized early in the second. There's perhaps a year or two between them? It's a short period, anyway. But The Dark Knight Rises jumps eight years ahead after the last one, and basically ends Batman's career before it's even begun. Rather than being a vigilante driven by the murder of his parents to fight an eternal war against Crime, then, this Batman just sort of pops up long enough to break the mob's power in the city, fight exactly two super-criminals, and then hangs up the utility belt. Which could work, if he was just so broken down by the events of The Dark Knight that he couldn't do it anymore, but that's not really seen in that movie, and not really suggested as the reason for it in this film. It's like doing Batman: Year One, and then doing The Dark Knight Returns, but not bothering to put in the years of crimefighting, supervillains, heroism, tragedy and sacrifice that come between them. Those are, you know, kind of the whole point of the story.
Uh, Mr. Nolan? You might've missed a Batman story or two...
So. The plot is contrived and full of holes, even by superhero movie standards, and the pacing is horribly out of whack, both within the movie and for the trilogy as a whole; what, then, makes this movie work? If it's not very good, why did I enjoy it? Well, honestly, while there is a lot about this movie that doesn't work, not just pacing and plotting but characters just disappearing, or not really being introduced, or not being allowed to develop, there are things that work. And the things that work, work. Wayne being retired at the start of the movie is an indefensible idea from a storytelling and pacing perspective, but once he shrugs that off and makes a triumphant return to Batman-ing, with the batpod and the batplane, it's thrilling stuff. His conflicts with Bane are fantastic, though sadly for most of the film the two are kept in completely different spheres. Bane himself is excellent; it took me a little while to get used to his new voice, but the character is both strong and smart, a pleasant change from his post-Knightfall appearances in television and film. There's a brilliantly executed reveal that really changes the opening of the film in several key ways, and while some feel it undermines Bane, it didn't bother me. Catwoman is a little shaky, her relationship with Batman based far more on 'Catwoman always loves Batman' then what you actually see of their interactions in the movie, but as a character on her own she has some nice moments. Blake is a really good character, though not so good that him basically taking over most of the first half of a Batman movie doesn't grate a little. You buy that he still believes in Batman, and that even on a non-corrupt GCPD, there's a certain sloth and inertia you get in all large institutions that he chafes against. It's not Gordon as the only clean cop, from Batman Begins, because that wouldn't have been appropriate; it's just a cop who still believes in the lessons learned from Batman's war on crime, in a police force that's ready to declare victory in the war and go back to peace time.
There's one other thing, though, that sadly does not work, and it's the result of factors outside the scope of the film; the death of Heath Ledger. Nolan clearly took Ledger's death hard, as hard as you possibly can. Parents have been less devastated by the death of their children. And in his apparently towering, insurmountable grief, Nolan declared that not only would he not recast the Joker (which was fair), but that there wouldn't even be any reference to the Joker, anywhere, at all. Which was a disaster. The Dark Knight Rises is full of Harvey Dent; it starts on Harvey Dent Day, it's concerned with the Dent Act, Gordon's guilt over what happened with Dent at the end of Dark Knight cuts through his character, the reveal apparently cripples him psychologically when it comes. But for all that, there's absolutely no mention of the Joker and his crimes. It's like watching a movie where one of the subplots is the renewal of the Patriot Act, and nobody, not one single person, ever mentions even the existence of terrorists. Bane's plan is more reminiscent of Joker's than al Ghul's, and to have nobody comment on it, and to have no residual scars from it haunting Gotham, its people and its institutions, just beggars belief. Worse, it cripples the film as a meaningful sequel to Dark Knight, which with the omnipresence of Harvey Dent and the reverberations of the end of that film all through Rises, it is quite clearly meant to be. Rises doesn't have enough to say to stand on its own, but its total unwillingness to address the Joker's legacy means it fails as a sequel.
If you've seen the first two Nolan Batman films, you should see this one. It's far from perfect, but it does enough well that it's a worthwhile investment of time and energy. But don't go in expecting another Dark Knight; this movie is so much less, in nearly every way. It's enjoyable enough while it's happening, with some good action and character beats and some nice ideas, but it's a fleeting kind of pleasure, and by the time you make it home you may have decided to cut Nolan's 'trilogy' down to a duology from there on out.
I know I have.