Sound and Fury: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Against Theme and Story
Each of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films opens with a quiet, singular image forming the unmistakeable bat symbol. They’re cinematic palate cleansers before the business of Batman begins in earnest. In Batman Begins, it is a sky full of bats; in The Dark Knight, it is a wall of flames; but the opening image of The Dark Knight Rises is notable for two reasons: the bat symbol appearing from cracking ice is muddy, only there if you look for it, and it is overlaid with the film’s opening lines of dialogue. If you wanted to, you could say that the first ten seconds of The Dark Knight Rises spell out all the problems that lay ahead: here is a film both rushed and obscured.
SPOILER WARNING: The following contains massive spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.The Dark Knight Rises is so packed with a Jenga-like tower of plot that it can barely spare you a moment to breathe. Any quietness that might have existed in this film seems to have been sacrificed to the cutting room floor in service of trying to condense a year-and-change in the life and death of Batman into fewer than three hours. While The Dark Knight Rises sets out with measured paces, as soon as Selina Kyle jumps out the window of Wayne Manor, we have left the realm of film and entered the domain of montage, and it’s one that picks up speed and intensity and sheds story, character and entire months of movie time at a rate that only gets faster as it goes.
Time is the biggest gray area in The Dark Knight Rises. It hopscotches in both screen time and movie time so much that it feels like it should come with a temporal libretto to help audiences follow along. Taking place eight years after The Dark Knight, the opening set piece of Bane and his crew taking down a CIA plane in mid-air takes place six months before we even get to Gotham. From there we leap days and months in single cuts. Jim Gordon tucks his reconsidered Harvey Dent truth bomb into a jacket pocket, and it’s still there several days later when he gets captured by Bane in the sewers. Minutes after Bane is mentioned to Bruce Wayne, Alfred is there rattling off Wikipedia entries about the villain and the entire League of Shadows. Bruce Wayne goes from a broken back to push-ups in 80 days. Cops spend months underground and come out as clean-shaven and robust as when they went in. The best indicators of when something is happening are snow on the ground and a long-winded countdown of the atomic bomb that inexplicably takes five months to reach detonation. It’s a clock that jumps from five months to 23 days to 24 hours in rapid succession, because the plot is all-consuming.
Plot doesn’t just consume time in The Dark Knight Rises, it pigs out on clarity as well. Big, important things happen so quickly and so often that it’s easy to forget that much of it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. The daylight Wall Street raid turns into a pitch-black nighttime chase in just under ten minutes — not ten minutes of screen time, but actual movie time, as pointed out by the mobile computer counting down the bars to completing the fraudulent trade that wipes out the last of Bruce Wayne’s finances (another ridiculous plot point). Bane’s crew pumps the Russian scientist’s blood into their carry-on corpse to help fake his death, a death Bruce Wayne is too shut-in to even notice happened. John Blake spills the Batman beans all over Wayne Manor because he recognized the look of “dead parents” in Bruce’s eyes and no one bothers to even try denying it, yet supercop Jim Gordon has to be flat-out told who Batman is.
Bruce Wayne goes from an eight-year heartbreak over Rachel Dawes that causes him to kick Alfred to the curb to sleeping with Miranda Tate simply because they got caught in the rain. A broken back is fixed with a rope and swift punch to the spine, administered by two prison Yodas whose services Bane inexplicably pays for. Never mind the villain’s shock when Batman actually returns from the desert prison with the GIANT ESCAPE ROUTE he threw him into. Talia al Ghul hates her dad for his disloyalty to Bane — until Batman kills him, at which point the idea of destroying a major American city suddenly seems like a really awesome idea. Bane orchestrates the disintegration of Gotham because… well, I don’t even have a joke answer for that, his plan just doesn’t make sense in the larger scope of the film. The list goes on and on and on.
Admittedly, suspension of disbelief is a helpful concept in superhero movies, because at some point you have to shut your brain off to the fact that things like this just don’t happen. Except the Nolanverse has strived to swaddle these films in the notion of reality. Things don’t just happen. Batman’s arsenal comes with an engineering pedigree, villains are flesh and blood nightmares, Batman is vulnerable to such minor concerns as knives and dogs, and officials follow procedure and code. What makes The Dark Knight Rises such a disappointment is that it is riddled with chasms of logic and just plain dumb moments that seem to beat back against this real world starkness of the previous films, answering with a shrug of, “Well, it’s about a dude who dresses up as a bat to fight crime, what do you want from us?”
So we get a Gotham devoid of people, populated only by cops and robbers and MacGuffins. Characters ramble expositional monologues at one another to explain things that there’s no time to spell out, from CleanSlate.app to abandoned fusion reactors gathering dust under the streets. You’re not meant to understand them, you’re only meant to accept them. The sewers fill with thugs from central casting reporting to a convoluted hierarchy of villainy that seeks to be evil for evil’s sake or make more money. But don’t get caught up in the Occupy metaphors that are vaguely hinted at, because there’s no ethos or commentary to be found. The 99% don’t exist in this movie, they’re only used as collateral damage or as extras dragging the rich from their homes, cheering on the condemnations in the Scarecrow’s courtroom. Unlike in The Dark Knight, their affections and moral dilemmas are unimportant. The Dark Knight Rises’ only agenda is to get to the ending, to wrap everything up in a cliched bow.
What does it all come to? A generic ticking time bomb, a grunted sacrifice by Batman (for a city that, if Bane’s plan did anything, was revealed as being really not worth saving), children in peril, a hothead detective speaking truth to an administration of bureaucrats, a flooding chamber to jerk our chains of hope, a force of nature wiped out with a big gun, a would-be mass-murderer defeated by crappy driving, and a tacked-on happy ending with a love story that was as hard to figure out as any of the other giant question marks of the film. What we’re left with, in the end, is a feeling of exhaustion on the part of the brothers Nolan as screenwriters and Christopher Nolan as the savior of the Batman film franchise. It’s a hasty goodbye that dances near the slippery slope of farce that Nolan once strove so hard to drag Batman away from.
Occasionally a pretty film to look at, the greatest shot of The Dark Knight Rises happens about ten minutes in, and then aesthetics get the bum’s rush. While it’s a bit of a running joke at this point, The Dark Knight Rises often treads through the land of indecipherable. If the visual mechanics are serviceable, the audio end is as hobbled as Bruce Wayne. So many lines are spoken through masks, slurred from hospital beds, whispered and heavily accented, all while struggling to be heard over Hans Zimmer’s screaming score that eventually you have to admit defeat and hope you catch enough of the dialogue to make sense of anything at all. Having seen it twice now, in two different theaters, I can only conclude that this is how the film is meant to sound.
Upon a first viewing, The Dark Knight Rises is an enjoyable movie. I don’t believe it commits the cardinal sin of being boring, and much of the film is carried along by solid performances from the cast, especially Hathaway’s Catwoman, who almost single-handedly steals the show. Levitt’s turn as Blake is enjoyable, and it has to be as he carries much of the film on his back. Hardy’s Bane is as good a villain you could hope for to follow up Heath Ledger’s unfollowable Joker, the kind of jaunty terrorist that works against the oppressively serious crusader. Nolan can still pull off an amazing opening scene and his followthrough on the concept of a Batman film where the titular character is largely absent is admirable, even if it isn’t wholly successful. But seeing it a second time, no longer watching to see how the story unfolds but to revel in the finer details, all the film’s issues step forward in stark relief and the brisk jog of that first viewing gives way to a grueling march uphill.
Nolan’s Batman films have never been absolute masterpieces. The previous two had their own special flaws, the severity of which people will long continue to argue over the same way they will over the ones in The Dark Knight Rises, but those flaws were easier to overlook because the overarching stories gave you something to cling to when the waters got rough. The Dark Knight Rises suffers so mightily because it substitutes twists for character arcs, convenience for hard choices and flashbacks for discernible themes. Gone are meditations on fear, family, the cost of justice, order vs. anarchy, or the thin line between good and evil. What remains is just an action movie with people punching and shooting each other until one side falls down, all muddled sound and unexplainable fury signifying not much at all.