At the risk of upsetting the fanboys, I have to go on record and explain why the final film in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a disappointment of epic proportions. Rotten Tomatoes had to turn off their comment section because people were so upset about negative reviews, but look, guys, it ain’t rocket science: “The Dark Knight Rises” is not a very good movie—and it’s especially not a very good movie by the standards Nolan set for himself with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.”
Let me begin with the caveat that superhero films are rarely good. They are derivative, silly, and so eye-rollingly simplistic that whenever one of them even makes a feint at narrative innovation or moral complexity, from “Unbreakable” to the first “X-Men” it’s practically mind-blowing. The bar is set so low for these films that even a hulking demonstration of unoriginality like this summer’s “Amazing Spider-Man,” which just cribbed the entire screenplay of the first Tobey McGuire film, has its fans.
Therefore, much of DKR’s disappointment comes from Nolan’s proven ability to expand what viewers thought was possible in this genre with his first two Batman films. “Batman Begins” was a dark, gritty, hyper-realistic interpretation of a fantastical character who existed in a recognizable post-9/11 world. Bale’s Bruce Wayne was Patrick Bateman with a moral compass. It was one of the most impressive superhero movies ever made until “The Dark Knight.” Anchored around Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the Joker, that film was quite simply above beyond anything attempted before in the genre. It killed off a major character in gruesome fashion; it raised the stakes of Batman’s symbolic nature by implying that he was responsible for creating the world in which the Joker flourished; its pitch-black vision of anarchy was never entirely refuted even when both the Joker and Two-Face were defeated.
If those two films never existed, DKR would be what it is: a fun, serviceable, occasionally plodding action movie that gets a little full of itself. However, because it’s such conventional fare compared to the two movies that preceded it, it falls on its face that much harder.
[Warning: I will spoil the entire movie ahead]
It’s villain, Bane, is your basic, blow-up-the-city-for-insipid-reasons kinda guy. He makes long, standardized, megalomaniacal speeches that are as stale as they are uninteresting. He wreaks havoc aimlessly, but there’s little to fear about him since his aims are just to eventually kill everyone indiscriminately. The film’s third act is particularly bland when Bane takes over Gotham with his army (and this plot development stretches credulity more than anything in the other films) to turn it into a dystopian siege state for a few months before a neutron bomb blows it up anyway. There’s some flim-flam about digging the knife in before destroying the city, but it only amounts to a convenient screenwriter’s device to force two unwieldy motives together and give Bruce Wayne time to escape from a hole in the Middle East.
Marion Cotillard as high-powered-exec/ Bruce Wayne love interest/ eventual villain comes as no surprise by the time we get to the twist, but her motivation is equally uninteresting and silly: “We have this bomb we could set off at any time, which is our eventual goal, but let’s wait and drive it around in a hi-jackable truck for three months instead.” By attempting to raise the stakes, Nolan only boxes himself in. The film ends with the exhausted ticking time-bomb scenario, which, fair warning to screenwriters everywhere, is never, ever interesting. If you’re cutting to and away from a digital clock counting down to zero, your movie’s denouement sucks. That’s a promise.
There’s plenty more to scratch our heads or complain about: We find ourselves on a bridge with not-Robin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he tries to save one bus-full of kids from a city-annihilating bomb after we’ve watched him dispatch three or four kids to tell a city of 12 million people to evacuate. We get Batman in a CGI aircraft, zipping around Gotham while evading CGI missiles (one of the things that made the first two films so pleasurable was how they eschewed computer effects for the real crunch of metal). We get two fairly awesome fight scenes with Bane that feel like the only pieces of the movie exhibiting any exhilaration, both of which end quickly to move on to more convoluted plot points and time bombs.
Most disappointing, however, is how lazy the screenplay feels. Back in December after seeing the first preview, I published a RedEye column praising Nolan’s daring for using a big summer blockbuster to tackle serious themes and questions, which I’m now so ashamed of I won’t even bother to link to it. Not only is Anne Hathaway’s Selena Kyle depicted as a bratty poor girl, who speaks in un-thoughtful neo-Marxist cliché, but the entire film—as noted by many—is weirdly pro-status quo. The Dent Act has solved crime in Gotham with no noticeable repercussions, the Gotham Police Department has been magically drained of all corruption, and the Wayne Foundation’s inability to rake in massive profits is the only reason the city’s social services are lacking.
Although the villains are primarily Jihadis, they pretend (for three months or whatever) to be anarchists who want to “return Gotham to the people.” So we get this strangely simplistic assertion that any questioning of the power structure necessarily leads to the abolition of private property (“It’s everyone’s now,” says Kyle’s friend of a swanky apartment) and the implementation of Stalinist kangaroo courts and summary executions dictated by Scarecrow. Therefore, we’re instructed—not asked—to root for the power structure of a city we’re flat-out told is full of rich, corrupt politicians and corporate titans who actively ignore the most vulnerable except for the errant charitable bone. Even Selena Kyle ends up running off to Italy with Bruce Wayne at the film’s end, which seems to say that all poor, struggling women whining about the injustice of the world really just want to marry rich. The film certainly raises political questions but in such a lazy, facile manner, it's totally embarrassing.
Now perhaps you’ll say it’s a little unfair to ask so much of a Batman movie, but again it was Nolan’s first two films that teed up this final installment to take the superhero genre into even more serious and thoughtful territory.
Instead the trilogy’s finale very patently takes the wrong thematic direction. We began with Gotham hopelessly in thrall to the mob, and once Batman helped vanquish organized crime and “murdering psychopaths” the interesting question would be, “What role does a hero play when the institutions he defended turn out to be destructive toward the people he originally wanted to protect?” The stupid question to ask would be, “Well what happens if some other Osama bin Laden-type wants to blow up the city?!” Which is all that DKR offers. Admittedly, in that column I attributed a depth to a film that is as shallow and conventional as any other of the endless and forgettable comic book movies to emerge in the last thirty years.