It turns out that re-watching Batman Begins and reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is actually the perfect way to warm up for Christopher Nolan’s Bat-swansong.
The Dark Knight Rises finds the reclusive Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) unnerving faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) with his Howard Hughes impersonation. Wayne’s life has been in stasis for eight years after the death of Rachel Dawes, and his psychological damage is equalled by his physical injuries, he needs a walking stick after destroying all the cartilage in his knees. Wayne Enterprises is similarly burdened following an unsuccessful punt on a new type of fusion energy with fellow billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is also reaching the end of his tether with valorising Harvey Dent in order to keep the mob foot-soldiers off the streets and in prison. Indeed Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) plans to forcibly retire Gordon as a relic of a grim time. But, just as Bruce returns to his long-abandoned business and high society circles after a delightful encounter with cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), grim times return to Gotham with the appearance of the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy). If Kyle, a cat-burglar who occasionally plays nice, puzzles Bruce’s moral compass, the analgesic-guzzling man-mountain Bane provides a true north of depravity. But just what is his plan for reducing Gotham to ashes, and can an out of shape Bruce really don the cowl again and stop him?
This film is a retrograde step away from the realism of The Dark Knight to the mythic elements of Batman Begins. Legends of impossible feats in Oriental prisons loom large, and Ras Al’Ghul’s League of Shadows return to destroy Gotham at the third time of asking. Bane is impressively brutal in his fighting style and his commitment to causing mental anguish but his muffled dialogue is still incomprehensible in places and, though Hardy adds a few sardonic notes, as a villain he doesn’t match the Joker; even his repetitive rhythmic theme fails to match the Joker’s musical motif. We also have to wait for the first appearance of Batman for an extended period of time only for him to be then immediately absented for acres of screen-time as the Nolans and Goyer get fixated on following other characters, especially Gordon’s young detective protégé Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), suffering under Bane’s Reign of Terror. Dickens, though, explicitly wrote for an audience familiar with Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. Here we’re fast-forwarded thru Bane’s destruction of Gotham with a total lack of detail of how this is really happening. And the references to Dickens aren’t subtle. The arbitrary show-trials that scream Two Cities even feature a character named Stryver, just in case you didn’t get the homage.
The Dark Knight played like a crime thriller, but this film is less interested in nitty-gritty realism, and more with surfing the Occupy zeitgeist and imagining revolution, however ingenuous, in a modern metropolis. There is a lot to like in this film, but it’s a bit of a mess; so busy that it somehow never actually attends to business. Despite featuring some startling Bat-pod chases it lacks a truly jaw-dropping action sequence, even if, like its predecessor, it does have a number of wonderfully cross-cut shocks and some nice plot twists. The Dark Knight Rises falls down badly though where its predecessors excelled, in giving memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble. Juno Temple, Matthew Modine and Nestor Carbonell are particularly ill served, but even Caine and Cotillard feel desperately under-used, while the relationship between Batman and Kyle is undernourished even if their chemistry convinces. I’ve previously speculated about the ending of this film, and the three strands of the ending cover nearly all the story bases; and, yes, one strand is explicitly Dickensian. The finale does satisfy, but the sense of fun that surely must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman is almost entirely absent from this movie, and that loss of espirit is most lamentable.
Christopher Nolan’s final Bat-instalment is a good film, but you can’t help feeling that it’s two movies: a Bat-movie, and a fantasia on the collapse of privileged society.