Roundtable: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Spoiler warning: this article discusses key plot points of the film!

Anders: So many lists. So much arguing and debating the merits of The Dark Knight Rises, both praising and criticizing the film. Also, the real world events in Aurora, Colorado, have undoubtedly cast a shadow over the film, but I’d like to talk about the filmmaking here; the film we have, not the one we don’t.

There’s something about these so-called “flawed films” that have generated so much writing — I’m thinking back to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which started the summer off with a flurry of criticism. (The Avengers, for all of its event status and box office glory, never felt like it needed so much unpacking.)

Anton: That’s because The Avengers is a corporate product more than anything, albeit a fun one, but that’s beside the point. I ask, what film doesn’t have flaws? A truly perfect film is something rarely, rarely realized — if ever. I think the question needs to be whether there are serious flaws in the film or merely superficial or minimal ones.

Anders: I hate how the term “flaw” is even raised, as if a film is some kind of machine or jewel rather than an organic work of art.

Aren: I don’t think I’d even want to see what a perfect film would look like if there was one.

Anton: There are probably only a handful of films I wouldn’t touch in any way, like Lawrence of Arabia, andThe Dark Knight Rises isn’t one of them. But that’s not really a knock against it, as far as I’m concerned. Remember, there were huge, impossible expectations for this film. In our extreme age, a lot of people were hoping for perfection, but if that’s what you were expecting, then, in the words of Bruce Wayne, “Sorry to disappoint.” But my complaints about the film are mostly quibbles, very minor.

If you wanted a grand piece of entertainment that also has high artistic ambitions and the ability to move you, then you got what you wanted. I don’t think The Dark Knight Rises contains serious flaws, errors, or missteps. This is a superbly crafted blockbuster, with a great deal of thought and caring put into the details.

If The Lord of the Rings was the height of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking early last decade, The Dark Knight trilogy has to be the new pinnacle. The Avengers was solidly made, but its story and themes are so much blander, and I have issues with aspects of its design. For example, I thought the alien invaders looked like generic ugly, indistinguishable baddies.

Anders: Aren, I think perhaps that the quest for the “perfect” film might have something to do with the kind of filmmaker that Nolan is. He’s a bit of a perfectionist, ala Kubrick or Hitchcock (at least he fashions himself so, and I think there’s some truth to it). He and Fincher are the most direct heirs of those two directors working today. Thus, he opens himself to criticism if his film seems to be less than “clockwork” (the so-called plot holes, etc.).

Aren: I feel like these so-called plot holes are a case of people not paying close enough attention to the movie. I’ve seen the movie three times. It’s all there, up on the screen. It all makes sense, but go on.

Anders: But like Kubrick, Nolan is interested in pursuing his own themes regardless of whether the film is what people are actively looking for. And like Kubrick and Hitchcock he weds his themes to the actual act of filmmaking in some interesting ways, while using and operating within the machinery of Hollywood.

I have this idea that the films of Nolan are going to need a lot of unpacking and time to marinate and grow upon some people, unlike something like The Avengers (think Vertigo and Eyes Wide Shut, two films that were pretty much dismissed by critics upon first viewings). As people who have seen the film twice have mentioned, and I’m the only one of us working upon a single viewing, it seems to improve the coherence of the film.

It’s remarkable how Nolan maintains a mostly consistent visual tone throughout the films, considering how they were not filmed (or conceived of?) as a trilogy in one go. On the colour scheme, he has moved from the natural earth tones of Batman Begins, through the cool tones of The Dark Knight, and into a grey, wintry scheme that fits the compromising and morally ambiguous nature of this final chapter.

The editing of the fights has improved since Batman Begins, and here it is remarkably clear and easy to follow. In fact, this might explain why some found the fist fights between Bane and Batman less than compelling; they are shot in a medium shot, letting us see the geometry of the sequence, and not relying on the fast cutting typical of “intensified continuity.” And it makes sense, since we are no longer experiencing the subjectivity of the criminals confused and scared of Batman. Bane knows Batman is Bruce Wayne. There is nothing to hide.

The chase sequence after Bane and his crew rob the Gotham Stock Exchange is even more clearly edited than the transport of Harvey sequence in The Dark Knight, even if it lacks the emotional urgency (I’m more of an impressionist in terms of my appreciation of editing, so despite Jim Emerson’s “deconstruction” of the editing in that sequence from The Dark Knight, I felt it worked). Still, the sequence is exhilarating, and the appearance of Batman in the chase left a huge grin on my face.

And visually, I find Nolan to have crafted a remarkable film full of repetitions, moments that go back toBatman Begins, such as the way the view from Bane’s “Hell on Earth” prison echoes the view up from the bottom of the well at Wayne Manor.

Anton: I love Batman’s entrance in this film! You want to cheer! There are also echoes in the dialogue and story as well, but we’ll get to those shortly when we compare the films and assess the trilogy as a whole. What did you guys think about some of the new characters, such as Selina Kyle, Blake, or Bane?

Aren: I remember when Anne Hathaway was initially cast as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and fans of the franchise were widely upset about Nolan hiring the actress to fill the character’s iconic boots. Hathaway is inexplicably hated by some people. But that early scene in The Dark Knight Rises that introduces Selina as a maid in Wayne Manor put all worries at rest. You could almost feel the collective relief in the audience when Bruce confronts Selina about stealing his mother’s pearls, and she coyly says, “Oops.” I felt like yelling out, “Told you so!”

Nolan has always had a fascination with femme fatales that comes from his interest in film noir, and he’s incorporated such characters into his films before, whether it’s Carrie Anne-Moss in Memento, or Marion Cotillard in Inception. Thus, it makes sense that Catwoman fits well into his film world. Hathaway’s take on the character is everything Catwoman needs to be: sexy, smart, tough, and duplicitous. Nolan gets how Catwoman can take advantage of her femininity and play upon the male character’s expectations of her.

The opening scene is a perfect example of this, playing the coy maid while robbing Bruce under his nose. Also, when she is trading Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints with Daggett’s henchman in the bar, she pretends to cave to the henchman’s threats, but ends up having an ace up her sleeve, the congressman’s cellphone. And then when the cops burst in, she turns into a hysterical floozy, screaming her head off, seeming like just another helpless victim.

I even buy Bruce Wayne’s eventual running away with her to Italy. I know a lot of people were scratching their heads over why Bruce would pick the deceitful Selina to start a new life with, but they have to understand that she fits into Bruce’s belief that Batman can inspire the best in people.

In the end, Catwoman turns out to be a hero, to fight for ideals other than self-preservation. She is an embodiment of everything Bruce idealistically believes about other people. Just think back to his words to the Joker at the end of The Dark Knight – “This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.” — Selina Kyle fulfills this optimistic belief.

Anders: I liked it. There’s even a visual nod to her character’s dress in Loeb & Sale’s When in Rome Catwoman mini-series, so why not?

Anton: Bruce, like Selina, wants to start fresh, with a clean slate. It makes sense to me that he would choose her, and she would choose him. A lot of these characters are new to the series though. Were there too many? Is the story too confusing and complex to follow, especially at first?

Anders: I don’t think so. With a lot of these characters, what I have to really praise Nolan for is the way that he plays upon our expectations of characters drawing on their history. So, we aren’t ever confused about who they are, but manages to put his own twist on them.

Aren: There’s probably no bigger reveal of a character’s past in this film than when Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate is shown to be Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s al Ghul. I’m a big fan of Talia from the comics, so to see her revealed in the film gave me some deep satisfaction, from a fan’s viewpoint.

On a storytelling level, her character’s appearance brings the series full circle. Talia brings Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to destroy Gotham to a much greater fruition than he ever did. This isn’t just the case of a child wanting revenge. When taken in the context of the series as a whole, Talia provides a throughline with Batman Begins, making the League of Shadows the primary villain of the series, and Bruce’s initial methodological struggle with the League of Shadows the great debate throughout the films on how to affect change in the world — do you burn it to the ground or support the crumbling structures?

She’s also an embodiment of everything Ra’s teaches Bruce in the first film: she hides in plain sight, takes advantage of Bruce’s compassion, and ultimately backstabs him. As her father said, “If someone stands in the way of true justice, you merely walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.” She does this physically and metaphorically.

It also plays into Bane’s mirroring of Batman. If Bruce Wayne is so tortured, so controlled, by the loss of Rachel Dawes that he gives up the title of Batman for eight years, doesn’t it make sense that Batman’s counterpart, Bane, is as equally moved by the woman he loves? People say this diminishes Bane as a villain, but Bane isn’t an elemental villain the same way as the Joker is. He is an iron-willed bruiser, not a mad dog unleashed.

When taken together, Bane and Talia are the image of what Batman would have become had he beheaded that murdering farmer for the League of Shadows all those years ago. People complain about this film’s lack of thematic continuity, but they forget that this film is more interested in wrapping up the series’ thematic concerns than it is in developing its own. It is a definite conclusion, a rarity in films nowadays.

Anders: One character that some have said is underdeveloped is Gordon, who spends some time on the sidelines after being injured by Bane and his men. But I thought Gary Oldman has worked with Nolan to create a wonderful portrayal of James Gordon, as the good – but not perfect – cop. And it all pays off in the scene near the end where Batman reveals his identity to Gordon, playing off a moment set up in Batman Begins, when Jim Gordon helped out a young boy who was cold and confused on the night of his parent’s death.

Gordon also works along with two new G.C.P.D. characters – John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) – to highlight the role of the regular people of Gotham City. One interesting thing about this film is the way it deals with the police. On the one hand people have decried the Dark Knight films as fascist, and in this film, it’s easy to interpret Bane as a kind of Occupy Movement gone bad, with Batman as the lone protector who can wield the will to power and protect the people from themselves. But that’s a weak reading of the film – and of fascism itself! There is a Nietzschean element to the Batman series, and it’s this that makes Nolan’s films so deeply postmodern (see Ken Morefield’s interesting essay on postmodernism in the film. While I don’t necessarily agree on the merits of postmodernism in the film and literature, it’s a refreshing and apt take on some of the issues, such as identity).

But back to the police characters. Characters such as John Blake and Jim Gordon work within the system, even though that system is corrupt. But it’s still worth saving. In this sense I see The Dark Knight Rises as more like Soderbergh’s Contagion, wherein the government workers are the ones capable of fixing things and it is the lone internet wingnuts who are wrong.

If we are going to push the contemporary parallels (which I think is dangerous, since Nolan is going for something more rooted in a longer historical mode with his allusions to Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities), wouldn’t Bane’s followers be the Tea Party, convinced that they are meting out justice while being manipulated with someone who will destroy Gotham regardless? Modine’s Foley is, like the people on the boats at the end of The Dark Knight, someone whose soul is up for grabs, who needs to be inspired to do the right thing. And like Selina, he fulfills Gordon and Blake’s “optimistic belief” as Aren put it.

Blake is the most complex and interesting character in the film, barring Bruce Wayne, especially where the film takes him in the final few minutes. I could watch an entire film about him, not only because JGL has emerged as such a compelling leading man but because the conflicts in the film between Batman’s crusade, which he can most easily sympathize with as an orphan at the mercy of a broken system, and the rule of law are embodied in him. This is why, despite his badge, I think Blake is the common person of Gotham whom Batman still believes in. And this fits in even with Nolan’s “cheat” of having Blake be Robin in the end and perhaps take up the mantle of Batman. Robin, particularly Dick Grayson, was always a more grounded version of Bruce, in whom Bruce saw something that he believed in.

That’s why I’m completely fine with Blake as both a new character and a nod to the comics. Identities in the Nolan Batman films are fluid ones, and people become who they need to be. Robin, as conceived of in most of the comics, wouldn’t have fit in the world Nolan built, but Blake acknowledges the need of a character who shares Bruce’s moral vision without the darker edge. But Nolan makes him all his own. I cracked a big grin when Blake revealed his “birth name.”

Aren: I loved that final reveal too. For all its complexity, this film gives a lot of fan service. Nolan knows how to keep the Batman fans happy.

Still, just taking all these new characters into account, there really are a lot of new faces, motivations and plot points to handle. This is a film stuffed to the brim. I’d never say overstuffed. I like my movies big and ambitious and juggling more balls than it should be able to handle, but I will admit that the first time through, I even felt a little left behind during the opening act.

Anton: Some people I went with were confused. I was even a bit confused at first, although my second viewing erased that confusion. Nolan’s films frequently contain complex narrative structures, and so I think they can be challenging to follow, especially for very casual filmgoers. In The Dark Knight Rises, I think we’re meant to be a bit bewildered though. I mean, the narrative is set eight years after The Dark Knight. A lot has changed. We should expect to have to work a bit to catch up.

That’s something about Nolan. He expects his audience to work a bit, even though he also understands that his audience wants a good time. He delivers the goods, if you will, but he’s not just carelessly slapping meat and potatoes down on your plate like a lot of big action movies. Nolan is a crowd-pleaser, but he’s also making sure to use quality ingredients (his films all have excellent casts) and carefully arranging the plate. The Dark Knight Rises is probably as thoughtful as a mainstream action-adventure picture can get. And frankly, I think it has more substance than most prestige or indie films. But I’m naturally pretty invested in Batman.

Anders: I’m invested too. As have been some of the pans of the film, the charge being that “Nolan doesn’t understand Batman the way I do.” Exactly. He doesn’t. He has his own understanding of who Batman is and he brought it to the screen giving us one of the best popular trilogies of the last decade. Ultimately, this is as much a Nolan-film as it is a Batman-film.

As great as Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was, and I’m firmly of the belief that this film is about as good as a blockbuster action film gets, I’m genuinely excited about what Nolan does next.

Anton: I guess I’m lucky in that Nolan’s vision of Batman aligns nicely with my own. I remember the first time I saw Batman Begins I thought, “Wow, finally a movie that gets Batman!” Returning to Anders’ point about the unity of the trilogy, we can see that the story really comes around full circle.

Batman Begins explores why Bruce would dedicate his life to fighting crime and evil, and his struggle to determine an effective and just method. The Dark Knight pitted Batman against his nightmarish opposite, the Joker, a methodless agent of chaos. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has to battle himself, not only in the character of Bane, who as Aren noted in his review is like Bruce Wayne if he had taken charge of the League of Shadows, but also his own conflicted soul, filled equally with hubris and hatred for life. He comes close to death in order to learn to fear it again, enabling him to embrace life and its defence.

Aren: The film brings Bruce Wayne to the very brink of death and defeat at the hands of Bane, and forces him to either overcome it, or accept his fate in the dark, and allow others to suffer as well. Interestly, it shows that one man’s despair can lead to the suffering of not just himself, but others.

Anton: The film’s most important quality, though, is its nature as a final chapter, an ending. Here’s why I applaud the film and its makers. Nolan wasn’t interested in spinning his tale on forever. As I mentioned in my piece on Nolan’s first two Batman films, cinema is now the dominant medium for superhero narratives, and Nolan’s film conclusion reinforces and establishes that shift. Unlike every other superhero movie franchise, which have all repeated themselves until either a serious misstep or a point of exhausted interest, Nolan skillfully and firmly ends his series, grafting the superhero narrative to the traditionally linear structure of classical film. In doing so, Nolan has also made the Batman story truly epic. Let’s hope this ending marks a new beginning for superhero films.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Morgan Freeman.