For the first time ever, I'd like to talk about something other than video games. You see, I recently saw the latest Batman movie, the one with the derivative suffix for a title, The Dark Knight Rises. Like most people, I thought it would be nearly impossible to top the excellence of The Dark Knight, and therefore didn't hold particularly high expectations for the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. But while I didn't necessarily expect it to be a great Batman movie, I still expected Rises to be a good movie. There's a lot to nitpick here -- plot holes, inconsistencies, illogical character behavior -- but what disappointed me most were ordinary shortcomings in things like structure, pacing, and story.
The movie starts out interestingly enough, but reaches a low point (both literally and figuratively) about midway through where the narrative momentum sort of falls apart. Despite these kinds of problems, Rises is still a pretty good movie that deserves positive praise, marred primarily by the fact that it simply can't outshine the legacy of its predecessor. But whereas most people would simply say "it's good, but not as good as The Dark Knight," my take is more a matter of "it's not as good as The Dark Knight, and not even as good as it had the potential to be."
This article contains major spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, and is meant to be a critical analysis for people who have already seen the movie or who may even have been involved with the film's development (should they ever take note of such a blog). This is all my personal interpretation of things. I'm not a seasoned film critic, so my arguments should be taken with that in consideration.
I've only seen the movie once and am willing to concede my memory of certain scenes may not be exactly perfect. These are just the thoughts I experienced while watching and immediately following the film. The impressions of a general movie-goer, so to speak. If my recollection of scenes is inaccurate or I overlook evidence to the contrary of my arguments, please let me know.
Lots of missed potential with the "Fallen Hero" theme
"You either a die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Those were the words spoken by the Batman at the end of The Dark Knight, when he takes the blame for Harvey Dent's two-faced corruption in order to preserve the image and legacy of Gotham City's true hero. "Sometimes, the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more." That's what makes the Batman such a great hero; he's whatever the city needs him to be, even if that means taking the fall and becoming the image of a villain himself. Jim Gordon complies, giving the order for Gotham police to arrest the Batman. As the movie ends, Batman flees through the streets with Gotham police in hot pursuit.
With that ending resonating so distinctly, I figured this new dynamic of Batman serving as an antihero would be a prominent theme in the sequel. There are touches of this in the story, with one scene in particular kind of exemplifying this idea, but rather than Batman having to protect the city while overcoming the hardships of being the villain himself, the "rises" part of the title is merely about Batman being defeated by the villain and having to rise up from his broken state. As important as it is to demonstrate that the Batman is vincible, a story about him overcoming his fear of death and regaining his lost strength just isn't as interesting to me.
Apparently the Batman has been in hiding for the past eight years, and Gotham is torn about his image. Gordon has ashamedly propagated the lie that the Batman is responsible for Harvey Dent's crimes, knowing that it was necessary at the time, but now feels guilty that he has to condemn the man who saved his children. A lot of people have taken that lie to heart and now hate the Batman for killing Dent (though we only ever see one such person, and he himself is quickly demonstrated as a misguided hothead), while others still view him as a symbol for hope and justice. I really liked this idea, but unfortunately the movie doesn't do a whole lot with it. It's just occasionally mentioned and doesn't really permeate like it should.
Meanwhile, one of the more interesting scenes features the Batman making his first appearance in eight years. After Bane makes a public attack on the stock exchange, the Batman arrives on the scene to try to stop him, which ultimately draws attention away from Bane as Deputy Commissioner Foley orders the cops to start chasing the Batman. Live news coverage speculates he's working with Bane, by all appearances intentionally luring the cops away to let Bane escape. In trying to be the hero, he sort of made the situation worse. This is the kind of stuff I was expecting from The Dark Knight Rises, but the movie drops this subtext altogether after this scene. I would have liked to have seen more of this in the story.
Spastic pacing makes it difficult to keep up
A lot of stuff happens in this movie, and there's rarely enough time to let things develop properly. Things often happen suddenly and without much explanation. The most prominent, single example of this is the sex scene between Bruce and Miranda Tate. She's a board member of Wayne Enterprises, and up until the point when they get it on, there had been no indication of any sort of romantic subplot between them. Even in the few minutes leading up to the act itself, there's not much genuine development. One moment they're escaping from the rain, and the next moment they're naked under the covers kindling a fire. The whole sequence moved so quickly that I didn't even know why she was at Wayne Manor in the first place, and left me with a confused feeling of "what just happened?"
When Batman has his first brawl with Bane (an engaging scene even though you know what's going to happen), Bane detonates the ceiling of the sewer to reveal that his headquarters was underneath the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises where all of Batman's technology is developed. It's supposed to be a moment of shock and surprise, adding insult to Batman's looming defeat, but that shock immediately gives way to thoughts of "What? When did that happen? How did he know where Applied Sciences was? Guess Bane's got a bunch of Tumblers now, nothing more to say or think about that." There's no build-up or resolution for that plot point -- it just kind of happens. Even the pacing of Bane's five month occupation of Gotham isn't satisfying, with the whole time lapse passing in the blink of an eye and with virtually no other indication but snow that time has actually passed.
For the first hour I wasn't entirely sure what was going on or what certain characters were supposed to be doing. Why is this Dr Pavel significant? Who is this Daggett character? What does he do, and how is he involved with Bane? Is Selina Kyle working for Bane or Daggett? Why is she even in this movie? Who's Miranda Tate and what's her involvement with this "clean energy" thing? I'm sure there are one-line explanations for everything in the dialogue, but the editing just seems to move so quickly with fast cuts to drastically different stages of the plot, that things didn't sink in right away, leaving me to turn my brain off and just passively watch things unfold.
What's at stake? Why should I care?
Bane never stood a chance of living up to the schemes of the Joker in the previous film. Nevertheless, Bane's plans for Gotham are on a much larger scale with ultimately more at risk. Whereas the Joker was trying to twist and corrupt Gotham's shining knights, while getting the citizenry involved in his own destructive anarchy, Bane completely overthrows the rich and the powerful, initiating a true anarchy with the lingering threat of total nuclear destruction. Bane makes the Joker's hospital destruction seem like mere child's play. Yet despite the enhanced scale and grandiosity of Bane's plans, the film makers don't create moments of tension like they did in The Dark Knight.
At every step of the Joker's schemes, you knew what was at stake and what needed to be done to stop him. "If Coleman Reese isn't dead in 60 minutes, I blow up a hospital." Suddenly you know that the heroes have two priorities -- protect Reese and evacuate the hospitals. They have clear objectives with tangible consequences for failure, and you can clearly see and feel the panic this has caused in the common population, as ordinary citizens and honest cops try taking matters into their own hands. Yet more tensions loom over top; Reese knows Wayne's secret and was about to break the news on live TV, so Batman's identity is also at stake in all of this. Dent and the Joker have their own moment of tension with the coin-toss.
When Bane attacks the stock exchange, by contrast, it's not really clear what he plans to do or why it's such a big deal, despite the cops outside talking about this affecting everyone's money -- a sort of vague concept in and of itself. He takes some hostages and uses them to escape the building on motorcycle, thus cuing an exciting chase scene. "Stop him, he's getting away!" But what has he really gotten away with? Exchanging stocks in Bruce Wayne's name to bankrupt him? This isn't revealed until afterwards so you don't have that element to care about while you're watching this scene. Realistically, Wayne's stocks aren't even at stake because it was obviously a fraudulent exchange -- I'm sure there are legal parameters in place within the system to protect against this kind of issue, so again, what's the big deal?
Once Bane gets the nuclear core from Wayne Enterprises, he casts the city into anarchy for five months. Meanwhile, Bruce lies crippled in a hole in the ground on the other side of the world. There's potential for this to be a tense situation as Bruce watches Gotham fall -- plenty of unpleasant things happen while the Batman is out of commission -- but it doesn't seem like the stakes are really all that severe since every character seems content to sit around not doing much of anything. Five months pass and all we get is a montage of Gotham while focusing on Bruce's recuperation. It's not until he arrives in Gotham with 18 hours left on the nuclear time bomb that any sense of urgency (or that there's actually something at stake) sets in.
The fall of society is glossed-over and under-developed
This is what bothers me most about The Dark Knight Rises. This is the point in the movie when things are supposed to be at their worst -- Bane has overthrown the government, stripped the wealthy of their power and influence, and handed the reins of the city to the downtrodden and the oppressed. The rich are forcefully dragged out onto the streets; police are trapped underground; criminals are let free; courts are run by mob rule. Society is brought to its knees and all normal activity comes to a halt. Bruce is supposed to watch Gotham fall, unable to intervene, but they don't really emphasize or actually depict the downward spiral.
We see: (1) rich people dragged from their homes; (2) the Scarecrow operating show trials; (3) Bane's henchmen patrolling the streets; (4) cops being held hostage in the sewers. Other than that, we just see people huddled up inside, not doing anything, patiently waiting for Batman to save them. The streets are completely empty (apart from the occasional Bat Tumbler), and pretty much nothing happens apart from crickets chirping in the background. Bane says his revolution was for the people, but we never see or hear how the people actually feel about him and the new situation. This is the time when we're supposed to see Gotham citizens adapting to the new circumstances (for better or for worse), seeing how their everyday lives have been affected, emphasizing the personal toll on everyone, but we don't see any of that.
It would help if we could spend some extended time with individual characters -- people we know and care about -- watching a self-contained story arc unfold while the Batman is incapacitated. For the most part, we just get to see random, nameless people we never knew in the first place. I mean, there's not a single police officer trapped underground with whom we have any sort of emotional connection, so there's no real depth to that entire situation, it's just a superficial notion. Even scenes with established characters like John Blake, Jim Gordon, and Lucius Fox feel too fleeting and, at times, random, to really invest in their predicaments.
Besides that, the plot device of the nuclear time bomb turns the story into a more simplistic "all or nothing" kind of deal, which only serves to artificially inflate the stakes. You get the impression from the beginning that there may have been some genuine problems in Gotham's society (one might argue the Dent Act borders on fascist rule), and that Bane essentially just got the ball rolling. Does his revolution actually benefit the people, and how many new problems does it introduce? There are lots of deeper implications of Bane's revolution that get glossed-over in favor of a "more exciting" (and more cliched) "save the city from a nuclear bomb" plot.
The world's greatest detective punches everything
One of the Batman's many nicknames is "the world's greatest detective" because of how much he relies on his intellect and detective skills to assist him in his crime fighting. In that hospital scene of the The Dark Knight, he's able to save the day by researching hospital records, thereby correctly predicting that one police officer in charge of Reese's safety might be a risk. Later on, he uses a sophisticated (albeit morally questionable) tracking device to find the Joker, and many of his solutions to the Joker's schemes are to use forensics and logic to keep up with and out-smart him. Generally speaking, he only resorted to violence out of necessity against hostile threats, or out of sheer desperation.
You remember that scene in the interrogation room, when Batman loses his patience and just starts pounding the Joker, trying to get him to reveal the locations of Dent and Rachel? That's such a cool, dramatic scene because it stands in such stark contrast to the Batman's usual collected behavior. In the previous scene, he actually avoided hitting the Joker; now, because of his passion for Rachel and his desperation to save her, he loses his cool and just beats the crap out of him. It's emotional, and it serves an artistic point in the story. It's made even more dramatic by the fact that the Joker doesn't even put up a fight, and Batman admits a tempting desire, of considering breaking his one rule in the name of greater justice.
He does something similar with Bane at the very end of Rises, violently thrashing on his face to get him to reveal who has the detonator. But it's not quite as cool, especially since his solution to most problems throughout the entire movie is just to punch things. He does some detective work in the very beginning, using his resources to gather information and make connections between Selina Kyle and Bane, but then he just brazenly walks into their hideout planning to rough him up. When he learns that Bane has him physically out-matched, he doesn't come up with some clever way of out-witting him, he just does a few push-ups and comes back to punch Bane even harder. He's not seen doing much actual detective work and often just inexplicably shows up at the right place at the right time.
Lack of character development trivializes many characters
The running theme of the movie is people struggling with themselves (or with society) and rising above their problems to become something greater. Nearly every named character has an arc where they change and evolve over the course of the movie, whether it's a radical change in their beliefs, standing up for their own selfless desires, or just developing as a person. It's a nice concept that even the minor characters "rise" in this film, but due to various issues which I can't quite pin down, many characters just aren't effective or as dramatic as they were obviously intended.
I'm not sure why the Catwoman needed to be in this movie. Anne Hathaway's performance is very enjoyable and makes the character fun enough to have around, but her role in the story feels shoehorned and her influence on character development is minimal. At the beginning of the movie she's an unfortunate victim of society turned to a life of crime as a way to get back at society while earning a living. She specifically tells Bruce Wayne "There's a storm coming. You and your friends [referencing the entire upper class] better batten down the hatches, because you're going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Clearly the passionate words of a Marxist.
When she finally gets what she wants in the form of Bane's revolution, she apparently decides she doesn't like what she sees. She gives up on her earlier principles to help save the day, and I'm not really sure why. She never seemed truly involved in anything, emotionally or story-wise, apart from feeling guilty about betraying Batman after watching him get beaten to a bloody pulp, and having been conveniently hired by the bad guys to be tangentially related in their initial plans. Bruce keeps telling her that he knows there's more to her than her own self-serving justice (despite the fact that he's only had fleeting contact with her, and that he's already had his back broken by her betrayal), and then at the end she just comes out of nowhere to save Batman and vanquish Bane. She's basically just an extra set of hands thrown in to assist Batman for the sake of fan service.
Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley has his own story arc, where he starts out as a misguided hothead and eventually makes a noble sacrifice attempting to stop Bane. He views Gordon as an obsolete relic of a bygone era, and desperately wants to bring Batman to justice, even if it means letting a confirmed hostage-taking terrorist escape. He makes some other bad calls, and gives up the badge once Bane has taken over, preferring to hide in the safety of his home than to resist with Gordon. And then at the end of the movie he's leading the army marching towards Blackgate prison, proudly wearing his full ceremonial dress. At the end I'm thinking "good for him" and wondering why I should care since we didn't really get to see him develop -- like the Catwoman, the change is implied rather than shown.
Even Bruce's revelations in the prison come off feeling forced. He's been questioning his role as the Batman, and now that he's been defeated he's not sure what to do. Part of him wants to stop being Batman, but he knows he can't just give up. Once he's physically recovered, the challenge is to climb out of the pit, a symbolic metaphor for him rising and overcoming defeat. After several failed attempts, a nice man tells him it's his fear of death that causes him to fail, and suggests he try without the safety rope, which then lets him succeed. Such a trite load of cliched garbage, which undermines the personal strides Bruce is supposed to be making.
There's a nice throwback to Batman Begins, where Bruce remembers a line spoken by his father after he fell into the well -- the traumatic event that triggered his fear of bats. "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." I'm reminded of another scene from that movie, when Batman gets defeated by the Scarecrow in their first encounter. It's like a two minute scene with very similar lessons, ideas, and implications to the extended, five-month prison sequence in Rises, that actually manages to be more dramatic and effective. Seeing the Batman hobbling through the streets in intense physical pain, completely taken out of his own mind by the toxin, and having to call Alfred for help resonates so much more in my mind as a defeated Batman than watching him mope around in a prison with fortune-cookie revelations.
A lot of important moments are anti-climactic
There are a whole lot of scenes in this movie that are grand spectacles to behold, with engaging action and interesting things going on, that ultimately deflate themselves in an anti-climactic resolution. One scene that had me really excited was when John Blake was using his rookie detective skills to track down Bane. He ends up shooting two goons at a construction site and realizes that Gordon is at risk. He gets a shotgun, commandeers a civilian vehicle and races to the hospital. My heart is thumping with the action, anxious to see Blake save the day and watch what could turn into a really tense, dramatic encounter. And then he gets there and the three thugs have been disposed completely off-camera by Gordon. Disappointment.
With a little help from Batman, Blake rescues the police officers trapped underground and they mount a march on the streets to Blackgate prison. Thousands of people, lots of criminals armed with guns. And then everyone pairs off and just starts punching each other. How mundane. Foley's noble death happens completely off-screen and undermines whatever drama they were trying to establish with that entire character. Once Batman's been betrayed (for the second time, by another woman in whom he misplaced his trust), Bane is about to kill him and Catwoman shows up to diffuse the tension, blasting the main villain out of the frame in a split second, before you even realize she's there, and nothing else is ever made of Bane's character.
Talia's betrayal is itself anti-climactic because of how poorly their relationship was handled earlier. The sex scene came from out of nowhere, so it's no surprise that her betrayal would come out of nowhere. Batman's looking all shocked and heart-broken, but I can't sympathize with his emotions because the film never established a deeper emotional connection between them. Other than that, her betrayal has literally no effect on the further development of the story (only managing to retroactively belittle Bane's entire character), and her anti-climactic death comes at the hand of an incidental car crash. How exciting all of this truly is.
I was really annoyed at the end of The Avengers, when Iron Man made a noble sacrifice of flying the nuke into the portal and then conveniently surviving. Earlier in the film he'd had an argument with Captain America; The Cap'n says that Stark is too much of an egomaniac and would never fall on a tripwire to save his friends, and Stark says something about never admitting defeat and would instead choose to cut the wire. The whole point of him flying the bomb into the portal was to show some character development, of him falling on the tripwire, sacrificing himself to save humanity. The impact of his sacrifice is belittled when everything wraps itself up in a nice, happy, consequence-free bow.
So I was also annoyed when the same thing happens at the end of Rises, when Batman apparently flies off on a suicide mission to get the nuke over the bay and out of the blast radius of Gotham. He'd been grappling with his identity as the Batman, and when Selina tried to persuade him to leave the city by saying "You've already given these people everything," he tells her "No, not everything. Not yet." You realize that he's prepared to lay down his life to save Gotham, fully embracing his role as the city's dark knight, making the ultimate sacrifice to uphold his commitment to his people, to give them everything he possibly can. Knowing that this would be the end of a trilogy and thus, the end of this Batman, I thought it was a poignant ending for Batman to die in such a manner.
At least this one's supposed to be campy
And then it turns out he didn't die; he's living comfortably with Selina in Italy. How (and why) did they hook up, exactly? Their romance was even less developed than him and Miranda. I also thought that scene of Alfred seeing them at the cafe took away from the heart-warming scene a few minutes prior, where he stood before the headstones of Thomas and Martha Wayne, weeping his eyes out at his failed promise of protecting Bruce. It's nice that, in the end, everyone got what they wanted, but it feels too contrived and diminishes the dramatic impact of everything preceding. It would've been more dramatic for some tragedy to linger (if Alfred only got a passing glimpse of Bruce and then lost him in the crowd), but perhaps that's just my personal preference for sad and depressing endings.
We know that Bruce had been considering putting up the cowl and never being Batman again, so it seems appropriate that he would want to "kill" Batman in order to fulfill Alfred's own selfless desires to see Bruce Wayne leading a normal life. But if Bruce Wayne is truly The Batman, then why would he also fake his own death and leave Gotham? Wouldn't it be more fitting for Bruce to continue serving Gotham as a billionaire philanthropist, helping out as an ordinary person and watching over the city he swore to protect? That kind of ending might resonate even more than if he'd actually died. I find it hard to believe that he could just up and leave that easily, especially considering how much the city could use a person like Bruce Wayne to help rebuild and reform after all of the problems caused by Bane.
Despite all of this complaining, I did enjoy The Dark Knight Rises. It's definitely an imperfect film, however, with many problems holding it back from being as good as it could have been. As enjoyable as the movie is, it's just disappointing to note that it tries so hard to do so many things and just can't properly handle them all. It feels like a case of trying to juggle too many characters, events, and themes, with some of them being clumsily dropped and with others quickly being tossed back in the air in favor of moving on to fit something else into the running time.
I feel like the movie could have benefited from lots of trimming in the script, getting rid of extraneous characters and subplots in favor of focusing on one really compelling story progression. There's lots of good stuff in the movie with plenty of things I would have liked to have seen more of, but there's also a lot of stuff that didn't really need to be there, as well as stuff that obviously needed more time and emphasis to develop properly. If I had to give a recommendation, I'd say it's worth seeing because even though I have all these issues with it, for the most part I was engaged by the movie all the way through and was genuinely interested in what was happening. Perhaps I'll come to appreciate the movie more with time and subsequent viewings, but for now I feel like it's the least impressive or effective of the Nolan Batmans.
The first act was definitely the most interesting to me, despite issues with pacing / editing / storytelling leaving me a little confused about what was going on. I really liked seeing Bruce as a recluse, complete with a limp and other damage brought on by his time as the Batman. It was a neat idea for him to be so out of his game, struggling to get back into the swing of things (both as Bruce Wayne and as Batman), all-the-while questioning his duties as Batman. This is the part of the movie when you really care about Bruce and get to see him actually developing. Some people may argue the first act is the clunkiest (from a technical standpoint, it is) but I felt like it had some of the most actual substance of the film.
I also like the idea of a Gotham without Batman, a bit of an interesting risk to have the main hero out of commission for such a long segment of the movie. They just didn't do a whole lot with that idea. I liked Bane and Selina but wish they could have had a bit more going on, and I liked nearly every scene with Blake. It's just nice having an ordinary guy trying to do good things on his own (Gordon had that role in the first two films, but by now he's kind of a superhero in his own right). It would have been nice to focus on Blake a lot more during Bane's occupation of Gotham, having a specific story or conflict for him to take part in, rather than just showing up in a few odd, unrelated scenes.
And for the sake of promoting discussion beyond the inevitable flamewar, I'm curious to know how other people felt about the movie and about the specific things I took issue with. Is it just me, or does anyone else feel that way? Please feel free to disagree and explain why. As for general questions I'd like to know:
- When did you feel the most tension?
- What did you think of Selina Kyle's role in the story?
- How did you feel about the portrayal of post-Batman Gotham?
- Were you satisfied with the ending?
- Could you consistently understand what Bane was saying?