Eight years after the camp frippery of Batman & Robin (1997), director/co-writer Christopher Nolan brought to the screen the origin story of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. Stately and just serious enough, Batman Begins was trumped by Nolan’s 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, which channeled post-9/11 panic and pitted Christian Bale’s masked vigilante against Heath Ledger’s merry psycho.
Despite a cool billion at the worldwide box office, that film was not for everyone. The atmosphere of grim, free-floating dread tipped the experience into “not much fun” for some. For me, The Dark Knight was a memorable death cackle and a striking vision of Gotham City, that familiar dream metropolis on which all our worst fears are continually enacted, on the brink of chaos. It felt right—exploitive, but shrewdly so—for the unraveling times.
Now comes The Dark Knight Rises, which makes The Dark Knight look like Dora the Explorer and is more of a 164-minute anxiety disorder than a movie.
There are many things to admire in The Dark Knight Rises, and Nolan’s bombast is a far higher grade than you’d find in a Transformers movie. But nothing in the new film, which turns Gotham over to the masked terrorist Bane, played by Tom Hardy, meets or exceeds the crises of The Dark Knight.
Nolan’s notion of amping up the evildoing in The Dark Knight Rises is to layer the slaughter in ever higher piles, though with a refreshing lack of computer-generated imagery. There’s plenty of that too, once bridges start blowing up and Gotham’s 3,000 police officers (a figure apparently referencing the 9/11 victims) are trapped underground while Bane goes crazy above ground. But at least Nolan shoots on film, and didn’t release The Dark Knight Rises in 3-D.
The film picks up eight years after Wayne, taking the rap for the murder of district attorney Harvey Dent, has slunk into exile, with only Michael Caine’s Alfred for company. Gotham has won the war on organized crime, smeary-clown-makeup division. But an alum of the League of Shadows has taken the Joker’s place, and this barely human bull, Bane, plans to loose all of Gotham’s criminals.
The script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan stirs in the cat burglar known as The Cat (Anne Hathaway), as well as a philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) with an interest in Wayne’s cold-fusion energy research. The film’s great whatzit is a nuke with a six-mile blast radius, and the film’s final hour hinges on the imminent possible elimination of 12 million souls. The film in its entirety works as a granite-fisted one-two punch: First we hear how awful things are going to get, and then they get that awful, or worse. And then a little worse than that.
The Dark Knight Rises features a full complement of cool toys, including a flying machine. But grievous bodily harm dominates the landscape, and the way Nolan films two key hand-to-hand combat sequences between Bane and the Batman, the (literally) back-breaking nastiness is just sort of a drag.
The scale of the destruction is monumental. A pro football game turns into a deathtrap, the result of explosives. The worst comes just after we hear a preteen boy delivering the national anthem, when Nolan cuts the realistic sound altogether and shows us just how far Bane’s team (and the filmmakers themselves) will go to impress us. The effects are excellent. The effect is numbing.
The Dark Knight Rises is not dull, or even overlong, despite its running time. Nolan amalgamates the second movie’s 9/11 breakdown vibe with murderous visions of class warfare and economic despair. (In one attack Bane opens fire on the stock market.) What worked beautifully in The Dark Knight seems overworked and ridiculously grim in The Dark Knight Rises.
Like its predecessor, this one has only one thing on its mind. It means to string the audience along, while stringing it out, on a bloody masquerade performed by masked pretenders. In its chosen vision of the world, each hard-won triumph feels like a momentary reprieve from the next 9/11. Bruce Wayne’s millions come and go, but the batsuit is forever. That’s some comfort, anyway.