Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Something a little more real" - 'The Dark Knight Rises' review

Let's go ahead and get one thing straight right off the bat:

The Dark Knight Rises is not better than The Dark Knight. It's not even close to its level. The middle film of Chris Nolan's trilogy is, perhaps even more clearly now, lightning in a bottle, the kind of bold blockbuster that comes once a decade.

True, there may not be a single shot as pulsating with fevered energy as when the Joker stuck his head out of a police cruiser with the camera whipping about, but that's not to say The Dark Knight Rises is not without its trove of riches. Measured, contemplative, and almost forlorn, the film's beats resonate across Nolan's seven years with Batman, proving that this may be the trilogy of our generation.

More than a film that tries to define our times -- as The Dark Knight might be said to do -- The Dark Knight Rises feels oddly, perhaps even frighteningly, defined by them. It spills over with pseudo-proclamations against the decadence of late capitalism even as it was filmed against the backdrop of Occupy Wall St. In its graphically hyperbolic dramatization of class warfare and its apocalyptic worry about the end of civilization, Nolan has blown our anxieties across a tapestry that threatens to -- or, some might say, already has -- spilled onto the other side of the cinema screen.

Sure, it's clunky, it's a tad slow, and some parts are borderline incomprehensible, but it packs so much brawn beat-for-beat and has such lofty ambition that it's hard not to realize by its ambiguous (okay, maybe not) ending, Chris Nolan has slammed the lid on the superhero genre.

Rises picks up eight years after the end of The Dark Knight. Batman is in exile, Bruce Wayne wanders the halls of his rebuilt Wayne Manor like the Hunchback of Gotham, and Jim Gordon is wracked with guilt over his lies about Harvey Dent. Enter Bane, a meathead mercenary who believes Gotham should be in figurative and literal ashes, and who presumes to launch an all-out war on its infrastructures and its elite, recruiting the working class to bomb and take captive the "1%" -- of which Wayne is most certainly the figurehead.

As played by Tom Hardy, Bane might as well be the opposite of the Joker. He mocks theatricality, he lets his muscles do the talking -- he playfully tells a financial leader, "do you feel in control?" as he places one hand on the back of his neck -- his ideology is one of outright warfare instead of anarchic chaos, and he's totally emotionless. He wears a breathing apparatus that allows him to withstand pain even as it distorts his words into a surreal electronic bass. At times, you simply won't understand what the hell he's saying, but maybe that's part of Nolan's point, and the reason he chose to use Bane: the messages the Joker (and Ras al-Ghul in Batman Begins) transmitted are garbled, corrupted, twisted by this hulk.

Resigned from Batman, Wayne has given up on heroism entirely. He's let his company fall into disarray and given up on an investment opportunity that could save it. If the prior film was about a debate between vigilantism and terrorism, this film is about the shapes of heroism. More haunting than ever, Christian Bale connects to a soulfulness previously lacking in his characterizations of Wayne. This man is not smug, he's lost. And in no other Batman film has Wayne's dependency on capitalist infrastructure been so apparent. His dependency on money, on business, is brought to the fore at a cultural moment where "jobs creation" and the benefits of private corporate business are certainly at the forefront.

But of course, being a superhero film, The Dark Knight Rises has to have it both ways. It has to question whether superheroes are necessary, or worth investing in -- as one cop tells idealist crusader John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a great little addition to the cast), "Maybe you should believe in something a little more real" -- even as it has to show that no one other than Batman has the power to stop Bane. That's because Bane himself is a representation, a symbolic blank slate that represents ideological turbulence, especially in relationship to economic warfare. Witness how conservatives and liberals both will attack and attach themselves to this film, seeking to decipher its allegiances.

That's the smartest part of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy -- it has no allegiances. It recognizes the cracks in the masks of liberal and conservative idealism. It shows necessary extremes even as it reviles in those extremes. People may wear masks and costumes in this world, but it comes out of the need to transgress identity, to morph oneself into excessive symbolism (a point I won't belabor). I've heard plenty remarks on its faux-psychology about the nature of self, its need to be too on-the-nose about the terrorism metaphors -- complaints of the trilogy as a whole. These are problems of Nolan's work and his writing, to be sure, but it's hard not to simply be impressed by what's on the screen, the level of discourse he's able to aspire to in this mega pop culture atmosphere.

There's also the tiny matter of Anne Hathaway, playing expert cat burglar Selina Kyle with a cool wit and unbeatable grace that makes every second she's on screen ooze. Nolan's weak at writing women, let's face it, but with Kyle/Catwoman he's at least trying to bring some soul to the enterprise, and give the woman a little bit of a spotlight in his perennial interest in the nature of identity and the constitution of the self.

The actual images themselves are rather surprising. For the most part, The Dark Knight Rises is stripped of its noir-ish shadows and nighttime prowls. Its tone and style is different enough, in a good way, from the rest of the trilogy to let the film feel somewhat fresh aesthetically. A surprising amount takes place during the day -- but then, a surprising amount takes place without Batman. Gotham is a cold, sterile place shot through with grainy browns and steely greys (hey, it is Pittsburgh, folks). It's a city on the brink of desolation, taken hostage and turned into a dystopian state. With more meditative shots and compositions that revel in the destruction of the city, Rises might make you do a few double takes. Its use of the city is deeply discomforting, what with all the bridges and football stadiums being blown up and the threat of even more structures collapsing at any moment. I've written a lot in my academic writing about the scarred urban cityscape in superhero films and large buildings always under threat of attack, but I can't think of a place where the city has felt more precarious, more torn apart by its own structures and displayed less for our entertainment than for our dread.

At nearly three hours long and with more plot than is probably comfortable, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't rocket along like its predecessor (or Nolan's last, Inception). It feels slower, it burns slower, and it wisely connects the previous two films to make everything feel like a trilogy. In a lot of ways, it's the first Batman film to do so -- to make it feel like the previous movies really mattered and were all part of a piece.

I don't have the gut reaction that Rises is a masterpiece in the same way its predecessor is. I don't know to what degree Nolan's films will be remembered in twenty years. But as opposed to The Avengers, where the villains came from the safe confines of outer space and whose destruction was almost solely for our pleasure, The Dark Knight Rises's villains emerge from within. They're ugly, cruel, and offer little in the way of enjoyment even if they offer plenty in thrills. This trilogy has strived to ferret into the anxieties of the post-9/11 world and blow them up to a story that represents something about the multifarious cultural issues plaguing the nation and globe.

Whether or not it's succeeded is, I suppose, up to us to debate. It's certainly inspired the most rampant discourse, the widest level of conversation, and the most amount of admiration of anything in its genre, while simultaneously elevating superheroes to serious consideration as works of political popular art. The Dark Knight Rises aims stratospherically, and accomplishes an impressive amount. Just don't expect to feel like cheering at the end.

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