At this point, I wonder if it’s even possible to separate today’s tragic events in Aurora, Colorado from any discussion about The Dark Knight Rises and simply analyze the film based on its own merits. If so, it takes a harder heart than mine, so before we even get started here let me say that my heart goes out to all the victims of this completely senseless tragedy, as well as their families and friends. In the days to come we can analyze the motivations, the warning signs that may or may not have been missed, and debate the proper courses of policy action to take in the wake of this absolutely senseless tragedy, and that’s all well and good — we still, and hopefully always will, live in a free society where the open debate and discussion about how best to address any situation, even and perhaps especially tragic ones like this, is not only absolutely appropriate, it’s absolutely necessary. So let’s remember that before we go and start calling people “anti-second amendment gun-grabbing liberal extremists” for merely suggesting that it might be a smart idea to figure out ways for guys like this accused suspect to not get their hands on private arsenals, and before we start suggesting that somehow various Batman-related movies and comics may have “inspired” the killer. If those are your views, fine, express them and have at it, but do respectfully, calmly, and in a mature fashion, please — assuming those who don’t agree with us are somehow “the enemy,” or placing a higher value on ascribing blame for a problem than on finding ways to prevent the situation from happening again, will only guarantee more tragedies in the future. But let’s all take a deep breath and let the police and various other investigative bodies do their work before we assume we know anything, much less that we know everything (or, at the very least, all we need to) about the situation. For now I think we can all agree that this kind of senseless violence represents an unconscionable act of cruelty and that there are no, and never will be, any justifications for it whatsoever.
And speaking of toning down the rhetoric and behaving like adults, can we also all agree that any online critic — be they “professional” or “amateur” — should be free to express reservations, even outright dislike, for this or any film without being subjected to harassment, personal attack, and even death threats? It’s just a movie, people, even if it’s a really big one, and there’s nothing in this world more subjective than one’s own reaction to and/or interpretation of a work of art in any medium. If people who have opposing views from our own on issues like gun control, public safety policy, and any others that may arise in the discussions resulting from today’s horrific acts in Aurora are not our “enemies” — and, again, they’re not — then surely people who have differing opinions than our own in regards to a goddamn film aren’t, either. If you can’t wake up to what’s really important in life in the wake of an incident like this, then I genuinely feel sorry for you, but please — dial it all back a notch or shut the hell up if you’re absolutely incapable of being reasonable and level-headed. It’s all about perspective, folks — as in, keeping things in it.
All that being said, I don’t mind segueing into discussion of the film itself by stating immediately and for the record that I absolutely loved The Dark Knight Rises. I was, quite frankly, expecting to, but yesterday I got a bit jumpy. I had read various postings online about how the basic premise here amounted to “Batman comes out of retirement to save the 1% from having their wealth redistributed,” and leaving aside the fact that I find the politics behind such a plot conceit completely antithetical to my own, it just sounded like a pretty lackluster way in which to wind up one of the biggest series in film history and like Nolan was sacrificing inspiration for the sake of being overtly topical.
I needn’t have worried. Yes, the film can certainly be read in such a manner if you strain awfully hard to do so, but it can be read with a more progressive leaning, if such in your inclination, as well, to wit : yes, the principal villain of the piece, one ‘roided-out, breathing-apparatus-of-some-sort-wearing pseudo-revolutionary named Bane (superbly portrayed by Tom Hardy with a kind of chilling nonchalance that’s absolutely palpable) does, in fact, set about “giving Gotham back,” as it were, to the dispossessed masses for his own purposes, but it’s what those purposes are, and the way in which they’re revealed, that gives lie, in my view, to the whole “Batman as champion of the 1% taking on a guy who’s suckered the 99% into falling for him” interpretation of the movie. I shan’t say anything too specific out of respect for those who may be reading this before they actually see it, but I will say this much : the fact that Bane is (apparently) a tool more for a rival to the corporate throne of Bruce Wayne than he is any “champion of the people,” and that even that turns out to be a ruse when it’s revealed that he’s bringing down Gotham for another set of reasons entirely, reasons which tie right back to the first film in Nolan’s series, are enough for me to dismiss both the conservative championing of this movie and the liberal hand-wringing over it with relative ease. In short, maybe we all need to learn to actually see these movies for ourselves before taking to the web and opining on their political content. And yes, I include myself among those I’m (mildly) castigating here.
All of which is not to say that Nolan (who co-wrote the script for this with his brother, Jonathan) doesn’t have an agenda here — it seems to me, quite clearly, that he does. And what, pray tell, would that agenda be? I’m glad you asked (okay, glad I asked) — but first, a bit of background : back when Nolan first arrived on the scene with films like Memento and Insomnia, it was pretty commonplace to hear his work compared to that of fellow Brit-come-to-Hollywood Alfred Hitchcock. Some of that died down a but when he took over the Batman franchise and his career moved squarely into blockbuster territory, but like the so-called “Master Of Suspense” himself, I think our guy Chris has taken a perverse delight in having us all on a bit. Sure, his budgets are a lot bigger now, and he’s definitely able to pack a much bigger wallop, aesthetically speaking, than he used to, but underneath all of that pomp and circumstance, I still think he’s the same guy who lives to confound our expectations and use his work to comment, above all else, on itself.
If I haven’t lost you entirely by this point, and I sincerely hope I haven’t please allow me to explain : true, on the surface, a story that revolves around how Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale, of course, who turns in a performance here that’s incredibly multi-layered as he goes from broken to redeemed to more broken than ever to quietly triumphant, complete with physical changes to match), against the wishes of mentor/father-figure Alfred (Michael Caine, as always the beating human heart of the film and here displaying the type of range few characters with his limited screen time are ever even given the opportunity to sink their acting teeth into) comes out of a self-imposed eight-year exile spurred on equally by the threat of Bane and the mysterious allure of a fetching costumed cat-burglar (Anne Hathaway, never specifically referred to as “Catwoman,” who knocks it out of the park here as sex-appeal-with-a-social-conscience — notice how she only steals from the well-off, and is even portrayed as being sympathetic to the surface level of Bane’s machinations, ultimately false as she knows them to be), aided as always by Morgan Freeman’s beleaguered-but-hardly-dead-yet-by-a-long-shot Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman’s ethically-conflicted-but-still-holding-out-hope police commissioner, Jim Gordon, an idealistic young Detective named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who embodies a kind of hope for the future every time he’s on screen), and a mysterious ally on his company’s board of directors named Miranda (Marion Cotillard, who’s fetchingly dangerous in her own, non-slinky-suited way), hardly sounds like it has the makings of being a truly personal directorial statement, especially when you consider that it’s got a $250 budget and a remit from the studio to keep hitting us with everything it’s got from start to finish.
And yet, that’s exactly what Christopher Nolan has delivered here. Yes, the action set-pieces are spectacular, the effects are out of this world, Wally Pfister’s cinematography is (as we’ve come to expect by now) absolutely breathtaking, and the metaphorical punches are precisely placed, perfectly executed, and pack one heck of a wallop. It’s all big-scale spectacle on a scale we’ve never seen before and backed up by brains, to boot. In short, this isn’t The Avengers, which can certainly be viewed on an intellectual level and with at least a degree of thoughtfulness involved should you so choose, but where such things aren’t necessary to fully enjoy the film. In a Nolan blockbuster, you’d better put on your thinking cap or you’ll be left in the dust.
It’s what all that thought and action, inextricably linked as they are, is put in service to, though, that really sets The Dark Knight Rises apart and reveals Nolan to be, and I say this with all due respect, a bit of a devious trickster under all that pomp and circumstance. As has been established, this film has more than enough red meat to either appease and/or infuriate both ends of the political spectrum as generally defined, and Nolan indulges himself on a scale so grand that it’s absolutely certain to provide ample fodder for both his detractors and admirers, and now, with all these pieces set, there’s nothing left for him to do but — sit back, laugh, and watch us all have it online, on television, at work, even around the family dinner table. Our reactions to how we view his movie will, in fact have already, mirror the conflict of ideals, as well as the grand-scale physical destruction, shown on screen (although, again, let’s keep it level-headed and in proportion to its actual relevance to our daily existences, please). I don’t think he started out this Batman series with the intention of it becoming The. Biggest. Thing. Ever. To. Happen. In. Movie. History. But, now that it is, he’s making the most of the opportunity and, like his predecessor Hitchcock, whose greatest character was always himself, and whose films ultimately functioned as self-commentary on their own creation and existence, he’s laid a masterfully-prepared, air-tight, $250 million dollar trap here, that once you’ve seen, you have no choice but to play into.
Some may call that cynical, and perhaps they’re right to a certain degree, but it’s cynicism with purpose, executed with almost pristine attention to detail. Even he ending, which I won’t give away, is a supreme act of self-referential commentary on where any future filmmaker could take this series, should they be daring/and or stupid enough to pick up Nolan’s gauntlet. It’s all part of an intricate puzzle designed to do nothing so much as reflect itself back upon itself , and us, once the last piece is in place, and nothing this truly audacious has ever, cinematically speaking, been attempted on a scale this large before. Think David Lynch’s Inland Empire, only delivered on a level pretty much anyone can understand and appreciate, if not actually and actively like (although early indications are that most audiences really do love this flick), and you’ll have something of an idea of what’s been achieved here.
It may take awhile before everyone is able to fully appreciate what Nolan’s achieved here — hell, we’re still debating Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre decades later — but that’s all part of the plan, as well. This is self-contained, self-propagating, self-constructed, self-sustaining genius (a term I never use lightly) of the highest order, and the most accomplished act of thoughtful pranksterism in movie history. Tomorrow, I’ll be seeing it again — and I bet Chris Nolan isn’t surprised in the least.