OVERALL GRADE: B+
“All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.Edmund Burke
The Dark Knight Rises is a very good comic book movie, a rousing action film, and a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. It is a big film about big issues: good and evil, death and life, deception and honesty. It has a lot to say about how our motivations can be a source of power for good or it can be the source of our ultimate undoing. Regarding the Burke quote above, The Dark Knight Rises is not a meditation on whether good men will stand up against evil (we take that as understood after the first two movies), but a meditation on what constitutes the kind of ‘good’ man we need to stand up, or to use the vocabulary of the film, rise. When the film focuses on these themes, it really delivers.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan has made an even bigger film than The Dark Knight; giving himself a larger story and a larger cast to fill it out. Despite delivering a film that is quite good, the film feels a bit thin to me or as Bilbo from Fellowship of the Ring might say, “Sort of stretched, like…butter scraped over too much bread.” What has suffered the most from the expanded scope is the story. The story is bigger, but it also staggers and contains a bit more holes than usual. The cast is larger, but feature a couple of characters that need more fleshing out. These issues affected my visceral experience of the film, creating many moments where I found myself unengaged and pondering just where the film was going (this isn’t the jet engine narrative of The Dark Knight). The action sequences are decent (not as bad as Batman Begins), but they are less meaningful to the narrative this time out, and some even feel a bit superfluous (the stock market raid and the police chase that follows feels a bit unnecessary in the grand scheme of things). There isn’t a single well-mounted action beat that ties dramatically into the narrative of the film as well as the armored car chase sequence with the Joker in The Dark Knight. That being said, the success of the Batman films has never been due to the action scenes.
Thankfully, I don’t think the film is undone by the issues I have cited above, just diminished. The real success and enjoyment of The Dark Knight Rises, as with the previous two films, comes from the thematic power of its story. I think the most singular success of the film is its examination of motivation. What motivates us? What is motivating our heroes and our villains? All of the major characters (with one exception I'll mention later) are given public motivations (ones known to the world) as well as private motivations (ones known only to the character). This creates extremely conflicted characters whose true private motivations are masked, from the world and even from themselves at times, by their declared public motivations.
At the beginning of the film we learn that it has been eight years since the ending of The Dark Knight, nearly all organized crime has been put to bed, and Gotham is a peace-time city. If Bruce Wayne was truly motivated to become Batman so he could intimidate criminals away, inspire common citizens, and deliver justice the courts couldn't, then he should be a contented and satisfied man right? In reality, Bruce is a broken man (in a similar way, Gordon is broken as well). With Rachel Dawes dead and Batman in hiding, Bruce descends into a listless fog of life as his company begins to go bankrupt and his funding of charities takes a dive. Alfred (always well-played by Michael “She was sixteen years old!” Caine) eventually confronts Bruce, “You’re not living, you’re waiting”. When Bruce eventually comes back into action as Batman, others (and Bruce himself) think it’s in order to fight the new crime that’s rising, but the private truth is that this finally offers him a cause to live or possibly a cause to die for. Bruce lacks anything personal to live for; no future hopes, no future dreams. Batman isn’t the masked man in his life, it’s Bruce.
You can see this pattern of masked motivations with all the other major characters as well. The new and powerful villain Bane (Tom Hardy doing his best to pull off a performance while covered with a literal mask) talks a lot about handing Gotham back to its citizens through anarchic terror, but again, this is another false public motivation. In fact, the film takes a lot of time and energy to try and convince us that Bane is motivated to install a new political order, taking on many topical real world issues like the 1%, 99% and Occupy Wall Street. We learn that Bane’s actual primary motivation was not a cause, but a personal one: his love for Talia al Ghul (played by Marion Cotillard). While Bain might have believed in the causes of the League of Shadows, he certainly wasn’t motivated to live for them; he was motivated to live for Talia. Bane the villain was really a mask, hiding Bane the protector of his beloved.
Bain's beloved Talia al Ghul wears two masks in the film as well. Firstly, she disguises herself as Miranda Tate in order to deceive and harm Bruce Wayne. Secondly, she disguises herself in the cause of the League of Shadows, a cause that seeks to destroy Gotham. Talia and Bane engage in an incredibly unnecessary and painstakingly elaborate plan to acquire a fusion bomb and fulfill their cause of leveling Gotham. Had this been Talia’s primary motivation, then the film could certainly have been streamlined and simplified; with Bane's muscle and Talia's money, there are easier ways of acquiring a bomb of that size. However, since her ultimate motivation is for revenge on Batman (who killed her father in Batman Begins), the elaborate bomb plan she undertakes makes sense because it allows for her to get a more intimate revenge upon Batman. Living for revenge is difficult, but masking that revenge in a cause is even more difficult.
The important question for all these characters is, what are they really living (motivated) for? I think the film judges harshly those characters who find themselves obsessed on living primarily for a cause; whether that cause is the destruction of Gotham, revenge on Batman, or even fighting for justice (making the obsession themes of this film very similar to Nolan’s The Prestige). For his singular and obsessive focus on fighting crime, Commissioner Gordon is punished in this film with the loss of his beloved family. When Batman reminds him of how he was the kid Gordon comforted with a coat, it stings because of how much Gordon has lost along the way. For her inability to shake her obsession with revenge on Batman, Talia al Ghul is punished with a failed plan, the loss of her protector, and the loss of her life. For his obsession over the loss of Rachel Dawes and his inability to move on from his life as a crime fighter, Batman is punished with near death in his first encounter with Bane (one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, one that nearly brought tears to my eyes). For his unwavering and protective obsession of Talia, Bane is punished with death and henchman status, a fate almost more terrible than death!
It’s in the Pakistan pit of a prison that Bruce undergoes a real change, and where I think the titular 'rise' is found. In his encounter with Bane, Bruce was just fighting solely for the cause of justice, unafraid to die for it. If he ended up dying, what was he really losing? It was easy for Bruce to give away his life because there really was nothing to give. It's in the prison (embodied in the lesson of going rope-less to escape) that Bruce is reminded that his most essential fight isn't for a cause, but that he must fight for LIFE first and foremost. What was he to live for? I think the film implies that it is here, he decides to fight not just for Gotham, but for a life worth living, a life with Selina, the life wished for by Alfred. This is why he first finds Selina when he returns to Gotham. Once he is able to fuse this new motivation for life with his public cause of fighting for justice, we find a newly risen Batman. This is why he is so willing to forgive Selina (who also goes through a similar rise), and why he is able to find the strength to defeat the still masked and obsessed Bane and Talia.
The character of John Blake (played with a grounded integrity by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the skeleton key for the morality of the film. Blake is the only major character not to don a mask (materially and metaphorically), as his primary motivations are laid bare for all to see, or at least shared by those who need to know. Most importantly though, he is never self-deceived about his quest for justice. Although he doesn't go by his real name (which is Robin) and he certainly hides the pain of his upbringing behind a smile, I think the film presents him as fully conscious of these hurts and motivations; there is no self-deception and moral confliction here. Blake is closer to the Bruce of Batman Begins and nearly identical to the upright officer Gordon in the same film. His honest character and singular drive makes it clear he is living for more than just a cause; he is pursuing a life worth living. The movie is really about him, or at least what Blake represents. When he enters the bat cave at the end of the film, it is Nolan’s way of saying that he has finally given us the Batman Gotham truly needs. Blake has one advantage over Bruce though, he didn't have to face someone like the Joker, he didn’t have to experience the moral chaos, the moral compromises and choices that The Dark Knight brought to Gordon and Bruce. A bit needs to be said here about the difference between Bane and the Joker, and how it affects our protagonists before closing out this review.
One of the common criticisms of The Dark Knight Rises is that Tom Hardy’s Bane isn’t nearly as good a villain as Ledger’s Joker. I think this is correct, but I think the reason doesn’t have anything to do with performance, but in how each villain was written by Nolan. What made Ledger’s Joker so menacing and so vile was that he never seemed to have any kind of personal motives, he became a literal embodiment of chaos. Everything he did was to support his chaotic ends. He forced Dent, Gordon and Batman to make hard moral compromises with their beliefs. The Joker didn't do this for love, for money, or for some ideology; he did it purely because he took pleasure in chaos. There was no backstory for the Joker, except one that seemed to be altered and changed according to his needs. He could not be explained or reduced. While Gotham’s heroes ultimately won their clash with the Joker, they didn’t walk away without physical and moral scars, they walked away changed men.
The key difference between Bane and the Joker lies in our ability to reduce Bane to a personal motivation. Bane isn’t pure evil, he is a terrorist out for a cause, he is a protector and sidekick. While one can have physical scars after encountering Bane, does one leave with a scarred soul? The story forced Bruce to undergo a change and rise, but did our main villain truly embody something that left its mark on Gotham and its heroes? This is why Bane, although physically superior to the Joker, is an inferior and less compelling villain. To encounter Bane is to put your body on the line, but to encounter the Joker was to put your soul on the line.
In the end, The Dark Knight Rises is an incredibly satisfying ending to the Nolan’s Batman trilogy, despite its flaws. It is an incredibly mounted and mostly engaging film whose greatest pleasures lay in what it wants to say about the kind of good man our world needs to rise and stand up to evil . I believe that Nolan is saying that being willing to lay down your life for a cause isn’t what makes a truly powerful person (hero or villain). For what does it mean to give away a life if that life is already dead? No, it is those who are willing to lay down lives that are worth living, in the cause of good that find themselves the most powerful heroes on the planet. John Blake is the film’s finest example of this, and this is why Nolan has him step into the bat cave at the film’s ending. One can enter into that cave a man of integrity and with noble motivations, but would Blake be able to don his mask without losing sight of what makes him perfect to wear it? I guess we may never know...