Christopher Nolan has always had a problem with his inner thoughts drowning out his ability to make compelling cinema, and the companionship of David S. Goyer in the writer’s chair has never been rectifying. Case in point: The Dark Knight Rises is a belabored mass of hang-ups, side-treks, false starts, hasty endings, and ignoble intentions. On the latter, the film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) – who turns Gotham’s poor against its wealthy so that he can profit in the end – is a troubling figure of social dejection and husky sooth-saying radicalism, and he is, without a doubt, a symbol for the false intentions of working class leaders, or Nolan supposes. If the superhero genre is a card-carrying caretaker for traditionalist individualism, libertarian democracy, and the American Way, The Dark Knight Rises is the flag-waving stalwart with a mouth for the status quo. It makes no bones about its fear that the working class is a raving groupthink machine defined only by its inability to restrain itself, lying around in wait for an opportunity to search and destroy and just hurting for an anarchist fight.
It isn’t quite a one-percenter movie, but it feels a great pang of sorrow for classical democracy and a pulsing fright, always looking over its shoulder that the “masses” are ready to wreak havoc. It is, rather proudly, a traditionalist movie, or at least a movie with an eye for only reclusive, sober progress, and it would rather champion, say, the systems of progress provided by corporations and the US government than the ones imposed by the masses. If it isn’t conservative, it is the most blasé form of stagnant modern liberalism, a work for the middlebrow middle classes who vaguely dislike the elite but deep down fear the poor even more. As a moral fable, The Dark Knight Rises is questionable, to say the least. To say the most, it borders on repugnant.
We could grant the movie its ethical parable for the sake of argument (and, more than likely, we should not fall for this sort of hackneyed, cheap “but power corrupts absolutely so of course the masses will be worse than the elite” schtick trotted out for false depth by filmmakers from time to time). But even if we take the morality of the film for granted and judge its craft, Nolan doesn’t get us anywhere, roaring with the most archaic sort of quasi-realism that gestures toward seriousness without ever committing to the central horrors of its nightmarish vision of society. The Dark Knight Rises is a film low on ingenuity and high on rambling longueurs about “the state of things” and human nature, themes the film somehow covers time and time again and yet still only skirts the surface of. It manages to engage in both self pity and self aggrandizement, and it doesn’t even have style on its side.
On style, Batman Begins was a luminous pop-opera myth, and The Dark Knight a stark raving mad explosion of sinister, chilly ferociousness. While neither was perfect, they carved out singular identities all their own. Rises runs both ways, trying to be both icily cryptic and bombastically romantic, and the two competing tones smother one another. They create a film that manages to be both lanky and engorged, and the endless ruminating and high-mindedness stifle the film in wooly, craven complication that leaves no room for craft and style to emerge. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is blandly chilly, his Kubrickian fixation for hard lines and geometric shapes as present as ever, but while The Dark Knight at least committed to this “gaping flesh wound” tone, this film backs off before it ever goes anywhere, eventually icing over into a compulsive sort of confusion the film cannot back up. The end result is a work that exists partway between a sort of mythic abstraction and partway toward sober naturalism, and the two clash and collide without much purpose. The film is trying to have it both ways and ends up satisfying neither, a far cry from the romantic nightmare of Tim Burton’s duo of features starring the caped crusader.
The same confusion perseveres in the narrative structure. Nolan and Goyer maxi-pack the film with all manner of circumstantial characters that begin arcs that sputter out mid-way through. They want to have an eye for both the structural fable of the Batman figure as an icon more than a human being and simultaneously conclude his personal tragedy as a human, and they are not skilled enough at balancing the precarious meeting of the two. The material about Bane puppet-mastering the city of Gotham and becoming a myth to counter the Batman himself and the material about Bruce Wayne/ Batman (Christian Bale, as per usual) coming to terms with his position in Gotham exist at odds, and the writers are so frequently caught trying to rush between both narrative thrusts that the film can develop neither trend meaningfully. Following this, the film is both too much and too little, torn to pieces and spread so thin that no individual stories fulfill. Plus, unlike in The Dark Knight, the failure of the individual subplots does not serve as a deconstructive horizontal slice of ever-building chaos. While that film purposely eschewed narrative structure for something more sidewinding and blindsiding, seeking to impose its own concept of freewheeling anti-narrative onto the idea of urban chaos, The Dark Knight Rises seems to stumble upon its failures by trying to present a cohesive narrative and never arriving at one.
It is a tiring film, but not purposefully shellshocked and numbing like The Dark Knight; it just feels like an endless mass of contradictions and indecisions. It seems Nolan’s ego has been stoked and stroked until no one could tell him to cut a scene here or there or to excise a subplot, and the film loses the scalpel of judiciousness for the hammer of a blockbuster. One might say the chaos is the point of the film, being that it is a story about chaos after all, but the crisp filmmaking doesn’t back it up. It leads to a blockbuster that thinks it is a hard-won tale of chaotic industrial woe without any real idea of how to visualize industry, chaos, or woe in its squeaky-clean cinematography and Lee Smith’s straightforward, cohesive editing (cohesive editing that does not serve the non-cohesive narrative well at all, compared to the perfect melding of stuttery edits and even more stuttery narrative in the previous film). Because the filmmaking is so clean and straightforward, the messiness of the screenplay seems more like failed cohesion than an effective and purposeful attempt at chaos.
In 2005, Batman Begins was an operatic study in myth-making that propositioned the superhero genre with an alternate path toward grisly, grimy deterioration and arch-seriousness, and The Dark Knight elevated that tone to the level of abstracted evil. In their own way, both were bursts of fresh air for a genre that had for too long given in to frail and sickly tomfoolery and cotton-candy fluff. Since then, however, the clock has swung too far in the other direction. With every blockbuster now stridently committed to Nolan’s brand of false realism and morose seriousness, one yearns for the likes of the pop fairy dust of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man, back when comics were an after-school burst of sugar and gee-whiz fables of ingenuity and imagination. The genre has been spoiled on its own gluttonous darkness, and now, it seems, simply because a film tackles serious issues people grant it the benefit of the doubt. That is sitcom “very special episode” appreciation, where a work of fiction is championed because it tackles an important, serious theme. Not because it tackles an important theme well, and even if one is to grant The Dark Knight Rises its cloying, insistent, smug morality, it does not even manage to approach that morality effectively as a work of story-telling. It is a turgid mess of self-indulgence, a work so caught up in its inner-self that it forgets to be a film at all.