Let me put Batman in a personal context. While growing up, I did not read the comic books and based on what I knew about the character I didn’t like Batman very much. He was pseudo-serious in TV reruns and hardly crucial in the Super Friends animated Saturday morning series I used to watch as a kid. Bob Kane’s DC Comics character always seemed too dark and tortured for my tastes. I never had an interest in Batman movies – they looked ridiculous – until I saw the trailer for Batman Begins (2005); I saw the movie, enjoyed it and sat down for an interview with writer and director Christopher Nolan at his office on the Warner Bros. lot. While I appreciate the artistry in his 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, I found it lacking in clarity, plausibility and above all the Batman.
Mr. Nolan’s third and final picture in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is neither as gallant as the first nor as malevolent as the second. It certainly entertains, holds interest and packs a wallop. I found it moving, humorous and thought-provoking. I also found it slow-moving, muddled and then too fast in other scenes. I’ll set aside whether it deserves wild attention though I admit that I am dubious as to whether it does. The movie intermittently feels exhaustive, as though no one can quite figure how to loop threads and tie things up. That said – and readers of this blog know my political philosophy – I enjoyed watching anti-industrialism get a partially deserving depiction.
Despite his early promise as a titan of industry, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) doesn’t rise to glory. In fact, his Wayne Enterprises fails to make money; instead, he is a reclusive heir more interested in donating than in making money and his Batman has retired having taken a bad reputation for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s let himself go, though apparently not at the expense of his exercise regimen, and he flirts with a social climbing slut who sidelines as a cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) and a guilt-tripping eco-charity maven (Marion Cotillard). Butler Alfred (Michael Caine) is around to urge Master Wayne to take care of himself and corporate executive Lucius (Morgan Freeman) is on call to coax the absent businessman back in to being Batman. Though Bale is flat, the cast is fine. Look for numerous cameos.
There are too many characters. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), an earnest policeman (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), Ra’s Al Goul (Liam Neeson), Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), plus a sleazy congressman, incompetent police commander and various other types – cronies, looters, thugs – who make the movie nearly three hours long to establish that Gotham City is populated by a passive, lazy and unproductive bunch with just a few good men. And The Dark Knight Rises is primarily and refreshingly focused on men, not women, with boys, men and old men front and center for a change. It’s one of the most distinctive aspects, dramatizing men at large with a range of issues, from Alfred with his open, honest emotions to orphan boys with repressed anger and almost every male character striving to be what he thinks is his best.
This includes the masked and muscled villain Bane (Tom Hardy), who brings a grain of truth and excitement to Gotham which he intends to instill with hope, change and his own brotherhood of what are best described as Occupy Wall Street types to replace day traders, stockbrokers and other workers demonized by the left. It is not an explicitly political movie, except that one cannot miss the clues, planted as cryptically as Chris Nolan (Inception, Memento) does, and Bane’s proclivities and collectivist propaganda give him a sort of Islamo-fascist bent, like a cross between a New Left terrorist and one of those religious zealots in the Middle East or Michigan’s upper peninsula. To Bane, who interchanges the terms detonate and liberate with lusciously British-accented abandon, pain trumps privilege.
This puts Bane in cahoots with Catwoman (Hathaway), played here as a crusading leftist with lesbian overtones who likes to lock lips with men when she’s in charge. Mr. Nolan keeps the overwrought actress in check, and, while audiences may be less forgiving of Catwoman’s transgressions, the character adds camp and humor and a twist. She also brings out what I would call the limits of the Batman character, who is always reacting and never creating. As in The Dark Knight, Batman, with the exception of a singular feat alluded to in the title, does not initiate any major positive action ahead of the villain(s). At least when he fights Bane the clash is both kinetic and clear and, after the city has been looted and private property seized for the good of the collective as in Doctor Zhivago (1965), it’s a thrilling conclusion complete with a “clean energy” advocate who is strikingly true to the conviction. All of this is mitigated by appeasement and forgiveness, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, and, as the movie puts it, a man rises from the darkness.
He may or may not be Bruce Wayne or the Batman. What happens may or may not come as a surprise. Yet The Dark Knight Rises, occasionally cheesy, sometimes glacial, and the end of a seven-year series at the beginning of a dark century, moves toward an exciting finale for a serious trilogy which expresses that man, heroism and civilization are essentially self-made – and re-made.