The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

21 July 2012

Two moments grabbed me in The Dark Knight Rises, the fussy and bloated conclusion to the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy that began with Batman Begins (2005) and continued with The Dark Knight (2008).

The first is a flashforward, which occurs when masked man-o-bulk baddie Bane (Tom Hardy) addresses a stadium of petrified football fans moments after detonating a series of strategically placed bombs around Gotham City. As he's talking to the crowd, we cut to various scenarios demonstrating Bane's future image of Gotham, in which imprisoned criminals are freed to run amok and civil order is turned thoroughly on its head; in one such scenario, a makeshift courtroom in which defendants are brought forth to decide between death or exile (one and the same, in effect) is observed from the wings by Bane himself - even though we're listening to his booming monologue from a different temporality.

It's the kind of editorial sleight of hand that not only furthers a narrative with economy, but is exciting to watch. Coincidentally, it's two years ago to the day that I noted on here that "the most effective moments in Nolan's films are to do with the sensory experience of watching a narrative unfold with a certain sense of purpose and drive" - regardless, we should add, of how silly or even dull the subject matter might be. Add this example from The Dark Knight Rises to that opinion.

The second moment is when Batman makes a belated return to an imperiled Gotham and tells Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to light a flare, thereby setting aflame the Batsign he's fashioned on the side of a building with impossible precision and scarce time, for all previous doubters to see. At this point in the story, Nolan and co-scribe, brother Jonathan, have crafted an appraisal of Gotham's chances of survival so cartoonishly bleak that the first indication in months of Batman's existence and forthcoming rescue effort comes as a cheer-worthy relief to everyone, in the film and otherwise.

Unfortunately, intrinsic to this very narrative strategy is the hideously and unavoidably conservative upshot: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his all-out self-funded vigilante violence saves the status quo of monopoly capitalism and a corrupt state apparatus from the dredges of an underclass all-too-easily incited to anger and anarchy by a mischievous villain. Left to their own devices, the masses sink irretrievably to looting and worse, with the police force driven literally underground. The film is a spectacular, insidious inversion of Occupy.

Indeed, Nolan and co., artist friends of big business and the powers recruited to protect it, take police worship to another level. Worried that officers emerging from the tunnels in which they've been trapped will not have seen light for a number of weeks, one character is assured by another that these people are policemen. The implication is that they can be relied on in a crisis. Soon after, resenting, squirming viewers are invited to cheer on a load of police officers rushing en masse like some wronged, rebelling class toward the criminals who've taken over.

The presence of a token bumbling doofus like Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) or the military officer who carries through an order to cut off Gotham from the rest of the (American) nation only aid such conservatism. Rather than demonstrate nuance, these examples suggest the system is self-correcting; the soldier who blows up the only bridge left intact by Bane's coordinated explosions is merely serving his chain of command, while Foley has an outright moment of epiphany when he needs one most. Of course, conscious or not, the police are depicted here as what they really are under a social system whose inequality is both a product and a precondition: that is, the police force is to crime what street sweepers are to rubbish, not so much a preventative force as a retroactive one. No wonder John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ditches his badge to join his caped idol and defend the social inequalities that demand their existence.

And yet, and yet... Nolan distracts us with muddled scenes involving muffled voices and another overbearing Hans Zimmer score while setting up a third act in which his dark knight can kick ass alongside ambivalent sidekick Selina Kyle (struttin' breath of fresh air Anne Hathaway) and head a counterrevolution that, if nothing else, is impressive in scale and aesthetically breathtaking in Nolan's typically ugly way. That is to say, from the first moment in which Bane speaks, to the odd one-liner (Batman, stood up by Kyle, quipping "So that's how it feels"), to the final, superlatively edited, feel-good, Inception-like emotional pay-off - in which we feel real joy on behalf of Michael Caine's loyal butler Alfred - there are moments of real superhero excitment here between long bouts of utter drivel.