I don’t force every domestic drama I see to stand up to “American Beauty.” Nor do I weigh every romantic comedy against “Annie Hall.” So in a sense, why should I make a superhero movie stand up to “The Dark Knight?” I consider it every bit as paradigmatic as the two previously mentioned Best Picture winners, so an apples-to-apples comparison is hardly even possible. It’s more like apples-to-Garden of Eden fruit.
Indeed, a number of directors have tried to make their genre films a little more in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s iconic tale of the Caped Crusader, such as Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” to little success. Yet even “The Dark Knight Rises,” the sequel to the revolutionary film itself, can’t recreate its magic nor cast a comparable spell. Perhaps its time to declare those heights unattainable to avoid further disappointments. If Christopher Nolan himself can’t reach them, surely it is time for Hollywood to find its next golden goose.
“The Dark Knight Rises” also has the added disadvantage of being scrutinized as a Nolan film, not merely a post-“Dark Knight” facsimile. Coming off an incredible decade of filmmaking (five supremely acclaimed films: “Memento,” “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception“), it is hardly premature to call him the Millenial equivalent of Steven Spielberg. His movies are so good that they have merited many a repeat viewing, allowing dedicated fans to really analyze what makes his work so exceptional. Now, it’s immediately recognizable when his films are not up to the sky-high standard he has set for himself. For instance, in the opening scene of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
The movie begins not unlike “The Dark Knight” – a cold open heist, an introduction to the villain, and breathtaking cinematography. This time around, the scene still thrills, yet the specter of “Batman” films past looms large. It just feels overdone, a cloying attempt of oneupmanship that just makes you yearn for Heath Ledger’s absolutely haunting interpretation of the Joker. Tom Hardy’s uncharismatic Bane just can’t hold a candle to his terrifying villainy. Granted, it is hard to emote underneath that bulky mask, but there is a massive charisma deficit established from the outset.
Thankfully, said deficit winds up being nearly negated by Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Batman’s ethically ambiguous foil and the saving grace of “The Dark Knight Rises.” She brings the raw sincerity of “Rachel Getting Married” (as opposed to the overdone “Love & Other Drugs“) and turns what is usually an over-sexualized caricature into the moral and emotional locus of an epic film. While everyone in “The Dark Knight” had something to say about Gotham’s fate (and by virtue of allegory, our own world) that was worth deeper analysis and thought, only Catwoman is given dialogue of an even moderately applicable nature. She’s the villain the movie deserved and also the one it needed.
Unfortunately, Nolan falls victim to a small case of “Spider-Man 3” syndrome and just bombards the screen with too many new characters. Beyond just Bane and Catwoman, there’s also Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake, an upright police officer who sees right through the mask of Batman. Don’t forget Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, a businesswoman suddenly ready to take a major role in Wayne Enterprises.
Oh, and just for fun, Nolan also threw in a new cop, Foley (Matthew Modine, who ironically played Private Joker in “Full Metal Jacket”), to give us a brief morality play on courage in the face of danger. Mix in a few new minor supporting characters and that’s a cast sizable enough to match the film’s magnitude. But the movie’s time would be much better spent on characters such as Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon, the unsung hero of the series, or Michael Caine’s butler Alfred, whose stories have proven captivating since 2005.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to raise “The Dark Knight” to an exponent. On a number of occasions, “The Dark Knight Rises” really does excite at the levels it intends to deliver on, making for one of the best action movie climaxes ever. But “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie; it’s a deeply layered examination of the most pressing questions facing America in the Bush era. It was about Bruce Wayne fighting the Joker, sure, but it was also a film about a country locked in psychological warfare with terrorism.
Fast-forward four years and Nolan’s latest iteration of the “Batman” saga has shifted to cover Obama-era concerns of class warfare and the prospering of the rich and the expense of the poor. There’s nothing wrong with trying to tap into the collective unconscious; however, “The Dark Knight Rises” tries to be a zeitgeist film perhaps at the expense of its own storytelling integrity. Since when has Bruce Wayne’s wealth been a strike against him? Why has his privileged background suddenly made him weak? The mirror that was held up to the audience in the last film, forcing identification with the characters, is gone, replaced with a window into what could be our future.
The concern over money often harkens back to “Batman Begins,” Nolan’s first film in the series which shows a new Bruce Wayne explaining his mask as a symbol to shake the rich out of their apathy. But perhaps this thematic connection is only established because Nolan is too reverent of “The Dark Knight,” venerating it as a gravesite for Heath Ledger. Had he not passed away so tragically in 2008, “The Dark Knight Rises” would likely have been a dramatically different movie. Probably better as well.
But this what we have to make do with. And as a conclusion to an comic-book action movie series, it’s highly satisfactory. Yet it satisfies by plotting its way around the hard thematic questions. “The Dark Knight” rose to classic status by getting down in the mud and really wrestling with those conundrums of modernity; “The Dark Knight Rises” falls down a few rungs by skirting around them in favor a few more characters. B /