The Dark Knight Rises: Five Years Later
By John Saavedra
No matter what caliber of director you are, it will always be difficult to follow up a masterpiece. Few directors have really done it. Francis Ford Coppola specifically comes to mind as a director who did the impossible when The Godfather Part II became the first sequel to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Almost thirty years later, Peter Jackson followed Coppola with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which is only the second sequel and only fantasy movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
So were the odds stacked against Christopher Nolan when he set out to make The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to his Dark Knight Trilogy? Absolutely. Is The Dark Knight Rises anywhere near as good as the seminal The Dark Knight? Not quite. But it’s nowhere near as bad as some people claim. In fact, it might be the most comic book-y installment of all.
One of the big complaints lodged at Nolan’s trilogy is that it strayed too far from the comic books. While it took inspiration from important Batman arcs like Year One, The Long Halloween, The Man Who Laughs, and The Killing Joke, Nolan’s take on these stories were wrapped in realism. His movies were nowhere close to the fan service showcased in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which went as far as making callbacks to specific panels from the comics. For many comic book puritans, Snyder’s film is the ultimate take on the character — despite the fact that it’s a terrible movie — but that’s not the audience Nolan was ever catering to anyway.
Nolan was simply interested in making great films when he took the job for Batman Begins and when he returned for its sequel, which is more along the lines of a drama than an action-packed superhero movie. After all, The Dark Knight is Nolan’s masked statement on the aftermath of 9/11, the PATRIOT Act, America’s growing surveillance state, and terrorism. That’s what makes that movie so good — it aims to be something more than the popcorn-friendly Marvel movies we enjoy today. It was subversive for the time — if a bit highbrow for some fans — and there’s a reason this year’s excellent Logan was compared to it when it once again showed that superhero movies could be more than just punching fests.
It’s unfortunate that The Dark Knight Rises can’t stand up to the awesome might of its predecessor, whether it be in narrative or originality. For the third time, Nolan tackles terrorism as the subject of the film and in a much more convoluted way than the first two installments. For example, I’ll always agree with other fans who say that the director really pushed the limits of credibility with The Dark Knight Rises. I mean, did the ENTIRE Gotham City Police Department HAVE to go into the sewers to fight Bane? That’s just too convenient.
Sure, the entire setup of the movie — that Gotham is being held ransom by terrorists and the U.S. government is powerless to do anything about it — is incredibly ridiculous, but I think it really works when you take a look back at the arcs Nolan used for his final Batman film: No Man’s Land, The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall. If you’ve not read these stories, stop right here and go read them so you understand what I’m about to say… Ready? These are three of the most BONKERS stories in the history of Batman comics.
Two of them, No Man’s Land and Knightfall, capitalized on the grittiness and insanity of the 90s era of super muscular behemoths and bloody violence. In No Man’s Land, Gotham is decimated by an earthquake and evacuated by the government, which quarantines the city, leaving it to the criminals to rule. And in Knightfall, Batman faces the gigantic Bane, who breaks the Dark Knight’s back and puts him out of commission.
The other big influence, The Dark Knight Returns, turned Batman into a serious character again in the 80s — the Adam West 60s and the comics code had made Bats a bit of a joke — but also turned him into a criminal-branding fascist, something Snyder was more than happy to show in his movie. (Seriously, I’m not going to get political, but who would EVER root for the Batman of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Universe?)
Nolan decided to tackle three of the most hardcore takes on the character, and as a result, we got the most extreme version of his vision — and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. The audacity of Nolan’s ideas for The Dark Knight Rises is what makes it so much fun and comic book-y. This is the closest the Dark Knight Trilogy ever got to being faithful to the comics, and he goes at these stories in a big way. The movie really does show the bravery of the director to continue a story that was clearly supposed to revolve around Heath Ledger’s Joker before the actor’s untimely death. Nolan’s fix isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a great try.
Think about all of the things that happen in this sprawling movie. There’s the return of the League of Shadows, led by a more “realistic” version of Bane, who has perhaps the most ridiculed voice in all of comic book movies, challenged only by, well, Christian Bale’s awful Batman voice. Bane is as calculating in the movie as he is in the books, although ultimately a bit more sentimental. Tom Hardy does a great turn as the villain, a good enough job to almost make us forget the Batman and Robin version from the 90s…
Bane takes over the city for Talia al Ghul, who plans to avenge her father by breaking Bruce and forcing him to watch as she destroys the city he loves. Marion Cotillard is even more subtle than Liam Neeson in the role of criminal mastermind. She’s sexy, suave, and ultimately quite dangerous. All she is missing is the physicality of her comic book counterpart. Cotillard isn’t much of a fighter, but she is smart. Too smart for the world’s greatest detective, who is only saved in the end by Selina Kyle, played by Anne Hathaway. Like Ledger, Hathaway faced a bit of criticism when she was cast as Catwoman (although she’s never referred to as such in the movie), but she more than delivers in The Dark Knight Rises.
In a way, Nolan’s third film is a pretty feminist Batman story. Throughout the film, Bruce is bounced back and forth between Talia and Selina, outsmarted more than once by both of these femme fatales. Ultimately, it’s through both of their scheming (separately, of course) that Bruce has his back broken.
If Nolan is guilty of anything, it’s summarizing Bruce’s journey in the movie way too quickly. When Bruce broke his back in the comics, a long saga of recovery and redemption followed. Nolan doesn’t have the luxury of time on his side, so he needs to get Bruce from point A — his exile — to point B — his assumed death — by movie’s end. I think it does help that Bruce is more suicidal than ever before in The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, the movie is at its best when it’s tackling mortality and loss.
At the very beginning of the movie, Bruce is mourning the death of Rachel, who is clearly an analog for Jason Todd from the comics. Rachel’s death is Bruce’s ultimate failure and he’s decided to hang up the cape. When he does decide to return as Batman, Bale does a great job of portraying Bruce as someone who wants to be punished. As Alfred points out, Bruce sees no other way for his life to end but in a violent death saving Gotham, which is exactly what he gets at the end of the movie.
I like to think that Bruce definitely died at the end of The Dark Knight Rises and that Alfred is actually having a vision in that cafe. It makes the most sense for Bruce’s arc, which has always been about his duty to Gotham over his own life. Bruce has been reckless from the moment he decided to try and assassinate Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins, all the way to his ultimate sacrifice far from the from shores of Gotham. The fact that he can go out with a bang while saving his city is about the best reward Bruce can get. I find it really quite beautiful.
Nolan’s true to his vision of who Batman is and what he symbolizes to the very end, as John Black, played by the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt, enters the Batcave for the first time and discovers the Batsuit. Batman is more than a man, he’s a symbol of hope; and now it’s Blake’s turn to carry the weight of that symbol and inspire Gotham. Like Bruce, he’s a son of Gotham and an orphan. From the very start of the movie, it feels like it could only be him. Perhaps the only bad thing about Blake is that his first name is Robin, which is a pretty cheesy wink and unnecessary.
While Nolan goes for a more hardcore approach in The Dark Knight Rises, he still manages to say something new about this character. How will Batman face the twilight of his life? While The Dark Knight tackled the question of whether Bruce could ever truly let go of Batman, Nolan’s answer on the hero’s mortality feels definitive, even if he leaves things open ended. Bruce may die, but the Batman will continue to fight forever. That, to me, is a pretty satisfying conclusion.