In Defense of a Sequel in a Shadow: Dark Knight Rises
Halfway through the first act of “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), I started to wonder exactly what Bruce Wayneâ€™s goal was, not to mention the directorâ€™s. Whatâ€™s the story here? He was sort of concerned with turning the dangerous device heâ€™d blown his finances on into a successful investment, but he only started trying after Bane compelled him to return as Batman, which seemed to be his main focus, though he would even put that aside at points. Not to mention that, amidst it all, he was finding time to pursue an interest in Catwoman.
Thatâ€™s when I realized that I was watching a movie about people picking up the pieces of their lives, having lost everything while holding to their own. Commissioner Gordon has ended organized crime in a battle thatâ€™s left him weary, guilt-ridden, and alone, uncertain of what he should do. Selina Kyle led the criminal life as needed to thrive, and now sheâ€™s pursuing a forlorn hope at a second chance. Even Bane, after a lifetime of pain, can see only one thing he has enough of a stake in to live for. And Bruce Wayne, of course, is the most shattered of all, wandering out into the world one more time to find a way forward. But, in some ways, heâ€™s only going through the motions, because heâ€™s no longer invested enough to live for any of it. Only to die for it.
I canâ€™t help but wonder if theirs was also the dilemma of director Christopher Nolan, who was reluctant, at first, to make a third movie at all. At this point, The Dark Knight series had seemingly peaked, achieving more than anyone could have predicted. “The Dark Knight” (200 impressed even the naysayers of “Batman Begins” (2004) and achieved a legend impossible to live up to. Despite the occasional snub, it was probably the most talked-about movie of the year. It could only have become a bigger mountain to scale when, as legends often are, it was cast into doubt, and naysayers for “The Dark Knight” gradually went from unheard of to something resembling a demographic. And where was there to go? The arguable core element of the previous movie, the Joker as played by Heath Ledger, was gone, and out of respect, Nolan refused to reference him or cast another actor. What story worth telling could he earnestly invest himself in?
But Nolan dug deep into the lore and completed the progression I hadnâ€™t realized he was on through the first two movies, though it seems I wasnâ€™t the only one; almost everyone has at least a couple complaints about aspects of “Rises” that just didn’t sit well with them, but nobody comes up with quite the same list ofÂ complaints. Some say Anne Hathaway should not have been Catwoman, some did not appreciate the plot tying back to the first movie more than the second, some took issue with Bane seemingly drawing out his scheme to blow up Gotham City when he already had the power to do so, and some didnâ€™t think the ending revelation was handled well. Everyoneâ€™s vision of Batman, from the comics, the previous movies, or one of the many other versions, is just a little bit different, and “The Dark Knight Rises” doesnâ€™t neatly stay within any of them.
No, this is where The Dark Knight series finally progresses into a vision all its own. In “Batman Begins”, Nolan focused on capturing the essence at the core of the character, the development and the motivations that the comics have defined most clearly. In “The Dark Knight”, he expanded on these elements and fused them with his own ideas to create a rich crime drama around Batman. Now, in “Rises,” after so much time as director and screenwriter, his series has evolved into a vision personal to him. (Some have noted that it feels like a Nolan movie first and a Batman movie second.) The choices he makes in “Rises” will stand at odds with just about anyone at one point or another, including me, but there is a reason for all of them, and the earnest audacity he shows was enough, at points, to leave me in open-mouthed admiration.
But I couldnâ€™t make the above claim without justifying some of the points in question: To me, this was one of the occasions where Anne Hathaway gets to prove that she is an actor, not just an â€œadorableâ€ screen persona. Like Black Widow in “The Avengers” (2012), Selina Kyle has to feign helplessness at points, and the interesting thing that Hathaway brings to the character, again like Black Widow, is that the she seems to be drawing from a place of real emotion when she does so. But only Kyle, at the same time, has complete control of her reactions and can turn on a dime; I couldnâ€™t help but grin the first time innocent Anne Hathaway dissolved into Catwoman and breezed out of Wayne manor with a family heirloom.
Baneâ€™s goal, as far as I see it, is to settle the score between Batman and Raâ€™s Al Ghul, not just to finish the work of the league of shadows. He works to demoralize Gotham because he doesnâ€™t just want the city destroyed; he wants to prove it should be destroyed, still corrupt despite Batmanâ€™s work to save it. This is all Bane has, and we get more than hints at why a bomb (the destructive range of which they did put a limit on) isnâ€™t enough destruction for him. He throws Gotham into chaos for the same reason he sends Bruce to a hell hole before killing him: to end their will to ever stand back up (though in Bruceâ€™s case, itâ€™s less a necessity than it is sadism).
The ending is the most interesting point. It took some heat for tying everything up too neatly, but ironically, as critics such as James Berardinelli pointed out, itâ€™s not so â€œclear-cutâ€ as it might seem at first. The final scenes arenâ€™t very concrete on what is fact and what is only optimism. Some people sneered â€œwhat are the odds of thatâ€ when Alfredâ€™s fantasy seemed to unfold perfectly before his eyes at the end. What are the odds of that?
“The Dark Knight Rises” is one of the best superhero movies I have ever seen, topped for sure only by its predecessor. Its thrills are outdone only by its passionate character arcs, and it concludes one of the best series of all time with a story not quite like any weâ€™ve seen before. And while the series as a whole seems to have picked up sort of a stereotype as â€œdarkâ€ and â€œcomplicatedâ€ in a dreary, tedious way, the final act, in which the Dark Knight does indeed rise, is simply the most triumphant act in any Batman movie. Ever.