In some parallel timeline, in some weird alternate dimension, Christopher Nolan is a watchmaker. He’s surveying hundreds of intricate components as they’re assembled in a specific order and then set into marvelous operation. I’ve seen every one of his films, minus Following and Insomnia, and it’s apparent that Nolan, without the help of Inception, is in the business of making cinematic puzzles that spend their running times being assembled and set off. He may be one of the past decade’s best directors, but there’s something in his approach that leaves his films feeling hollow, soaring right under what could be considered ‘art’. (I imagine this may be similar to Roger Ebert’s criticism of video games as art.) With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan ends his Batman trilogy just as he had planned for the better part of a decade with a really good film, but we find less free-flowing cinematic energy here and more forgone conclusion as Nolan seems to have tied off this film a bit too tightly and this conclusion suffers for it.
TDKR begins eight years after The Dark Knight, but it would seem that relative to the activity of the films, little’s actually happened. Batman, the fugitive who killed Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight (as Bruce Wayne would have it, to retire his alter-ego) is loathed and missing. His mission complete, to champion Dent as the man who saved Gotham, Bruce Wayne hides in seclusion, his body in shambles. The city is safe now that Batman is a demon and Dent is a hero. A chance encounter with Bruce Wayne and a seemingly innocent maid reveals a cat burglar about to walk away with his mother’s pearls. But Wayne is in no condition to confront this cat woman and she escapes easily. This is the string that brings Bruce Wayne back into the public light and Batman back into operation. A storm is coming and the bourgeois will be the first punished, a naked remark on the world economy, etc. Bane, a monstrous man with a devious mask and a former apprentice of Ra’s Al Ghul – the same master who trained Wayne – is the wizard bringing this maelstrom to Gotham.
You probably would’ve never guessed Bane was Tom Hardy aside from a quick shot without the mask, but he’s powerful here, seemingly unstoppable. Every force simply falls before him or gets rolled underneath the treads of his war machine. But TDKR isn’t interested in building an extensive final rogue’s gallery to combat Batman like other superhero films, films where you’re made to believe that the series is coming to loud, shuddering climax by throwing in more villains than the movie has an attention span for. But even as warlord to this imprisoned Gotham City, Bane falls to the background as the imprisoned citizens and remaining on-duty cops conduct raids and guerrilla-style strikes against his ragtag captor army, a force who had previously been under lock and key thanks to Harvey Dent’s successful litigation and heroic life, a lie Batman created to save Gotham in the first place. Meanwhile, Selina Kyle is underplayed and this works great as her presence, and eventually aid, are respectable without a single cat joke to be found (phew!).
It’s not that a Gotham City-Under-Glass situation isn’t incredibly interesting (as the “before” Gotham is set in Manhattan, and the ravaged “after” is set in Pittsburgh), but it almost seems too easy. The Dark Knight, with a more realistic setting than its fantastical predecessor, showed how Gotham City was a chess board with dozens of simultaneously moving pieces. As grim as TDKR gets, it can’t replicate the hopeless chaos that the Joker rained down in The Dark Knight as one failure rolled into another in a seemingly endless calamity from which there is no recovery. At no point was I teetering on the edge of my seat wondering how things could possibly be more wrong.
TDKR makes more than a few callbacks to Begins, which makes the trilogy feel cohesive, as it felt like a sharp divide existed between the first two films. Look: TDKR is a good film. It has fantastic performances, its new characters are fantastic, especially in up-and-coming hothead cop John Blake as played by the super-serious Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s beautiful, it has tons of action, it’s a great use of cinema and another fantastic reason to get into a movie theater. This is the conclusion of one of the most successful film series of all time and the largest case that Hollywood’s reboot-happy attitude is fully justified. But at the end of the day, one can’t help but feel like it’s a little empty. Even with $250 million worth of epic, practical action, less seems to happen in TDKR than previous films. We see Bruce Wayne rebuild himself several times and as he approaches the Batsuit he summons from a glass case (perhaps, a coffin?) he seems tired. After nearly three hours, we do too. Things in TDKR tie up too tightly, work out a little too well, lines get painted between dots a little too clean. It’s good watchmaking, but not up to Nolan’s own high bar.