The Spoiler

‘Dark Knight Rises’: Christopher Nolan’s Masterpiece

Richard Rushfield asserts Christopher Nolan’s Batman series are the best comic-book movies ever made.

Ron Phillips / Warner Bros.

By the time The Dark Knight Rises landed in theaters over the weekend, the movie itself seemed almost like an afterthought to its own debate. So long ago had the pro–Christopher Nolan voices and those who would oppose them settled down into their opposite trenches that there was almost nothing left to say; the film as a film came as a mere footnote. That seemed even more the case when it was overshadowed by the horrific violence in Aurora.

Having now sat through and with the film, I feel that for all its flaws, overreaches, and self-seriousness, it is clear that Christopher Nolan created a series that is miles above today’s smirking, juvenile world of comic-book movies. Not only for its intellectual striving, but as a sheer love-of-cinema, delight-to-watch, moviegoing treat of a superhero saga.

Never has a trio of blockbuster movies ignited such arguments. Depending on where you stand, the Nolan Batmans—Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and now The Dark Knight Rises—are either visionary or overweening, lofty or frigid. These battle lines were formed in the aftermath of the self-consciously didactic middle film, with its152-minute running time and moral quandary set-pieces. The movie, upon its release, achieved the seemingly impossible, becoming a $1 billion mega-blockbuster while being wildly popular with critics–earning a stellar 91 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It was in Dark Knight’s afterlife that the doubts emerged; the film was too long, too lecture-y. Its schoolboy philosophizing was too transparent and undramatic. It was cold, and hung on a single virtuoso performance by Heath Ledger, while its star and title character faded into the background as a non-entity.

The marketing for The Dark Knight Rises gave every impression that all those sins would only be exaggerated in what Nolan had promised would be a conclusion to his Batman vision. The campaign for Rises made the gloomy themes of the previous film seem positively chipper. The bleak, post-industrial glimpses set to a minimalist soundtrack telegraphed that the movie would be the cinematic incarnation of a Nine Inch Nails album. Nolan’s attempts to use a pulp genre to take on grander issues seemed to be straining themselves. There is, in the end, only so much intellectual freight the story of a guy in a rodent mask punching crooks can bear before the seriousness starts to seem very silly. From a distance, The Dark Knight Rises appeared to be careening toward that line.

Imagine the surprise, then, when in its first moments the movie shows itself to be actually light on its feet. Of course, compared to the standards of the modern superhero film–the CGI-dominated, wisecracking, Marvel films–Rises was a pit of gloom. There is indeed a somber tone hanging over the action. But this time, it is a mournfulness tinged with irony and flashes of wit. The entire first act, featuring a cat-and-mouse game between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, is a veritable minuet. The biggest complaint against Christopher Nolan throughout his career is his trademark humorlessness; while that is not completely exorcised here, he shows he is capable of taking a step back from his own abyss and chuckling at himself just a little.

The truly dark passages of the film—the occupation of Gotham (New York), Bruce Wayne stuck in an underground prison–are not significantly bleaker than the superhero-on-the-ropes section of many a comic-book movie. The sacking of Gotham is depicted largely in the form of a burlesque kangaroo court straight out of Terry Gilliam. The horrors that might actually befall the city if the jails were flung open and criminals given carte blanche are barely hinted at.

More important, where The Dark Knight often felt like an undergraduate term paper about a set of hapless characters, one feels the flesh and blood in Rises. Bruce Wayne does not disappear behind the mask and rasping, disguised voice, but becomes a tormented character; his decision to don the mask is a product of that struggle, not a solution to it. Truly, on a basic level, this is what distinguishes this series from the rest. The origin sections of the superhero genre have become, of late, almost too tiresome to sit through, and this is because—whether by spider bite or scientific experiment gone awry—they all tend to lead to the same place; conflicted young man suddenly discovers to his horror, then delight: whee! I can fly! And beat up bad guys! Internal dilemmas solved! For Nolan’s Batman, however, it is never so simple. Donning a mask and giving one’s self over to violence does not expel the demons, but lets them in.

Rises even manages to solve one of the genre’s biggest bugaboos—a problem that has been with it since the Tim Burton Batman films: the demand for multiple villains. It’s a device that turns nearly every movie into more of a whiplash- inducing carnival than a focused, dramatic action tale. (The Die Hard films, to give an alternate example, don’t feel the need to have multiple, unrelated bad guys working on far-flung schemes.) In Rises, however, villain No. 2 becomes a mirror to Bruce Wayne’s inner conflicts; both characters seek a middle ground between light and darkness when their pasts will not allow them to dwell in the former, but they no longer have the conviction to live in the latter.

The film is not without faults. Nolan is addicted to drawn-out endings, and I’m going to spoil it/them, so you are warned. Here it feels not that he wanted to create ambiguity, but that he couldn’t decide which ending to go with, so he did them both. Batman is killed, and it is tragic, but that was the only thing left for him. Except, oh, he’s alive and happy as a clam. Or is that just Alfred’s imagination? Just choose your own ending and pretend the other one never happened. And then for good measure, in case you were worried that the ending of the series might actually be an ending, fear not, because metrosexual waif Joseph Gordon Levitt is getting kicked upstairs from Officer Robin, Boy Wonder, to master of the Batcave Himself.

Harder to swallow is that after eight hours of film depicting the world as a dank cesspool where evil will always have the upper hand and good be condemned to lurk in the shadows, suddenly, crime is defeated! The reviled Batman gets a statue in the city hall rotunda, and orphan boys can romp in a great big mansion, unafraid.

But clunky endings happen even in the best of movies. E.M. Forster wrote: “Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.” Winding up being something that rarely happens in life, but because we’ve all got to get home for dinner, it’s got to happen in fiction. Yet if the journey up to that point has been remarkable, we can forgive a silly ending. And Nolan’s journey through the world of Batman has been pretty special.

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At the summer’s open, it seemed that the story of America’s superheroes would come down to a battle of two opposite molds; one gritty, dark, and real (The Dark Knight Rises), the other fluffy, glib, and flashy, (The Avengers). That fight was not to be. As Nolan stepped back from the precipice of pretension with Rises, what he created was not so much different in kind as in quality. Under the Marvel regime, the movies have become light as air, with neither villains nor heroes holding more heft than whatever zingers they toss off. In a world of CGI, where technicians can and do create anything a director can dream up, the escalation has turned into an endless line of cartoon creatures hurling buses and office buildings at each other, with less menace than a child throwing a paper airplane.

Nolan in this trilogy created what is a true cinematic journey and delight while employing, yet shunning the tools of modern cinema. What effects are used take a backseat, in this final film especially, to the sense of bones crushing, flesh scraping, and real aching humanity on the screen. And that, ultimately, will be the accomplishment here. While Nolan has been called cold, it was Mr. Cerebral who put a heartbeat beneath the cape, perhaps for the very last time.