The headline of Salon.com's review of The Dark Knight Rises called it "Christopher Nolan's evil masterpiece." I disagree on both counts. It's not a masterpiece, and it's not evil. It's just a really good action movie.
The Dark Knight Rises is the final film in Nolan's Batman trilogy. (Or it could be--the ending holds open the possibility of another sequel). One immediate difficulty, of course, is that The Dark Knight, the second film in the series, featured Heath Ledger's iconic performance as the Joker, a performance so remarkable, it kind of overshadowed the rest of the movie. With Ledger's tragic death, Nolan had to create an equally powerful super-villain. He had to raise the stakes for the characters and story. Paradoxically, he also had to anchor the film with a stronger focus on an much more interesting Batman. He accomplishes all these tasks . . . up to a point. But he also gives the film a political dimension that frankly ended up being more confusing than germane.
I'm trying to think of a way into this film and series, and one possibility is through D&D. I've never really played D&D, but my son has, and I'm a fan. In D&D, characters have an alignment, with nine possibilities. They're either good, neutral or evil, and either lawful, neutral, or chaotic. A character might be, for example, lawful evil--rule-bound and orderly, but evil. Adolph Eichmann, perhaps. Or chaotic evil; random, arbitrary, but oriented to do wrong. Ledger's Joker essentially defines chaotic evil.
At first, Bane, (memorably played by Tom Hardy, most of the characterization a matter of stance and movement--he's masked), seems like a terrific super-villain, but aligned lawful evil. He's huge and deadly, but he's also organized. In Gotham, a cult of personality has formed around Harvey Dent, the Aaron Eckhardt character from The Dark Knight. Police honor his legacy by suspending civil liberties, which has driven organized crime underground. Literally so; a community of criminals thrives in the Gotham sewers, while thousands of arrestees languish in Gotham prisons--and without, apparently, much in the way of due process. Bane organizes this underground, bend it to his will, and prepares to wreak havoc on Gotham (which, more obviously than ever, is New York City).
Okay, so there's definitely a political element to all this. Bruce Wayne is a rich guy. He's asked his head of R & D, Fox (Morgan Freeman), to work on developing a fusion reactor, which will provide energy for free for all of Gotham. The downside: such an energy supply could be weaponized. So his financial backer, Miranda (Marion Cotillard), is given control of the no-longer-profitable Wayne Enterprises, with instructions to never let the reactor fall into enemy hands. This turns out to be a very very bad idea. Rich guys, in this film, aren't much good, and poor guys, like Bane, are pissed off about it. That's about as deep as it goes.
Oops. Uh, also, spoiler back there. Sorry.
Wayne Enterprises unprofitable, you say? Indeed. Because Bruce Wayne is so depressed after the death of Maggie Gynllenhaal, his True Love, that he's become Howard Hughes level reclusive. He's a mess. A doctor tells him his knees are shot. And Batman, widely blamed for Dent's death, is anathema in the city, and in mothballs. Christian Bale's fabulous in this film, as is Michael Caine as Alfred--their scenes together give the film its emotional punch. But Bruce has started to pull out of his funk, and Batman eventually goes back to war.
Andrew O'Hehir is Salon's film critic, and he's good. I get where his complaint about the film being 'fascistic' are coming from. Bane 'frees' the city, 'liberates' it. The resulting anarchy leads to mock trials, with Cillian Murphy as a kind of yuppie Robespierre, sentencing the accused, without due process, to death or exile. Exile, in this case, meaning a chance to walk across an inadequately frozen East River to 'freedom'. But where does that anarchy come from?
In the film, one might argue that it comes from Occupy Wall Street. In one of the film's great scenes, Bane and his minions take over a pro football stadium (The Meadowlands? New York doesn't have a midtown stadium--the Giants play in Jersey). In a big game, we see Hines Ward run a kickoff back for a touchdown, while the field explodes behind him, bombs planted by Bane's guys. Cut to models of New York, as all the bridges into the city also detonate. Bane then 'liberates' the city, and uses Occupy rhetoric, all about a 'class struggle, and the poor guys held back by the rich.'
The problem is, none of that adds up to anything. It's as though Nolan, hearing all this rhetoric about a 'class war' thought, "you wanna see a class war, okay!" But we're never meant to take any of it seriously. The only 'liberated' souls are Bane's men, and he's got a ticking time bomb in his possession, which will kill everyone soon enough. Nobody can leave, and everyone's going to die. It's not like he reorganizes society meaningfully, or, you know, imposes sharia law. In fact, we're never quite sure just what Bane wants. And that seemingly central question really never does get answered.
I never actually thought Bane could be the mastermind of this 'plot,' whatever it was, and turns out, I was right. Won't give away who the real super-villain of the piece is, except it's not Catwoman. And what, exactly, does this super-villain want? We're finally actually, sort of, told, but it really doesn't make a lick of sense.
The argument could be made that Nolan is actually saying something like this: Occupy protestors are puppets of larger, evil forces, their rhetoric conduces only to anarchy and misery. An evil opportunist will exploit them all soon enough. But none of that is central to the film's concerns, which are much more about whether Batman will get out of that pit, and will Fox be able to prevent that bomb from going off.
The pit: yeah, well, Bane was raised in this massive pit in the Middle East somewhere, where the only way out was to climb this wall, which nobody's been able to do except one person. Presumably Bane. And he throws Batman down the same pit, with a badly injured back. Somehow, Bruce Wayne has to fix his back and climb out of the pit in time to, as Batman, save the day. Which, of course, he does. And it's great, very exciting, very compelling. That's really what the film's about.
The political stuff is really just, well, choose your metaphor, window-dressing or a smokescreen.
Okay, in The Dark Knight, there was the ferries scene. Two ferries; one full of prison inmates, the other full of civilian passengers, plus National Guardsmen. The passengers in each can blow up the other; if neither explodes before midnight, the Joker will detonate bombs in both. Nice bit of game theory, a sort of first cousin to The Prisoner's Dilemma. It's a tremendous scene, very tense, very powerful. We can see the people on both boats, we can hear their deliberations. That's what's at stake in the movie; the people in those two boats.
In Dark Knight Rises, the 'stakes' are higher--a bomb big enough to destroy Manhattan. Way more lives at stake, way higher casualties if Batman can't save the day. But it doesn't feel as serious. It's an abstract danger--the numbers at risk are too enormous to register. Plus, we've been there--how many action movies are about atomic bombs about to explode? Heck, how many episodes of 24? We know that Batman will figure out how to save the day. No way Batman fails to save an entire city. But those ferries? We'd buy it if Batman failed that one. Watching the ferries scene, I genuinely wondered if Nolan would let one of those boats blow up the other one. I thought he might. It was more immediate, more human, more relate-able.
There is, however, one political issue that the three Batman movies together deal with, and it's an important issue, and a powerful one. I don't think Nolan cared about the class warfare rhetoric of Bane's, except to help round out Bane's character. But I think he cares a lot about due process. I think he cares a lot about vigilantism. I think he cares a lot about what happens to a civil society when it uses a war against terror (or evil or criminals or whatever) to violate basic rule of law.
The Dark Knight came out in 2008, which means it was written and made during Bush's war on terror. There's a guy who writes for Salon, Glenn Greenwald, who is pretty obsessive about the violations of civil liberties that the Bush administration committed as part of the war on terror. Greenwald hasn't let up in the four years since. The Obama administration has been, if anything, evern more cavalier in their violations of international and constitutional law. Three US citizens abroad, accused of links to Al-Queda, have been killed by drones, ordered by Obama, without due process.
What Nolan has never been afraid of is making Batman movies that question the very rationale for Batman's existence. In all three films, he shows why we'd very much like a Batman-type vigilante, why that fantasy is so compelling, but also why it's probably not a great idea, and may well cause more problems than it solves. Batman sort of retires at the end of The Dark Knight Rises (after, yes, saving the world; it's really just another action movie), not because he hasn't been effective, but because having a Batman (or a cult of personality built around Harvey Dent's violations of civil liberties) can only spawn, well, something like Bane.
A lot of things don't work in the film. Anne Hathaway's Catwoman is terrific, but Joseph Gordon Leavitt, great in the film, doesn't get much to do (while Batman's saving the world, he's driving a bus full of orphans around). I also loved Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon, the film's most equivocal hero. I liked the film a lot. As an action film. Which, ultimately, is all it really is.