Spoiler Review: The Dark Knight Rises

If you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, stop now. Seriously.

OK, you've been warned.

Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy started strong, with Batman Begins and crested with incredible power in The Dark Knight. In part three, The Dark Knight Rises, the promise of the first two installments gives way to interia and entropy. It's not that DKR is a bad movie; it's not. It's a good action movie, but it's not a smart action movie, and it's not a smart expression of the idea of Batman.

First, the plot.

DKR follows the story of Bane, who is not a far cry from his comic book villain counterpart. Born in the world's worst prison and hardened to brutal ambition, Bane swoops into Gotham to fulfil the dream of Ra's al Ghul from the first movie, cleansing the world of a corrupt city.

This mission was much more loosely articulated in Batman Begins than in the comics, where Ra's was a radical environmentalist who believed that for humanity to survive sustainably, the earth's population had to be reduced by 80 percent. The mission is even looser here, since Gotham City has been cleaned up in the wake of The Dark Knight's traumas.

So Bane's here to take over and ultimately destroy Gotham, for reasons which become only moderately clearer as the movie progresses, via a strategy that makes no sense at all. He reduces the city to a post-apocalyptic state, keeping authorities at bay with an unstoppable nuclear bomb that is going to go off of its own accord in a matter of months anyway. Why does he go to the trouble of ruling Gotham for an undefined number of months only to destroy it? To mess with Batman's head.

Bane's motive for messing is only fully revealed at the end of the movie -- stemming from his bond with al Ghul's revenge-minded daughter, Talia, and explicated with the help of a cruel tease of comic-savvy fans by Liam Neeson. If this sounds contrived and unconvincing, it is. Nolan is relying on the spectacle and the imperative toward climax to draw you away from such questions. Your mileage may vary, but it didn't work for me.

The siege of Gotham City itself is perfunctory and lacking. Nolan offers virtually no visceral view of how this affects the people who live there. Infrastructure seems to be the primary victim of Bane's new order. The siege is purely a plot device, a pretext and backdrop for a war that consists almost entirely of masses of men rushing at each other and shouting. Those reviewers who saw some kind of profound social comment in all of this busy work were picking up on something I definitely missed.

What little strategy is applied to the conflict proves fruitless as the film marches toward its too obvious deus-ex-bombina climax, featuring Batman's (apparent) heroic sacrifice as his flies the nuke away from the city to the ocean, where it detonates harmlessly. (What, no fallout? No tsunami from an eight-mile-radius blast? No fishkill?)

Bruce Wayne goes through some manner of enlightenment during his considerable trials and seems to come out a healthier human being at the end, perhaps. The exact nature of this satori, like so much else in the movie, is left mostly to the viewer's imagination. Did he contemplate the fruitlessness of trying to defeat something as fundamental as crime? Did he question whether his presence fostered an aura of violence or inspired costumed villains? Did he contemplate whether his parents would have wanted him to spend his life this way? Who knows?

Batman's path, in contrast, feels decidedly unfinished, culminating in a broad-daylight battle that ill serves a character born of night. In the penultimate confrontation with Bane, we are not given the Rocky-comeback victory, a satisfying bout in which Batman proves himself superior, whether through strength, cunning or fighting craft. Instead, we get a near-win, followed by an expected betrayal, followed by Bane crushing Batman, yet again, followed by Catwoman swooping in to blow Bane away with the mighty Batcycle's cannons. And that's the last we see of Bane.

Batman's climactic confrontation instead brings him face to face with a cold piece of technology, the bomb -- perhaps fitting given the overemphasis on high-tech toys that runs through both the first and second Batman franchises. The satisfaction of a human struggling against a human is deferred to highlight a human piloting a technological wet dream in order to defeat a technological nightmare.

Beyond these points, the pacing and structure of the movie make for a long period in which little appreciably happens, starting from the beginning of the siege. With Batman imprisoned through all of the second act, the fight against Bane is left to surrogates. With both Batman and Commissioner Gordon bedridden thanks to Bane's abuse, that drops the movie into the lap of policeman and fellow deprived orphan John Blake.

Blake is played ably by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (indeed, all of the performances in the movie are solid), but he never gets his moment to shine. The final scene of the movie fulfils what was extremely clear all along -- that Blake is destined to take up the cape and cowl. Unfortunately, Blake's destiny is SO clear that it disappoints when finally delivered.

Throughout the long stretch of the second act, I eagerly anticipated Blake taking up the mantle of the bat and confronting Bane, only to be defeated in a valiant effort, clearing the way for Bruce Wayne to return and finish the job. That never happens and Blake is left to carry out a series of minor and largely ineffectual missions that have no impact on the plot. Given Blake's prominence in the movie, with massive amounts of screen time, the decision to render him impotent is baffling and frustrating. The second act would have been much more compelling if Blake had been given a story arc of his own, and there's no reason the story couldn't have been structured to put him in much the same place by the end of the film.

What are we left with in the end? Despite my long list of grievances here, The Dark Knight Rises wasn't a terrible movie. It delivered some epic battles and some great individual moments. By the standards of most action movies, it was solid. It just failed to rise the level of craftsmanship displayed in Batman Begins and the genuine greatness displayed in The Dark Knight.

Many have argued, with some merit, that it was highly unlikely Rises could compete with Heath Ledger's bravura performance as the Joker in the second film, and that's a fair point. But the issue here is not so much the performance as how the Joker was used versus how Bane was used. The Joker provided a platform to test Batman's character.

Although Bane intimates rather hamhandedly that he is playing the same role in Rises, his test is ultimately physical. It is less about strength of character than about physical and technological superiority. Although Bruce's character is arguably tested in The Pit, that test does not revolve around Bane. It takes place in his absence, and it boils down to a fairly simplistic "never say die" resolve, rather than the thorny existential puzzles created by the Joker.

In the end, the physical challenge is not enough to offer a fully satisfying concusion to a fairly cerebral trilogy. While Rises hits most of the obligatory, forumlaic notes for an "epic conclusion," it fails to meet the promise of its predecessors.

This isn't an uncommon problem for trilogies; some people argue that The Return of the Jedi and The Matrix: Revolutions suffer from the same problems. I'd argue Rises and Revolutions share many of the same flaws.

Rises surpasses Revolutions on many techncial counts (including pacing and acting), but both movies left me with the same question: Is that all there is?


J.M. Berger appeared on Fox News to discuss the arrest of Jose Pimentel, the latest homegrown terrorist.

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