The following post contains SPOILERS for "The Dark Knight Rises."
In thirty years, if people want to know what the reception of "The Dark Knight Rises" was like, I'll refer them to the film itself, and the scenes where the villainous Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) serves as judge, jury, and executioner of Gotham City's elite in a kangaroo court. "No jury? No witnesses? What kind of justice is this?" asks Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) when he's placed on trial for crimes against the sadistic government led by the evil Bane (Thomas Hardy). "This is not a trial!" Scarecrow replies, "This is merely a sentencing."
That's what it felt like to watch "The Dark Knight Rises" last summer. Before they had even seen the movie, deranged Bat-fans had already passed judgment; anyone who didn't like the movie should be put to death. After fanboy freakouts and the horrific shooting at a "Dark Knight Rises" screening in Aurora, Colorado, there seemed to be no place for serious, measured discussion of the movie. Now, a few months removed from the hype, excitement, death threats, and backlash, backlash backlash (forelash?), it finally seems appropriate to think about "The Dark Knight Rises" not as an event, or an object to pledge devotion to, but as a text to be considered and appreciated.
I saw "The Dark Knight Rises" at an IMAX press screening back in July-- so this viewing, on an awards screener on my television, was my first not only on the small screen, but in a smaller format. Almost immediately, I sensed a difference. Without the glorious IMAX images, the opening sequence, in which Bane kidnaps a nuclear scientist and stages a plane crash to cover his tracks, felt far less impressive, and a lot more confusing. Stripped of IMAX's visual overload, I found myself paying more attention to the content of the scene -- which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. A retinue of soldiers hand over a nuclear scientist (Alon Moni Aboutboul) to a CIA agent (Aidan Gillen). They also deliver two additional passengers the CIA agent wasn't expecting, both their heads covered by hoods. The agent resists at first, but the main soldier says the prisoners know the whereabouts of Bane. The CIA agent then departs on his private plane with the scientist and the two hooded men -- one of whom actually is Bane, who immediately proceeds to hijack the plane with a second plane full of armed soldiers.
It's an impressive and ominous action sequence, and it establishes one of the visual motifs that will dominate the movie -- namely men descending into or rising out of metaphorical hells. But you could fly Bane's plane through the plot holes: the CIA agent just takes these two men without questioning or searching them? Even if he'd just pulled their hoods off he would have discovered one was Bane -- with his ghoulish facial mask, he's not exactly hard to recognize.
A lot was made of "The Dark Knight Rises" plot holes last summer, with some critics and journalists nitpicking the film to death, and then others coming to the film's defense. In a sense, they were both right; small issues within a film's plot aren't worth getting hung up about, but when those small plot holes metastasize into big ones, they can be mighty hard to ignore. In the case of "The Dark Knight Rises" there are plenty of nits to pick, but there are also deliberately ambiguous elements that drew a lot of unfair criticism. Just about every "TDKR" nitpick list took issue with the fact that Bane dumps Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Middle Eastern prison to watch helplessly as Gotham City falls into ruin. Inevitably, he escapes and returns to Gotham to save the day -- but how, many asked, did he get back into the United States with no money, passport, or supplies? In one scene Bruce is in the middle of nowhere; in the next, he's back in Gotham. But in a movie that's already 170 minutes, did we really need to see another sequence where Batman sneaks into the country? The movie's timeline gives him between two and three weeks to make the journey -- plenty of time for a man of Bruce Wayne's genius and resources to find a way back home.
I think many of these complaints reflect an audience that wanted a much more straight-forward movie than they got. "The Dark Knight Rises," like Nolan's last film "Inception," is a house of cards built out of dream logic. The construction is flimsy but stunning, and it's intended to be admired from a distance, rather than under a microscope. Of course a CIA agent wouldn't take a couple of suspects onto an airplane without searching them -- except, perhaps, in a nightmare. Most of "The Dark Knight Rises" works that way, as a dark vision of societal collapse as an inevitability that not even our superheroic protectors can stop. Though Bane is eventually defeated, he succeeds in plunging Gotham into chaos for months, murdering countless people, and finally detonating a nuclear bomb. "The Dark Knight Rises" is paranoid to its core: fearful our heroes might fail us and that our alternative energy sources might be used to kill us. There are spies and double agents everywhere, and before Batman "rises" in triumph, fire that is referred to in those terms, spreading through society and destroying everything it touches.
Despite its pitch black tone, there are plenty of tangible pleasures in the film, particularly in the surprisingly seductive performance of Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, a thief torn between eagerly anticipating the "storm" coming to Gotham's 1% and dreading the violent consequences when it finally arrives. Hathaway gets some flashy action scenes, along with some of the screenplay's best zingers, but she's also got a tough part -- the villainess with the heart of gold -- and she nails it. In retrospect, Bale's work might have been underrated, too; after three films, he has Bruce Wayne down to a science, but moving beyond the hype (and the silly nitpicks about his voice), there's some beautifully poignant stuff here about a broken man trying to find his way back from the brink of despair. As usual, Nolan plays Bruce's secret identity for a few dry laughs -- as in the terrific scene where Wayne goes to the hospital for his debilitated knee, and after listing an endless series of injuries the doctor strongly urges him not to go heli-skiing. Then the doctor leaves and Bruce immediately slips on a ski mask and leaps out the window. The only truly disappointing performance is Hardy's, mostly because his face is 70% covered by a mask and his voice, recorded in post-production, sounds like a pompous cartoon walrus. As a result, he never reaches the heights of menace achieved by The Joker in "The Dark Knight" or Ra's al Ghul in "Batman Begins" (whose name, I just suddenly realized, sounds a lot like "Rise").
Ultimately, for all its sometimes dicey plot mechanics and its bloated runtime, I not only enjoy "The Dark Knight Rises," i admire it. Faced with the task of following up one of the most popular movies in history, Nolan didn't simply rehash "The Dark Knight." Instead, he crafted something brimming to capacity with action and ideas. It's messy and sometimes even a little silly, and it doesn't necessarily make any sort of coherent statement about class and wealth in our society -- but it tries to say something, which already puts it far ahead of most of its competition in the largely lifeless world of mega-scale blockbusters. Again, Nolan himself provides the best symbol for his own movie, in the form of "The Bat," Batman's new flying Batmobile. The device can maneuver around the canyons of Gotham, or hover in place -- but it doesn't, we repeatedly hear, have an autopilot. Neither does Nolan. Whatever he makes, good or bad, is always bold and audacious.