Hasty notes on The Dark Knight Rises while I wait for my friends to see it so we can discuss it
By Monte Williams
I’m faintly embarrassed to admit that The Dark Knight Rises made me cry more than once, but I promise I’m not being defensive when I suggest that it’s Christopher Nolan’s weakest film.
Its biggest failing is its dialogue, which ranges from numbingly dull and cliché to distractingly stilted and contrived; the characters seem at times to be making a conscious effort to utter phrases that will seem resonant in retrospect. The film never produces a motto half as memorable as “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” from Batman Begins or “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” from The Dark Knight; instead, the dialogue simultaneously sounds as if it’s straining to reach such heights of bumper sticker profundity and as if Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer couldn’t be bothered to imbue the dialogue with personality. And it’s not just the dialogue; the whole film feels like it’s trying too hard and at the same time not trying hard enough.
No one can question Christopher Nolan’s audacity; if nothing else, The Dark Knight Rises is the boldest superhero movie ever produced, in terms of the extent to which it is willing to embrace an unsettling dark tone and convince the viewer that heroes are mortal. But so what? The plot’s political commentary is intriguing, but only because it exists in a superhero film; where else would a message like “the rich are corrupt and they’re oppressing the poor” feel like a revelation except in a superhero movie? It’s like when actors were first allowed to say “bitch” and “ass” on TV sitcoms; the studio audience would hoot as if scandalized, but only because sitcoms were historically sanitized, not because “bitch” and “ass” were clever or exciting things to say. (I’m also reminded of an old interview wherein Alan Moore discussed the youthful pride he had felt for the growing maturity of the comic book medium as he and other writers learned to explore themes like child abuse in the pages of Batman; he then proposed that perhaps a Batman comic book is not the best place to explore a theme like child abuse).
I found myself marveling at the damage Christian Bale’s Batman endures in The Dark Knight Rises, but again: so what? Bane broke Batman’s back twenty years ago in the comic books. Also, movie studios are so reboot-obsessed that directors and scriptwriters may as well kill off their superpowered protagonists, since they’ll just end up retelling said protagonist’s origin in three years anyway.
Still, the film’s climax is intense and satisfying. I was stunned to the point of speechlessness when I left the theater, and after all, no other superhero movie ever made me cry, which I attribute to a bit of short-sighted foolishness shared by all superhero movie directors except Christopher Nolan: forgetting to cast Michael Caine in a pivotal role.
I’ll close with the only message I’d intended to convey when I started this review:
Anne Hathaway is no Michelle Pfeiffer, and for all the silly, cartoony theatrics of Tim Burton’s films, Selina Kyle is not half as intriguing and tragic and convincing in The Dark Knight Rises as she is in Batman Returns.
Better luck in the next reboot, Catwoman.
I had decided not to address the culture wars that seem to erupt on the internet whenever a studio releases one of these blockbusters, but after I posted this haphazard collection of baffled impressions last night, I started reading Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man. It opens with the following excerpt, which almost seems to have been written in response to film critics and also their critics, those teeth-gnashing fanboys who view any Avengers or Dark Knight Rises verdict less fawning than “Masterpiece!” as a personal affront and a pretentious, snobby affect:
Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simpleminded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.