Riddle me this!

When is a Batman movie not a Batman movie?

I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises. The fine folks at Red Letter Media—who enjoyed the film a great deal more than me—have said that to enjoy Nolan’s work one must set aside overly analytical dissection. Instead, they suggest the viewer simply be absorbed in the broader artistry and thematic content of his work. But I would argue that Nolan himself, in the way he constructs his films, invites the viewer to analyze each and every detail, to become active participants in his films as if searching for clues to a diabolically elaborate riddle. In Memento, it’s the anachronistic structure that challenges the viewer to make connections a conventionally edited film would normally do for you. In Inception, it’s the playful “fuck you” of the spinning top that entices you to rewatch the film, searching for answers to a deliciously unsolvable mystery. The Prestige literally begins by asking, “Are you watching closely?” Crucially, these puzzles draw you further into the movies’ worlds and ultimately enhance their thematic and emotional resonance.

And then there’s The Dark Knight Rises. It sucks.

THE END

Okay, that’s not completely fair. As with Nolan’s previous Bat films, there’s a lot to like in Rises. I appreciate its unexpected yet entirely appropriate ending that allows the trilogy to come full circle. And Anne Hathaway is just about pitch perfect as Selina Kyle, injecting into a very dour film a much needed dose of sexy fun. As everyone else clomped around in their awkward body armor with their Nolan-styled handmade junkyard equipment, Hathaway pranced about in heels and a Spider-Man scaly catsuit. While others brooded in their macho half-intelligible growls, she sneered and quipped and wore a cool hat. Of course there are still the incoherent action scenes and Bale’s outrageous Bat voice, but for me the fatal flaw of Nolan’s entire trilogy has always been a disconnect between content and presentation—a dissonance that reaches an almost palpable level in The Dark Knight Rises.

Not Catwoman.

My favorite part of the movie.

Sadly, it is precisely because Nolan’s trilogy contains the noblest of ambitions—because they aspire to be something more intellectual and more challenging than they need (or perhaps ought to) be—that they ultimately fail for me. Present are all the hallmarks of Nolan’s non-superhero work, and yet bafflingly, in nearly every instance they exist in only the most shallow disconcerting ways. It’s almost as if Nolan went about constructing another one of his signature filmic scavenger hunts, hiding clues and ciphers, without ever actually formulating a riddle to be solved.

Take the much lauded conceit of Nolan’s trilogy—a realistic Batman. In each subsequent movie, Nolan seems to be testing how far he can push his gritty real world interpretation. In Batman Begins we see a Gotham City more grounded in reality than any that had come before. In The Dark Knight Gotham has become Chicago. And in Rises Chicago has become….the most boring city ever. Dull, soulless, seen almost entirely in stark daylight. The streets seem literally lifeless, as if half the population has moved away. Sure this is challenging, in the sense that it goes against typical depictions of movie urban environments, but what’s the point? What is ultimately achieved by setting a Batman movie in the daytime?

More troubling is when this mundane realness comes in conflict with conventional genre tropes. There is a wonderfully dangerous tension between the real and absurd that Nolan flirts with in much of his work. When balanced in proper proportion (as in The Prestige), these opposing forces can create the very best kind of bewilderment and intrigue. But when fumbled, the results appear haphazard and lazy.

Selina Kyle, for example, is searching for a device that can erase any record of her from every database in the world. In standard comic book fare this sort of thing would be commonplace. Yet in the world of Rises, which insists on telling us just how realistic and un-comic book like it is, the idea is just silly.

In another scene, nearly every police officer in Gotham is trapped underground, save for a hothead young detective played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (I half expected him to become a superhero called “The Hothead” by the end). When informed that all the cops are trapped he says in his best bad ass voice, “Not every cop.” Again, in a more conventional genre picture this kind of one liner would be expected. Hearing it in Rises, I literally laughed out loud. 

The Hothead

A fire will rise.

Then there are the “ripped from the headlines” allusions in this film and its predecessor to recent political and social events. In Rises this is seen through heavy handed references to the Occupy movement as Selina Kyle ruminates on the haves and have-nots and Bane literally occupies a stock exchange.

In The Dark Knight there was some attempt at exploring the moral ambiguity of Batman’s war on crime and the Bush administration’s war on terror, but in Rises the only point seems to be to convince you just how seriously you should take this film because it’s so realistic and relevant and not like other comic book movies at all damn it!

Frank Miller once described Batman as an unbreakable diamond that could withstand any amount of tampering or abuse. He was referring to Batman’s exceptional ability—more so than any other comic book icon—to endure all manner of reinterpretation and revision and still remain just as potent and compelling a character.

Like Miller, I’ve never been one to quibble about an individual artist’s interpretation of a character or fret over changes when translating a comic to film. The failure of Rises to me isn’t that it presents a realistic, super serious Batman, but rather that it seems to be in a constant struggle to convince us just how realistic and serious this Batman is.

Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now you stupid bastard.

If Frank Miller directed.

I’m being overly harsh perhaps, but that’s only because I’ve seen Nolan do so much better. As we all learned from The Prestige, a good trick isn’t just about having some clever techniques; it’s about making the audience believe. Unfortunately, Rises just couldn’t sell the illusion to me. For whatever reason, I felt like I could see the man behind the curtain and feel the film straining under the weight of its own grand ambitions.

The new gadget in The Dark Knight Rises is a big honkin’ spaceship called simply “The Bat”. It’s loud and clunky, like a rocket powered piece of black scrap metal. Flying high above the streets of Gotham, it is an utterly awesome and completely absurd visual and aural monstrosity.

Ultimately, it’s the perfect summation of The Dark Knight Rises for me—an overly ambitious, overly pretentious spectacle of sound and fury, signifying nothing.