Note: Contains major significant spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.
It feels almost gauche at this point to put out something that even looks like a “The Dark Knight Rises‘ Flaws” article. The sheer number of them already published has become memetic and has inspired “backlash-against-backlash” takedown pieces that I can’t find too much disagreement with.
On the other hand, I think of this piece less as another hit-baiting “listicle” and more as a necessary appendix to my review of the film from last week. In the interest of avoiding spoilers (and keeping the video’s running time to a reasonable length) there were issues I had with the way the film played out that I chose to refer to only in general terms. Now, however, a week has passed and I can only assume that the most virulently spoiler-phobic among us have had a chance to see the movie, so now is the time to dig into the specifics of The Dark Knight Rises.
I understand what the film’s awkward structure (it features two complete “Batman learns to be Batman again” stories one right after the other) is trying to convey. Bruce Wayne un-retires as Batman, blows it by being rash because he doesn’t have the right attitude, and then has to get back up and do it the right way. The problem is, I don’t have that understanding because of what happens onscreen. I have it because two characters (first Alfred, later the prison doctor) give speeches directly to the camera explaining “This is what is going on in the plot right at this moment.”
This is one of those “differences between mediums” issues. In literature, having one character exposit/comment on the actions of another character is often the main way we come to form an objective view of a protagonist’s actions. In a film, (or a play, for that matter) those things are supposed to be evident in the actions we see. The verbal instructions about what we’re supposed to be taking away from the action hold no weight because these characters don’t have an interior monologue (as they might in a book) by which we can determine their objectivity. Alfred says Bruce isn’t in the proper mindset to fight Bane, but half of Alfred’s story in this film is about how much he’s been lying to Bruce all this time. Not just about Rachel Dawes, but about almost all of his previously expressed support of the whole Batman enterprise.
Meanwhile, onscreen there’s not much discernible difference between the way Batman’s first “rise” is performed, directed, scored, shot, etc. and the second “rise”. A big part of that has everything to do with …
The Passage Of Time
Visualizing the passage of time is one of the hardest things to do in a movie. That’s probably why the traditional ways of doing it (onscreen subtitles, flipping calendar pages, spinning clocks, dissolve-heavy montage, etc.) number so few that they now carry the air of self-parody. Unsurprisingly, Christopher Nolan appears to eschew that kind of illusion-breaking imagery. Unfortunately, he’s elected to tell a story where they really might have helped.
Rises supposedly takes place a full eight years after The Dark Knight, and features a second time jump of five months between the revelation of Bane’s nuke/hostage scheme and the final battle. Neither passage feels organic.
The world of “eight years later” (or four if we’re assuming the previous film took place in 2008) doesn’t look appreciably different for one thing, but that’s a minor point. More problematically, it doesn’t feel like any great amount of time has passed between this film and its predecessor, and that’s an issue when the predecessor is being so frequently referenced. Commissioner Gordon looks a little older, yes (huge missed opportunity as Gordon’s children would have aged considerably and helped the illusion tremendously … but we never see them) but Alfred and Bruce don’t seem to have aged at all. Yes, they’ve put some gray streaks in Christian Bale’s hair (which doesn’t work) and he walks with a cane (though it seems to be partially a put-on) but if the idea is to conjure the ancient, haggard Batman of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns it’s not really the same effect.
The five month jump, though, is a much bigger issue. Apart from the Doomsday Clock on Bane’s bomb, there’s flat-out zero indication that Bane has been ruling Gotham as a warlord for anything more than a few days at best, regardless of how much winter snow there is on the streets when the big showdown occurs. The city doesn’t seem to be in that bad a state of decay, and there’s very little sense of what kind of toll is being taken on citizens who aren’t members of Bane’s army, the police or Wayne Enterprises. I mean, not to nitpick, but for a lawless post-apocalyptic wasteland Bane’s Gotham appears to have a remarkably well-managed trash pickup schedule.
The Twists That Miss
The film’s third act is built around a series of three twists, one that occurs as part of the action and two that function as post-climax “gotchas.” Only the final one (Bruce faked his/Batman’s death and is really still alive) actually works, though it’s undercut by the presence of Catwoman, which we’ll get to in just a moment. The other two, for differing reasons, are textbook examples of how (and why) not to execute a plot twist.
Twist #1: Bane isn’t our ultimate villain or the mythic figure who escaped The Pit, or the previously unknown child of Ra’s Al Ghul. Instead, it’s Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate – real name Talia Al Ghul – who is all of those things, and Bane is just some guy who helped her out back in the day and got beaten into a gas-mask-requiring freak for his trouble.
Granted, this does have the effect of changing some of our preconceptions about Bane. But beyond that, what does it actually do plot wise other than add another superficial “whoa!” revelation to the final sequence’s cacophony of fast-moving distractions? It doesn’t really change the plot at all, since Batman and Gotham are still being targeted for elaborate revenge by the heir of Ra’s Al Ghul for the exact same reasons, the heir is just a different person. And let’s not get started on how little weight her “I’m evil!” surprise actually carries, given how slight the character is and how little of her supposed romance with Bruce Wayne is actually onscreen.
Twist #2: After being Batman’s sometime protégé (and Gordon’s full-fledged sidekick) for the duration of the story, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s John Blake picks up a mystery package left for him (we subsequently discover) by Bruce Wayne. It’s not under “John Blake,” though, so he helpfully suggests they check under his full name. Which name was missing? Robin. Ha.
Alright, setting aside my own personal annoyance that this bit is the closest that the second most important figure in the entire Batman mythos will ever get to appearing in this now concluded trilogy of Batman movies, it’s a cute if overly fanfic-esque reference. The problem is it that it comes in as a joke right at the moment we’re still supposed to be either sad or elated depending on how quickly your brain retrieved that detail about Alfred’s “Happy Ending Café Fantasy” from earlier in the movie – the absolute worst place to put a joke.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is the problem at the core of all the other problems and the main reason the film just didn’t hold up as well as its predecessor from my perspective. With rare exception, the right way to convey information to the audience is never to simply have a character explain it verbally. Yet in Rises, this is how we get most of our information. Not just story and exposition either, it’s also constantly used to inform us of character or relationship traits that are important to the narrative but not evident onscreen.
For example, Bruce Wayne is supposed to be “out of step” as Batman at first. We don’t know that because of his actual performance, where he seems exactly the same as we left him, we know that because Alfred tells us (and therefore it must be true). Batman keeps insisting that there’s more to Selina Kyle than being a cat burglar, and while he’s right, you’d be hard pressed to find the moment where he figured that out. Speaking of figuring things out, John Blake is a hell of a detective – he figured out who Bruce Wayne was Batman! How? He met him as a kid and could just “tell.” Do we get to see much of this keen insight in action? Of course not, but he tells us all about it.
At one point, Batman even has to explain a story point to himself! While recuperating in Bane’s prison, Bruce is visited by the specter of Ra’s Al Ghul. This is a nice fake-out (it’s a hallucination) meant to mess with the minds of fans who know that the comics’ version of Ra’s is immortal, but it leads to a baffling logic leap: The hallucination reveals that Bane is (supposedly) Ra’s Al Ghul’s son, which is important info for an upcoming twist. But Bruce figures this out based on what, exactly? The Sherlock Holmes “so smart he seems psychic” thing only works if you show how they came to such a surprising conclusion.
The most egregious example by far, though, is the first big fight between Batman and Bane. The crux of the sequence is that, to Batman’s horror, his opponent is gradually revealed to be immune to all of his special weapons and strategies. It’s a great idea for framing a sequence: “I’ll use my ninja gas bombs… Aw, crap! That’s right, we both knew the same ninjas!” “I’ll turn the lights off … Aw, crap! This guy was in an underground prison for most of his life, I just got told that!”
So how does the film choose to visualize these mounting revelations? It doesn’t. They just keep punching each other, while Bane explains out loud what Batman just did and why it isn’t working. Though, in fairness to Bane, maybe he’s just trying to cover up his surprise that “maybe I should punch that thing on his face” hasn’t yet occurred to Batman.
None of these things, I stress, makes the film bad in my eyes, but it does contribute to an overall sense of something missing when I look back over it. It’s entirely possible that this is a “tough act to follow” scenario, apart from the “how did X know to be at Y in the span of Z?” geography issues that plague every action film, The Dark Knight was relatively free of these kind of basic structural issues (IMO, the post-Joker encounter with Two-Face only feels like “another ending” if you go in assuming that every bad guy automatically gets their own movie or act). It’s also possible that the film just never found the balance between telling its own story and resolving the stories of two previous installments.
Whatever the case may ultimately be, these are my observations of what kept me from falling entirely in love with the film. Maybe they’re also yours, or maybe these problems didn’t exist for you. In any case, this is why it’s important that we don’t stop looking at movies, games etc. after the first viewing (or re-viewing, for that matter).
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.