It’s long been a foregone conclusion that The Dark Knight Rises would be a massive, capital-E Event – the biggest, most avidly anticipated blockbuster of the summer. When the studio lifted the review embargo on the Sunday before the film’s release, the internet (or at least my little corner of it) exploded with conversation, argument, and the occasional death threat. What fascinated me was the question that most of those worth listening to were asking. It had nothing to do with the costumes, or faithfulness to the comics, or the badassery of the villain, or the mettle of the effects or the action scenes. What better testament to the scope and ambition of Christopher Nolan’s achievement than that, on the eve of the most-hyped, most-expensive comic book extravaganza of 2012, the thing people wanted to discuss was: What’s it about? What are its politics? What does it say?
That turns out to be a difficult question to answer. With The Dark Knight, the venerable middle installment of Nolan’s trilogy, one could at least readily formulate a thesis: my preferred one is that it was about the need for moral clarity in a world that surges ever toward anarchy and chaos. (The allegations that The Dark Knight was a fairly right-wing film are probably correct.) The Dark Knight Rises seems to be more overtly political, filled with what play awfully like references to ideologically-charged current events like the banking crisis, the financial collapse, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But try to figure out where Nolan actually stands, and your hands close on air. Perhaps he’s too smart to be pigeonholed into a clean political metaphor, or maybe just content to toss stuff out and see what sticks.
That Nolan has class warfare on the mind is undeniable. At the start of the film, Bruce Wayne is back from a seven-year disappearance following the death of his love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), at the hands of the Joker. He’s now a millionaire recluse, prowling the halls of his family mansion while his company – and Gotham, now undeniably standing in for Manhattan – goes to the dogs. The Batman is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, a new force is building strength in the city. He is Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked warrior who has emerged from “the pit where people are thrown to suffer and die” to lead an army of the tossed-away and dispossessed against the stockbrokers and the politicians and the other self-appointed masters of the universe. His stated goal: to return Gotham to the people. “Do what you please,” he intones from behind his vaguely orthodontic-looking facemask in a rich, accented mumble. And they do, looting Gotham’s equivalent of the Upper West Side and setting up a kangaroo court to summarily execute all who have ever crossed them.
It’s hard to make a strong case that all of this makes some sort of statement about capitalism or class or greed. Certainly the film isn’t a show of support for Occupy Wall Street. If anyone stands in for Occupy here it’s Bane and his army of thugs, who want to trounce the existing order, throw the city into chaos, and ultimately destroy it, all while a benevolent billionaire fights to put things right. At best, it’s a warning: if you habitually throw people away like garbage, don’t be surprised if your callous disregard for their dignity eventually comes home to roost. But The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t come out too strongly for that notion, either. Gotham has a reckoning, but it does no soul-searching; the film puts the blame on squarely on Bane and some shadowy co-conspirators.
So The Dark Knight Rises never quite coalesces into a big sociopolitical metaphor. But I’m not sure that matters. Who said this comic book adventure (after all) had to be a manifesto? It’s enough, I think – beyond the call of duty – that the film takes place in a topsy turvy version of our world, fraught with exaggerated and distorted versions of our real-life problems.
And it helps that Nolan’s grand finale works in nearly every other way, coming full circle from Batman Begins and offering an elegant, rousing, sometimes beautiful conclusion to this complicated saga. Partially shot in 70mm IMAX, The Dark Knight Rises is breathtakingly huge, and now that Nolan’s given up pretending that Gotham is anything but an upended New York, we finally feel like we’ve been immersed in alternate-universe metropolis, a twisting, writhing urban nightmare that has no limits. For the first time since The Return of the King, I found myself overwhelmed by the scale and scope of what I was seeing; and more than a few times, as the camera swept across the gleaming cityscape to the throbbing percussion of Hans Zimmer’s incredible musical score, my eyes filled with tears.
For all its breadth and aspirations to relevance, the film has a beating heart. Nolan’s franchise has a deserved reputation for somber, brooding gloom-and-doom, but The Dark Knight Rises offers some marvelous emotional beats: the Batman’s triumphant return during a high-speed tunnel chase;* the beautifully-written monologue hothead cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) delivers to a moping Bruce Wayne to say that he understands Wayne’s rage and frustration; several parts of the climax and denoument that I won’t discuss. There are a thousand little stirring, human moments that make this so much more than empty spectacle. And they make it easy to forgive the film’s thematic opaqueness and some of the klutzier bits of third-act exposition.
Besides, maybe The Dark Knight Rises is about something after all: the relationship between the public, legend-stoking heroism of Batman, and the kind of everyday heroism that sort of showmanship can inspire. Though The Dark Knight may be the better, shrewder film, its sequel improbably turns out to be more personal: Batman isn’t just a symbol for Gotham here, but for individual characters whom he inspires to be stronger, better, more. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t perfect, and for some it might fall victim to expectations. But it made me happy and it broke my heart.
*accompanied by the triumphant return of Zimmer’s gorgeous Batman theme, which in this incarnation made my heart swell until I was at risk of floating up out of my seat.
— Eugene Novikov