IT’S BATMAN WEEK Y’ALL!!!!!
In anticipation of the most hyped movie of the year for me (already?) I’m looking back on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy a.k.a. the last gritty reboot of the Caped Crusader, which Matt Reeves appears to be one-upping with serious conviction. Nothing excites me more than a year one Batman, and nothing offers perspective quite like an ending. So perhaps it’s the benefit of time that has emboldened me to state this outright: I’ve got some gripes with The Dark Knight Rises.
Before the Nolan fanboys come at me, I LOVED this movie in theaters. (I’m also a Nolan fanboy so relax.) I saw TDKR at midnight then proceeded to see this shit twice opening weekend. It was all that I wanted out of a Batman finale: raucous, emotional, and – at the time – satisfying.
The cracks started soon after nabbing it on Blu-ray where it had lost the sheen of the big screen and far removed from the hype of opening day. Do these gripes break the whole trilogy? Of course not. Nolan crafted too epic an odyssey that one flawed entry can’t possibly undo it all. But I will say that nearly 10 years later, TDKR is the weakest movie in the trilogy and in his filmography. And I’m pretty sure Nolan would say the same too.
I’ve narrowed my gripes down to 5 bullet points, so here we go:
1. Gordon’s Letter
I don’t take issue with the letter writing. It’s Gary Oldman we’re talking here; I assume he still writes with quill and scroll. What blows my mind is how easily the letter fits into the villain plot. At the beginning of the movie, the Commissioner has come undone. He and the Batman buried the truth about Harvey Dent for the greater good of Gotham and it’s eaten at Gordon’s soul to the core. He prepares a lengthy tweet thread at the anniversary celebration of the Dent Act, ready to cancel Gotham’s white knight, then decides against it. The camera keenly zeroes in on his jacket pocket where he stows the letter.
Enter Bane. Gordon is brought before Bane and this Shakespearean truth about Harvey Dent literally falls into his lap. Bane’s big plan is already in place, mind you; they already know where the armory is, they’ve already infiltrated the city’s infrastructure and positioned themselves on the board of Wayne Enterprises. Bane is then conveniently given another ace in the hole. That is way too easy for a guy who crashed a damn plane in the opening simply to kidnap one man. Gordon may like to play things “close to the chest,” but frankly speaking, this is too cheap of a plot point for Nolan.
2. Hiding John Blake’s Identity
I dig that Joseph-Gordon Levitt is Robin in the movie. I just hate that Nolan feels the need to be clever with his true identity when the character’s function is in plain sight anyhow. (“John Blake” is a composite of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, but it really doesn’t help that it’s such a vanilla ass name.) You don’t cast an actor of JGL’s caliber just to play a “beat cop,” certainly not after his scene-stealing performance in Inception.
Admittedly, I was vibrating with excitement when the film announced his “legal name” at the end. It’s certainly the most fan service-y element of the movie—which is what’s so disappointing all these years later. There’s a way to own who John Blake is and make him 10x more crowd-pleasing a character in the story. There’s a solid Batman and Robin movie in here somewhere. Instead, Nolan settles for an ending that – while a perfect final shot and handoff – ultimately has zero interest in a JGL Robin movie that it inadvertently teases.
3. Benching Alfred
A minor grievance here because Nolan clearly wants Alfred to survive this saga. Any version of Alfred still in Gotham under Bane’s martial law kind of ends with Alfred getting got in the 2nd act of the movie. Killing off Michael Caine sounds unspeakable, even for Nolan who makes every effort to cast the man in every one of his movies.
But imagine the dread you’d feel upon seeing Bane pulling up to Wayne Manor, and Alfred recoiling at his stature. Bane killing Bruce Wayne’s surrogate parent would revive the themes of Batman Begins, and force Batman to truly reckon with vengeance and justice. But Nolan doesn’t want any spiraling debate here because he just wants to end the story. He genuinely believes in a happy ending for both Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth, so in the end I can’t fault him for that. Still, the absence of Michael Caine in the remaining 2/3 of TDKR feels like a casualty in and of itself.
4. Bane Is Just a Bodyguard
Tom Hardy is built up as a freakin’ movie monster as Bane. Not just his physicality, but the character’s capabilities for pandemonium and mass destruction—on top of that horrific face mask making him look like a Godzilla-sized Hannibal Lecter. So the reveal, then, that Bane is just a bodyguard at someone else’s bidding is… disappointing, to say the least.
I know Nolan is trying to echo Ra’s al Ghul’s “cheap parlor trick” with TDKR’s villain switcheroo. It helps one character’s rise to the forefront, but it comes at tremendous cost of Bane. Up until then, we’ve seen other people answering to the big guy, only to find that he’s just another patsy himself. Bane goes from a towering force of nature to the smallest guy in the room in the space of one monologue – a character fall of Greek proportions. Tom Hardy innocent in all of this tho.
5. WHEN Talia al Ghul Reveals Herself
I don’t have a problem with Talia al Ghul in the story because it brings the saga full circle. It just makes no sense to me why Talia reveals herself when she does. Consider the plot from her POV. She’s the head honcho in charge of Bane and crew who are holding the city hostage by a bomb. Not only does she want to finish what her father started by destroying Gotham, she wants Bruce Wayne to perish too. This means she was counting on Bruce to make it out of the pit, though it doesn’t explain Bane’s bewilderment when he sees the reignited Bat signal. Was Talia playing things close to the chest too?
It doesn’t bother me that Talia sleeps with Bruce either, as throwaway as the scene is for misdirection, because it offers a false hope to be taken away when she literally stabs him in the back. It’s everything else about her grand plan that doesn’t fully check out. This is where TDKR falls apart for me because I don’t know why Nolan wants this plot twist so badly and WHERE he wants it. The ideal place is when Bane casts a broken Bruce Wayne to the pit. Out comes Miranda—no, Talia, from the shadows, echoing her father’s entrance in Batman Begins, followed by the classic villain monologue, etc.
Nolan can have his cake and eat it too, but he banks the entirety of the final act as a roller coaster of twists upon twists upon twists. I’d like to think Nolan was embracing camp with the machinations of the script here (including the laughably bad way that Talia dies) but the bulk of TDKR is playing towards the prestige and serious and grandiose.
My biggest gripe with TDKR is that it’s one movie when there’s enough plot to fill an entire trilogy—maybe more if you apply the current film and TV crossover model. But Nolan was never going to stick around for that long. He had said all that he wanted to say about the character in The Dark Knight. That’s his superhero magnum opus, a bold cinematic statement that comic book movies can break the mold. By the time Nolan did Inception, he had effectively left superheroes behind. He was going all in on his James Bond obsession, not so subtly hinting to the producers that he’d love to reboot the character back in 2010. TDKR, then, reads like a contractual obligation.
In the foreword of the book, The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan himself stated that a third Batman movie was out of the question following Heath Ledger’s passing. (There were rumors at the time that a potential third movie heavily involved Ledger’s Joker.) But The Dark Knight made a whopping billion dollars, so Warner Bros. was moving mountains to ensure Nolan’s return and complete a trilogy. I think the thing that kept Nolan interested was the chance to explore other genres just as he had done with The Dark Knight, this time looking to the disaster movie, the monster movie, the globe-trotting epic, etc. TDKR may be the one that pulls the most cues from the comics, but Nolan is someone who looks to genre for inspiration over fidelity to the source material.
TDKR is the closest Nolan has ever come to a bloated mess, and that’s not half bad considering the bloated messes to come in WB’s roster (Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, Justice League). Visually, TDKR is far superior than 20+ MCU movies and counting. This is the rare superhero franchise that prioritized real locations, the use of miniatures James Cameron-style, and physical practicality over full-blown CGI. I might have bones to pick with this movie, but I can’t say shit about Wally Pfister’s cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s epic score, nor Anne Hathaway’s performance or the film’s sheer scope and production design. Even though the script collapses under its own weight, Nolan’s direction at the big budget level is tremendously accomplished, proving he’ll never go back to smaller scale movies.
My complaints, of course, come after rewatching and obsessing over The Dark Knight Rises for a decade. I don’t hate it. I can’t, because I once loved everything about it. Time has revealed the fissures in its enterprise but that does not diminish my fond memories of this movie. For all of my gripes, it’s still one of the most euphoric theater experiences I’ve ever had. It’s impossible to surpass The Dark Knight, but Nolan gave it his all for better or worse and I respect the hell out of that. It’ll always have a leg up in retrospect. Because out of the feature film incarnations of the character, Nolan’s trilogy had what Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Zack Snyder’s versions never had: an ending.