Despite a plethora of positive reviews from critics, I have to give my thumbs down to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises. “ Though it does offer more commentary on 21st century America, I would add it to a list of disappointing conclusion to movie trilogies (SPOILERS to follow).
The movie begins eight years after Batman (Christian Bale) took the blame for Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s crimes at the end of “The Dark Knight.” In the aftermath of Harvey’s fraudulent martyrdom, Gotham passed the Dent Act, which allowed the courts to put criminals behind bars without parole (a G’tmo analogy). As a result, crime in the city has fallen dramatically under Commissioner Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) leadership while Batman disappeared from public view.
Reflecting the difficulties many Iraq/Afghan veterans have encountered returning home, Bruce Wayne appears to have post-traumatic stress syndrome, remaining ensconced in the rebuilt Wayne estate, making public appearances as infrequently as Howard Hughes. Gordon also pays a steep price for maintaining the deception and has lost his family in the intervening years. When a congressman tells another character that the mayor is going to fire Gordon shortly, he responds, “He’s a hero.” “A war hero,” corrects the congressman, “This is peacetime.” This could be seen as allegory to the U.S., which has gradually moved back to a pre-9/11 mentality in the absence of a major attack over the last decade.
The film’s primary villain is Bane (Tom Hardy), a bizarre masked villain who seeks to complete Raz’a Gul’s (Liam Neeson) plan from “Batman Begins’ to destroy Gotham. He sets off a series of spectacular attacks that destroy bridges as well as the field of a football stadium. Stealing a fusion reactor from Wayne Enterprises, Bane and his allies turn It into a nuclear bomb and threaten to set if off should anyone leave the city, making is citizens hostages.
Economic inequality and class division are undercurrents of the film, two themes that have become more prominent in the national political debate since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. At one point, Selina Kyle, a.k.a “Catwoman” (Anne Hathaway) says to Bruce Wayne, “You think this will last. There's a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you'll wonder how you ever lived so large and left so little for the rest of us.” Indeed, the stock exchange is one of Bane’s first targets and he manipulates trades to bankrupt Wayne.
Once he takes over Gotham, Bane declares that he is returning the city “to the people” and gives a speech espousing an extreme utopian ideology. In scenes evocative out of China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, rich people are arrested, denounced by citizens and sentenced to death in show trials. When Kyle and her accomplice take over an apartment, Catwoman notices a family picture on the floor. “This was somebody’s home,” she says sadly. Her friend responds, ”And now it’s our home.”
Frankly, I feel the film goes totally off the rails at this point. A long, extended occupation of Gotham follows while Bane puts Wayne in some obscure Middle Eastern prison. What follows is a drawn-out conclusion while Batman regains his strength, returns to Gotham, and then manages to fly the bomb out of the city, Jack Bauer-style (He even yells at Bane, “Tell me where the bomb is!”)
It seems as if Nolan felt the need to outdo himself after “The Dark Knight.” The final film lacks the compelling origins story of the first or the engaging premise of the second. Given the relative weakness of the last chapters of recent trilogies, it may just be that the formula runs out of gas at the end.