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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan

review by J.C. Hartley

I am writing this review without ever having seen this film. Correction; I am starting to write this review before seeing the film because there are some things I want to say which are unrelated to my critical opinion of the success or otherwise of this major movie event. Massive bodies have an influence on gravity; we know this from every child's first book of astrophysics. Similarly, celebrities, publicity, tragedies, disasters, great occasions, cultural highlights, extravaganzas of 'pop' culture, whatever, generate their own event horizons; and these suck in stable and, also unfortunately, fragile psyches, as inexorably as light into a black hole.

It is easy, as someone whose life is powered by popular culture, comics on the shelves, books in the bookcase, DVDs on the carpet, comic-book art on the walls, to imagine that everyone's life is so similarly geared. There will be some people who do not care about a new Batman movie. There are, of course, some people who care too much about a new Batman movie. Before this film ever gained general release, critics who, after previews, had expressed themselves in less than enthusiastic terms, found themselves in receipt of death threats from fans who despite never having seen the film could not countenance that it could be any less than perfect.

And so, and perhaps unrelated, when the film arrived, some individual, whose motivation we can only guess at, dealt death and destruction out to a cinema audience. The frustration now is that the cultural impact of the film becomes inexorably shackled to the impact of the terrible events surrounding its release. Denver has once again ignited the debate about gun laws in the USA. Sadly, one suspects after the usual period of hand wringing things will continue much as they have done before. The Constitutional 'right to bear arms', a classic piece of mistranslation to rival that of the virgin birth, sees Americans jealously defend their access to handguns, or in the case of the Denver killer, a military-style arsenal.

Responses to the shootings have highlighted the inconsistency and almost surreal contradictions inherent in the legislation. Some commentators have pointed out that the right to bear arms was rendered immaterial by the fact that no one in the cinema in Aurora returned fire, while others have suggested that if such a situation had occurred then the resulting firefight may have claimed more lives, while the gun lobby has responded saying lives might have been saved if such a shoot-out had occurred.

Video of a plucky old-timer responding to an armed raid on an Internet café by drawing and firing his legally-held concealed weapon had already gone viral before the shootings in Aurora. What this contrived debate about the potential outcome of a shoot-out in a cinema serves to distract from, is the fact that a clearly unstable individual was able to assemble sufficient ordinance, to murder 12 of his fellow citizens, in circumstances where the individuals themselves and law-enforcement agencies were powerless to stop him.

Not in any way to marginalise the killings in Denver by dragging the discussion back to what stories tell us about society; it seems that the release of this film, and these tragic events, inevitably draws attention to a whole debate about vigilantism that has been waged in the pages of comic books at least since the 1960s. Crusading editor of 'The Daily Bugle', J. Jonah Jameson conducted a campaign against Spider-Man and other masked vigilantes; 'as any fule kno' Jameson's hatred for the web-slinger stemmed more from the fact that when Jameson's astronaut son, infected by alien spores, went on a violent rampage, it was Spider-Man who had to restrain him. The recognition by the creative minds in the comics industry that the role of the masked vigilante is open to this divisive debate is one of the things that has ensured the longevity of the medium.

In The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's hugely influential evocation of an ageing Batman emerging from retirement, the writer envisages a society where superheroes have been banned except for one State-endorsed and officially denied agent, the 'big blue schoolboy' Superman. In Watchmen, Alan Moore did the same, with two officially sanctioned operatives, the omnipotent Dr Manhattan and the fascistic Comedian. In The Authority, Warren Ellis made the obvious imaginative leap that characters with so much power would not eventually allow themselves to be legislated out of existence but would decide that they knew best and take over. At times the 'vigilante man' of the comicbook has borne less resemblance to the anonymous defender of the oppressed and the upholder of justice, than the prejudiced bully described by Woody Guthrie, with his gun and club and sawed-off, chasing and herding the weak, and removing those who would raise their voices against the imbalances in society.

In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second Batman film, Bruce Wayne's cowled crime-fighter took the rap, for deeds executed by the unhinged D.A. Harvey Dent in order to preserve the latter's reputation. As The Dark Knight Rises begins, the Dent Act has allowed for the long-term incarceration of violent criminals without parole, bringing peace to the streets of Gotham and plaudits and respect for Commissioner James Gordon. Gordon, however, is torn by the betrayal of Batman that brought about this new era and, at a celebration of 'Harvey Dent day', almost reads a speech that reveals the true events behind the Batman's exile.

Meanwhile a partially crippled Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, while his financial empire has taken a body-blow due to the investment in a nuclear fusion programme encouraged by board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, Inception). Wayne has mothballed the fusion reactor after realising it could be transformed into a nuclear weapon. Into this mix comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a bulked-up terrorist, the new leader of the League of Shadows after the death of Ra's al Ghul, masked by a breathing apparatus and with a fanatically loyal following. Allied to Daggett, an ambitious board member of Wayne Enterprises, Bane uses Daggett's construction companies to seed Gotham with explosives.

Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar, is hired by Daggett to acquire Wayne's fingerprints, which in turn are used to authorise a damaging share deal which effectively wipes Wayne out financially. Pre-empting Daggett's aggressive takeover Wayne cedes control to Miranda Tate. Making his move, Bane allows Kyle to lure the Batman into a confrontation which results in the latter receiving a thorough beating even as Bane detonates explosives which buries the Gotham police force underground and isolates the city. Bruce Wayne is taken abroad and incarcerated in the Pit, a prison in which Bane spent his formative years. Bane releases the inmates of Blackgate prison and instigates an era of 'freedom' and self-responsibility, looting ensues and anarchy, with the formerly rich and powerful arraigned in show trials in front of Dr Jonathan Crane, the villain known as Scarecrow. Meanwhile, Bane has activated the fusion core of the reactor which will detonate in a nuclear explosion in due course. Painfully restoring himself in the Pit, Wayne learns something of Bane's origins, and gradually regains the measure of physical and mental fitness required to escape and return to Gotham to confront Bane.

The film draws on a couple of comicbook narrative arcs for its inspiration. In the 1990s Knightfall followed the efforts of the violent genius Bane, physically enhanced by the Venom serum, and his war against the Batman. Recognising the hero's inability to delegate, due to his abiding guilt for the death of Jason Todd, a former Robin, Bane breaks the maximum-security prisoners out of Arkham asylum and sits back while Batman tackles them one by one. When the exhausted and weakened Batman finally comes up against Bane he is beaten badly and his back broken. In The Dark Knight Returns the middle-aged Batman fights the leader of the mutants gang and almost loses, he realises his mistake was in attempting to match his opponent for speed and strength; in the rematch Batman fights dirty and overcomes the younger man.

In the first fight between Bane and Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane comments that Batman fights like a younger man and that that is his mistake. A powerful theme in Nolan's Batman trilogy is Bruce Wayne's inability to come to terms with the death of his parents and his battle against crime is a case of transference or sublimation as he protects Gotham City in a way he could not protect his murdered mother and father. In this latest film he reveals that his plans to 'move on' had hinged upon a relationship with Rachel Dawes whom he ultimately lost at the hands of the Joker in The Dark Knight. For comicbook superheroes guilt has always been a powerful motivation, Superman may have survivor's guilt over the destruction of his home-planet of Krypton, Spider-Man famously regrets his failure to prevent the death of Uncle Ben, Captain America has never forgiven himself for the death of Bucky.

Batman's unresolved trauma surrounding the witnessing of his parent's shooting was exacerbated by the Joker's murderous attack on Jason Todd in Jim Starlin's A Death In The Family, and his maiming of Barbara Gordon in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. (Alan Moore would be probably be incandescent with rage were I to accuse him of borderline misogyny, but the catalogue of abused and brutalised female characters from V For Vendetta, through Watchmen, and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one of the reasons I have never been comfortable with his work.) That Nolan has drawn on the Batman mythology while being able to craft his own vision of the character is one of the abiding triumphs of his trilogy.

Given that Bane achieves everything through force of arms some of his actions, in retrospect, seem pointless. The financial scam against the Wayne foundation undertaken during a raid on the stock market would not bear close scrutiny but for the fact it forces Bruce Wayne to invest personal loyalty in certain individuals; an action with powerful ramifications later in the story. There is much that is topical in the film, the stock market scenes, Bane's castigation of the moneyed and powerful minority, Selina Kyle's reference to the rich leaving scraps for the have-nots, scenes of looting, all resonate in the wake of the collapse of the banks, the occupy movement and Britain's experience of the riots. I wouldn't make a case for a big message, but the film is grounded in a mood that is gaining prevalence.

For the performances, Bale as ever is impressive, particularly in the character of Bruce Wayne. Michael Caine's Alfred is his master's conscience urging Wayne to find a life for himself. Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon has a much bigger part to play and is effectively teamed up with Joseph-Gordon Levitt's rookie cop Blake, who in his personal history and his idealism is a distillation of both Wayne/ Batman, and Gordon himself. Tom Hardy is done no favours in the part of Bane, massively bulked-up with his features obscured by a breathing apparatus; he has clearly had to overdub his lines, doing so in an accent which annoyingly reminds me of a character in another film that I just can't place. Reduced to acting with his eyes and with remarkable body-language he effectively communicates threat and presence and literally looms throughout the film. Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle is terrific and a worthy successor in a daunting line of previous Catwoman characters.

I hate rating films; it is often such an arbitrary act. A dreadful film may be successful on its own terms; an intelligent and absorbing film may fall short of its own aspirations. Parts of this film merited five out of five, other parts only merited three. This has been a thrilling trilogy, it will be tremendous to purchase the inevitable box-set and watch the films in sequence. Nolan set a very high standard from the outset and he has managed to maintain quality throughout. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises was thoroughly satisfying. Some people blundered out of the cinema where I watched it during the final scenes. Perhaps they were dreading a Peter Jackson style 'Lord of the Endings'. There was a satisfying sense of resolution to Bruce Wayne's story with a hint that, like the Phantom, there will always be a Batman.

The Dark Knight Rises - Batman




The Dark Knight Rises - Bane




The Dark Knight Rises - Catwoman



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