TDKR has been the subject of an enormous amount of hype, speculation and more recently tragedy, so it was with trepidation that I ventured out to see it late last night. The film is pretty damn long (164 minutes), particularly when the screening only starts at 11pm and you’re still quite hungover. There are multiple openings (a bit like the end of Return of the King), introducing characters old and new and giving a tantalizing but far too short dose of Aidan Gillen, who’s always a nice surprise.
The film plods on, moving through set pieces in which Tom Hardy‘s enormously hench Bane and Batman trade heavy blows and dialogue in silly voices with only the thinnest motivation on the part of the caped crusader’s latest foe. Anne Hathaway‘s Catwoman is sleek and appropriately catty, if hammy and slightly cringe-worthy in her opening scene. These two adversaries take turns making a nuisance of themselves in slight, but not fully realised, combination, whilst Bruce Wayne sulks around being injured and shirking all his responsibilities. The general absence of Batman from the film has been noted by many critics, and gives TDKR‘s director Christopher Nolan some opportunity to engage with the emotional cost of the previous two installments on the Wayne/Batman character, whilst also setting up Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the heir to the bat-throne. This introspective tone sets the film apart from the recent slew of superhero films, and as Roger Ebert‘s review notes, results in the fact that the film “isn’t very much fun”. This isn’t to say that all superhero films should be as camp and frivolous as Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, but The Dark Knight Rises does take itself far too seriously, resulting in an uneven and underwhelming final product which fails to fully deliver as either an action film or a ‘serious’ drama. Issues are touched upon, characters are vaguely introduced, but the film doesn’t follow through with many of the potential opportunities for character development or social commentary. As ever the visual effects are excellent, but the film relies on high production values to carry some excruciating lines of exposition (the final revelation that Gordon-Levitt’s character is actually named Robin is chucked in with a horrible forced one liner) and gaping plot holes; it’s as though Nolan et al are hoping you won’t think through the problems surrounding disposing of an atomic bomb in the waters outside Gotham (ok, so it didn’t blow up the city, but the fallout is still going to be a pretty massive freaking problem) because you’re still drooling over Anne Hathaway’s skin-tight outfit and reeling from the sight of bridges and buildings exploding.
Roger Ebert’s review states that the film comes “uncomfortably close to today’s headlines”, and this proximity to issues of great importance and controversy and the film’s utter refusal to engage with them in any critical manner was my biggest concern both during and after the screening. Watching TDKR in light of the recent Occupy movements, examples of police brutality in dealing with protesters across the world, and a global recession made for uncomfortable viewing, as the film ultimately reasserts conservative discourses. The nature of Batman as superhero has been discussed repeatedly, with The Big Bang Theory even sending up the notion that all you’d need to be Batman is tonne of cash, and TDKR continues the tradition of portraying Batman as the ultimate consumer. All of the Dark Knight’s power comes from his financial situation, his ability to buy bespoke armour and weapons and his subsequent status as a brand. Bruce Wayne is a man who lives completely out of touch with the Gotham he tries to protect, isolated in his stately home, oblivious to the financial difficulties that his company is in and the repercussions that his financial situation has on his philanthropic pursuits. Bruce Wayne is the 1%. TDKR pits Wayne/Batman against a feisty jewel thief attempting to work herself out of the criminal world, and a faceless madman bent on the destruction of Gotham as we know it and the redistribution of wealth. Bane’s long speech decrying the disparity between those who have it all and those who have nothing echoes the criticisms being laid against the elite across the world, particularly in the US and UK, and creates an uncomfortable alignment between current social equality movements and the anarchic thuggery that this super-villain promotes. The film offers no mid-ground in its Batman/Bane, Conservatism/Anarchy constructions; the general populace is remarkably absent, and the audience is left with either the staunch and noble police force sided with Batman, or a hoard of criminals wielding machine guns with which to identify. There is no hint at discussion of why society is so divided, or whether there should indeed be a reassessment of the current status quo, as those who attempt to engage in social activism are wholly portrayed as mindless criminals who will use their new found agency to destroy the establishment instead of reworking it into anything new or progressive. Weirdly, TDKR ignores and elides the issues which the previous installments of the trilogy have raised in regards to corruption within the justice system to present a united front in which the establishment stands firm against the troublesome maniacs attempting to disrupt Gotham.
This half-hearted incorporation of current affairs seems to me to be lazy, and really quite exploitative film making. It capitalizes on real world unrest and issues which are in need of serious treatment and incorporates them into a conservative discourse, slyly justifying the discrepancy between the affluent and the less well off by aligning those advocating change with thuggery and anarchism, and ultimately justifying the film as a cultural product in itself; the wealth and power of Hollywood is vindicated through the final triumph of corporate and conservative forces over those annoying kill-joys who question (and attack) the dominance of what Ebert identifies as “our society’s twin gods of money and pro sports”.