Hans Zimmer has composed an unrelenting score that is being blasted in movie theaters across the world right now. It is not bad music by any means, but why it is launched like an assault at the eardrums I cannot fathom. Underneath this score, if one listens carefully, one can hear a movie playing, accompanied by corresponding images on a screen. The movie is called The Dark Knight Rises, and it is considered a part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the grounds that Batman makes a couple brief appearances in it.
It takes place eight years after the previous installment. Batman, erroneously believed to be the murderer of Harvey Dent, has disappeared, and his alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne, now lives as a recluse. A new super villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), has emerged to wreak havoc in Gotham City. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is also on the prowl, though whether she is a villain or heroine is less certain until the end of the film.
Bruce Wayne is moved to return the Caped Crusader to the streets of Gotham City as the Bane menace grows. He is pushed to this decision by a police officer with amazing faith in his pure hunch that Bruce Wayne is somehow connected to Batman, as well as the theft of his belongings and personal information by Catwoman, who was working for him as a maid in order to position herself for the strike, and who was helped along by an assistant we never really get to know, but both of them are radical egalitarians with some connection to Bane, who it turns out was behind the guy who hired Catwoman to burgle Bruce Wayne because he wants the information to set Wayne up so that he can financially ruin Wayne so that his people can take over Wayne Enterprises in the ensuing bankruptcy so that he, because he knows who Batman is, can get access to Batman’s arsenal so he can use it to further his plans to…
You know, it’s actually a little complicated. Much like its predecessor. Indeed, the movie shares all of its predecessor’s flaws but got shortchanged on the strengths.
The complex plotline, which does not have to be a problem, is made more difficult to follow by the editing (the problems with Nolan’s shots and editing have been detailed before… pay particular attention in part two where film critic Jim Emerson recuts a sequence himself and makes it work a lot better). Early on, when we need to orient ourselves in the film, scenes and sequences are smashed into each other, things that need to be established are not — or not to the right rhythm — and the result is a semi-incoherent jumble that a viewer must really concentrate on to follow.
An excellent example occurs early on, when Catwoman has been sent, by Alfred (Michael Caine), to deliver Bruce Wayne’s dinner to him. She has never done this before, and with some trepidation she ventures into an unfamiliar part of the mansion. Rather than stay with her on what should prove to be an interesting little trip, we cut abruptly to another scene of Alfred telling Miranda (Marion Cotillard), to whom we have not yet been introduced, that she may not see Bruce Wayne. The sound and pace of this intercut sequence clashes with what it was cut into, and it feels just as odd a moment later when we — again, abruptly — rejoin Catwoman.
This seems to be taking the old advice — to get into a scene as late as possible and out at the first opportunity — to an extreme, leaving the sequence without the full development of a beginning, middle, and end. However, even though we are used to introductions and therefore it feels awkward to suddenly be watching Miranda as if we should already know her, one can follow the action. Obviously, she has requested to see Bruce Wayne. Obviously, Alfred left the kitchen where he gave Catwoman her marching orders and met Miranda along the way, but it is jarring to view these things in the manner in which they have been presented.
There is also a real problem with character action, motivation, and plausibility. I was never satisfied with the conclusion of the previous film. It felt to me that they had an interesting situation they wanted to arrive at, but had to force the story to get there, and it wound up being implausible. I also found the extreme importance to the general morale of protecting Harvey Dent’s reputation to be silly. This aspect rears its implausible head in the present movie in the form of The Dent Act, a law passed at some level in our ostensibly federal system which has virtually wiped out organized crime (no, it is not drug legalization: that would actually make sense). There were a handful of other things in The Dark Knight Rises that struck me as odd, things characters did that did not appear to be the best way to get where they wanted to go, but of course these things served to move the story where the storytellers wanted it.
Implausibility is a tricky thing for a storyteller. In some settings, a viewer will accept what he would not countenance in another. Christopher Nolan has chosen a very realistic approach to his movie, but that brings out the various slips in logic like a blacklight brings out stains. The very attempt to meld a superhero with a strictly realistic approach to moviemaking is an odd mesh in itself. Truth be told, I think Burton was better served by his fantastical approach to Batman.
Where The Dark Knight Rises differs from its predecessor is in the villain, Bane, who is not as interesting as The Joker. Played by Heath Ledger in one of the best performances I have ever seen, The Joker was a psychopathic menace, bent on destruction for its own sake. His goals were clear and he acted to achieve them. His flippant tales of life as a child with his father, each one contradicting the next, was a perfectly chilling way to get across his cavalier attitude toward evil, his mocking of any attempt to understand him.
Nothing is that clear about Bane. His motivations do become evident, but only in a murky way. By degrees we piece together his intentions, a project made more difficult by the fact that his early endeavors are only supporting his main goal. By this I do not mean to suggest that his entire master plan should have been revealed to us from the outset, but it would have been nice to understand what passions motivated him. We are also left with the impression that his actions are not really the best way to achieve his goals, in the final analysis, but they are a great way to achieve a bombastic ending to a movie.
Bane has a breathing apparatus that affects his speech, but whereas this sort of thing enhanced Darth Vader’s character, it detracts from Bane’s because we cannot understand him. He has some sort of accent, I think, which is garbled a bit by the hardware in his mouth. Remember that Christian Bale plays his Batman with a deep, throaty growl, so that when the protagonist and antagonist start yelling at each other, it sounds like a spat between a gas-powered weed whacker and a man struggling to scream under water.
There are reasons to commend as well as criticize the movie. The acting is good, the production values are spectacular, and the action is occasionally thrilling. I would be more inclined to dwell on the positive aspects were it not for the fact that the movie is, to this libertarian soul, positively hateful. I remarked to my friend, as we watched it, that it seemed that Karl Marx had a hand in writing the script.
Egalitarianism of the most extreme variety is the order of the day, and class warfare is brewing, a sentiment that Catwoman makes the cornerstone of her existence. Theft from the rich, some insist, is perfectly alright. They did not deserve their wealth and possessions in the first place.
It would be unduly optimistic to think that the rich in America have uniformly gotten their riches through the honest discipline of the market. I do not pretend to know what percentage of wealth is earned and what stolen, through various artifices, nor do I conceive of the issue in the simplistic terms of thief/non-thief. There are, after all, some rich people who have benefited without having lobbied for the benefits, sometimes without even realizing that the field has been tilted. Others with more principle grow rich while opposing parts of the system in which they accumulated their fortune. What I can say with certainty is that any blanket aspersion cast on the entirety of the rich, however we define them, is as stupid and bigoted as all such denigration always is, whether the object of our scorn be men, blacks, Muslims, gays, the rich, or any other group.
For all its purported philosophical sophistication, there is no effort in the movie to draw distinctions between the deserving rich and affluent thieves. I do not even expect an understanding that, in a voluntary trade, both parties usually come out the better for it. I set the bar far lower: merely demanding consideration for each individual on his own actions rather than as a member of a group. You know, the sort of thing progressives insist on for their favored groups, but even with the bar lowered the filmmakers trip over it.
Lest anyone point out that the egalitarian arguments are made by the bad guys, I will remind them that at no time do the good guys even attempt to refute the madness of these little Robin Hoods. The egalitarianism comes across as an attempt to humanize the bad guys, rather than a way to characterize them as evil. Batman seems to oppose their plans more out of habit than any real commitment to property rights.
The movie is neither a poor nor a good one, on the balance. It is a shame that, for those of us committed to the code of property rights and freedom, whose desultory pursuit has allowed some societies to stagger out of the misery of poverty, this movie turned out to be so odious.