Screening Log #74: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, and Marion Cotillard



Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of making a comic book film lies in conceptualizing how the source material will be adapted. Depending on the property being developed, there may be decades of story to parse, volumes of stories that are essential to the development of the character and close to the hearts of readers. Once the narrative and thematic elements have been distilled from the material the process of grafting it onto the filmmaker’s own vision begins. While there are instances where hewing closely to the original vision finds a measure of success – i.e., Sin City – but, more often than not, something is lost in translation (or lack thereof).

Chris Nolan’s cinematic interpretation of Batman, to my mind, is characterized most strongly by his keen sense of what to borrow from the source material and how to integrate it into his vision of the Batman universe. The Dark Knight Rises functions well as a final act to Nolan’s trilogy, its themes and plot reflecting backward on both The Dark Knight, and more strongly, Batman Begins, while reformatting elements from disparate elements from various Batman stories as varied as Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns.

Jumping eight years into the future after the events of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises begins with Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale, in seclusion, Batman having vanished following the death of Harvey Dent. Wayne limps about his vast mansion, his time as Batman having taken its toll on his body, his butler Alfred, Michael Caine, his only real interpersonal contact. It is only when the spark of adversity is introduced by Selina Kyle, Anne Hathaway, a professional thief who infiltrates Wayne manor and steals Bruce’s mother’s necklace, that he begins to re-enter society. This moment, unknown to Wayne, precipitates the re-emergence by the League of Shadows, Ra’s al Ghul’s terrorist group returning from Batman Begins, lead now by the massive and masked Bane, Tom Hardy. Meanwhile, Nolan’s script develops a parallel interest in the police via James Gordon, Gary Oldman, and young officer John Blake, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon’s career flourished following Dent’s death as he utilized Dent’s public face, preserved by Batman’s assuming the guilt for Dent’s murder, to establish a law clamping down on mob activity. In addition to all this narrative, familiar characters pop into the film periodically and new characters, who carry varying degrees of importance, are introduced into the plot. One could not accuse the film of being sparsely populated.

Wayne’s first engagement with the League of Shadows and Bane goes poorly, as it necessarily must, removing him from the playing field as the group attempts to destroy Gotham. Here the focus shifts to Gordon, Blake, and the people of Gotham, isolated from the rest of the world on threat of nuclear violence. Nolan’s film gestures limply toward problems inherent in the financial systems that somewhat echo the occupy movements, but any unilateral political reading is problematized by the film’s muddied political purview. Bane’s radical plan to destroy Gotham’s stock exchange isn’t to liberate the people from an oppressive financial system and despite the fact that Batman requires the aid of Gotham’s police to fight Bane’s forces, in the end he still represents a single – highly, and privately, financed – individual righting the wrongs of the city.

The longest of Nolan’s Batman film, Rises is methodical and evenly paced. The film lacks both The Dark Knight‘s highs and lows, which soared and lagged in proximity to Ledger’s electric performance. If anything, Rises more clearly resembles Batman Begins in its pacing, employing The Dark Knight as a sort of foil to its themes and content in interesting ways. If the Joker was a dog chasing cars, not knowing what he would do were he to catch one, Bane acts with a meticulous plan and end game; where the Joker’s plan involved pitting the goodness of Gotham’s citizens to the test, Bane employs the citizen’s care for one another as a tool to keep them corralled in the city’s borders. The character and plan of the League of Shadows here complicates the simple binary of good/bad, or thesis/antithesis, reading one could ascribe to The Dark Knight‘s dialectic of order and chaos. The revelation that Batman and Gordon’s decision at the end of that film, while well-intentioned enough, was, in retrospect, the wrong decision demonstrates an admirable decision by Nolan and company to allow their film’s to reflect on themselves in a manner that can generate more nuanced relationships.

Where the film lags is in its final twenty minutes, or so, Nolan’s script democratically spreads the film’s – and, by extension, the trilogy’s – climactic heroics over several characters, each playing a key role in obtaining and dealing with the League’s nuclear device to save Gotham. Following Batman’s decision to defuse the situation, the film rushes headlong over a painfully contracted denouement that too succinctly ties up lingering situations. Certainly, the task of wrapping up three film’s worth of developments and growth is a challenging one, but not one that should be relegated the the final ten or fifteen minutes of some four hundred and fifty eight minutes of story. The decision to introduce the John Blake character in this film contributes to Rises‘ narrative girth, however it is a decision that is perhaps necessary to demonstrate the success of Bruce Wayne’s original thesis that Batman should act as a symbol to generate positive action in the populace while gesturing toward a sort of heroic continuity and offering a final wink to the fans of the film’s source material.

A measured, if less than thrilling, close to Nolan’s work with Batman, The Dark Knight Rises provides a template of comic to film adaptation. Espousing the thoughtful re-purposing of elements from various sources in order to quilt together a cogent and consistent cinematic universe, Nolan’s film completes his trilogy’s work by returning to the themes of the first film as modified by, and contrasting against, the second entry. While the film’s final moments dissatisfy with an uncharacteristic lack of depth, the prominence of this dissonance is due in large part to the ordered manner by which Nolan has assembled the rest of the trilogy. It is hard not to read a similarly precise methodological link between Nolan’s work and that of “the world’s greatest detective”; in donning the cowl, Nolan has established Batman as a symbol from which others may take example on how to adapt and reinterpret a super hero franchise.


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