‘The Dark Knight Rises’: Gotham’s final, reactionary State of the Union

Bane and Batman. ()
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One of the lovelier tricks a movie can pull is to make us miss somebody and then be grateful for even one fresh glimpse of them. It works on two levels. We are delighted to see or meet a memorable character in narrative context but also to find a familiar actor still alive and thrashing, on the screen, at least.

The Third Man is famous for its tantalizing flashes of a devilish Orson Welles. Apajarito, the sequel to Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, opens on thousands of anonymous bathers along the Ganges river. When I spotted in the multitude Harihar, whose family I had virtually lived with via Pather Panchali, I cried out, "That's Apu's dad!"

In The Dark Knight Rises, the first act of which feels like a laid-back wrap party for the personnel of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I was thrilled at every grand entrance and sentimental reunion. It didn't matter that I find the previous Christopher Nolan Batman movies oppressive and mostly joyless viewing.

It was simply good to see Michael Caine again, all endearing jowls and teary eyes as butler Alfred, the doting, fussy Hobson to Bruce Wayne's Arthur. My screening companion let out a little cheer when Morgan Freeman, the most instantly lovable screen presence since Jimmy Stewart, first appeared in his natty suit and bowtie as Lucius Fox, Wayne's sage corporate mastermind. The audience murmured happily at the sight of Gary Oldman as Commisioner Gordon, the epitome of the humble big-city cop who does his job quietly without ever looking around for a pat on the back. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is wry and more sedate this time around.

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Seeing these people again in Wally Pfister's bright, clean lighting was like running into pleasant former co-workers from an old shit job. And make no mistake, watching Nolan's Batman flicks is a job.

They start off piling up verbal exposition and thunderous set pieces that are awesome in scale, ungainly and lumbering in effect. Rather than smash together models or computer-graphic creations, Nolan tends to abuse full-size vehicles and architecture. He films these stunts in IMAX, which makes them dizzying and terrifying, but not in a way that adds anything useful to the story he's trying to tell.

True to comic-book form, Nolan and his co-screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan, have their characters articulate the plot and theme in reams of dialogue. Everything moves at a screwball pace early on, minus a screwball comedy's sense of pacing or rhythm. It's the utterly mechanical visual flow that makes The Dark Knight Rises, like its predecessors, less of a movie than a last week on "St. Elsewhere" recap montage.

Hans Zimmer's omnipresent musical score reminds us that this is a nearly three-hour anthem, closer to Angels in America in its ambition to describe an American epoch than to any mere superhero flick. Since music has a tendency to build, climax, and taper off, Zimmer's work lends an illusion of shapeliness to many sequences, much like whatever was used to fill out wispy Anne Hathaway's catsuit.

So it's a national anthem, but also a State of the Union address. The Dark Knight Rises informs us that Gotham City has become a much safer place since the passing of the Dent Act (named after another popular Gotham hero, the deceased prosecutor Harvey Dent), a law that sounds like a combination of elements from The Patriot Act and the NYPD's recent-vintage stop-and-frisk policy.

The Dent Act is a controversial bill because of the way it provides harsher penalties for criminals with some (possibly tenuous, meaningless) connection to organized crime. But civil-liberties advocates are no match for a law named after the only hero more admired than Batman (who is now, eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, a fugitive suspected of killing Dent). It helps that both Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne's lips are sealed about Dent's own crimes.

Public opinion is never much more than a minor hassle for a business titan like Wayne. He knows what's best for a population too distracted by its own strivings to make sober decisions.

At one point Wayne steps down from the board of Wayne Enterprises after a disastrous investment, just to make it easier for Lucius to conduct business as usual on his behalf. Wayne's power isn't dependent upon public approval of his policies, but on the means he possesses to retain high-priced frontmen like Lucius. It's the conscientious private power brokers like Wayne, working behind the scenes and beyond the scrutiny of the ineffectual media, who keep our civilization from imploding. No wonder Donald Trump loves this movie.

Bane, the Lord Humungus-styled villain, arrives to show us what happens when an inmate takes over the asylum. A product of a medieval-looking jail, Bane wants to let the people rule and the one-percenters face street justice. This is a Batflick that fascist crackpot Frank Miller, arguably the most politically passionate of Batman comics scribes, could love like a brother.

Bane's Occupy movement is pure sour grapes, a series of lootings, show trials, and executions. I could barely make out one face in the crowds of angry convicts, anarchists, and, um, you know, citizens.

"You talk about 'The People' as if you owned them," Jed Leland said to newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. That's how Wayne and Bane talk about everyday people in The Dark Knight Rises, and even though Dickens-inspired Nolan clearly believes that Wayne's concern for all the working stiffs and orphaned waifs out there is sincere, I think all three—the director and his modified D.C. comics characters—are full of shit.

Even the kind of facial-recognition software that Wayne's creepy company might produce would have trouble discerning a single face in either Bane's mob or the busload of school children cheering Batman on at one point. They're all just props for a megalomanical vision.

As Bane's reign of terror filled the screen with bombings and mass shootings, and my blood pressure remained level, my mind wandered off to South Korea.

The Korean director Bong Joon-ho made the loveliest monster movie, The Host, and the most profound serial-killer movie, Memories of Murder. He would know how to wring genuine emotion from this Batman material without having to cue the audience with images of a tattered American flag.

In Bong's crackerjack films, a lot of cruel, mercenary or simply apathetic characters take advantage of or worsen tragic situations, but the camera remains fleet and graceful, attuned to the moment-by-moment vulnerability of the characters. The humor is often broad, dark, and a bit mean, but Bong's characters, no more deeply drawn than Nolan's, manage to convey a depth of feeling that goes beyond simply having world-class actors recite the subtext of a scene. Bong's stealthily dancing camera sweetens and extends the notes, in the manner of Ophuls or Spielberg at their most inspired. "The People" in Bong's genre classics is not just a concept used to burnish the hero's noble, tragic image.

Nolan is not that kind of director. His Batman trilogy has been praised endlessly for its complexity and darkness, for making a nation of comic geeks feel like they're watching art, when in many ways Nolan is really working the same lot as Transformers auteur Michael Bay. It's just that Nolan's a bespoke Barney's tailoring kind of guy whereas Bay is Old Navy. Their films have molded a generation of kids to let 9/11-intensity trauma and War on Terror chaos be the default level in their fantasy lives. It's intensity masquerading as profundity.

As hopeless as The Dark Knight Rises' middle stretch of terrorism, beatings, and endless procedural chatter made me feel, there is still some basic kid-movie joy hiding in there. There are the reunions I mentioned, but also the car chases, one visual flourish of Nolan's that always feels dreamed up in a flight of fancy rather than engineered.

The best scene in the movie combines both pleasures, as Batman emerges in costume for the first time, on a wild bike chase. His Batman cape flutters back at the camera as his bike leans and careens at top speed—this is what the kids came to see. Even the rather spastic action-editing in such scenes can't ruin their simple, exhilarating grandeur.

Then it's back to scenes of city bureaucrats, cops and corporate executives muttering to one another about their burdens—namely, us, the ones who vote, pay the taxes and buy the movie tickets.