The Dark Knight Rises: Christopher Nolan and the Film to Define Our Age

Warning: this is an essay and not a review; elements of all three Nolan Batman movies are examined that may serve as spoilers.

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Christopher Nolan has been flexing his muscles for some time now. Momento (2000) dazzled, but is ultimately a noir thriller, straight from the backlots of a Howard Hawks production. It was the work of a director who promised a future of interesting movies, films that would stick in the mind. Insomnia (2002) was a dark, uncomfortable mainstream thriller that had much in common with David Fincher’s Seven (1995), and put Nolan into that fraternity-of-one of intelligent, ambitious, masculine auteurs of which Fincher had for some time been the lonely Olympian. The Prestige (2006) was mainly ludicrous, but not awful, and will eventually serve as the marker of a director finding his boundaries. But this was the time of Batman Begins (2005), and Nolan, it seems, had found his feet.

Batman Begins was muscular, dark, intelligent. The skills needed to create such a film were largely overlooked, as it is an action blockbuster, and was largely only discussed in terms of its place in a franchise, and how it managed to ‘reinvigorate’ that franchise. Decidedly business-like language. It’s difficult to talk art when everyone is screaming ‘MONEY!’ But the first instalment of what has now become the Batman Trilogy is a sturdy establishing shot for what was to come, whilst also being a confident forearm to the throat of bean-counters and soft-pornographers like Michael Bay, who simply direct moving posters for fourteen year old boys. As the movie industry largely brushed off the forearm and remembered only the ‘re-invention of the franchise’ element of what Batman Begins achieved, Nolan delivered two more telling blows. The Dark Knight (2008) was a game-changer. Still Hollywood rested its laurels on the marvellous performance of the late Heath Ledger, assuming the wonder of the film was all down to him. But before they could really look around and see that maybe all was not what it seemed, Nolan delivered Inception (2010), a work of such mainstream cinematic bravado that aftershocks are still being felt.

Inception showed the world that Nolan is one of the great storytellers of the modern age. Not a single line of dialogue fails to move the plot along at least an inch. It is a masterclass in scriptwriting. When Will Self wrote that Inception was ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like’ he rather betrayed his own misunderstanding of the nuts and bolts of cinema. For an action film to live and die by the strength of its script (and, no, I don’t mean Die Hard sarcasm, or a satisfying comeuppance for the villain – I mean the script as foundation for every moment of the film), is special enough, but Nolan’s script is comparable to the best in cinema for the functional genius of it. The script for Inception does exactly the same job as Bergman’s script for Cries and Whispers, as Chaplin’s script for City Lights. Nothing is wasted. Not a moment, not even in the pauses, is given over to tangent or recuperation. The significance of the script for Inception for his next movie, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), is that he has improved on it.

The reason why the script for The Dark Knight Rises is even more accomplished than Inception is because it also has a sense of humour and has Die Hard as well as Cries and Whispers as a forebear. The critics who emphasise the weightiness and darkness of the film also, paradoxically, often go on to quote some of the funniest lines, particularly Selena Kyle’s retort to the question, ‘Do those heels make it difficult to walk?’

Nolan has stepped closer to making a film as accomplished as The Dark Knight Rises with every movie he has made. What is perhaps remarkable is just how good it is, and how mistaken so many critics have been in their three-star-dismissals of it as ‘dark’, ‘Wagnerian’, ‘physical’, ‘brutal’. The Dark Knight Rises is an important movie for our time; it transcends its own parameters, and poses questions that, perhaps, we are used to seeing in more subtle and dainty productions. The reason why The Dark Knight Rises is the most successful film I have seen to pose these questions is because, finally, an artist has decided that the questions themselves are not dainty or subtle, but they are big, brutal, physical questions and deserve to be treated as such. It asks us whether we are truly considering our options in a world dying at the hands of man-made corruption and the evil of ignorance and arrogance. It suggests to us that we are so far gone we may be forced to choose between different shades of apocalypse if we are to save anything from the systems in place that gorge on human flesh and spirit. And it seems these questions are all put in place as the result of an unlikely decision made very early on by Nolan and his team when devising the story of the Batman Trilogy.

Since the announcement that the villain for the final instalment of his trilogy would be Bane, the villain famous from the comic books for being the man who broke Batman’s back, there was a palpable sigh of disappointment from fans. After the perceived cerebral conflict between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Christian Bale’s the Batman in The Dark Knight, the purists and newcomers alike felt that Nolan was going for a more simple, more physical, less charismatic threat. Ledger’s turn as the Joker was certainly charismatic, a cinematic triumph, but ultimately he is a much less complex villain.

Perhaps part of his success, the success that made him an instant cultural icon in a way that Bane will never be, is in this misconception of the complexity of his character. For a start, the Joker is not insane, although he may do insane things. I’m talking about the character as an ingredient of film, not as a representation of an aspect of potential reality. There is nowhere near enough information for us, the viewer, to make such an analytical judgement on whoever the Joker is. In The Dark Knight he offers different versions of his origin story to different characters. For the viewer this is proof that he is unknowable, that he is dangerous, unpredictable, creative, that he is having the darkest kind of fun. But we must understand the impact these stories are supposed to have on his victim at that moment; and that is to appear a full character. We see he is far too self-aware to be mad. He is a trickster; only a slightly more sophisticated hoodlum than the Mafiosos he also plays around with. The joker allows us into this game; makes us part of his black, playful, deception. And, with such a charismatic arm around our shoulder, we warm to him.

Bane never speaks to us this way, never treats us with such contempt. And Bane is both more knowable and at the same time more intriguing than the Joker. It is true that we end up knowing nothing of the Joker but that is because he is a symbol – some suggest a symbol of the antithesis of the Batman, the opposite side of the same coin. This has some legs, for just as the Joker is not insane but does some insane things, so does the Batman. But because we know the journey of Bruce Wayne we do not judge him by the same standards as the Joker.

The truth is that the Joker is a simple villain. There have been few simpler in cinema history. It may not be incorrect to psychoanalyse him, to perceive that something in his past has driven him to become one of those who ‘just wants to see the world burn’, in Alfred J Penniworth’s words. But in truth he is only defined by what he lacks, and that is goodness. This is the most ancient type of western villain, a Catholic understanding of evil that resonates deep within us because of its simplicity. Evil is defined as an absence of good. For all of the fireworks and make-up, the Joker is as complex as that eight word sentence. Bane, however, is much more interesting.

Bane, also, is not insane. He rarely even indulges in acts that we may deem insane; ambitious and coiled in the logic of a superhero environment, maybe; but his plots are closer to some kind of reality than many found in James Bond movies. I would even go as far as to suggest that Bane is only a villain in as far as he wants to kill the hero, and he has little interest in the value of human life. In this second sense he is no different to most Hollywood action heroes. We are used to being told in the movie world who it is okay to watch die and who it is not – whether it is Indochinese in Rambo, the mentally ill in Dirty Harry films, the native Americans in John Ford movies. Bane’s lack of a precious attitude to life is hardly a cinematic character-trait reserved solely for villains.

The other aspects of the plan of the League of Shadows, to be carried out through the figure of Bane, are made heavy with several smoke screens. What it boils down to is that Bane is a devotee of a perceptibly twisted cult. Even more specifically he is devoted to the heir to throne of this cult, the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul. At the centre of Bane’s ‘villainy’ is a tragic love story. He may have a score to settle with an unjust world, but, as it turns out, his own desires mean very little next to those of his master. He fashions a nuclear apocalypse upon Gotham not just because he is a villain – in the way that the Joker plots – but because he is driven by an ideology. The ideology is not new; to cleanse the world of the accumulated mud of sin that began at the highest strata of society and trickled down to the backstreets and sewers. This is an Old Testament ideology, found in the legends of the Flood and of Sodom and Gomorrah. The instigator in those cases was Yahweh, not Bane.

Bane’s plot, were it reality, would of course be villainous. But it is lazy criticism and an undermining of the craft of Christopher Nolan the storyteller to suppose it is that simple in the movie universe.

Bane’s motivation is not chaos or even destruction, it is devotion. He may believe his speeches about reckoning, but it seems likely at the end that they are not his speeches at all, but those of Talia al Ghul. As the curtain comes back we see that she controls him. He has seen his love and protection of a small child in the most inhumane of environments, a ‘hell on earth’, turned around on top of him. He is used as a tool, emotionally manipulated into the role of eunuch. He is her pet. Tears fill his eyes. There is a desire in his gaze, a tired, desperate gaze, for the peace of oblivion and finally it will come with the annihilation of Gotham. He is looking for their ultimate delivery from that pit in which they were both born. After all, he has not left it, really; he continues to inhabit underground lairs; he can only walk the streets in daylight when he has the detonator to an atomic bomb in his fist.

Because we think we understand brute force better than the blank evil of the mischievous Joker, the perception is that Bane is a disappointing villain for the Batman. We come to find out some of Bane’s background, and most importantly, his reasons for doing what he’s doing. But how much do we really know? His much-commented-on voice has a suspiciously well-educated English timbre to it. He says he was born in the pit, but how much does that refer to a physical birth, and how much does it refer to a psychical rebirth? There is an untold story in the coming of Bane which is almost surely defined by tragedy, redemption and the final corruption of him by a girl who is trying to avenge the death of her father. There is more than a suggestion of the Edmund Dante to his mysterious origins.

Christopher Nolan has dug extremely deep to make Bane one of the most fascinating characters in movie history, and with such a character he has been able to create a strident comment on the age in which we live. Like all great art, there are few answers on offer, but the ones we can garner from a narrative that never lets up from its responsibility as a blockbuster are ones ultimately of hope, albeit in a corrupted, sepia light. It is the weight of the themes wrapped in cinematic action and fantastical heroes that seems to have confused some.

Many critics have looked at The Dark Knight Rises and immediately evoked the ghost of Wagner, misunderstanding both the German composer and the film. Wagner did not just mean ‘big’, did not just mean ‘sentimental’, did not just mean ‘camp’, and The Dark Knight Rises is far more than bluster and bone on bone. Such crude, lazy allusions amount to little more than a missed opportunity to really get under the skin of Nolan’s achievement. His Batman Trilogy is barely Wagnerian, and operatic only in as far as critics tend not to stretch much further when looking for words to evoke ideas of the epical and melodramatic. The Batman Trilogy is Greek. The trilogy follows the tried and tested format of the trilogy established by Athenian theatre of the 5th century BC, that of the overcoming of evil in the first instance, the sacrifice and darkness of the second instalment, and the profound redemption of the third. All great trilogies follow this format, from the Oresteia to Star Wars, and Nolan seemingly has found no reason to break from it. The fact that some critics have been beaten by the scale of the final film, the Gatling Gun delivery of thematic divisions that are more closely associated with Bergman, or Shakespeare, or Aeschylus, means that they may have missed what will amount to a turning point in the history of cinema. Unused to genius in blockbusters, never mind in the guise of a cape and cloak, many fine critics have reviewed The Dark Knight Rises like any other film. But the final film creates the trilogy; it pulls the first two films from the comfortable cultural rurality of their own intrinsic merits up into the realms of greatness, simply by changing the meaning of them. Nolan has said that the trilogy must be judged only by the ending, that the ending is everything. And he is right. We can now see that everything that came before has been leading to the thudding, choral profundity of the final act; a film that discusses the current state of the modern world in exactly the same way the great Athenian playwrights discussed theirs – by dressing the matters important to their citizen-folk in myth, giving the stories over to gods and demons.

The Dark Knight Rises is universal, it is timeless and it is also immediate. The true villains of the film, the spineless, codeless, immoral, chaotic villains are the ones in the boardroom, symbolised by the reptilian Daggett. Again critics have dismissed this strand of the plot, many even calling it a ‘subplot’. It is everything.

The arrogant capitalists call in to do their bidding a beast that they cannot control, a mercenary who only their arrogance, borne of money and class, makes them suppose they can control. Daggett represents the perfect synthesis of arrogance and ignorance, a real palpable disdain for human life delivered with a sneer that pushes out from the screen in a way that Bane’s does not. That is because we recognise this kind of figure. Bane is an interesting and complex creation of fiction. Daggett is not. Bane is entwined and run through with razor wires of themes and drama and complexities. Daggett is not. Daggett is purposely familiar to us for he is every banker, politician, billionaire, local councillor, senior prefect, insurance broker, that we have ever been told about to keep us from the darkness of the woods as children. And it is his arrogance and ignorance that gets him killed and leaves the innocent populace, for whom he has so much inherited contempt, to deal with the fallout.

One of Bane’s smokescreens is to offer the people of Gotham a sense of brutal justice – the hope that he sees is central to the true suffering that will purge humanity of sin. He empowers the lower classes – the first forgotten, the first to be victimised, brutalised and criminalised – and brings the wealthy and powerful to trial in a ‘peoples’ court’. The allusions to escapist desire are obvious in an age when nobody is held responsible for financial crimes that have victimised, brutalised and criminalised the lower-classes across the western world. Nolan is asking us a straight question, after all: is this not what it is going to take to save the world? A peoples’ revolution. What exactly is the Batman striving to save the people from? Well, he is saving them from nuclear annihilation, but Bane is not the Joker, he is a member of the League of Shadows, and they do not deal in chaos, they deal in redemption, Biblical redemption no different to the fate of Gomorrah.

And so the film digs deeper into the fabric of what it means to be a person in this age, looking hopefully to a technological future as the marble of the financial foundations is turned to rubble beneath us. Will it take a return to our origins to save our future? Ra’s a Ghul sees the Old Testament as Ground Zero, whereas Bruce Wayne sees the New Testament as the source for redemption, albeit no less grim. We have moved on from the Roman Catholic battle of good versus evil of The Dark Knight, we are now splitting the atom, deciding which stage of archaic religious order we wish to return to. The Batman trusts in the soul of the people, in the gnostic ideal that Original Sin is there to be overcome. Bane, at this point in the working-class hero mode of Moses, is allowing the lower-classes an opportunity to bring the upper-classes to account for their sin, their ignorance, their vanity, as well as their federal crimes. Bane is taunting the viewer as well as his hostages, the people of Gotham. Are these a Hogarthian mock-up of the trials we should be having, or are they a mischievous suggestion that this may be the only way to change the status quo?

It is this temptation of the viewer into siding with Bane that makes this character a true evolution of the villain of the previous film. When the Joker pits the passengers of one ferry against another in The Dark Knight we ask how we would react if we were a passenger. We are asked to empathise and evaluate how good we are potentially against how good we most likely are. But Bane glares at us and asks us to join him, not his victims. He is after all, in every court scene, sitting with us, just in the front row. It is a brilliant cinematic trick, and he is close to turning and winking at us over his shoulder more than once.

So is Nolan being a rabble-rouser? Of course not; great artists are never so overt. But in the current state of the western world he has found fertile ground on which to round off this cinematic masterwork. The premise may all be a theatrical flourish from Bane, and never sincere as he means to kill them all regardless, but it is still the posing of a question to us, the viewer, that we are challenged to answer. Nolan, the consummate professional, offers us his answer in the form of Selina Kyle.

Kyle is the outsider, the one of us who also sees the revolution as inevitable (she senses it before anyone else, wryly warning Bruce Wayne at the charity function), and she can even see its justification. How long can the people at the top expect to get away with living this way for so long? How did they ever expect it to last? She asks Bruce Wayne just that question. But when the revolution comes the reality is ultimately unpalatable. Selina Kyle, an anarchist, a citizen, is one of the true heroes of the film because she straddles the divide between the justice about which Bane orates and the brutal injustice he delivers. Kyle is convinced eventually that Armageddon can be avoided and she ends up leading us away from the dubious authority of Bane’s revolution and it is she who aligns us for good with the Batman. Anne Hathaway’s fabulous performance has at its core the realisation that Kyle is integral to the moral centre of the film. It turns out that she is our guide, Bruce Wayne is too serious and is just as hellbent on his own sacrifice as Alfred fears. Bane is also bent on death. Both of these remarkable figures see only oblivion as their destinies, like gods on earth. But Selina Kyle is looking for a new life, a fresh start, a clean slate. But she will still be made up of all the idiosyncrasies that made her a crook, all the tricks she has learned will not fade away with the wiping of databases. Just as how a clean slate for us – a new banking system, a new political system – would not create purity in its place. And in that there is real hope, not the cruel, corrupted hope that is the only version Bane has ever known.

There is a very serious allegation made by an older generation of artist levelled at the younger generation; and that is a lack of political awareness, a lack of activism. The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most important political statement of recent times, made all the more significant for it addresses the defining issue of our age: the contemptuousness of the one per cent. The craft of the film (and the trilogy) is of the highest calibre, but Nolan’s real genius (yes, genius) is that he has tackled these issues in what will become one of the highest grossing movies of all time. In another lesson from the Greeks, Nolan has a wooden horse that should be worrying the decadent and financial classes. Unfortunately the horse is so well constructed it seems to have fooled many of the critics at the same time.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis