Even those reviewers who remain luke warm about Christopher Nolan’s latest installment in the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, find enough to like about it that will make their readers want to see this summer’s blockbuster. This enthusiasm for the film, however muted, worries me. While the literate public are all too accustomed to believing press reviews in the daily papers, even though we know them to be directed towards the commodification of our desires and dreams, for some reason, the apparent mis-perception of The Dark Knight Rises worries me more than usual.
Manohla Dargis for the New York Times is not alone in his consideration of the film as “intelligent” as well as “pleasurable, [on a] purely cinematic level.” Dargis and others praise The Dark Knight Rises for its references to the French Revolution, claiming that the evil Bane’s speeches are worthy of Robespierre. However, in my understanding, just because a film makes reference to the French Revolution, and the villain makes speeches that match the verve of the revolutionary lawyers, doesn’t make it “intelligent” and neither is Bane given any substance whatsoever through a parallel to Robespierre. Similarly, the rise of the mob seeking justice, the construction of a kangaroo court, the soaring skyscrapers and bottomless misery deep underground might resonate alternately with Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Metropolis (1927), but it doesn’t mean that the film has any coherent vision of the political ramifications of a social uprising. Nor does it even take a position on the disenfranchised workers in their struggle against evil. And neither do the utterances about justice for all by the right wing mob in The Dark Knight Rises make any political or social sense. Afterall, this mob has only one goal: they just want to destroy everyone, including themselves. Critics all complain about the difficulty of understanding Bane’s dialogue because of the mask he wears, but they can rest assured, they didn’t miss anything. I read the French subtitles when Bane talked, and really, he didn’t say anything worth noting. He may have begun his rampage through Gotham City by wreaking havoc on the stock market, but even Lang’s chameleonic Dr Mabuse (to which Bane is surely a reference) seemed more articulate – and Mabuse was in a silent movie.
I could go on with other examples, but I will only indulge in one more. Philip French of The Observer thinks that the ending is given complexity because it is “ambiguous”. However, I wondered if we had watched the same film. After Batman has saved Gotham City from complete obliteration, Bruce Wayne is spotted with Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) by Alfred (Michael Cain) in a café in Florence, incognito, in broad daylight. To my mind, there's no ambiguity at all, as Nolan sets the path for the next installment. Oh look, they survived afterall, what a surprise!
I have students – many of them – who think that Christopher Nolan is the best director since Alfred Hitchcock. Correction, they believe that Nolan is actually a better filmmaker than Hitchcock. There’s something about the mental gymnastics, the confusing narratives, the fragmented stories, the layer upon layer of impossible visual worlds, all of which they believe gives his films an intellectual command. In my mind, these “qualities” communicate a self-indulgence in special effects and an inability to put a narrative together. And The Dark Knight Rises was no different. At the end of the film, I didn’t really know what it was saying. The Dark Knight Rises is a long way from the DC Comics' character of Batman who fights crime to keep people safe. When Batman gets the better of terrorists, the Atomic Bomb, Armageddon, the financial crisis, and intergalactic warriors, all through brute force, a housekeeper and a “financial” advisor, Nolan moves so deep into the realm of the ridiculous that it’s hard to take the film seriously. Let alone compare it to The Birds for example.
In a film that makes no argument, a film that is apparently little more than a way to make money at the box office, what worries me is that the world gets caught up in the spell of a pretension that is all but a thin mask for vacuity. Yes, the deaths in Colarado are tragic and that event was terrifying, but the power of The Dark Knight Rises lies not in its ability to incite a lone gunman seeking vengeance for his troubled mind. The very real destruction of a film such as The Dark Knight Rises is that of the minds of all those who actually believe the film has anything to say.