At the risk of upsetting the fanboys, I have to go on record and explain why the final film in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a disappointment of epic proportions. Rotten Tomatoes had to turn off their comment section because people were so upset about negative reviews, but look, guys, it ain’t rocket science: “The Dark Knight Rises” is not a very good movie—and it’s especially not a very good movie by the standards Nolan set for himself with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.”
Let me begin with the caveat that superhero films are rarely good. They are derivative, silly, and so eye-rollingly simplistic that whenever one of them even makes a feint at narrative innovation or moral complexity, from “Unbreakable” to the first “X-Men” it’s practically mind-blowing. The bar is set so low for these films that even a hulking demonstration of unoriginality like this summer’s “Amazing Spider-Man,” which just cribbed the entire screenplay of the first Tobey McGuire film, has its fans.
Therefore, much of DKR’s disappointment comes from Nolan’s proven ability to expand what viewers thought was possible in this genre with his first two Batman films. “Batman Begins” was a dark, gritty, hyper-realistic interpretation of a fantastical character who existed in a recognizable post-9/11 world. Bale’s Bruce Wayne was Patrick Bateman with a moral compass. It was one of the most impressive superhero movies ever made until “The Dark Knight.” Anchored around Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the Joker, that film was quite simply above beyond anything attempted before in the genre. It killed off a major character in gruesome fashion; it raised the stakes of Batman’s symbolic nature by implying that he was responsible for creating the world in which the Joker flourished; its pitch-black vision of anarchy was never entirely refuted even when both the Joker and Two-Face were defeated.
If those two films never existed, DKR would be what it is: a fun, serviceable, occasionally plodding action movie that gets a little full of itself. However, because it’s such conventional fare compared to the two movies that preceded it, it falls on its face that much harder.
[Warning: I will spoil the entire movie ahead]
It’s villain, Bane, is your basic, blow-up-the-city-for-insipid-reasons kinda guy. He makes long, standardized, megalomaniacal speeches that are as stale as they are uninteresting. He wreaks havoc aimlessly, but there’s little to fear about him since his aims are just to eventually kill everyone indiscriminately. The film’s third act is particularly bland when Bane takes over Gotham with his army (and this plot development stretches credulity more than anything in the other films) to turn it into a dystopian siege state for a few months before a neutron bomb blows it up anyway. There’s some flim-flam about digging the knife in before destroying the city, but it only amounts to a convenient screenwriter’s device to force two unwieldy motives together and give Bruce Wayne time to escape from a hole in the Middle East.
Marion Cotillard as high-powered-exec/ Bruce Wayne love interest/ eventual villain comes as no surprise by the time we get to the twist, but her motivation is equally uninteresting and silly: “We have this bomb we could set off at any time, which is our eventual goal, but let’s wait and drive it around in a hi-jackable truck for three months instead.” By attempting to raise the stakes, Nolan only boxes himself in. The film ends with the exhausted ticking time-bomb scenario, which, fair warning to screenwriters everywhere, is never, ever interesting. If you’re cutting to and away from a digital clock counting down to zero, your movie’s denouement sucks. That’s a promise.
There’s plenty more to scratch our heads or complain about: We find ourselves on a bridge with not-Robin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he tries to save one bus-full of kids from a city-annihilating bomb after we’ve watched him dispatch three or four kids to tell a city of 12 million people to evacuate. We get Batman in a CGI aircraft, zipping around Gotham while evading CGI missiles (one of the things that made the first two films so pleasurable was how they eschewed computer effects for the real crunch of metal). We get two fairly awesome fight scenes with Bane that feel like the only pieces of the movie exhibiting any exhilaration, both of which end quickly to move on to more convoluted plot points and time bombs.