Fumbling At The 1

Almost midway through Christopher Nolan’s sprawling “The Dark Knight Rises,” the villain Bane and his henchman detonate a series of bombs beneath the Gotham City football stadium, causing the playing field to collapse and fall into the sewers beneath the city. The fact that Nolan chose a football stadium to stage such a sequence is ironically fitting, as “The Dark Knight Rises” could be likened to the football team that just marched the length of the field and then fumbled the ball on the 1-yard line while trying to get into the end zone.

When Nolan brought Batman back to the big screen in 2005, the Dark Knight was coming off of two horrendously bad Joel Schumaker creations – “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” – which had virtually deep-sixed the franchise in the mid- to late-1990s. Having directed films such as “Insomnia” and the dizzyingly innovative “Memento,” Nolan brought a solid resume in the project, and the results did not disappoint. “Batman Begins” pulled off the rare feat of providing a high-flying comic book adventure and a gritty, realistic character study at the same time. Batman was back.

Nothing could have prepared audiences for the second chapter in Nolan’s Batman trilogy – 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Fueled by an intense, maniacal performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker and a harrowing tale which not only pushed the movie’s hero to his limits but also reflected the dilemmas presented by a post-9/11 world filled with ruthless evil, “The Dark Knight” proved the superhero movie could transcend novelty and become a true work of art.

With the commercial and critical triumphs of these two films under his belt, Nolan stood perfectly poised with “The Dark Knight Rises” to deliver the type of final chapter to his Batman story which would not only translate into major box office dollars, but also vault him to critical heights unheard of for a comic book movie director. Even before the movie was screened for critics, articles were popping up on the Internet handicapping the film’s Oscar chances. The world, it seemed, was prepared for a masterpiece and stood ready to anoint Nolan an infallible genius.

Unfortunately, the weight of those lofty expectations often show through the cracks in “The Dark Knight Rises.” The film has a kind of weightiness and weariness to it, even in scenes where Nolan tries to let the superb Anne Hathaway cut loose as Selina Kyle. Nearly every frame of the movie seems to be trying so hard to convey its importance that the final product winds up being nearly smothered by its own conventions. Where “The Dark Knight” operated with a simmering, slow-boiling escalation, “The Dark Knight Rises” attempts to step on the throttle from the word “go” and actually winds up losing its sense of urgency.

There are also some stunning lapses of directorial logic by Nolan, which is so surprising in light of how “The Dark Knight” hit every mark with a jackhammer-like efficiency. How in the world Nolan ever let Tom Hardy’s ridiculous Bane voice into “The Dark Knight Rises” will forever remain a mystery. Whatever Hardy and Nolan were shooting for, the end result is a disaster, threatening to derail the entire film every time Bane utters a line of dialog. There is simply nothing intimidating about the voice, which is a crippling trait for a character whose whole mode of operation is to intimidate through strength. Hardy is more than up to the physical challenges of the role, but the voice-over will inevitably go down as one of the worst in movie history.

The story of “The Dark Knight Rises” also takes some missteps in logic along the way. For example, the whole city of Gotham appears to instantly believe a speech Bane reads on television, in which Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) spills the beans on what really went down with Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight.” Never mind Bane is a terrorist wearing a monstrous device over his mouth, is holding a piece of paper no one can actually see, and has only been seen in Gotham a couple of times at this point in the movie. “Oh, Bane said it’s true. Well, it’s on TV, so it must be!”

There are other flaws as well. Nolan, unfortunately, succumbs to the temptation of trying to cram too many characters into the final installment of a trilogy. Oldman and Michael Caine are relegated to the sidelines for much of the movie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt practically dominates a large chunk of the film. Christian Bale spends significant time away from the action in Gotham, while Cillian Murphy makes (another) rather bizarre cameo. Marion Cotillard ping-pongs in and out of the proceedings until she emerges as a plot device near the end of the film. No one delivers a bad performance, but no one excels in the way either Ledger or Bale did in the previous installment.

In the end, viewers are left with another Christopher Nolan “Is a lie okay if it’s better than the truth?” type of ending. From “Memento” to “Inception” to “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan has exhibited a fascination of this concept of the lie versus the true reality, but he seems to contradict himself here. The truth plays a large role in the early stages of the film, but is sacrificed again at the end of the movie for one character’s happiness.

“The Dark Knight Rises” may well have been a film doomed by expectations before it ever saw the light of day. Even so, it’s a shame Nolan couldn’t deliver the final run which would have put it in the end zone of movie classics.

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