The Dark Knight Rises is like a Hipstamatic photo in reverse. Shot on Imax cameras so high-def you can see each expressive tendon on the actors’ faces atrophy like arm fat, this Saga of Our Times pits weak-chinned capitalists and social-register flibbertigibbets against the sort of masses that wetted the pants of anyone who ever wore a prince-nez or uttered “tut-tut” in reproof. Call him Brechtian, call him Burkean, but any serious discussion about Christopher Nolan’s politics always seems bogus to me, as if the talking points have been implanted in our minds via inception. He does have a promising angle this time: Wedge A Tale of Two Cities into the Occupy / Wall Street fault line—but with Dickens used as dumbshow. It isn’t partisan; it’s a Rorschach blah. Headlining is Batman’s determination to save a city that bites its own ass out of cravenness, bowing first to the Joker and now Bane. The film embosses the question of why he should—but sidesteps the issue by parroting Sidney Carton’s last words. (All gobbets of altruism aside, Bruce Wayne’s real motivations are spite, anger, and a desire to prove himself.) On its own terms, the movie throws Batman a just-right retirement party; but all it ends up saying about the world to which it purports to be relevant is that it has something to say. Does Nolan know he’s letting us eat cake?
Cake the color of charcoal. By now, the notion that this trilogy constitutes a gritty, realistic version of the D.C. Comics universe exists—like most of Nolan’s strengths—only in theory. It’s the opposite of gritty: as antiseptic as an executive washroom. The images flush from memory after each cut, and between the anally even pace and the sense of stagnation that comes from lifeless setups, I went cross-eyed whenever I paid attention to the editing. Not that one should. We’re meant to keep one eye on the spectacle and the other on the plot, and this director’s as into plotting as a military junta. So, to borrow some spittle from Brandon Nowalk’s silver tongue, “if we accept that the plot is creaky … then maybe it’s not nit-picking so much as challenging the film on its own terms.” (If it isn’t a lazy lacuna—How did Batman get back into barricaded Gotham?—it’s a ham-handed imposition on reality, like the lights going out in Wayne Manor the same day its owner’s investments tank, courtesy of Bane Capitalism.) It’s possible that after stacking the deck with villains and climaxes in Batman Begins, and bending space-time itself in Inception, Nolan’s backed himself up against a wall of expectations where he’s button-holed by pricks like me who have, sometimes too readily, adopted The Dark Knight as a bête noir. Nolan’s so-called social criticism is both overemphatic and underformed: Shouldn’t riches-to-rags Batman and a-gal’s-gotta-eat Catwoman get some kind of prince-and-pauper moment? That would be so 20th century (21st might be asking too much). Plucky Anne Hathaway is the megastar behind the kittycat cowl, and even if she’s as spunky as a high school cheerleader, she’s still stuck with the role of mascot, adult Halloween costume and all. (Catwoman goes by her given name here, rather than her alias. How could we have possibly taken her seriously otherwise?) Most vexingly, Gotham is as explicitly Manhattan as Metropolis was in the 1978 Superman—a diss to Chicago, Gotham’s stand-in last time around (and also more architecturally unified and thus imposing), and to an audience that isn’t expected to suspend disbelief sufficiently to suppose that the stock exchange could be anywhere but Wall Street.
Tom Hardy, at least, appears to be having fun. His Bane looks like he has a full-grown pig stuffed in each pec, but his jolly-bellied voice gets caught in that Alien face-hugger leaching off his Darth Vader grillz like a filter feeder; when he and Christian Bale’s dark knight converse, it’s as if they were trying to out-laryngitis one another, and one waits for English subtitles to kick in. (The director and his brother, Jonathan—with whom he wrote the script—could use them. They write in bromides.) They say haters gon’ hate, but I entered the theater with will good enough that when I discovered afterward that two of my favorite parts (the line “Now I know how that feels” and the image of Cillian Murphy presiding over a kangaroo court, flopped over like Oscar Wilde exiled to Kafka) were cribbed from graphic novels, I was induced to disappointment; and when I understood that the most heartfelt expression of human passion in the movie was the love of Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) for Bruce Wayne, his master, I began to feel terrible for the filmmaker on whom my poison pen has splattered so much ink, picturing his pale face getting flush the morning after his big premiere, when news was leaking in from Aurora, Colo., where a midnight screening was preempted by the spray of human blood—something omitted from this PG-13 world.