Film review: The Dark Knight Rises

Let’s play a game. How many action movie clichés can you name? Write them down and we’ll come back to them later.

Christopher Nolan did a great thing with Batman Begins, and an even greater thing with The Dark Knight. For all its horribly duff dialogue, the first film in Nolan’s trilogy turned the superhero film into a respectable yarn with a complex narrative and identifiable characters in whom it was worth investing some time to explore. The Dark Knight was arguably as good as a superhero film could be, gracing the world with Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as The Joker and introducing Nolan’s subtly brilliant plots and set pieces.

Expectations, then, were high for the culmination of the trilogy. It would be unfair to judge The Dark Knight Rises by the outstanding success of The Dark Knight. To what, then should we compare it? Batman Begins is a much better film. Tim Burton’s Batman? A better film. A summer’s day, which by dint of being entirely incomparable with a blockbuster movie shouldn’t even be on the same chart, is unequivocally far superior to The Dark Knight Rises; Nolan’s latest film, alas, is neither lovely nor temperate; its lease hath all too long a date.

Plot holes are the first and easiest flaw to haul up in the trial of The Dark Knight Rises. Why would it take days to prove that a share purchase made during an infamous raid of the stock exchange was fraudulent? Could there really exist only one person in Gotham capable of disarming a nuclear bomb? Why does Bane spend the first 90 minutes going to many elaborate lengths to get hold of such a bomb when he’s plainly capable of doing so by military force alone – as evidenced by the fact that, later on, he does? Where has the smartness and conspiratorial wit of The Dark Knight gone?

Expecting your audience to disregard lazy writing is the second flaw. Bruce Wayne is sent to a prison regarded as “Hell on Earth”. Here he dwells in a sunny open plan environment decorated with keepsakes and knick knacks, chats with friendly, supportive inmates, and is treated by his own personal chiropractor. It’s more like South Kensington than Hell. Wayne also randomly and unconvincingly falls in love with two emotionally undesirable women, one of whom had the potential to be a strong, independent female character and is instead reduced to a latex clad love interest; later – while wearing his full protective Batman outfit – he succumbs to a knife wound, only to later survive a nuclear explosion almost literally in his arse.

There are some pleasing moments. Ironically, given the blockbuster criticisms to follow, the best scene is one in which, simply, everything blows up. Alfred and Wayne have an unexpectedly moving quiet exchange which is almost certainly the film’s only positively memorable piece of writing. It’s all beautifully shot. And there’s a wonderfully restrained, powerful moment in which brutish antagonist Bane places his little finger on an indignant character’s shoulder and asks him, “Do you feel in charge?” If the film ever feels too long, it’s not because it drags or is paced badly – it’s just because it’s not very good.

Indeed, most of the film is thoroughly disheartening. Upon Batman’s appearance at the final fight, Bane remarks with an admirable attempt at wit, “So, you came back to die with your city”. Batman’s brilliant response is, “No. I came back to stop you.” This disappointingly lacklustre, boring retort is sadly indicative of the whole film. So much promise; so much expectation; and a flat payoff that seems to have taken the filmmakers the minimum time and effort to concoct. Batman – and the film – are the dweeby schoolkid you so desperately want to smirk, “even artichokes have hearts”, but instead giggles into his Coke and trips into the doorframe.

So, to that list. How many action movie clichés could you think of? Remember as you read my list that the director of this film is the man who wrote the blisteringly engaging and challenging Inception. Herein is revealed the heart of my disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises; for all of the following lazy, silly, frustrating vices – glaring hallmarks of a film made in haste, lethargy or ignorance – are painfully present:

  • Bad guys locking up good guys to die slowly. I thought Austin Powers dealt with this trope 15 years ago (“I’m going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death”).
  • Good guys turning out to be bad guys without the filmmakers leaving any clues to their double identity.
  • Good guys dying in nuclear explosions then inexplicably turning out to be fine after all.
  • Bad guys putting their most devious plans on hold purely so that they coincide with the movie’s dramatic peak.
  • Characters randomly falling in love because it’s exciting for the audience.
  • Liam Neeson as a ghost.
  • The line, “This device, which a few moments ago was decidedly not a nuclear bomb, is now a nuclear bomb.” (I have paraphrased, but do not underestimate the cinema-wide laughter that the accurate rendition of this line prompted.)

Leave me your action movie tropes in the comments. I bet they’re in The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t believe Nolan’s lost his powers, and I can’t wait for him to get back to his exemplary filmmaking and deliver another Inception, Insomnia or Memento. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to forget this strange blip in the career of a usually brilliant artist.