To say Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is “dark” is a dismal understatement. It is pitch-black, numinous. Christian Bale’s Batman appears to be permanently depressed, wracked with guilt and self-loathing. Gotham City, which he strives to rescue from one apocalypse after another, is so corrupt and ugly it is barely worth saving. With Heath Ledger’s death and now the Colorado massacre it seems that the darkness has spread beyond the confines of the screen.
Nolan’s villains, from Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, to Heath Ledger’s Joker, to Tom Hardy’s Bane, are all psychotic geniuses, driven to evil deeds by their personal ordeals. Batman’s crusade against crime is equally pathological. Psychically scarred since childhood by the murder of his parents, he is no less of a freak or misfit than his enemies. The fact that he is on the side of justice never puts him on-side with the police, who pursue him with greater ferocity than they do any of the bad guys.
One of the constant themes in these films is the precarious or paradoxical nature of justice. So many heroes turn out to be villains, so many cops are crooks, so many innocent people are killed, that it becomes increasingly hard to tell right from wrong.
The Batman trilogy throws up a succession of moral dilemmas, usually revealing the worst aspects of human nature. There may be one moment of relief in the second installment, when the Joker fails to get the passengers on two booby-trapped ferries to detonate each other. In The Dark Knight Rises there is no reassurance. The only clean-skin is Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), a young cop who shares Batman’s ideals, but is a rather colourless character.
The movie begins with Bruce Wayne hobbling about on a cane, having consigned Batman to mothballs and retired from the world. He is still mourning the loss of his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, and taking the rap for the death of Harvey Dent, the “white knight” District Attorney, who turned homocidal at the end of the previous film.
Bruce will be lured out of retirement by the appearance of Bane, a ruthless killer with extraordinary physical and intellectual prowess. Bane wears a mask that covers a partially mutilated face. This means that he spends the movie talking in a muffled voice, albeit in the tones of a BBC documentary. When this film makes it to disc many viewers will be tempted to turn on the subtitles.
Like all the Batman villains, Bane thinks big: he intends to destroy Gotham City after morally debasing it. His weapons will be the outlandish products of the Wayne Corporation, which were made to help save the world but might just as easily bring about its doom. Naturally it is another black mark on Bruce’s conscience that his enterprises have left all these dangerous devices lying around.
For roughly 80 percent of this story, Bane wins every hand. Batman’s fortunes go into near-terminal decline, and the situation seems hopeless. At his peak the villain rules Gotham City like a warlord, having captured the main island and its inhabitants. He presents himself not as a dictator but a liberator, giving the city back to its citizens. He defends his new regime with the threat of a neutron bomb that may be detonated at any time by an unknown trigger person.
Assisted by Anne Hathaway as a morally ambiguous Catwoman, and the reliable Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman has to combat overwhelming odds to defeat this catastrophe. He also has to overcome a convoluted plot with more angles than the Gotham City street directory. The movie lacks nothing in terms of action, but story-wise it is no match for its predecessors. Batman is so maudlin it is amazing he ever manages to dust off the cape and cowl. Alongside Heath Ledger’s electrifying portrayal of The Joker, Tom Hardy’s Bane remains a cartoon character.
There is a moral in this story for present-day America, but it is not easy to figure it out. Bane’s demagoguery may be a black parody of those politicians who claim to stand for the people, but stand only for vested interests. Bruce’s wealth and ingenuity have ironically provided the weapons of mass destruction that can annihilate those he seeks to protect. The late Harvey Dent is used as a false idol for the campaign against organised crime, while decadence and corruption flourish.
Bruce explains the “symbolic” nature of the Batman masquerade to Blake, but his words sound anaemic in the face of impending disaster. As all the threads of the story are bundled together into an ending of suitably operatic force, Nolan gives us a clear indication that he is contemplating a sequel. Perhaps his next installment will be something like: “Robin Holds His Own”. He’ll have to work hard to make the Boy Wonder’s outfit induce fear into the hearts of evil-doers.
The Dark Knight Rises, USA/UK, rated M
Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 28, 2012