I’ll Fly Away: Batman Trots Limply Off Into the Sunset

Give director Christopher Nolan some credit for refusing to settle with The Dark Knight Rises: while things are just as gritty and dour in old Gotham town this time around, they can in no way said to be realistic. And that’s not just in reference to the fact that Christian Bale’s Batman is hovering around in an impossibly space age aircraft for a good portion of every action sequence or that he’s seemed to pick up some heretofore unseen metahuman (if you’ll excuse the DC Comics house style, even if Nolan won’t) healing powers. No, the city is plunged into a bombastic, vaguely philosophical kind of anarchy for half the movie, like Lord of the Flies or Jose Saramago’s Blindness on a summer popcorn flick scale.

Tapping into a nascent at the time of shooting fervor over the Occupy Wall Street movement, Nolan gives us plenty of deliciously salacious shots of stock exchanges run amok, blue bloods being ripped from under their armoires and tossed from their stodgy Park Avenue buildings (won’t someone think of the doormen?), and cartoonish show trials that harken in an important way back to a great Batman: The Animated Series episode.

And considering that, since Batman Begins, Nolan and writer David S. Goyer have been chief among the crusade to take classic nerd fare and make it pedantically legitimate to middlebrow tastes, you’d be forgiven for lumping it in with an earlier blockbuster of the, like Christmas, ever expanding blockbuster season, Prometheus, and shunning it for its tendency to ask the tough questions before leaving them dangling in the air. Sure, it wants the credit of gravitas without doing any of the heavy lifting (the director has been quoted as hoping “the three films together will make it so they have a real span to them, some real heft”), but in this case that doesn’t seem fairly the point. The point is that it looks awesome when Batman carves a gigantic Bat-signal made of fire into a bridge – because Batman is a symbol, you see – and that it’s totally fun to have him lead a charge of angry civil servants against a horde of vague anarchists and hardened convicts. Like Braveheart for Bat-fans, you can think if you like but it’s really not necessary.

And some of the ridiculousness is fun! Anne Hathaway’s turn as Catwoman is not exactly revelatory, but from the moment she reveals her true colors to an inexplicably hobbled Bruce Wayne and the soundtrack splurts out a campy trickle of piano before she flits her way out a window in a shot that is basically all stockinged leg, it’s clear she’s just the vamp Nolan has been reluctant to allow in his grim storybook of constant vengeance.

Unfortunately, even here some of the old man’s sad ticks come into play. No one expected her to measure up to Michelle Pfeiffer’s exhilarating and pitch-perfect take on Selina Kyle from 1992’s Batman Returns; mere competence would surely suffice. But it’s sad that there’s a mirror to one of the earlier film’s great meditations on the nature of Batman and Catwoman’s relationship, wherein Bruce is absentmindedly defending Batman ("He saved thousands in property damage alone!") and talking straight past Selina while Selina absentmindedly tries to come to grips with Catwoman and talks straight past Bruce, but it’s a dark one. Here, Hathaway’s Selina spouts 99 percent rhetoric as written by Ayn Rand while Bruce stares into her eyes and condescends to her, recalling Adam West’s Batman talking Burt Ward’s Robin through puberty. Soon after Catwoman and Batman meet, he dictates to her his rules against guns and killing (which he will blatantly break later on) by kicking a gun out of her hand and growling. Even when the most dynamic character in the movie is a woman who can break your spine with her bare hands, the ladies still have to listen to the men in Chris Nolan’s world.

Others from his bag of tricks play out similarly. Given the murky political bent of the movie, it’s a godsend most of the philosophically expository soliloquies have been pared down, but one gets the feeling that’s more due to a weariness not unlike the aged Dark Knight’s than a credit to design. Nolan’s penchant for flashbacks, endless circles of catch phrases collapsing in on themselves (makes one wonder if his Momento was autobiography), and thud-subtle visual imagery (you’d better believe that the Dark Knight really does rise in this movie! On multiple occasions! In various ways! With a special chanting soundtrack, even!) are all here in force. Taken star Liam Neeson’s Star Wars-style ghost cameos are not just limited to Star Wars anymore. There are even flashbacks to the previous two films. (Pity they couldn’t get that Ledger fellow back.)

Nolan has always been given a wide berth by the fanboy community that wants to be taken seriously while also spending $1,500 on playtime dress-up Batsuits, and again there are problems with characterization that would send any other director to the stake. Tom Hardy’s mumblecore, caucasian Bane has been played up as a serious interpretation of the character, of course, but in the end he’s every bit the bumbling henchman of the maligned Batman & Robin interpretation. At least if he’d just droned his own name for three hours we’d have been able to understand him. Even more, when we learn he’s an admixture of Bane and Talia al Ghul’s protector/servant Ubu in the big reveal that everyone in the know saw coming from the day Marion Cotillard was cast, it plays out almost exactly like a forgotten Pierce Brosnan 007 flick, The World Is Not Enough. Bale’s face is even bloated into a similar rictus of torture at the hands of the similarly sadistic femme fatale.

But none of this matters so much as the underlying problem with Nolan’s Batman. In every other piece of Bat-lore, when the going gets tough he lightens up. Recruits a Robin. Gets officially deputized by the police. Starts walking around in broad daylight talking, in third person, about how he “digs this day!” He joins the Justice League and leads them to victory, all the while sassing Superman.

Here, though, it’s a case of endlessly arrested development. In Nolan’s narcissistic and nihilistic fever dream, Batman actually lies so as to continue to be chased by the cops. He locks himself in his room for eight years because he’s sad about the death of a woman he claims to have loved but whom he more correctly childishly idealized. He makes poor Alfred blubber like a baby for some parlor trick he convinces himself is righteous (someone give Michael Caine a hug, and thank the lord Michael Gough and Alan Napier aren’t alive to see this). Not only does Nolan not let Batman grow up, but he seeks to convince us that the Dark Knight’s most heroic act is to give up.

Nick Cave may denounce his Batman Forever soundtrack contribution as a shameless money grab, but it works to point out what’s wrong here, because this isn’t the kind of hero the kids standing around looking to the sky, daddio, need right now. Or the one they deserve. Whatever it is that The Dark Knight clincher was supposed to mean.

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