“Sometimes a man rises from the darkness. Sometimes the pit spits something back.”
When we drill down to sum up The Dark Knight trilogy in simplest terms, what many will see emerge is a guy in a bat suit. There is no getting around it, and probably why The Dark Knight was shut out in 2008. At the same time, Nolan’s epic also represents the crest of a changing tide in Hollywood away from adult-centered dramas and towards films aimed at younger audiences. They are the most reliable ticket-buyers, after all, even as the voting adults in the Academy sit back with their arms folded across their chests thinking, not on my watch. In general, I side with the Academy on this simply because I am bored by most of the effects-driven films Hollywood puts out, sequel after sequel, utterly predictable, the wow factor fading not ten minutes after you leave the theater.
But to me, Christopher Nolan’s handling of The Dark Knight surpasses expectations, and ultimately elevates a well worn, exhausted genre. For that reason, his last film in the series deserves to be recognized. The Dark Knight Rises is the only true epic in the trilogy. Yes, I said epic again. Yes, I know it’s about a guy in a bat suit. It is still an epic narrative with epic scope. While delivering all the usual thrills of a typical superhero movie: the villain/hero unearthed by Nolan reveals deeper ideas about humanity as a whole.
The Dark Knight Rises consolidates its power through harmonious execution of writing, directing, acting, cinematography, and score. These elements come together beautifully but because the immense canvas is filled with so much imaginative detail, it is hard to appreciate each aspect individually on first viewing. The foundation for any great film is its script, and the script for The Dark Knight Rises is superb — with memorable lines like this one from Bane, “No one paid attention to me before I put on my mask.” Tom Hardy was required to morph into a faceless homunculus, and nevertheless does the bulk of his acting with body language. What impressive bulk he displays. His performance is second only to that of Catwoman, in charge of some of the film’s best lines. In truth, Anne Hathaway owns The Dark Knight Rises, just like she owns Les Misérables. She’s so superb, both movies miss her when she’s gone.
Hathaway is so good, so funny, so surprising, her work in The Dark Knight Rises alone elevates it to the Best Picture arena. Among her many great moments is the scene when Wayne first discovers her working as a maid who’s just been “caught” pilfering… She looks pathetic for about two seconds, shades of the desperation she brings in Les Misérables, and in two seconds, it vanishes. “Oops,” she says, without a shred of remorse. And all at once the weak and helpless expression is replaced with swagger. Like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Hathaway’s is burying victimization and replacing it with empowerment, part of which is owning her sexuality — slinky, sultry and irresistible, perhaps, but she decides for herself how to wave that shit around. Most men, superheroes included, have no choice but to watch her tsunami approach, surging forward, and then be swept away when she recedes, uncontrollable, unpredictable.
On top of the potent allure Hathaway’s Catwoman provides, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises cranks every dial on the control panel to maximum fascination with Hardy’s Bane, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda — and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on his way to becoming Robin. There is no getting around it; these are familiar characters, caricatures even, but these actors, with a script by Nolan, find a new core of truth in them anyway. It’s funny that we can suspend our disbelief in worlds we find more familiar, but we feel silly validating Nolan’s defined, spectacular version of Gotham.
“Can we get some girls in here?”
“Be careful what you wish for.”
The best thing about the Dark Knight Rises is that Nolan completely upends the villain paradigm. You can make the argument that Hathaway’s Catwoman is just your typical easily controlled boner fodder. But you can’t say the same about the film’s real villainess, Marion Cotillard. Like Zero Dark Thirty, the Dark Knight Rises is centered around female propulsion — and Cottilard is more menacing than any other villain on screen all year. Her grand Master Plan makes Javier Bardem’s evil goals look like child’s play spite. Moreover, she isn’t trying to destroy the world because one man done her wrong. Nolan had the guts to actually make her kind of like a real villain, imagine that. The only thing I wish we’d seen in The Dark Knight Rises is a real showdown between Catwoman and Miranda, although then the twist ending would have had to be given away much sooner. As it is, Nolan’s reveal is more than just a surprise you don’t see coming; it’s, in many ways, a wake-up call to Fanboy Nation, a transformation of convention — and admittedly, it caused more than a little ripple. It is especially effective because Cotillard’s Miranda comes across so “sweet.”
To be nominated for Best Picture, a film has to have a goodly percentage of number one votes on ballots. This was also the case in 2008, when Nolan’s The Dark Knight was shut out of the Oscar race. That shut-out so enraged the public that most observers feel certain the Academy responded by expanding the Best Picture race to ten nominees. Since Academy members were now free to pick ten Best Picture contenders, it allowed them to be less stodgy and safe in their choices. It allowed for films like District 9 and Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right to get in. With ten seats at the table, The Dark Knight Rises would have had no problem getting in. But then, last year, the Academy seemed to get skittish, and finessed the rules again. Now, it wouldn’t be ten. Members are now back to choosing five films, and it’s the accountants who determine if enough votes accumulate to expand the field. They return to their old and established method, thus relieving beleaguered voters who claimed to have trouble names down ten (they were conditioned for decades, you see, to expect only five films to be worthy). The way Best Picture went down last year made me think that The Dark Knight still would not have gotten in, even if they stretched out their nominees to nine, because not enough of them were going to put it as their number one choice. Since a movie can’t get in without a specific trigger of number one votes, a movie like The Dark Knight Rises may once again have little chance of making the cut, even as a number 9 choice.
When The Dark Knight became the highest grossing film behind Titanic (before The Avengers came along) it was widely assumed that The Dark Knight Rises would top that. The over-saturated media hype was so pervasive, in fact, that it provoked a mentally ill science nerd cum sadist to use the premiere midnight showing to slaughter a whole bunch of innocent movie lovers. That would show ‘em. The shooting incident may have cut short any record breaking box office for The Dark Knight. Critics and talk-radio nags started in with their “violent movies” talk. A cruel combination of unthinkable tragedy thoughtless finger-pointing literally added insult to injury, abruptly crushing the film’s enthusiastic momentum. In reality, numerous studies have shown violence depicted in pop culture movies has very little to do with motivating mass shootings. But there were so many complaints about anyone who would dare mention effect on ticket sales at a time like that that, most box office reporting sites simply shut down the process and didn’t announce the numbers as usual. But there was little doubt then, and even more certainty now, that The Dark Knight Rises would have shattered the totals from The Dark Knight. A dark movie shadowed by a horrific event? There is no way to really comment on it without sounding like an asshole, but you can do the math.
Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises together have made, domestically, $1,189,753,234. The Dark Knight Rises alone accumulated global ticket sales amounting to $1,080,944,546 — making it the 7th highest-grossing film in history, worldwide. What does Nolan have to do to earn Academy recognition? He would have to make an “Oscar movie.” The Oscar voters don’t care about money, particularly, not when it comes to big genre movies like these. Money is seen as its own reward — even when the creative talents who made it all happen don’t reap the windfall profits. The voters want to be moved. Full stop. If The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t move them, or worse, makes them feel silly for being moved, forget it.
Passionate love for a film is the only way to get nominated; but the least offensive crowdpleasers are the ones that usually win. To get nominated, you can be a love it/hate it film, but that’s a rough row to hoe to a win. That is why The Hurt Locker beat Avatar, I’m guessing. And how The King’s Speech beat The Social Network and on and on it goes. To win, you have to be good but not so good you end up offending some people who fail to get it. Great art always offends some people. Cutting-edge complexity is bewildering to voters seeking traditional comfort. Daring films will always turn more than a few people off because the might be exposing an uncomfortable truths. Best Picture doesn’t often reward movies like that. They have to have broad support, with very little haters.
Andrew O’ Hehir, calls it an “Evil Masterpiece”:
But if “The Dark Knight Rises” is a fascist film, it’s a great fascist film, and arguably the biggest, darkest, most thrilling and disturbing and utterly balls-out spectacle ever created for the screen. It’s an unfriendly masterpiece that shows you only a little circle of daylight, way up there at the top of our collective prison shaft — but a masterpiece nonetheless. Fighting against the tendency toward exhaustion in the final chapter of any entertainment franchise, Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith, production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh, and their enormous team have done grandiose and magnificent work, spinning this operatic saga of a great city brought to its knees and an idol smashed.
And Kenneth Turan calls the Academy out:
Potent, persuasive and hypnotic, “The Dark Knight Rises”has us at its mercy. A disturbing experience we live through as much as a film we watch, this dazzling conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is more than an exceptional superhero movie, it is masterful filmmaking by any standard. So much so that, its considerable 2-hour, 44-minute length notwithstanding, as soon as it’s over, all you want to do is see it all over again.
That desire comes despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that “The Dark Knight Rises” might be the bleakest, most despairing superhero film ever made. It uses a wholly terrifying villain to emphasize the physical vulnerability of a hero we sometimes forget is no more than human. And it underscores the black moods and sense of dark destiny that have always clustered around the psyche of billionaire Bruce Wayne and his somber compulsion to fight crime.
The impressive success of “The Dark Knight Rises” pleasantly confounds our notions as to where great filmmaking is to be found in today’s world. To have a director this gifted turning his ability and attention to such an unapologetically commercial project is beyond heartening in an age in which the promise of film as a popular art is tarnished almost beyond recognition. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which snubbed the trilogy’s first two films in the best picture race, finally got the message?
Regretfully, I don’t think they will. Again, it comes down to that pesky prerequisite for number one votes. But it isn’t necessarily my job to talk about what will get nominated. It is equally useful to talk about those that won’t, and why.
But in a perfect world, The Dark Knight Rises would get deserved nominations for:
As it is, it will be lucky to get any.