Though Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is regarded as a classic in ways its sequel is not, many images in The Dark Knight Rises resonate a lot more strongly now. A city under lockdown as its infrastructure begins to fray. A coup d’etat seen on live television. Revolutionaries clashing in the city streets with police. In the last year-and-a-half, moments of the COVID-19 news cycle have felt like The Dark Knight Rises brought from the movie screen to real world. Director Christopher Nolan, whose film Tenet would be delayed by the pandemic, is not the auteurist genius his diehard fans make him out to be. Yet Nolan, an Englishman with dual UK and US citizenship, clearly foresaw how the corrupt structures and inequality of American society would bring it to its knees. A film about such themes on its own is a hard sell in a commercialized Hollywood where funding is reserved for a handful of “high concept” movies based on pre-existing intellectual property. Nolan cunningly bundled these hauntingly prophetic motifs Trojan Horse-style into films based on DC’s iconic Batman.
The Dark Knight is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic-based movies ever produced. Though Disney’s Marvel films like The Avengers have made more capital, The Dark Knight is the darling of critical acclaim. Its strength is its riveting and disturbing portrayal of Batman’s iconic archenemy The Joker. While comics like Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke started down this path, Nolan and the late Heath Ledger reimagined The Joker for a perilous, post-9/11 world. Nolan and Ledger’s Joker is a bonafide clinical sociopath; a terrorist with a nihilistic worldview and desire to spread unchecked chaos. In contrast to Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in the prior Batman Begins, there’s no motive behind The Joker’s reign of terror. Like a member of the online community 4chan, Ledger’s Joker sees his crimes as “for the lulz”. A murderous performance art against a society he wishes to destroy. With this, Nolan and Ledger hit a nerve, enhanced by the latter’s death in January 2008; months before The Dark Knight’s release. There’s a legitimate, palpable evil to Nolan and Ledger’s characterization of The Joker in contrast to the cartoony antics of Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson’s portrayals. This genuine depiction of evil would have consequences.
The Dark Knight Rises was released on July 20th, 2012. On that day, the United States was in mourning. During a midnight screening of the film the previous night in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman in military garb opened fire into the audience. Chillingly, audience members first thought the gunfire was part of the sound mix as the shooting occurred during a gunfight early on on the film. Many also believed that the gunman was a cosplayer (a fan dressed in costume). Twelve people were killed and 70 injured. The shooter, James Holmes, was arrested only moments later. Rumor had it he had called himself “The Joker”; these were never substantiated and later denied. Holmes had wired his apartment with booby-trapped explosives that were nearly detonated. In what chillingly invoked scenes from The Dark Knight, police spent the following day disarming them. A Batman mask was even found inside Holmes’ unit. Regardless of whether Holmes was emulating the character’s desire to spread murderous chaos, however, The Dark Knight’s Joker was tremendously popular with a misaimed fandom. Troubled young men in fringe internet communities would adopt the character as a sort of avatar; an idealized vision of the ultimate troll. This strongly influenced the direction of 2019’s Joker, featuring another compelling depiction of the character by Joaquin Phoenix.
The Dark Knight Rises, in general, was regarded as a step down from its predecessor. Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises feels like a fair, if fascinating cinematic disaster. Nolan is regarded by his fans as the sort of Gen-X answer to Kubrick while detractors consider him a pretentious hack. The truth is somewhere in between. Meant to be watched on giant screens at high volume, Nolan’s films have an often messy balance between blockbuster spectacle and intellectual themes. The visual style of Nolan and his then-DP Wally Pfister is oddly pedestrian. Considering the high concept nature of Nolan’s movies, there’s a lack of technical polish that feels experimental. Nolan and Pfister’s use of 70mm IMAX cameras calls attention to why other filmmakers don’t use them. While the visual quality, particularly in a theater that projects IMAX, is stunning, they are enormous and clunky. Wide shots of Gotham’s urban settings are jaw-dropping in their majesty, while dramatic shots of actors feel awkward in their framing. Nolan and Pfister’s choice not to use IMAX cameras in Inception is part of why that film is one of their best executed. Another problem is that Nolan shifts between the full frame aspect ratio of IMAX and the ‘scope ratio of anamorphic 35mm Panavision. In The Dark Knight, where only a handful of sequences were shot in IMAX, it works. In The Dark Knight Rises, the aspect ratio shifting is so frequent as to be distracting and feel unpolished. Additionally, the editing is sometimes jagged with surprisingly poor continuity. One scene where Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is talking to Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox features Bale’s hand on the handle of a cane in some shots and the naked handle in others. This is the kind of continuity problem a more perfectionistic director would order reshot or fixed with CGI. Yet The Dark Knight Rises has an unsettling authenticity in line with its predecessor and not Nolan’s more studio pleasing Batman Begins. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises feel like they originate in an alternate universe from the colorful escapism of the 1960s Batman show with Adam West. They are depressingly dour in a way that the Hot Topic-style superficiality of Tim Burton’s films, still rooted in escapism, doesn’t even approach.
What damned it before it was made was the death of Heath Ledger. Writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer were indeed planning for The Joker to figure into The Dark Knight Rises’ plot, likely as the catalyst behind Gotham’s horrifying social collapse. Indeed, it is both easy and depressing to imagine The Joker in The Dark Knight Rises, pitting Gotham’s haves and have-nots against each other other as a psychopathic joke. Notably, 2019’s Joker, released as America tethered on the precipice of its own national nightmare, depicted the character leading a populist revolution at its climax. Nolan, unwilling to recast out of respect for Ledger, would settle on bringing back Batman Begins’ League of Shadows. The League of Shadows, led by the vengeful Talia Al Ghul (Marion Cotillard), is in a way the antithesis of The Joker’s raging nihilism. Talia, her enforcer Bane (Tom Hardy) and the League are equally psychopathic, but in a markedly different way. Whereas The Joker seeks to spread chaos as a depraved form of performance art, Talia, Bane and the League march on Gotham with purpose. They are zealots focused on saving the world by resetting society through engineered cataclysms. Ra’s explains the group’s objectives in Begins and reveals that they were responsible for the Fall of Rome and Black Death. Indeed, any conspiracy theorist with a creative mind could easily imagine the misery now upon us as the work of such a group. In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul aims to spread an aerosolized hallucinogen through Gotham to drive the city mad. Such a scheme still resembles something a Tim Burton Batman villain would do. The Joker and Ra’s daughter’s subsequent schemes make you realize Batman’s victory was quite pyrrhic. For their second assault, the League takes The Joker’s schemes even further using the inherent inequality of the American political and economic structure. Despite their idealism, there’s a genuine feeling of evil to the League’s machinations. In The Dark Knight, Batman wins a hard won victory against Gotham’s mob, even taking the fall for the crimes of Harvey Dent/Two Face so as to not tarnish the fallen district attorney’s prosecution. This victory also turns out to be pyrrhic as Talia and Bane cruelly show the people of Gotham “look where believing in Harvey Dent got you all”. They incite a violent populist revolution that’s half Occupy Wall Street, part QAnon. The League gives work and aid to the city’s homeless and recruit former prisoners as foot soldiers. They then set them loose on Gotham’s wealthy as they prepare to covertly detonate a nuclear weapon. The League uses the resources of a corrupt businessman, John (Roland in the comics) Daggett. He’s portrayed with lip-smacking aplomb by Ben Mendelsohn, later to play similar roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Ready Player One (2018). Before Bane snaps Daggett’s neck and throws his corpse in a dumpster off-screen, he tells Daggett that he’s “Here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on”. To keep Batman from interfering, the League even succeeds in stripping Bruce Wayne of his wealth and privilege, something The Joker never could. Bane explains he and Talia’s horrifying plans to a brutalized Wayne in one sequence. “As I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so you can watch them clamber over each other to stay in the sun.” The results of this would come to eerily look forward to America’s own coming fall, precipitated by populists like Donald Trump. In The Dark Knight, the Joker makes a chilling prediction. “When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other”. Tragically, in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s not too far off. Note that Nolan’s following Interstellar and his recent Tenet offer similarly dire predictions for our uncertain future. The former depicts the disturbing scenario of a planet so ravaged by climate change and Malthusian famine that the only way to save the human race is to leave Earth.
The Dark Knight Rises opens with a much-memed sequence featuring a CIA spook played for a fool by Bane and the League of Shadows. The agent, named Bill Wilson in the film’s novelization, is played by Aidan Gillen, ironically best known as master manipulator Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish on Game of Thrones. Despite the intense support the United States military put toward The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan got away with depicting the agent as another sadistic psychopath. Wilson threatens to blatantly commit a war crime; shooting captured prisoners and throwing them from his plane. At the end of the sequence, a young member (Aliash Tepina) is ordered to remain and die in the crash by Bane to hide evidence of the League’s operations. He asks Bane if the League has “started the fire”, the fire being the coming populist revolution to send Gotham into collapse. Bane replies that “The fire rises” and his soon-to-die underlying flashes a chilling expression of joy. The League of Shadows and its members are so committed to their cause of world renewal, of saving the world by destroying it, that they are happily willing to sacrifice their lives. Later on, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) warns of the coming revolution to Bruce Wayne at a charity ball as Ravel’s Pavan For a Dead Princess plays on the soundtrack. This ball is held by a businesswoman named “Miranda Tate”, actually a disguised Talia Al Ghul. Selina, known best as Catwoman’s alter-ego, is well reimagined by Nolan and Hathaway. A street-smart master thief with a Robin Hood complex, she is a classic, economically frustrated Millennial. She tells Wayne “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”. Such rhetoric invokes Occupy Wall Street as well as other anti-capitalist leftist movements. The Occupy movement was in progress during the shooting of The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan was even contemplating shooting a scene at the encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York City before it was torn down by police. Fittingly, the next major action sequence of The Dark Knight Rises involves a raid by Bane and company on the Gotham Stock Exchange. There’s a degree of schadenfreude when it comes to the plight of these Wall Street-style investors. Moments earlier, one of them had berated a League member disguised as a service worker for bringing him the wrong sandwich. Yet it’s also a horrifying sequence that chillingly foreshadows the events of January 6th, 2021, where a group of insurrectionists similarly forced their way through facilities with heavy security.
Two lengthy scenes in the film’s midway are the finest and most hauntingly prophetic. The first is fittingly set to The Star Spangled Banner, sung by a young child (Charles Jackson Coyne), as the viewer is treated to a prophetic vision of America’s downfall. Bane even sardonically calls it “the next era of Western civilization”. This scene felt like 9/11 porn back in 2012, but now eerily foreshadows the horror of January 6th. The French Revolution is heavily referenced by Nolan throughout, with Bane a Napoleonic stand-in. Through looking at the French Revolution, an infamous example of a fragmented society of haves and have-nots turning on each other, Nolan draws prophetic conclusions about the precipice the United States was on. Late in the film, he even has Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon quote Dickens’ French Revolution-set A Tale of Two Cities. The most jaw-dropping sequence shows Blackgate Prison, where members of the mob prosecuted by Harvey Dent are kept without parole, stormed by the League of Shadows and Bane. The scene is an obvious nod to the Storming of the Bastille, considered the flashpoint of the French Revolution. Recruiting the freed prisoners as soldiers, the League incites the people to raid the luxury condos of the rich in a stunning montage. One disturbing bit features a man cowering under a dresser before being brutally yanked out by the mob. Nolan and his editor Lee Smith have a particular knack for editing visually striking montages with silent film-like power, a factor in the success of Dunkirk (2017). Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is confined to the Middle Eastern prison pit where Talia and Bane suffered in their youth. Bane leaves a TV on in Bruce’s prison cell as a form of psychological torture so he can see Gotham’s downfall. This feels reminiscent of how many Americans have experienced the pandemic, imprisoned in their homes and glued to their televisions as they watched their country burn. Gotham’s violent populist uprising of course looks forward to the mass civil unrest that began to grip the United States in May 2020, sparked off by the police shooting of George Floyd and the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. As we watched our cities burn on live television, perhaps we could almost hear The Dark Knight Rises’ choral Arabic-inspired chant of “deshi basara”, used prominently on the sound mix, in our heads. Nolan takes a nihilistic stance. He reveals his thesis for why most revolutions have failed and led to even worse regimes taking power: the frailty of human nature. Nolan darkly infers that it’s unlikely a new American Revolution would be any different. In The Dark Knight Rises, the rich are held accountable in a filthy, cluttered courtroom presided over by Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), once known as The Scarecrow. Given an alleged choice between “exile or death”, they are led onto an icy river and forced to walk until the ice breaks. Crane’s kangaroo court is a horrifying vision of a society gone mad. Gotham has become an asylum run by its patients ala Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.
The film’s finale is at once impressive and cringe-inducing in its wrongheadedness, aided by the atmospheric touch of fluttering snow. Its first cut features tattered American flags, a symbolism that feels almost heavy-handed. The vision of an army of uniformed police officers battling a gaggle of revolutionaries mostly of brown descent has aged badly. There’s a “Good German”-like cop (Desmond Harrington) who dooms the entire city to nuclear hellfire before Batman saves the day. That isn’t enough to compensate for the tone deafness of the prior sequences, however. There’s also the problematic trope inherent in this franchise that it takes the intervention of a privileged (former) billionaire to restore order. Another major sin of The Dark Knight Rises is an attempt to shoehorn in the character of Robin that feels quite forced. The action scenes in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight got criticism for being incoherently staged but the action is improved here, no doubt thanks to Inception. Batman’s flying “Bat” vehicle pursuing the League through the streets of Gotham is a particularly thrilling bit with heavy miniature effects.
After Batman detonates the nuclear power core turned bomb and Bruce Wayne fakes his death, moments show people leaving their homes and hugging in relief. COVID-19, our social tensions and the looming threat of climate change are not going to have the Hollywood ending that Nolan depicts here. Yet this moment resonates as there may be a coming time where many people breathe a sigh of relief, realizing that the worst of their miseries are behind them. Or at least for now. The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a major step down from its predecessor. It in some ways feels like a cinematic trainwreck and ranks with Nolan’s weaker films. Yet it is a dour and depressing but extremely fascinating mess that had a certain finger on the pulse of just how far American society had to fall. For that alone, it is worth experiencing.
J.L. Carrozza is a writer and filmmaker. He has published the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia and written for several magazines.