This will most likely contain a fuckload of spoilers. You should probably stay away if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet.
I consume a lot of science-fiction and comics-based media. I have for pretty much my whole life – I was raised on a steady diet of the original Star Trek and its attendant sequels, as well as Reeve’s Superman. That stuff shapes a kid. My point is, I’m no stranger to the suspension of disbelief, and I’ll suspend it pretty much as high as you want me to within the context of the world you’ve built. Blue cat aliens whose hair plugs into a worldwide neural network? Fine. A Norse alien god fighting alongside a genetically enhanced super soldier? Okay! A playboy billionaire who happens to build better technology than any ten engineers put together (see what I did there)? Great! Once the rules of the world have been set, I’m there. And that’s pretty much the case with any movie – there’s always a world being built to some extent, and the film set in that world is a bargain between filmmaker and audience. We agree to suspend our disbelief, and the filmmaker agrees to make that suspension worthwhile. For our part, we try not to be too critical of the implausibilities and sometime-fictions that are embedded in the fabric of action/comic/superhero/science fiction films (no one ever gets brain injuries! getting shot ain’t no thang! everyone is cool under fire! what i’m telling you is that i enjoyed Wanted and i have no shame); for the director’s part, they agree not to push us too far.
Which brings me to my problem with The Dark Knight Rises. I willingly – indeed, with great joy – suspend my disbelief for Chris Nolan. I did it for the first two Batman films and was handsomely rewarded with some of the finest action filmmaking and one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema. So I admit my expectations were a bit high walking into Dark Knight Rises. But the balls that got dropped in terms of detail-oriented filmmaking, and the extent to which I was expected to suspend my disbelief on points almost totally unrelated to the narrative in order to make that narrative work, made it feel like Nolan no longer cared about our bargain. I will suspend my disbelief for you, Nolan, but don’t fuck with me.
Gotham City is supposed to be an analogue for New York, but it’s also sort of just Gotham City. The Dark Knight used Chicago as a stand-in, which I thought worked beautifully, but for some reason Dark Knight Rises chose to use New York itself as the setting. And when I say “chose to use,” I don’t mean they filmed a few action scenes in the street (although they did). I mean that at times it felt like half the film was gorgeous, sweeping overheads of Manhattan. You had Manhattan from the east, Manhattan from the south, Manhattan overlooking the lower East River bridges, Manhattan overlooking the 14th St. power station, pickled Manhattan, fried Manhattan, stewed Manhattan … there were a lot of aerial shots, is what I’m saying! Now, I get that all of you don’t live in the New York metro area and even those of you who do might not care about this, but I can’t think of a quicker way to cut every single wire holding my disbelief up in the air (get it? because it’s suspended?) than to completely and utterly fuck up iconic geography. And I don’t mean things like how everyone who ever enters San Francisco in a movie crosses the Golden Gate Bridge even though that makes about as much sense as everyone who enters New York coming in on a submarine. I mean things like getting rid of the Bronx and putting open ocean there. I mean things like adding ten fake bridges to the Manhattan shoreline just to show more shit blowing up. I mean things like sending people into exile/freedom by having them walk across the frozen East River in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge (and don’t even talk to me, the Queensboro Bridge has been iconic since Spider-Man 2). That’s not freedom! That’s Queens!
I get that this is a small thing. I get that it probably didn’t matter to most of you. And yes, I’ve seen tons of movies set in New York that get things wrong. Lots of things, even! I’ve seen movies that allude to my university that get things completely wrong. But I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for actual physical geography as in Dark Knight Rises. When you are using an actual iconic city and you are basically going out of your way to make it obvious what city you’re in – there’s even a shot with the Empire State Building in it, for fuck’s sake – you can’t turn around and pretend you’re somewhere else. Every time I was asked to believe increasingly insane fabrications about where I was, it was like the whole film slammed to a halt around me, over and over, and I had to reconstruct my suspension of disbelief. Eventually I sort of stopped trying. Asking me to accept that sort of nonsense for no reason other than you’re too lazy to work around it is an abrogation of the agreement between creator and audience.
This sort of broad-strokes inattention to – unconcern with? – detail is, unfortunately, a hallmark of Dark Knight Rises. For another example: they introduce the concept of a cold fusion reactor that can be turned into a bomb and make a pretty significant point about the fact that ONE GUY, ONE RUSSIAN SCIENTIST has figured out how to do that, and that the world might be at risk if someone other than this ONE RUSSIAN SCIENTIST figures out how to do it. Fine. So when the scientist is brought to the reactor (with a great deal of pomp and circumstance), how is the incredible difficulty of turning the reactor into a bomb depicted? Well, it’s … not. He’s told to get to work, and a jump cut later, he steps back and says, “It’s done.” My jaw actually dropped, I was so bemused. Really? This is … really? You couldn’t give us a montage? A cut to some other plot point? Anything to indicate that time has passed? And don’t even get me started on the prison Bane throws Batman into. I’m not clear how much of my irritation with that plot point is warranted, so I don’t want to rant about it, but suffice to say I did not like it.
Now, obviously these kinds of details have almost zero impact on the film as a whole, and it definitely feels a little unfair to judge the film as a whole based on its attention to unrelated details. But here’s the thing – that lack of attention was so massive and startling that it actively detracted from my ability to focus on the film as a whole. (It doesn’t help that the film is sprawling, full of new characters and not the easiest to track.) This is just not a tight film, for all that it’s bombastic and ambitious, and for me as a viewer, that ultimately lost my interest.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think this was a bad film by any means. There were many things I enjoyed! Hardy’s Bane in particular was an excellent villain, and while he can’t measure up to Ledger’s Joker, he does his own thing remarkably well. Chris Orr at The Atlantic put it nicely:
The credit is owed primarily to Hardy’s Bane, who, while not quite so indelible a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker (how could he be?), is one several times the size. Hardy has been big in past roles—he gained more than 40 pounds of muscle for his breakthrough role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson—but here he is almost implausibly immense, a mountain of flesh with a neck as thick as a normal person’s waist. With his volcanic physique and a voice that booms metallically from behind a tube-crossed facemask, Hardy commands nearly every scene he is in.
(I hated the voice, FWIW. I was expecting something deep and crackly, like it was being spoken down several lengths of pipe, but Bane inexplicably was given the accent of a for-real Victorian English cartoon villain. His accent brought to mind nothing so much as twirled moustaches while the speaker bellows, “Just so, old boy, just so. Tallyho good chap!”) Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (Catwoman, but who’s counting?) was effective if mostly one-dimensional, and Marion Cotillard was quite good as mysterious clean energy magnate Miranda Tate. The usual suspects of Bale (Batman), Caine (Alfred) and Freeman (Lucius Fox) were typically excellent. The production values are, obviously, sky-high. So … I don’t know. I find it really difficult to assess the film as a whole because my own experience of it was so scattershot, though I am of course very glad I saw it. I encourage you to see and assess it for yourself.