Here’s a movie that can’t win. We’ve already had the definitive Batman. Unforgettable scenes are already in our heads. Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his immortal turn as the ultimate villain. There is no way to top The Dark Knight. No reason, ever, to want to go back; unless, of course, you count money. And it’s fair to say, the one thing new movie doesn’t lack is adequate funds. Bruce Wayne goes bankrupt in this film, in what could be read as an in-joke about exorbitant costs. The Dark Knight Rises is bigger in every way than its predecessor. But you can’t buy lightning in a bottle. No paycheque will bring Heath Ledger back. As Bane, the muscle-bound new villain has to learn, there are limits to bulk.
Nothing in this film can match Heath Ledger as The Joker. If I’m honest, nothing in The Dark Knight could match him, either. It was a one-off, Marlon Brando-in-Streetcar performance, tense and alive and seething. In the new movie, Bane might be capable of beating Batman to a pulp, but he’s the goddamn Easter Bunny compared to The Joker. Bane’s Darth-Vader-slash-James-Bond-villain voice is more “camp ring master” than servant of chaos. He looks like he stomped out of a He-Man cartoon, where The Joker’s look was pure Francis Bacon. Even Bane’s evil scheme, to blow up Gotham City with a nuclear weapon, seems tried and tested, oddly quaint. You are never left speechless, the way you were by The Joker.
I know it’s strange to talk as if the movie were toned down, when it’s so blatantly amped up, the experience of watching the film is more like Batman meets The Super Bowl!!! But there is a sense that The Dark Knight was reckless where this film is controlled. It says something that you never fear for Batman, even when he’s mashed to bits and penniless, lying broken in a foreign jail. Perhaps it’s because so much of this film keeps harks back to Batman Begins, the often silly, not-entirely-successful first entry in the series. Where The Dark Knight stood alone, magnificent, and had more in common with Michael Mann’s epic crime story, Heat; the new movie wants to tie the first and second films together, awkwardly, like a marriage between a Comic Con nerd and a handsome killer. Exposition keeps barging in. No wonder so many characters in the film are concerned about trying to start over with a clean slate.
In the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, The Dark Knight Rises aims to capture the zeitgeist by drawing parallels between the 99%ers and Bane’s army of “gypsies, tramps and thieves” (possibly inspired by Cher). But the whole thing feels compromised from the start by the fact that Bane and his army are the bad guys, and Tom Hardy is too restricted by his costume to seduce the audience into believing in his cause. Bane doesn’t have The Joker’s dark charisma. He doesn’t induce a feeling of moral free fall. He just goes about his lumpen plan with a cheery determination, like a gaffer rigging up an electric chair. You know he’ll lose from the moment he opens his mouth. He only wants the pretence of revolution.
Christian Bale fades into the background, the way Batman does when he hangs out with Gotham villains. It’s hard to sympathise with Bruce Wayne in the midst of global recession. He’s a rich man who beats up the disenfranchised in his spare time. He might claim that “anyone can be Batman”, but that’s like saying “money doesn’t matter to me”, i.e. it’s something you say because you’re blinded by wealth. Batman’s superpowers, lest we forget, come from having billions of dollars. He wasn’t born an outsider. He bought the trappings of a freak. In a sense, Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne, the man in the ivory tower. He dresses up so he can hang out with cops and robbers, but he’s a trust fund kid; crime-fighting is his hobby.
There’s no such thing as a left-wing vigilante; unless it’s a guy who goes around at night instilling tolerance and egalitarianism in people. Whichever way you slice it, Batman is a Republican. Watching The Dark Knight Rises, I was reminded of Sideshow Bob’s words in The Simpsons years ago: “Because you need me, Springfield. Your guilty conscience may move you to vote Democratic, but deep down you long for a cold-hearted Republican to brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king.” In its imperial excess and titanic solemnity, The Dark Knight Rises wants to quash criticism. It’s almost suicide to knock it. But what the hell. For Heath. For the sake of honesty. I’ll man the barricade. This movie is decadent, bloated and unnecessary.