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Initial verdict on The Dark Knight Rises:

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Very Return of the Jedi. It’s not nearly as dark or accomplished as its predecessor, and it descends into maddening silliness at times, e.g. every time Bane “opens” his “mouth.” More on the politics, as well as some general comments of the spoiling variety, from someone the Washington Post contacted as a “Batman expert,” can be found below the fold.

Let me preface this post by noting that I’m extremely fond of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and have written extensively about the thematic and technical accomplishments of both:

So I don’t want to read any comments about how someone with a doctorate in English Literature would be predisposed to disliking The Dark Knight Rises because, if anything, the opposite is true: I’ve studied Christopher Nolan’s films and am intimately familiar with the hallmarks of his style. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll be blunt:

This is easily the least accomplished film in the trilogy. Batman Begins is the most structurally sound (in narrative terms) and thematically coherent of the three: Nolan orchestrates his narratives such that they advance forward in time, indepedently, as they build Bruce Wayne into a believable character. The Dark Knight is structurally and thematically chaotic by design: Nolan can’t seem to decide which scene belongs where (but cuts to it anyway) and is so indecisive about the film’s argument that I can plausibly claim that it’s all about dogs. But that structural and thematic anarchy is acceptable in a film that belongs to the Joker: form follows content and the both are better for it. The Dark Knight Rises shares its immediate predecessor’s commitment to structural tumult and thematic incoherence but lacks a compelling motivation for doing so. The charitable version of this argument would go like this:

Nolan’s narrative is disorganized because Bane claims to be committed to an ideology very similar to the Joker’s. The only problem with that argument is that it’s not true: his heart belongs to a fascistic order that values discipline and loyalty above all else (the League of Shadows) and the plan he carries out requires military precision. He protects the nuclear device by moving it and two decoy convoys around Gotham in a coordinated fashion. The device is ultimately lost because he adheres to the plan so rigidly that Gordon and his cohorts are able to create a map that tells them when and where each convoy will be at a given point in time. The Joker’s plan? It doesn’t even make sense. But The Dark Knight can be forgiven its formal incongruities because the resulting confusion enhances the experience the film. If a sequence seems make no sense it’s because the Joker’s lost the plot. If nobody appears to know what’s going it’s because nobody knows what’s going on. Lest this seem unnecessarily abstract, let’s consider an example of the interpretative consequences of the film’s formal difficulties:

In Gotham’s sewers, Bane recruits those like himself—the insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement, desperate to justify their own laziness and failure and to flaunt a false sense of superiority through oppression, violence, terror, and ultimately, total and complete destruction.

The odds of discovering something deliberately insightful in a John Nolte review are always vanishingly slim. I know that. But half the blame for Nolte’s inability to grasp the most basic of plot points belongs to Nolan. Members of the League of Shadows aren’t “insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement,” they’re an army who can coordinate convoys with military precision. Nor are “laziness and failure” terms that apply to an organization whose members successfully perform a controlled demolition of Gotham’s infrastructure. Also, these people made a Batman. In short, Nolte pulled off the impressive feat of getting the League of Shadows exactly wrong. His politics may have predisposed him to mistake a paramilitary organization like the League of Shadows for the Occupy movement, but Nolan’s direction encourages Nolte’s misunderstanding.

Which is only to say: in this instance Nolte’s stupidity can be excused. Tomorrow I’ll address instances in which it can’t.

UPDATE: I don’t agree with all of this—it puts The Dark Knight on a pedestal for what I take to be the wrong reasons—but it’s damn smart, and well worth the investment.

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