After 10 years, why is The Dark Knight Rises so divisive?

Bane, Batman and Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight RisesWarner Bros.

The Dark Knight Rises’ financial success belies the scorn and awe of its legacy. Ten years on, the closing chapter Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy remains frustratingly controversial. “Deshi Basara.”

An SUV cuts through fields of barley as Hans Zimmer’s manic strings gain momentum. A plane glides along the side of a mountain, its shadow a mere black indent on the IMAX-stretched landscape. Three hooded figures await their apparent demise at the gunshot of a CIA agent, each one as muted as the last when faced with death.

“A lot of loyalty for a hired gun,” he says. “Or perhaps he’s wondering why someone would shoot a man, before throwing him out of a plane,” a stately, smooth-as-leather voice quips. “Nobody cared who I was ’til I put on the mask.”

Bane is uncovered from the hood as another plane hovers above. “What’s the next step of your master plan?” the agent asks. “Crashing this plane,” he replies. The orchestra moves from gales to squalls. Each component of the set-piece is more audacious than the last: the wings crumbling in the wind; Bane catching himself on the seats; and the fuselage plummeting to certain death in greener pastures. In these moments, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can think The Dark Knight Rises is anything less than extraordinary – yet, they do.

The Dark Knight Rises could never beat The Dark Knight

A third Batman film had near-impossible expectations. The Dark Knight is still the source code for today’s fawning over superheroes; Spider-Man and X-Men delivered seminal crowdpleasers, while Nolan found an untouched prestige in pulp. Heath Ledger’s Joker ensured it’d be immortalized in cinema legend, but The Dark Knight is regarded as one of the best movies ever made, regardless of its comic book origins.

Nolan was hesitant. Ledger’s death almost certainly put a question mark over the story, and the rule of three – Superman III, The Godfather Part III, Spider-Man 3, Jaws the Revenge, etc – didn’t foresee an attractive future. Yet, its inevitability didn’t see it buckle: The Dark Knight Rises is an epic, elemental spectacle of pain.

There are obvious facets to the divisiveness: its runtime is just shy of three hours, and we’re more than 45 minutes in before seeing Batman; the film substantially focuses on a lovesick Bruce Wayne hobbling around or trying to rebuild himself in a nondescript “pit” while the city is left to burn; the fight choreography is meager; the likeness to Occupy Wall Street – which was coincidental – is unfortunate; and Bane’s death is rather unceremonious.

The Dark Knight Rises redefined Gotham and heroes

After Batman Begins’ rainy, industrial aesthetic and The Dark Knight’s Mannian playground, TDKR refined Gotham once more: colder, quieter, lacking relevancy in peacetime, but still willing to stoop to shameful laws under apocalyptic duress. During a memorial to Harvey Dent, we see Wayne’s cane-held silhouette peering from the distance, a specter of a past nobody knows. To the masses, he’s the hero who became the villain.

This is a film that leans into the mythos of heroes in a way that’s no longer common, and only tapped into again in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. Just as Robert Pattinson became “the shadows”, Bale’s Batman is a lost legend forever in the minds of children and adults under a night sky. “Do you think he’s coming back?” one kid asks early on. Never has the folklore around the character felt so powerful.

But for him to return, we needed struggle, naivety, and fear. Bane is a towering presence, and watching him become the plaything of a force of nature is one of the most shocking, essential scenes Nolan has ever produced.

In that sewer fight, where his helmet is caved in and his back broken, he’s a kite dancing in a hurricane. His rope-hanging recovery, no matter how stretched, is a rallying cry. His eventual return, with a muscular, panting brawl against Bane in a snowy warzone, is cathartic no matter its shortcomings on a technical level.

The Robin reveal in The Dark Knight Rises is good, actually

Nolan does things without fully committing to the material. Catwoman is Catwoman, but not quite – that said, Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle remains a masterstroke in casting, equipped with a commanding allure that’s both formidable and playful. Talia al Ghul feels a little needless, not to mention Marion Cotillard’s impression of a child falling asleep on holiday and expecting to be carried back to the room, aka her character dying.

And then there’s John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a Gotham “hothead” officer who worked out Batman’s secret identity as a young orphan. After trying to help Commissioner Gordon and Batman against Bane, he throws his badge away and pursues another life. Upon resigning from the GCPD, we learn his legal name: Robin, before the film ends with him discovering the Batcave.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robin in The Dark Knight Rises.Warner Bros.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Robin” was very divisive upon release.

Nolan had the gall to give audiences Batman and Robin, and they hated him for it. For 15-year-old me, it was an arm-grabbing reveal, particularly as the score soars into its most triumphant crescendo; for some fans, it left a sour taste, like a gesture from a noob who thinks they’re in the know. Yet, these critics fail to recognize that the mantle was always going to be passed; who better than a hopeful rookie with the drive to protect the city? “The idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody, that was the point.”

The Robin reveal was never designed to be the precursor to another series of sequels, much like an equivalent Easter Egg would be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I remember the fake Nightwing posters that infected social media for years after the film’s release, but they had no basis in reality – if the pop culture machine has any mercy, it’ll remain untouched.

The Dark Knight Rises put the “final” in finale

And in that, you have The Dark Knight Rises’ greatest strength: finality. The last 10 minutes still rank among the most emotional, goosebump-inducing sequences seen in any modern blockbuster: Gordon learns Batman is Bruce; after grieving him and believing he’d failed his parents, Alfred’s dream of Bruce living peacefully with his wife comes true; and the city bows its head to the cowl. Say what you will, Nolan believes in Batman.

If anything, The Dark Knight Rises is a reckoning before the genre needed it; we’re caught in an all-you-can-eat buffet of superhero content, when all we’re craving is an end. “Unlike the comics, these things don’t go on forever in film and viewing it as a story with an end is useful,” Nolan even said prior to production.

Maybe it’s time to stop outsmarting the truth and let it have its day: The Dark Knight Rises is the finale we needed, and the one we deserved.

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