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The Dark Gnat: How Christopher Nolan’s Embarrassing Seriousness Ruined Batman

Christoper Nolan is currently cinema’s master of foreboding. In Memento, he managed to convey anxious tension throughout a movie that was literally playing in reverse, and thus one whose “conclusion” was already known. With Insomnia, he trapped his characters in a perpetually-light but somehow gloomy Alaska, where menace seemed to lurk in the fog. And in his three Batman films, Nolan—aided along by Hans Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s overbearing but powerful score—has created a freaky, atmospheric Gotham where life appears permanently on the verge of going awry. Only David Fincher, among modern directors, is more adept at causing unease in his audience about what is coming next.

But absent some measure of subtlety and irony, foreboding can easily morph into portentousness. It is therefore no coincidence that Nolan, who has an evident weakness for grand philosophizing about good vs. evil and heroism vs. villainy, is the most portentous filmmaker we have. Asked about the trilogy whose final chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, opens Friday, Nolan said that he set out to answer questions such as, “What gives us fear? What gives us hope?” Sometimes, in other words, he seems to forget he is making superhero movies.

But it’s not just that the comic book plot of The Dark Knight Rises is inadequate to the themes Nolan wishes to address. The biggest problem with his latest film, the weakest of the series, is that the director’s obsessive gesturing at philosophical themes has overwhelmed the other requirements of successful filmmaking: plot cohesion, believable dialogue, tight editing.

None of these shortcomings is likely to matter much to viewers. Indeed, the bloated running time (164 minutes) and characters who seem more interested in speechifying than survival or self-interest are actually liable to thrill Nolan’s fans. The film’s inevitable success will be the latest evidence that nothing pleases audiences more than the belief that the film they are watching is grappling with life’s Big Questions. Christopher Nolan’s genius has been to make movies that flatter the audience by inviting it to participate in the discussion.

“BATMAN IS THE hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now.” So says Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) during the finale of The Dark Knight (2008), the previous entry in the series. The problem with this line, and with the scores of others like it in this latest film, is that I have no idea what it means.

The Dark Knight, which was quite good for the first 90 minutes of its running time, eventually bogged down in ridiculous plot twists and ham-handed lessons in right vs. wrong. (Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney, is so angry that the love of his life was killed that he decides to join forces with…her killer.) Eventually it is decided that the city of Gotham will not be able to handle the truth about Dent’s turn to the dark side. Batman is cast as the villain instead, which presumably would also have been hard for the citizens of Gotham to accept, but never mind. Sometimes heroes must bear the greatest burden of all. (Nolan’s scriptwriting style is infectious.)

The reason for recounting this creaky plot is that it is used as the set-up for the latest film, with the city of Gotham peaceful 8 years later. But a new super-villain, Bane, played with great menace by Tom Hardy, is intent on bringing Gotham down. He wants to return the city to the people, or destroy it, or both. The politics of the movie are muddled and confusing, but Bane does desire to humiliate the wealthy, and neuter or destroy the police. One of the many amusing aspects of the plot is that Bane and his henchmen, all psychopathic murderers and terrorists, are angrily moralistic that the police lied to Gothamites about Dent. These villains certainly have a strange ethical code—murder good, lying bad—but I think here, as elsewhere, we can glimpse Nolan the freshman philosopher peeking out from behind the camera. (Nolan obviously does not believe that lying for the greater good is on par with murder, but merely raising phony ethical dilemmas has an obvious appeal to him.)

Bane’s plan, in addition to isolating Gotham and taking the entire city hostage, is to lure Bruce Wayne out of retirement. The reasons for this, too complicated to explicate, have to do with the characters’ backstories. This in turn forces Bane to utter dialogue whose weightiness is undoubtedly the X factor that every fan-boy craves. “The shadows betray you because they belong to me,” he notes at one point, and we are undoubtedly supposed to nod and appreciate whatever symbolism we presume Nolan to be imparting.

The rest of the film concerns Batman’s battles with Bane and other assorted villains, his romancing of Catwoman (well played by Anne Hathaway), and the helpful advice he gets from the film’s voices of wisdom. I counted five major characters whose raison d’être is to lecture Wayne and the audience on the “good” values that contrast with Bane’s. (My respect for my readers prevents me from translating the French.) The utter seriousness of the movie eventually saps the performances, too. Bale is a wonderful actor who can be funny, but he is so buttoned-down and serious here that you’d hardly ever guess it. In one dramatic scene, he whispers all his lines, presumably to convey their weight. Meanwhile, Hardy’s character, Bane, speaks through a mask for the entirety of the movie, distorting his voice.

Prior to the film’s release when test audiences reported difficulty understanding the character, Nolan loftily informed the studio that he would only consider changing the audio slightly because, as one executive said, “Chris wants the audience to catch up and participate rather than push everything at them. He doesn't dumb things down. You’ve got to pedal faster to keep up.” One is tempted to inquire why Nolan perceives a link between incomprehensibility and intelligence. (Indeed, Bane is not the only character who is hard to understand. Several other actors have trouble being heard over blasting music.) But it is more important to note the backhanded compliment to the audience, as if watching the movie is in itself some sort of intellectual achievement.

What is surprising for a director as talented as Nolan is how sloppy much of the movie is. Twists occur with little plausibility or coherence, characters appear in places they have no reason to be, and a crucial feat of physical strength is premised on the idea that Batman cannot do something that a small child was able to accomplish years before. This particular absurdity can be explained by Nolan’s tiresome eastern spirituality (“you must journey inward,” Batman was informed in the first film.) With a near Gandhian focus on mind-body distinctions, Nolan sets forth the opinion that any physical feat can be accomplished if one has the necessary inner strength. This may be risible (or worse) as morality, but it does add a dose of pretentiousness to Nolan’s appeal.

And it’s that appeal that is set to conquer all this weekend. Nolan cannily understands that the last thing an audience wants is to feel condescended to (“condescend” being one of those words that is misused in the script.) The Dark Knight sparked an endless amount of commentary over its supposed relevance to the Bush years, and this latest film has sparked related murmurings on the potential similarities between Occupy Wall Street and Bane’s gang of thugs. But don’t be fooled. Taking Nolan seriously as a social commentator is giving him more credit than he deserves. He has nothing to tell us about good or evil, other than the idea that evildoing and darkness are by definition profound. I remember being 17 when The Matrix was released, and partaking in endless conversations about “what is real” before grasping that it was these chats that explained the movie’s success much more than the slow-motion fights did. Audiences want one thing more than entertainment: They want to feel respected. If only Christopher Nolan actually respected them.