Warning: this piece will discuss details of the storyline of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as well as the other Batman films. GIANT SPOILERS WILL ABOUND; proceed at your own risk.
Christopher Nolan is remarkable among the great directors of action films–Steven Spielberg, David Lean, James Cameron, John Ford, certainly Michael Bay–in that while working on a gargantuan scale, he thinks primarily as a writer. (The only real analogue who comes to mind is Kurosawa, although one could say it’s true of Quentin Tarantino almost to a fault.) That doesn’t mean he neglects the visual and dynamic aspects of his movies, but that while other action filmmakers tend to want their stories and characters kept as straightforward and easy to follow as possible, Nolan takes at least as much joy from laying out fiendishly complicated story structures and character revelations as he does from making audiences gasp at a big action set-piece.
And as a storyteller, Nolan’s single great tale, the narrative trope to which he’s been drawn over and over again, is the long con. In virtually every one of his movies (the exception is Insomnia, the only film he’s directed without writing), one or more characters devise an elaborate, extended ruse that can run sometimes through the entire film, springing a trap on the other characters–and usually, the audience. In Memento, we discover at the “end” (which given the structure of that movie, isn’t really the ending) that Guy Pearce’s character has been used by Joe Pantoliano’s, and that neither is (or at least may be, given the unreliable nature of “reality” in the story) whom they appear to be. In The Prestige, the rival magicians played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale constantly plot against each other, taking on disguises and new identities, a process topped when it’s revealed that Bale’s character has actually been identical twins throughout the course of the story. Inception may be the single most elaborate con movie of all time, an incredibly intricate version of what is, at root, just a story about Leonardo DiCaprio’s character conning Cillian Murphy’s into doing something he wouldn’t have otherwise wanted to do… unless, of course, you believe that the token never stopped spinning at the end, and the real story was even more intricate than that.
Nolan has taken this mode of storytelling to his Dark Knight trilogy, introducing in these films a hall of mirrors of interlocking schemes and revelations previously unknown to the superhero movie genre. In Batman Begins, the first act of the story cunningly ties in with the third, as we, and Batman (Christian Bale), are lulled into thinking that the villains of the main part of the movie are gangland boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and the evil psychiatrist Scarecrow (Murphy), when actually Henri Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who appeared to die during the first hour, is revealed to have been pulling everyone’s strings all along, with a plot that’s not merely criminal but supremely destructive. In The Dark Knight, The Joker (Heath Ledger) orchestrates a remarkable series of reversals and tricks on Gotham City, anticipating every move Batman makes and culminating in his escape from Gotham’s police station and the murder of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the love of both Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) and Batman’s life. The springing of this ugly, brilliant trap is so powerful and sadistic that it overwhelms even Nolan’s plan for the rest of the movie, making its last section feel dramatically superfluous.
The Dark Knight Rises marks Nolan’s most fearless and ambitious cinematic long con to date, a trap that subverts its own genre and takes 2 1/2 hours of screen time to snap resoundingly shut. The film’s structure is quite remarkable, as almost all the seemingly disorganized and almost random actions of various characters throughout the first half–the seeming political terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), the burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), Bruce Wayne’s business rival Daggett (Ben Mendolsohn)– turn out to be been the master plot of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), all of it apparently brewing for a decade, and all tying in with Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan from Batman Begins, as she is secretly his daughter. Nolan’s daring is unprecedented in the big-budget action genre. He takes the risk that action movie audiences might not have the patience or comprehension to realize that all the pieces fit together in the end, or take his pleasure in sheer narrative revelation when they do. He toys with audience expectations about comic book villains, revealing that the massively violent Bane is just a willing pawn in the larger game. And all along the way, he gleefully mixes and matches genres, including corporate drama, robbery thriller, prison saga, and the superhero fantasy version of political docudrama, only to reveal that all of it has been a giant series of red herrings (it’s like Alan Rickman’s Hans turning out to be a fake-terrorist in Die Hard taken to the nth degree), resolving itself in a giant, operatic conclusion. Then, as a cherry on the top of his narrative cake, Nolan reveals that Batman has been putting together a nifty little moderately long con of his own.
The Dark Knight trilogy encompasses some very large thematic concerns, from the interplay of vengeance, justice and punishment to the necessity of self-sacrifice and super-human symbolism in the service of a larger goal (and the risk that this goal could just as well be evil as good). As a piece of storytelling, however, it’s remarkable for the demands it makes on an audience typically held to be passive and incapable of serious thought. Christopher Nolan’s greatest gift to the figurative Gotham City of his viewers may be the respect he’s continued to have for us.