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Christian Bale stands in front of the Bat suit in a still from The Dark Knight Rises Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises is a camp masterpiece

The dark conclusion to Nolan’s Bat-verse gets ... campy?

“I mean, they had CNN down in that pit.”

With that mere observation, my friend Andrew perfectly crystallized the unique and subtle absurdity found within The Dark Knight Rises. Because there are so many little moments like this in the film. Moments where if you step away from the pulse-pounding aesthetics, you’ll find the curious and bizarre details that poke and prod at the seams of reality.

But what makes the film so fascinating is more than a few goofy gaps in logic. It’s how those gaps add up to transform the film into something much more interesting: an isolated miscalculation in the context of Christopher Nolan’s career.

Now, internet discussion being what it is, I always feel like I have to qualify that I really love Nolan’s work. From the moment he jumped onto the scene with the highly inventive Memento to the wonderful magic trick of The Prestige, he’s brought nothing but the entertaining goods. And I maintain that Inception remains one of the smartest, boldest blockbusters in recent memory. Yes, there are moments in his hyper-serious oeuvre that either underwhelm or even strike a little bit tone-deaf, but I’ll go to bat for both the depth and ambition of his work any day of the week.

For while he’s often called a cold or cerebral filmmaker, I instead have argued that he is genuinely trying to show the pain of paralyzed emotion. He often explores the way that pain creates a constant feeling of loss within his characters, so much so that time itself feels cruelly punishing. I think the framing of this is the exact reason he strikes a chord with so many young men who yearn for connection — the same young men who would otherwise be gravitating toward more indulgent and problematic forms of entertainment. So I’ll take Nolan’s thoughtfulness over those other options every time.

But Nolan’s Batman trilogy rests inescapably at the center of his filmography, which is a landmark achievement for a trilogy that’s much more of an odd duck than we give it credit for. The first film, Batman Begins, got the series off to a rusty but effective start. One gets the sense that the film was largely trying to strike the right tone, and find a passionate center that drove Nolan’s own interests in the material. But whatever he was after in that film, he found it wholly with his follow-up, The Dark Knight.

It was considered the zenith of comic book moviedom when it was released, and still is, by many accounts. It was at once a tremendously thoughtful meditation on our social ethos, and a genuinely thrilling game of cat and mouse, at the center of which lay an electric performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker.

Ledger’s version of the character was undeniable, haunting, and aimed with crystalline thematic purpose. For while we spend forever arguing about a certain recent movie, Nolan and Ledger’s version of the Joker made for a terrifying adversary to Batman and society itself.

Heath Ledger’s Joker laughs in a black and white looping video from The Dark Knight Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

His motive? A brand of anarchy-laden terrorism built on 100% pure nihilistic glee. He’s the most dangerous kind of man, one hellbent on tearing apart the fabric of people’s morality just because he finds it hilarious. But in the end, dodgy spy politics aside, The Dark Knight was a movie that sought to prove that society is damn well worth believing in.

It’s impossible to take the rousing success of that film with you into The Dark Knight Rises. At the time, it elicited varying reactions. Some liked it, some hated it, and lots of folks sure argued about it. But the overall sense is that it just did not quite rise up to the heights of the previous entry.

What we were probably too close to see, and what time would happily reveal to us, is that Christopher Nolan had done something completely unique within his career: He actually made a camp masterpiece. It may sound odd to call it that, but you just need to look at it from a different set of standards.

What is camp?

Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.

This quote comes from Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 work “Notes on ‘Camp.’” And if you have never read it before, now is the time.

Especially because

1) it’s short, and

2) quotes from it are going to be used throughout this article.

Using Sontag’s words is utterly necessary because camp remains one of the most inscrutable concepts in media. As Sontag notes, one of the reasons we have so much difficulty defining camp is because it is not a clear philosophy, but a sensibility. And it is a sensibility that unfortunately gets reduced to much simpler notions of irony, or indulging in the purposefully bad, or using the tiresome phrase “so bad it’s good.” But those very notions can be limiting to a true understanding of camp.

For the purposes of this essay, I’ll be quoting from Sontag’s piece and examining camp purely through the lens and context of The Dark Knight Rises. Starting with this one:

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.

There is never a shortage of seriousness in the work of Christopher Nolan, but “failure” might seem like a weird word to apply to it. After all, The Dark Knight Rises made a billion dollars and has so many tangibly good moments within it. But before getting into the more inscrutable elements, it’s worth establishing exactly what prevents the film from working on the same rousing story level as its predecessor.

Now, it would be easy to blame it on the film’s failures of conventional wisdom. Like the fact that there are multiple climaxes, or that certain sequences feel either too rushed or too long, or the fact that Bruce Wayne has to build himself back up to being Batman not once, but twice.

Heck, you could even just hit the film with a broad stroke and say the whole thing feels sloppier than Nolan’s usual work (there’s real “first draft” vibes going on here). But none of those things have to be fatal in and of themselves.

No, there’s a simpler culprit behind the movie’s failure: a complete lack of dramatic anticipation.

While Nolan has always liked his puzzles, he’s also always been good at balancing those puzzles with a healthy dose of traditional drama. The function of drama relies on the audience’s ability to understand the goals and actions of characters on screen, and clearly anticipate the dangers involved in them.

Take the popular Hitchcock adage about a bomb revealed, ticking, under a table being more dramatic than a bomb that goes off without warning. If we understand the danger, then we can properly fret about it. Having more information makes us more scared, not less. This is how we get invested.

So while people make fun of the first hour of Inception being exposition-heavy, it largely exists so that the second half of the film doesn’t have to stop and explain itself. Instead, it’s free to just go, dramatically speaking.

The same principle was involved in the Joker’s games in The Dark Knight. For all the bait-and-switch tomfoolery and shifting sands of the overall plot, his games set up clear stakes as well as objectives for Batman (rescue Rachel or Harvey, save one boat or the other, etc.), which is a large part of what makes the reveal of these reversals so crushing. And perhaps more importantly, there are clear moral choices being examined behind these games. In other words, the audience has many ways to lean in, to understand what was happening and why.

Unfortunately, The Dark Knight Rises forgets these lessons. We spend so much time being introduced to plot points and threads that we barely understand, much less experience dramatically.

What is Bane really up to? Why? What do his previous actions mean? We don’t know. And it will feel like forever until we do know. It’s like the Joker’s opening bank heist in The Dark Knight, but for three whole damn hours.

And while mystery builds curiosity, it doesn’t build emotional investment; it’s oddly numbing. That leads to the first of many catch-22 observations about this film: chiefly that The Dark Knight Rises has to spend so much time explaining things to us in the moment precisely because everything it really has to explain has to remain hidden. There’s no real setup for the information. There is nothing the audience inherently understands, so the story must constantly try to justify itself with a half-understanding in the moment itself.

The audience never gets that crucial sense of balance we find in Nolan’s other work. We never really get to lean into the drama and anticipate much of anything. Instead, we spend all our time on our heels, reacting. We watch as events fall into place. And no matter how great Nolan is at his specific brand of cross-cutting, Hans Zimmer-driven propulsion, we are left with a texturally exciting film that cannot back up its visuals on the story level.

This is the only true failure of The Dark Knight Rises. Or, at least, it is the most boring failure. Luckily, the film has other flaws that are much more interesting and vibrant. The very flaws that elevate it into camp, in fact.

The Dark Knight Rises is a camp masterpiece

Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

Once again, Sontag’s words might not seem like they fit Nolan’s work, but they have never been more appropriate. Particularly with regards to the one figure that is overwhelmingly responsible for the film’s camp factor: Tom Hardy’s Bane.

looping clip of Bane threatening a shadowy man in The Dark Knight Rises, with subtitles: “And this gives you, power over me?” Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

On paper, he’s a classic Nolan villain: a man who is seemingly a genius with a complex plan, one he is committed to executing with a terrifying lack of conscience. Bane is also supposed to be this dominant, overpowering force of nature — the man who famously “breaks” Batman.

For what reason? Well, in the comics it’s mostly a rage metaphor, but in Nolan’s film it’s all philosophical. He’s a man on the edge of death. A man who, like he Joker, is hell-bent on bringing the world down around him to the darkness. At least, this is what Bane is supposed to be.

In reality, things got weird.

Starting with that amazing voice. Today, it is simply known as the “Bane Voice,” and it’s hard to imagine a time before it ever existed. It is at once flamboyant, foppish, regal, stunted, and surly. And that’s before its gets hidden beneath layers of obfuscation from Bane’s breathing apparatus.

Even more befuddling is the way Bane’s voice feels so clearly disembodied from the actor speaking on screen. Normally, most dialogue is matched to a pair of lips, a clear source of the words. It has a feeling of direction, a clarity within the space you are in. But since Bane’s voice feels so ethereal and unsourced, it creates a constant disconnect for the audience. It’s honestly one of the most subtly bizarre experiences you can imagine. How did this happen, exactly?

Many don’t remember that the first “BaneVoiceGate” came when the opening sequence of The Dark Knight Rises played before IMAX screenings of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. At that time, many people complained that they couldn’t understand the character.

Others said this concern was overblown, but I saw that version, and yes, half of what Bane said was completely indecipherable (especially in a loud theater). Warner Bros. went into panic/spin mode, and there was apparently some rerecording, or use of alternate takes.

But the fact remains that the two voices were different. When you play them back to back, as in the clip below, you can sense not just the physical difference in the sourcing, but in the emotional experience as well. Because the original voice, while less clear, is colder, less grandiose and foppish, more oddly terrifying, and definitely more clearly sourced to the person speaking.

The mind races. Could we have had a chilling, more effective Bane? Could we have taken him more seriously? Could the garbled speech somehow have had a more positive effect on the audience than the alternative?

I don’t know. What I do know is the version of Bane we got, which is all I have to go on. The updated voice is the text that exists, and it’s that text we must use when discussing the film.

Which of course brings us back to Sontag.

The pieces don’t fit

It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.

Bane’s voice is not the only thing that feels incongruent about the character. It’s also in the way that foppish voice matches with Bane’s exterior presence, the impression of a physically imposing bald brawler with a steampunk BDSM mask.

That honestly makes for an inherently hilarious combination, one that is amped up by the character’s baseline theatricality and his penchant for fuzzy shearling bomber jackets. You can’t help but feel like every choice was a weird stab in the dark, a desperate attempt to breathe life into a character that was falling flat.

The problem is, those details don’t add up to something coherent. Put simply: I have no idea how the guy with the pit origin story became this guy. But nothing about Bane really makes sense, especially with how the last-second reveals and reversals in the story only seem to complicate matters instead of providing clarity. Bane simply exists as an incongruent collection of affectations.

Especially on the thematic level.

Say something once, why say it again?

You can understand why Nolan would have wanted to round out his trilogy and connect the dots from beginning to end, to end. But by ultimately saddling Bane to Ra’s Al Ghul’s generic philosophy and his inherited mission from Batman Begins, Nolan and his co-writer, his brother Jonathan Nolan, rob the character of having any sort of distinction.

And where the Joker’s “in it for the lulz” obsession with Batman felt terrifying, the lack of a relatable, more true-to-life philosophy behind Bane renders him both boring and toothless. His misanthropy, just like Ra’s Al Ghul’s, feels rote and perfunctory. Even his personal vendetta with Batman turns out to be tangential at best. (Don’t worry — we’ll get to Talia’s last-second flip in a bit.)

But all of this dysfunction leads to another essential catch-22 of camp: Because I am offered no real tangible link to the character of Bane, the main reason I therefore can connect to him is because he is “off.” Because he is exaggerated, because he is fantastical and nonsensical, and because the choices behind his characterization seem so helplessly naïve. It is everything camp needs to be. This is something Sontag expressed clearly:

The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. [...] The perfection of Trouble in Paradise and The Maltese Falcon, among the greatest Camp movies ever made, comes from the effortless smooth way in which tone is maintained.

The truth is that all the absurd supervillainy of Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul can work in other kinds of stories. We’ve seen them time and time again, where some evil genius is like, “Everyone must die! I’m the bad guy! Here is my convoluted plan!” You know, like in almost every James Bond movie.

But we actually have a proper word for this kind of storytelling: It’s called “pulp.” It’s maliciously defined as “popular or sensational writing that is generally regarded as being of poor quality.” But there’s nothing wrong with pulp, as long as the pulp is understood and made lovingly.

In fact, this is the cornerstone of most blockbuster filmmaking. It is the pointed erasure of “high and low,” where our joyfully base instincts can meet with the deft care of dramatic story beats, laughs, and maybe even a lesson or two.

All those great Spielberg films didn’t “transcend” pulp; they just perfected it. And even at the most extreme ends of pulp, there are wonderful directors who get it. For instance, Sam Raimi flips between tones constantly, jumping into horror, comedy, action, and genuine emotion at a moment’s notice.

Joe Dante’s work is the same way. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has nailed the baseline formula of how to alternate between humor, fisticuffs, and moments of pathos, all because it understands how to play and execute the pulpiest of moments. The films always know how to lean into the fun.

But Nolan has pretty much no talent for pulp.

That’s perfectly OK, by the way. We know his positive characteristics as a filmmaker by heart at this point. We know how good he is at bringing us into the cerebral, the tense, and the realistic. He has long been allowed to skirt pulp dynamics in the name of something more dramatic, often picking and choosing the ecstatic moments that work best.

This is actually what makes his Joker work so wonderfully: There is no real “joking” or levity, just someone laughing at bleakness with pointed clarity. This proves doubly necessary because when it comes to actual jokes in Nolan’s work, they often land like dead thumps. He just has no idea how to wink, or even just be playful.

To his credit, the Thomas Lennon doctor scene in The Dark Knight Rises is the one moment that really works, because Lennon knows how to play it straight and curt within the context of the film.

Part of the problem is that comedy needs both space and precision. But the film is just too busy trying to play the propulsion game with its constant dull hum of Zimmer’s score. So it almost feels like the movie itself skips right over the jokes even as they’re being made, much the same way the audience does. Seriously, on opening night I remember the theater being shockingly quiet; even the most enthusiastic patrons couldn’t find it in themselves to react with any audible laughter.

But this lack of awareness is exactly what allows The Dark Knight Rises to cross the line into camp. Take the now-infamous line in which Batman says, “So that’s what that feels like,” after Catwoman ghosts him the same way he ghosts everyone else. If you were aiming for comic levity, Bale’s voice would be normal and allow him to hit the punchline with actual comic timing. But Nolan can’t let the air out of the scene, so Bale delivers the punchline in his slurred, grizzled Batman voice, which makes it a thousand times more unbelievable, goofy, and amazing.

This shows us how the deepest humor of The Dark Knight Rises is always found in the dead seriousness of its tone. Like the exaggerated way Aidan Gillen shouts blankly at Bane in the opening, “Was getting caught part of your plan?!” and then immediately follows it up with, “What’s the next step of your master plan?!”

The same even goes for the way that Nolan shoots action. His utter commitment to practical effects combines with his instinct to shy away from pulp aesthetics, which sometimes results in grand cinema — remember that truck flip from The Dark Knight? — and sometimes results in some of the goofiest shots of Batman and Bane exchanging right hooks and looking really, really tired. Without the willingness for the movie to embrace pulp exaggeration, and playing it so straight instead, we can see the goofiness at the center with completely sober eyes.

a looping clip of a man in a polo shirt and dark jacket with subtitles asking Bane, “Now what’s the next step in your master plan?” from The Dark Knight Rises Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The same is even true for the film’s emotional beats. For every wonderful dramatic success for Michael Caine’s Alfred — most pointedly in the heartbreaking delivery of a line about failure — there is a moment where is saddled with the absurd.

There’s the hilarious way Alfred saunters in and reports back on Bane’s League of Shadows connections like he’s just Googled “who is Bane?” Or the way he describes Bane’s incredible fighting precision, except he and Bruce are just watching on a fuzzy monitor as Bane awkwardly headbutts people. This is the act of disconnecting the audience, who can’t help but see the difference between the thing as it is intended and the way we absorb it.

Which brings us to the highest value of camp, that of “inorganic sentimentality.” You could maybe just call these tone-deaf moments, but this phrase is more accurate. Take the love scene at Bruce’s house between him and Miranda Tate. Despite these two people barely knowing each other — or at least, the audience barely knows anything real about their relationship and history — they have sex.

It could not come at a funnier moment. There’s barely any setup. Miranda simply looks at pictures on his desk, including a photo of Rachel, his lost love. Bruce looks at it yearningly, and then, they kiss. Boom. Cut to them naked by the fireplace.

Nolan has never really depicted much intimacy before, but you can’t help but ask, Is this how he thinks sex works?!?! It’s almost as if you can see the movie’s narrative just handing off the sentimentality baton of the female love interest with an OK, now it’s you.

On a meta story level, we can understand that this is clearly an attempt to make Miranda’s eventual betrayal feel more personal, but really, it just makes it feel all the more incongruent. Besides, before the film can even bother to dig deep in the moment, it moves on. The tone must be maintained! But for our campy purposes, that’s OK, because ...

Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

To that end, I can’t stop thinking about the film’s lack of interest in its own interests. Whereas The Dark Knight was genuinely interested in the central moral questions and gray areas of its themes, I honestly have no idea what to make of the politics of The Dark Knight Rises on the whole.

It introduces the “Dent Act,” a mysterious and draconian policy that magically puts all the right people in jail, but we can’t really dig into it, because this movie stays away from its own politics like they’re the third rail. Even Bane’s revolution is garbled nonsense, a nondescript mix of class politics, societal lies, and usurpers. We’re given constant metaphors with no real throughline.

But on the story level, none of that ends up mattering because the League of Shadows is ultimately just about weird convoluted “slow knife” murder, I guess. Thus, the film can only rush by its own motivations.

Nowhere is the rush more devastating than at the film’s end. Now revealed to be Talia, Tate has a last-second femme fatale reversal that’s downright bizarre. (And technically speaking, her character’s real existence is only really set up mere minutes before, while Batman’s in the pit.)

But more problematic is the psychological understanding of her character, because there isn’t any. Seriously: She tries to justify her character turn right in the middle of speaking about her affinity for her protector, Bane, by saying, “His only crime is that he loved me! I could not forgive my father. Until you murdered him! Now I will fulfill his work!”

If that weren’t enough, the film’s final rush job comes in the epilogue. It’s supposed to play like a rousing culmination of feeling. Hell, I think about The Dark Knight’s final monologue and still get chills. But here, there is no such final punchline.

In just five minutes, we get assaulted with sudden, new, and divergent information. Not just with the last will of Bruce Wayne and the dedication; not just with having to feel sad about Batman’s death; not just in learning John Blake’s real name is Robin, who then becomes the new Batman; but perhaps most of all in how Alfred cries at the loss of his surrogate son, just before discovering he’s alive again.

But it’s all dramatized in a way of making good on the films’ “and someday you won’t be there”-style ending from Good Will Hunting. Don’t get me wrong: I get the sentiment behind all of these choices, but as dramatized, it just makes for a series of incredible, audacious emotional whiplashes. And after three hours of plot games, the film barely has a single moment to linger on the emotion of any of them, either because it feels too awkward or knows such turns are wholly unearned.

So in the end, I just find it hilarious. But for hopefully good reason ...

Why so funny?

Sontag is ready to bring us out of this mess by stating that the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.”

This is the entire aim of the column. Because perhaps the funniest thing about The Dark Knight Rises is how much it plays into yet another catch-22, this one about film logic: The more you stop to explain to something convoluted, the more you ground a film in reality, and the more you will just raise questions.

a looping video from The Dark Knight Rises of Bruce Wayne explaining that anyone can be Batman, with the subtitles “Batman could be anybody” Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Explaining a messy narrative, or trying to, is essentially the act of drawing attention to the problem. And because Nolan focuses so hard on reality, because he designs his films with practicality in mind, because his tone is filled with so much grim overseriousness, suddenly the idea that Bane figured out a way to get CNN in that pit is fucking hilarious.

To be clear, I don’t actually care about the logic; I just note the clear disconnect. Same goes for the idea that Batman would return to Gotham with a literal ticking time bomb and spend all that time putting oil on the bridge to make a bat symbol that could be set on fire. We wouldn’t blink an eye in a hyper-stylized Tim Burton version, but in Nolan’s movie universe? It can’t help but stand out. And while it hampers the film in the moment, it really is OK. We can feel comfortable with these things now because ...

... the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive. We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own.

Time has shown us a wonderful legacy for The Dark Knight Rises. It is a film that will likely not be remembered for its strengths (though people who love the film should surely write about it and try to explain why). For me and many others, it will be remembered for the strengths that weren’t there on purpose. It will be remembered as the one Christopher Nolan movie that is oddly naked, vulnerable, and unkempt. (At least when it’s compared to the hyper sheen and seemingly unruffled nature of his other work.) But this film is ruffled, perhaps gloriously so.

Maybe Nolan just cared about closing the doors and saying goodbye. But in trying to bring that sentiment to life, he became lost in his biggest puzzle to date. It’s the reason we have the overall looseness on display in the film — the same looseness that gave rise to its glorious sense of camp.

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Nothing could be more true. And when summing all of this up, I’m left with a series of lovely contradictions. The Dark Knight Rises is not good, but I like it, which makes it good to me.

It’s also a film that is dead serious, which is precisely what makes it so damn funny. It’s a film I like talking about more than I like actually watching. It’s an odd, unintentionally campy film.

And, most of all, it’s a film that was meant as a grand goodbye to something serious and special, but whose lasting legacy might be Tom Hardy speaking to his dog in Bane voice.

Which, by that different set of standards, might make it his greatest.