The Dark Knight Rises has only been out a week but I’ve already read more critical reviews and deconstructions than I have any other film in the last two years (that includes The Avengers). So much of it has been good that I’m loathe to return from a year in exile by way of writing another tired analysis of a movie that will no doubt be constantly deconstructed, examined and critiqued as we head into awards season and beyond. Obviously, the most pertinent foil to Rises is the aforemention The Avengers. I didn’t personally think that that movie really deserved the accolades it got, anchored as it was in a muddy script and barely-there concept. Where Avengers got by on its charm and strong character development, Rises falls flat and stumbles into and ending that the series needs, just not one it deserves. I won’t go too much further into an examination of the two films for now, but will probably feel compelled when they both come out on DVD. This is just going to be Rises qua Rises.
So with that out of the way, let’s get started. Christopher Nolan has returned for the third and final time to his Batman universe. We’re deposited in Gotham eight years after Harvey Dent’s death to a city largely free of organized crime. The Batman, you cry! He surely must be behind all of this organized justice! Yet, sadly, it seems that the scuffles with the Joker and Two Face in The Dark Knight have taken a toll on Bruce Wayne. He’s been holed up in his newly rebuilt mansion for those eight years and Batman has been decommissioned. Meanwhile, the government has enacted “The Harvey Dent Act”, a McGuffin whose sole purpose is to tie this movie to its antecedent. We’re never really told what the act does or how it does it. In fact, after the first fifteen minutes it’s never mentioned again. We get some hints that it’s caused some discontent but the rich are living large without fear of villainous madmen blowing the city to Hell from under them so for now all is well. But it’s not until much later in the film that we get the sense that there are casualties in this “Cold War”. Either way, with the Dent Act in place, Gotham no longer has a need for Batman, so Bruce does the only logical thing for a man in his position: he sits at home and mopes.
And he’s worse off for it. Christian Bale has slimmed down considerably since he first started playing Batman back in 2005. Even compared to The Dark Knight, he look gaunt, almost skeletal. The look works, and lends some credence to the idea that Bruce Wayne, nee Batman, has been festering behind the walls of Wayne manor for the better part of a decade. Which is where we run into our first big problem. According to Nolan’s own internal logic, Bruce Wayne has really only spent (at most) TWO years being The Batman, with the seven years previous “lost” or as an apprentice to Ra’s Al Ghul. So that means out of SEVENTEEN YEARS, Batman has only really been puttering around for two. If you’ve read the comics you know that more bad shit happens to Batman in the first two years than could possibly be expressed within the confines of two films. So it would seem that Nolan would have ample source material to adapt, warp and reinterpret for his final act. But strangely, he benches The Dark Knight before the whole thing gets started. I think within Nolan’s Batman continuity it works, but viscerally it’s far less exciting than the opening for The Dark Knight. The best takeaway is that the sacrifices Bruce, Gordon and Harvey made have paid off, and Gotham is better for it. Bruce has been wounded beyond repair (at least at first) so his not being Batman is moot. However, as the movie moves into it’s middle section, it becomes apparent that Nolan’s time-dilation was a miscalculation.
Bruce is slowly drawn back into the world as first Catwoman and then Bane smoke him out of retirement. Which, let me say, Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy turn in absolutely stunning performances. Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is in my mind the definitive version of the character and one that I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. She’s lithe, witty and surprisingly dangerous. Nolan often gives his female characters a short shrift, so it’s nice to see a strong female character take the stage. In fact, the scenes with Hathaway are probably the best moments of the film. Selina Kyle pulls off a double-reverse-cross early on that is amazing and Hathaway shows an incredible range as an actress that imbues the character with a menacing, conniving second layer that she is able to pull out or subvert at a moment’s notice.
Similarly, I have to commend Tomas Hardy as Bane. He had no easy task filling the shoes of Nolan’s Big Bad. His size alone makes him seem threatening but even behind the mask Hardy manages to telegraph brutal menace completely through his eyes. People have complained that putting a mask on Hardy was a bad choice (even though that’s the character’s main trait) for both aesthetic and narrative reasons. Hardy works around the mask in his body language and in his odd, almost comical vocal affect. There are some times in the film where it’s hard to hear what Bane’s on about, but that may have had more to do with the sound mix at the IMAX theatre I was in rather than the film itself.
I want to note here that this film is loud. It’s probably the most sound-track heavy of all three films. Some people might find this to be distracting. If you’ve found Nolan’s previous Batman films over-orchestrated there’s definitely more to dislike here.
All of that said, there are a few characters who seem tragically underused. While Nolan goes out of his way to get rid of a few key characters that would otherwise bog down his already bloated narrative, the characters that Nolan leaves on the table don’t get the screen time they deserve. Gordon is taken out of the picture early on, and for a large part of the film he’s bedridden. Similarly, Lucius Fox is marginalized to the point of being a tertiary character. To see these major characters get sidelined after they’ve played such a huge role in the creation of Batman is disappointing. Surely after all both of these men have given to aid and protect Batman/Bruce Wayne, they deserve to be front and center in the drama about the rise and fall and rise of Batman? Sadly, neither man really gets his due. Instead we have Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character John Blake take up most of the three hour screen time. Thankfully, Levitt does an incredible job with a character that is, from the outset, no one we’re familiar with either from the comics or previous films. His character arc is probably the only satisfying element of this whole film, if we’re being completely honest. Aside from his specious claim of “knowing” that Bruce Wayne is Batman, he feels well-rounded and believable in ways that even Bruce/Batman sometimes fails to.
The absolute worst character in the mix has to be Marie Cotillard’s Miranda Tate. I don’t think anyone who knows anything about Batman had a hard time guessing that she’s Ra’s Al Ghul’s illegitimate daughter. The movie does a good job of keeping this under wraps, but to no effect. It doesn’t seem to matter much at the end that Tate is really Al Ghul. In fact, the reveal in its handling, only serves to undermine the plot and character of Bane as established in the first two and a half hours. When it turns out that Bane is no more than a henchmen, all of the previous mystery and menace is instantly diffused. Bane’s cult-leader status is wiped clean and he’s reduced to sniveling lap dog. It’s deeply unsatisfying but at least has the effect of making his ignoble and absurd death seem reasonable by comparison. The Nolan brothers don’t even do a good job of making Tate’s motives believeable. Is she looking for revenge? Does she simply want to finish her father’s plan to destroy Gotham? The first is plausible, but poorly explained, while the second is flat-out stupid and inconsistent with the back story she’s given.
And here is where I have the most problems with the movie overall. While Nolan sticks his story beats in his final Batman chapter better than Raimi did in Spider-Man 3 or Ratner in Xmen 3, the whole things starts to feel bloated by the time we reach the middle acts. If we can buy the movie’s “eight years in retirement” premise, the opening act is snappy and incredibly enjoyable up until the (first) return of The Batman. After that the movie hobbles along trying desperately to get Batman into a place to fight Bane. However, to do so it crams a lot into a tiny time frame. Batman chases Bane, loses Alfred, returns as The Batman and then is subsequently betrayed by Catwoman, which leads to his epic first fight with Bane and subsequent breaking. Granted, the first time Bane and Batman square off is as cool as it should have been. Unfortunately, it’s over very quickly and we’re soon shuttled into to the slow middle acts.
Because of how Nolan’s structured his plot beats, the whole middle part of the movie is split between Bruce Wayne’s exile from Gotham and Gordon’s counter-force trying to take down Bane without the help of The Batman. Wayne’s prison time is a slog and devolves into a montage of Bruce getting back into fighting shape for his escape and return to Gotham. Sadly, Gordon’s efforts to fight Bane are given short shrift and what could have been an interesting “city under siege” middle act gets stuffed in with a Rocky-style comeback story. Neither one is given enough time to feel fully developed or believable. Even after Batman’s (second) return, the third act fails to live up to the ridiculous amounts of hype and speculation we’ve been subject to for the last year. Batman’s final showdown with Bane doesn’t nearly match the intensity or suspense of the previous fight, nor does it feel like an appropriate end-cap for either Bane or the series. It’s also here that Nolan decides to stick his unnecessary third-act plot twist.
Even after all of that, Nolan still manages to cram in a chase, a noble (if totally unnecessary) sacrifice by Batman and a happy ending that leaves this series completely open-ended. It is, sadly, totally unearned. With so many plots and characters up in the air, Nolan has no time to develop them beyond their already known and defined limits. New characters have to spit and sputter out their motivations and backgrounds just so that we can get a sense of them, which in the end makes their arcs feel rushed and sloppy. And, with Nolan’s tacked-on happy ending, it doesn’t feel like anything was really at stake. Was I glad to see principle characters survive beyond Bane’s reign of terror? Sure I was. Was I glad to see the Bat-mantle passed on, leaving the series open? Of course. But it didn’t feel like the ending to a trilogy of movies. It felt more like the middle piece to a bigger trilogy. If this was really Nolan’s final film, why not kill of The Batman for good? What use is it to leave something like this open for a continuation or reinterpretation? Surely DC doesn’t want to use Nolan’s Batman in their Justice League movie otherwise Bruce Wayne would STILL be Batman. The ending seems tacked-on to comfort executive bean-counters. Nolan’s films have been criticized as being “nihilistic” since square one, so the tragic death of the Batman would not be outside the bounds of Nolan’s gritty naturalism.
Even so, the movie manages to move through these annoyances with confidence and aplomb. There’s still a lot to like between some of the silly coincidences and poorly-handled plot points. I got so caught up in the pure spectacle that I actually clapped at the end. I hate clapping at movies, it’s completely ridiculous. But there I was, clapping and smiling like a nerd. You can beat me up later, it’s fine. I think at the end of the day Nolan will get a pass on this movie not because it was so well-handled or because of its thematic consistency or “message” (which is, oh my god, horrible for a certain political subset) but because of the breathtaking scope that Nolan achieves. This is by far the most “comic booky” of all three films and in some ways I’m glad. I don’t know if I could have say through three hours of Nolan’s gritty Batman universe unless it bent a little and allowed for some absurdity. There’s weird coincidences, at least two McGuffins and a few large, action-packed set pieces. We get what we wanted from a Nolan Batman movie, but I doubt in the end it will hold up well for all but the most die-hard fans. Also, I want to be quick to point out that The Dark Knight Rises is a far superior Part 3 than just about any that have been made in the history of cinema. No superhero movie has come close in its third act to being as good as TDKR is, nor have any other high brow films managed to recapture the same spirit as their first two counterparts. To wit: I’d rather watch The Dark Knight Rises over The Godfather: Part III any day. That said, I don’t think it will hold up in time against Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Ironman, or even The Avengers as far as this generations “Superhero Movies” are concerned.
To his credit, Nolan’s created his best popcorn movie to date and is starting to embrace something we could consider a sense of fun. When the film breaks long enough to let its characters breath and act human, there’s a lot of wit and genuine human emotion. Even Bane has his moments where he seems like a three-dimensional person and not just the living embodiment of Wrath of God. Just don’t expect to revisit this film again and again. In the future it will likely become a compulsory watch for people looking to watch the whole Batman Trilogy, but won’t have the same one-off sticking power that The Dark Knight has had. Which is a shame, but maybe this is a sign that Nolan needs to step away from the camera for awhile to regroup and refocus his energies. I’m glad that this is finally behind him and he can move on to bigger, better things.
Grade: B- / C+
Note: If you can go see it in true IMAX, you should. It’s a beautiful film and the extra money you spend on the larger format will be worth it for the overall experience. Nolan has filmed a shocking amount of this movie in the larger 70mm format that you’ll miss in a normal-sized theatre.