Movie Review – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
With The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan triumphantly concludes what is surely the greatest comic book trilogy of all time with an exceedingly bleak tale of self-renewal that is mostly electrifying yet unfortunately misses true greatness by suffering from some glaring pace issues and a slew of minor plot inconsistencies and contrivances that really should have long since been removed in the script writing process. These minor issues don’t torpedo the film but they are plainly obvious to most viewers yet the overall product is so chock full of epic ambition that many will simply overlook these problems as they immerse themselves emotionally in Nolan’s roller coaster ride of a narrative.
Eight long years have passed since the death of Harvey Dent and the incarceration of the Joker in The Dark Knight a result that has seen crime virtually eliminated from Gotham City due to the imposition of harsh crime laws that have effectively emboldened authorities to lock just about anyone away in the stony lonesome. With Gotham now devoid of major crime there has been no need for the Batman, a fact not lost on both Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as well as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who are the only two individuals who know the truth that Dent became insane and turned into Two-Face causing all sorts of violence but in a selfless act Batman took the fall and all the blame instead thus turning the memory of Dent into a kind of idyllic symbol for justice just as Batman has become the hunted.
With the Batman forced underground Bruce Wayne retreats into self-imposed retirement seemingly to waste the rest of his life away wondering what might have been as he still blames himself for not preventing the death of his loved one in Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Now that Gotham is devoid of crime Wayne is completely rudderless a fact that is not lost on his trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) who yearns for some miracle to occur to see Master Bruce emerge from his mental prison to lead some sort of normal existence. Life for Commissioner Gordon hasn’t been easier either as he constantly wrestles with extreme guilt that Gotham now worships the wrong hero and though he has valiantly tried to break his silence to ease his conscience as of yet he has not found the right moment to do so.
Nevertheless, this is the calm before the storm and when it hits all Hell breaks loose. That storm comes in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a deadly combination of hulking muscle and intellect that arrives on the scene with a fully formed plan in mind to lure out the Batman and enact revenge on both him and the city of Gotham. Complicating matters is the appearance of master thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who poses as a maid to infiltrate Wayne manor and subsequently makes off with his fingerprints although her reason for doing so baffles our protagonist. It will come to no one’s surprise that The Dark Knight Rises chronicles Wayne’s emergence from exile to become the Batman once again yet in this final part of the trilogy the stakes are higher than they have ever been and director Christopher Nolan spares no expense in ramping up the tension so high that many are going to fear for the life of Batman and his compatriots.
The Dark Knight Rises is certainly a solid film that flirts with greatness yet manages to end the trilogy with style but it at times feels awkward especially when moving between acts, the first two of which burn slowly and methodically through the plot machinations but suddenly kick into overdrive with a ridiculously abrupt transition in time that condenses six months into what seems to be six minutes as the film enters the final act. It feels as if Nolan is at war with himself trying to decide whether or not his baby should be a four hour David Lean epic or something closer to a summer comic book Hollywood blockbuster that requires extravagant action to fill the running time.
By waffling on this choice the film either feels like it is missing a full hour of extra exposition in order to flesh out certain characters that are seriously short-shifted or is instead overblown and bloated like a puffer fish with an altogether lackadaisical opening 90 minutes. I really haven’t seen a film like this is years where the final product feels both too short and too long at the same time although my personal taste for longer movies certainly makes me one of the few who probably would have loved if Nolan decided to go for the full four hour course complete with a middle intermission akin to those great epics of yore like Lawrence of Arabia.
However, whatever Nolan’s reason for the final product length the fact remains that The Dark Knight Rises just doesn’t have as much fluidity as his prior two movies and instead moves forward in fits and spurts instead of being a well oiled machine. A big part of this issue lies with the script that unfortunately falls into a similar pattern of other concluding trilogy films by having far too many characters to properly devote enough time to.
In this case not only does Nolan and his scriptwriting brother have to deal with all the returning characters but they also add a bevy of new talent in the form of the primary antagonist Bane (Tom Hardy), a possible love interest in super thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), yet another possible lover in Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a young idealistic police detective named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an opportunistic cop (Matthew Modine) and a slew of minor roles from duplicitous Wayne Enterprise directors to CIA agents and army special forces. It is a mean feat to juggle all these disparate characters along with their own individual narrative arcs and it just does not work as well as it should.
Characters that clearly need more back-story like Bane do get a lot of screen time yet it is inherently unevenly paced as exposition is doled out in clumps of information rather than slyly revealed slowly through the film. Some key characters like Miranda Tate might have engendered more of an audience reaction if she was given a good 5-10 minutes more screen time while others like Matthew Modine’s Foley are actually complete dead weights that don’t contribute much to the overall plot and could easily have been jettisoned for the cinematic scrap heap during the script writing process.
At the same time viewers might be shocked to find out that some major characters actually have very little screen time none more so than the title character, Batman, who only really appears for a few major fights/action sequences. If I really had to take a guess at his total amount of time on film I would have to say no more than 15-20 minutes.
This is clearly a big gamble that Nolan takes in essentially downplaying the role of the Batman while boosting his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Many, like me, are going to be enthralled at what Nolan is attempting to really get into a deep analysis of Wayne’s psyche specifically his angst and frustrations that have clearly taken their toll on both his physical and mental state over the intervening eight years between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne in this film seems like an increasingly broken man who is merely sleepwalking through life in a daze having found his inner Howard Hughes by locking himself up in his house and shunning society. Throw in the fact that his body is clearly beaten down after all the years of crime fighting as Batman and the once proud man is reduced to doing his best impression of a cripple with a hunched back and noticeable limp, his frame supported by a blasted cane.
Clearly the visual image of a hobbled hero is going to hit many hard in the gut especially those who always saw Batman in an idealistic light. Nevertheless, this is Nolan’s Batman and it is no surprise that he is more interested in a narrative that basically revolves around Wayne’s redemption and renewal. Still, if people expect something more in the vein of The Avengers where superheroes can just about do anything they want without physical consequence then I have no doubt many are going to really feel each tick of the clock especially once they realize the suffocatingly grim and foreboding nature that Nolan has permeating every frame. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a very ponderous and claustrophobic movie where characters with the one exception of Selina Kyle all speak with a very theatrical heavy style as befits the dialogue that is rife with a strong underlying emotion of rage and ennui. Perhaps this is why some like Michael Caine are just so electrifying this time around because the narrative is constructed to squeeze every character through the proverbial wringer…twice.
As previously mentioned Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is the only character accorded any dialogue that borders on comedic and they come from one line quips and a few genuinely hilarious moments that usually involve her somehow sending up the great Batman. Hathaway has always been a good actress but I am sure she was well aware of the huge degree of negativity that the Internet threw on her in their disapproval of her taking on this particular role. This phenomenon was definitely not warranted and Hathaway easily proves her distracters completely wrong by basically stealing every scene she is in almost to the point where viewers will no doubt cheer whenever she is on to see what exactly she is going to do or say. Hathaway plays Selina Kyle exactly as she was meant to be, a lethal combination of sensual charm, moxie and strong street smarts.
Michelle Pfeiffer who was great in Batman Returns got the sensual part right slinking along accentuating her feminine curves in virtually every scene but eventually that became cliché by the end of the movie. Thankfully, Hathaway under the direction of Nolan, plays it straight and doesn’t really resort to overtly showing her sexuality, content to let others underestimate her beauty before pouncing on them. Hathaway nails the character’s inherent duality as her conflicting morals match her nebulous loyalty which leads to perpetually keeping the audience enthralled because they have no idea just which way this character will bend under her numerous manipulations. As a final note, diehard fans will probably realize that Hathaway is credited as playing Selina Kyle and is never once mentioned by anyone as Catwoman. This might anger the purists but it certainly fits Nolan’s much more realistic universe that he has constructed in this trilogy.
However, the big question for many fans will not be Anne Hathaway playing Selina Kyle but rather Tom Hardy as the new primary antagonist, Bane. Hardy certainly presents the first and only real physical threat to Batman as he’s portrayed as a strategically literate mind trapped in a brute’s body. Trust me, no one will be complaining that Bane isn’t a match for Batman after their first encounter. However, in terms of performance Hardy is no Heath Ledger but this is not particularly a fair comparison since Hardy spends the entire film essentially like Darth Vader with a massive facemask that blocks everything but his eyes. To his credit Hardy excels in the role with a deft combination of physical body movement and searing glares that connote a whole range of emotion but this isn’t enough to top Ledger because the script ultimately lets Bane down in the final act reducing his screen time to mere minutes effectively taking the intelligent part of Bane out of the picture and relying only on his physical presence.
If Hardy’s Bane commands center stage in sheer might the opposite end of the spectrum is occupied by Michael Caine whose Alfred is the emotional heart that beats loudly throughout the film. In his few short scenes Caine finally makes Alfred into a shining beacon of light as he does everything in his power to prod Bruce Wayne away from his demons. Other returning characters such as Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox get their turn to shine but are mostly reduced to minor supporting roles in lieu of the other two newcomers.
First is Joseph Gordon-Lovett who plays Blake, a young go-getter beat cop who is the product of one of Wayne Enterprises charitable expenditures in providing an orphanage for abandoned kids. In fact Lovett has a huge role in the film becoming Commissioner Gordon’s go to guy after he is waylaid in the hospital. At the same time Blake provides a great counterpoint to Bruce Wayne’s glumness as he’s filled with youthful exuberance for his job as he truly believes in the police force in meting out justice.
Then there is Marion Cotillard who plays a Wayne Enterprise board member who believes in Bruce Wayne’s cause and ends up helping him in his time of need. Is she the new love interest over Selina Kyle? Only time will tell but though her overall screen time is short her role in the narrative is not and cinephiles will be wise to pay attention although it really should come as no surprise to anyone since most good directors do not merely cast big stars in minor supporting roles for no particular reason.
Finally, when one speaks of acting in The Dark Knight Rises it all begins and ends with Christian Bale in the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne. This is Bale’s movie far more than in the previous two where he was either overshadowed by Liam Neeson or Heath Ledger. That isn’t to say that Bale was in anyway bad, he was rather superb really, but that he had to compete with actors in far flashier roles. This time around Bale provides a gripping emotional performance as the tortured Bruce Wayne who sees his life literally crumbling before his eyes and everything he still holds dear go up in smoke. Broken and bruised emotionally and physically this is a superhero who seems inherently human and Bale is the film’s anchor that everything revolves around although his Batman may still be a bit one-note and for some inexplicable reason still sounds as if he is chewing a handful of gravel stones.
As great as the overall acting performances are The Dark Knight Rises is blessed with superlative production values and every single cent of the massive $250 million budget is on display. Christopher Nolan should be commended for also choosing to shoot the film without ever thinking of 3D and he still follows a very traditional style of directing that adds immensely to the realistic nature of his franchise. About the only real downside is that Nolan still appears to have issues when orchestrating action sequences as some of the fist fighting is far too choppy and lacking a sense of natural ebb and flow while whoever thought (either Nolan or his brother) that the massive frontal assault scene where two opposing forces basically rumble in the middle of a New York street would be a good idea should be kicked in the groin as it is clearly one big mess of a segment that doesn’t evoke much tension whatsoever and once again reinforces the Hollywood code that villains can’t shoot worth a damn.
Then there are the dreaded gaping plot holes that need to be addressed. Let it be said that if this were a traditional comic book movie ala The Avengers or even the various Superman movies the very fact that those films feature superhero feats and almost unkillable heroes acts to mask many plot holes that inevitably spring up. Audiences will usually not care if something seems amiss considering the film is essentially forcing them to suspend disbelief on a higher scale by showing men in tights flying through the sky.
However, that doesn’t work at all here in The Dark Knight Rises and that is because Nolan has become a victim of his own success. By crafting such a grounded story that clearly takes place in our own universe it does nothing but accentuate some of the movie’s minor plot inconsistencies to a higher level. Although Batman has always been one of the unique comic book cases where the hero really doesn’t have any superpowers and relies on guile and technology the issue in Nolan’s trilogy and especially in his film is that there is no time in any other comic book movie where the hero seems like he’s two steps from his grave. The Batman in The Dark Knight Rises is a man with all his fallacies front and center and it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together to understand that when I say the movie is about redemption and renewal that the title character is going to be punished severely through the course of the film. To put it bluntly, Batman is human with all the strengths and frailties that come with it.
By constructing such a realistic portrayal of Batman and the world he lives in it really causes these plot inconsistencies to stick out like sore thumbs because most would not expect things/events to happen like this in the real world. Most of these minor problems will not be disclosed here as they are all spoilers yet the only thing I’ll mention is that these “plot holes” really seem to multiply exponentially in the final third of the film especially during the fast-forwarding in time by six months where viewers have to really suspend disbelief to comic book level scale in order to buy in to how Nolan brings all his disparate plot threads together. You can almost feel the film straining under its weight to essentially force the film down the intended path and many will feel the puppet master’s strings everywhere.
That said Nolan does pull it off and the final ten minutes are the closest to cinematic nirvana that many will ever experience as it is a pitch perfect send off that combines gripping visuals with an appropriately lyrical orchestral score from Hans Zimmer accentuating each emotional beat that makes other comic book films seem as clunky as Plan Nine from Outer Space. I do not doubt Nolan’s insistence that this is his final Batman movie and boy does he go out in style as I have a feeling many will be tearing up at the sheer audacity of the final few minutes.
Nevertheless, even here this statement needs to be qualified as the true emotional impact of the ending only comes about with some prior knowledge of Batman’s history as without it a few huge reveals are not going to make a lot of sense. In the bigger picture The Dark Knight Rises is definitely not easily accessible for new fans in the least as it directly relates most urgently with the first film Batman Begins taking multiple plot threads and expanding on them. In some ways The Dark Knight Rises is very much Batman Begins 2 making the original film a must see if one is to truly understand all the intricacies of the narrative.
Finally, let’s tackle something that nearly everyone I know keeps asking me and that is whether or not The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers is a better film. To be blunt although I by far prefer The Dark Knight Rises the answer is not as cut and dry as it would seem depending on what one is looking for in a comic book superhero movie. While The Avengers surely could have benefitted from a more ambitious plot the movie soars because Joss Whedon understands the Marvel universe and gives the film an inherently fun popcorn feel that sustains its running time. It is, without a doubt, one of if not the best example of the traditional comic book Hollywood film that focuses more on superhuman feats of fancy rather than worrying about deep social insight.
The Dark Knight Rises though is a completely different beast as Christopher Nolan has basically taken a super hero franchise and turned the genre on its head by attempting to take a much darker angle that plays more upon the examination of the human psyche rather than super heroics. His Batman trilogy is much more in line and influenced by film noir and dystopian parables like Blade Runner than the original Superman or Spiderman and at times the action seems completely perfunctory as Nolan clearly loves focusing his lens on human drama. Heck, parts of The Dark Knight show more influence from Michael Mann’s Heat than all previous superhero films combined.
With this film Nolan clearly chooses to take the path not well travelled and attempts, nay forces, the audience to come with him on this journey of discovery and unlike other superhero movies the topics that are pushed to the fore will no doubt strike hard considering the tumultuous times we live in. While Joss Whedon had Iron Man haggling and bro-fighting with Thor for alpha male status Nolan decides that a superhero movie would make the perfect vehicle to call into question the very nature of capitalism and the various societal ills that have led to the occupy Wall Street Movement. Watching Bane systematically destroy the existing social fabric in an attempt to “liberate” people leading to rich people being hauled and sentenced to death in a kangaroo court is chilling imagery that is perhaps only topped by watching Manhattan/Gotham devolving into martial law as society crumbles. Nolan pulls no punches and one expects if he were allowed to take the film to an R rating that the resulting grim film would compel people to slit their wrists.
This makes The Dark Knight Rises a tough movie to watch especially for those who really prefer the light-hearted humor of The Avengers and seeing Iron Man blast nondescript aliens from the sky with aplomb. Although The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers are both comic book movies the difference is staggering and preference for one over the other solely depends on the wants and expectations of the viewer. I’m picking The Dark Knight Rises although I’m sure others will surely choose otherwise.
With The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan has crafted the most electrifying trilogy in recent memory and it now takes its place alongside cinema’s other great entries in this pantheon including Lord of the Rings and yes, Star Wars. While the movie has its warts it mostly avoids the problems so indicative of other final trilogy installments (I’m looking at you Matrix Revolutions) that really had no idea how to effectively end the narrative and give cogent closure to all the multiple plot threads that had been percolating throughout the first two films. Nolan took Batman, a figure that previously belonged solely to comic book geeks and elevated the franchise to mainstream prominence with class, ambition and supreme vision in crafting a product that focuses more on the man than the costume and in the process created a trilogy of films that now become the benchmark for all future comic book adaptations. It might not be perfect but it’s damn good.
*** ½ out of ****
2012, USA, 164 Min, PG-13, Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures/Syncopy/DC Entertainment
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Story by Christopher Nolan & David S.Goyer
Produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas
Executive Producer Kevin De La Noy, Benjamin Melniker, Thomas Tull, Michael E. Uslan
Original Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Film Editing by Lee Smith
Christian Bale: Bruce Wayne
Gary Oldman: Commissioner Gordon
Tom Hardy: Bane
Anne Hathaway: Selina
Marion Cotillard: Miranda
Morgan Freeman: Lucius Fox
Michael Caine: Alfred
Matthew Modine: Foley
Alon Moni Aboutboul: Dr. Pavel
Ben Mendelsohn: Daggett
Burn Gorman: Stryver
Daniel Sunjata: Captain Jones
Aidan Gillen: CIA Op
Sam Kennard: Special Ops Sergeant
© 2012 The Galactic Pillow