The Dark Knight Rises (**½)


Before I even begin diving into my review of the closing chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it should be made clear to everyone reading that I liked The Dark Knight Rises well enough for a qualified endorsement.  It’s a mostly fun, even rousing action spectacle that contains some truly breathtaking visuals (IMAX is really the only format to experience this in) and builds to a fairly satisfying conclusion; in other words, a good movie.

But it is most definitely not a great one, and I have to admit being astonished at the level of gushing enthusiasm from my colleagues.  The film suffers from serious story structure and pacing problems, an honorably attempted but ultimately dull main villain, and tries to bring up a number of topical observations of contemporary events that end up being threadbare at best and disturbingly reactionary at worst.*  None of these flaws outright sink the movie, but they do bring it down below the level of Batman Begins, far below the level of The Dark Knight and, perhaps most disappointingly, ends up with Nolan ultimately failing to live up to his promise of staking out a truly new form of superhero epic.

**Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**

We open eight years after Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes to ensure the success of his prosecution and the city’s spirit, and the event has taken a clear physical and mental toll on Bruce Wayne.  He’s called it quits in the nighttime crime-fighting business and has taken to near-total seclusion inside his mansion while his ally Commissioner Gordon wastes away with guilt over the lie that allowed Gotham to prosper in the wake of Dent’s death.  But the seclusion doesn’t last as he’s lured back into action after being robbed by the mysterious and alluring burglar Selina Kyle (never referred to as “Catwoman” to my knowledge) and – perhaps too coincidentally – the simultaneous appearance of a violent, muscle-bound mercenary with ties to the League of Shadows called Bane.  When an ambush on Gordon leaves him seriously injured, Wayne springs into action to save the city that branded him a villain nearly a decade ago.

So far we’ve got a crackling good story: Bruce Wayne embracing his long-abandoned alter ego and *ahem* rising to become Batman once again…but then roughly halfway through the film, something goes wrong.  Batman and Bane face off mano-a-mano with the outcome being the same brutal “breaking” of our hero from Knightfall, then throws him in a hellish prison on “the other side of the world” (in a weirdly rushed sequence of scenes making it look like Bane went halfway around the world and back in an unusually short amount of time), forcing Wayne to rebuild himself in purgatory and learn to be the Dark Knight again.  You may recognize this as the exact same character arc we just witnessed in the first half of the film.  It doesn’t help either that the “test” that Bruce goes through in the prison teaches him lessons and personal revelations that he should have already learned through his training in Batman Begins.  As a result there is a huge section of the second act of The Dark Knight Rises that just sits there and grinds the film to a near-halt.

Batman must rise…again?

This is probably the film’s most glaring structural problem, but it’s not the only issue I had with the plot machinations of The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher and his brother Jonathan have never been the most disciplined screenwriters (Memento excepted), and the plots of the previous two Batman films could very reasonably be described as needlessly convoluted as well.  But those issues were overcome by a tone and narrative flow that was so engaging in both installments that I hardly minded the plot holes that popped up under more intense scrutiny.  Here it seems as though in trying to construct a be-all-end-all conclusion to their Batman saga, several different movies were crammed into one and the effect is rather unwieldy.

Perhaps this was to be expected; we are, after all, talking about a 165-minute behemoth of a summer blockbuster, ramping up the sprawling scope of its predecessor to awe-inspiring degrees, but the emotional weight of them isn’t nearly as strong.  Rather than the slow burn of dread immersing us in very dense plotting à la The Dark Knight, we get a movie with too many things going on in and around it all emphasized with the same pitch of HIGH! STAKES! IMMEDIACY!  While the complaint of “Too much!” may sound like a commonplace criticism of superhero sequels, it’s unfortunately an apt one for Rises.

Oddly, though, its main conflicts between Batman/Bane and Batman/Catwo-sorry, Selina Kyle (not sure what to make of Nolan being okay with keeping the supervillain moniker of the male antagonist but not the female one…girls aren’t supposed to have “silly” nicknames, I guess?) feel indispensably tied into the overall experience, but for completely different reasons.  Bane is without question the film’s primary antagonist, as it is his actions that put Gotham into danger again and drive the entire second and third acts of the movie.  Despite this he’s misconceived in nearly every way besides the actor playing him.  Fanboys have been quick to declare a moratorium of any comparisons between him and The Joker (most likely because they know he can’t possibly measure up), though such a side-by-side is actually rather illuminating on where his portrayal in the story goes awry.  Why, for example, would you go through the trouble of altering Bane’s appearance and motivations from the comics so dramatically – an artistic gambit I fully support in principle – but still require him to wear an essentially acting-proof mask, especially when you don’t even provide a satisfactory narrative explanation for it (something something past injury is the answer, by the way)?  Was it really necessary to cast an actor as talented as Tom Hardy if you’re just going to block 2/3’s of the performer’s main tool for expression?  Why not just cast a bodybuilder and have another actor provide the voice in that case?  Why would you tie up his motivations with the events of the first film, thereby shifting the largely character-driven, elemental conflicts of The Dark Knight to plot-driven, world-in-peril boilerplate with Bane, especially since the will of Ra’s Al Ghul no longer needs to be applied to a city that has clearly already saved itself?  As much as Hardy sells the hell out of him (including his rather amusing Vincent Price accent), Bane’s absurd plan and flawed characterization makes him the least engaging bad guy of Nolan’s trilogy.

My sincerest apologies to Ms. Hathaway; I truly underestimated you.

Selina Kyle suffers from the opposite problem.  On paper the character is almost totally superfluous; mainly there to move minor plot points around up to and including a tacked-on romance with Bruce near the end.  On the other hand, her presence in the film is such a welcome bit of levity that I can’t imagine enjoying the experience nearly as much.  Anne Hathaway surprisingly, and thrillingly, proved wrong every doubt I had about her in this role.  She’s playful, sexy, complex and dynamic almost entirely through her portrayal of what could have easily been a cypher.  Though she admittedly doesn’t have much competition, Selina is arguably the most interesting female character in Nolan’s entire filmography.

Actually, almost every actor brings their A-game.  Gary Oldman as always is the unsung hero of this entire franchise, Michael Caine does affecting work in his little time on screen, and Christian Bale is as solid as ever and even gets a relative hang of his growly “Batman voice.”  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also damn fine as series newcomer, cop/detective John Blake who is actually more of a main character in the film than even Batman.  Only Marion Cotillard gives a truly bad performance, though in fairness she’s saddled with a mediocre character whose stakes in the story are upped via a circuitously explained late-game twist.

I could go into other niggling problems; its even heavier insistence on telling us what to think and feel instead of showing us, the sound mix sometimes making Bane sound like he’s talking in another part of a room, the painfully cutsie-poo name drop of a famous character near the end of the film, its overall comic-booky feel that made it much harder to suspend my disbelief in a trilogy that probably wasn’t as “realistic” as we all made it out to be, the lack of consistent thematic depth relative to its portentous tone, how everyone in Gotham just takes Bane at his word when he claims to be reading Gordon’s unread speech about the true nature of Harvey Dent, etc.  But this review already sounds way more negative than my actual opinion of the film.

In actuality, there are a lot of things I really enjoyed about it.  For one thing, Lee Smith manages a complete turnaround from his epileptic cuts in the action sequences in Batman Begins with wonderfully coherent and fluidly edited set pieces here.  For all my complaints about the lapses in story logic and believability, I was thrilled at the film’s consistent observance of just how physically punishing even something as simple as a fistfight is to a normal human being.  As a Hollywood production, its opulence and scale is on a literally breathtaking level, and if we’re still debating the merits of IMAX vs. 3D in modern moviegoing, this film seals it: IMAX wins.  Despite its botched structure, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises is actually pretty good and its final shot is a knockout.  In fact, the finale is such an effective send-off to a trilogy as grandiose as this that the resulting frisson it evokes probably explains why so many have been quick to ignore its shortcomings.  If the trilogy does not entirely follow through on all of its supposed Big Ideas, the source of Batman’s strength as a legend more than one man, at least, is brought to a highly satisfying finish.  I had a fun time watching this movie, and I imagine most people will, too.  But…that’s such deflating praise relative to what we were promised, isn’t it?  Some of you may accuse me of demanding too much of the film, but then again, I would argue The Dark Knight Rises demands a lot of itself.

* To save this review from the length of a short novel, I have decided to leave the ideological criticisms for a separate article.  Stay tuned…