NOTE: This review was completed and submitted literally moments before the tragedy that befell moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Our thoughts and condolences are with those affected by this awful and senseless tragedy.
An appropriate end to the Christopher Nolan cycle of serious Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises manages to up the stakes in terms of action, suspense, and even in terms of wit. On the other hand, it’s not hard to say that this third installment with Christian Bale behind the cowl is the least of the franchise, but most of the problems this time are fairly nitpicky in nature and come mostly when Nolan seemingly needs to force himself to get serious again when even the director seems like he just wants to have some actual fun for a change.
In the eight years following the events of The Dark Knight, the late Harvey Dent has been canonized as Gotham City’s patron saint of law and order, while both Bruce Wayne and Batman have been forced into hiding thanks to a new “tough on crime” law known affectionately as The Dent Act. Wayne finds himself called upon, however, by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked, muscle bound and deeply scarred monster of a man described as being “born in hell on earth” and who was kicked out of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows for being too hardcore. Hell bent on the destruction of Gotham and the fulfillment of his former mentor’s prophecy, the Bat is forced to come out of hiding to do battle with a man of similar skills and even fewer fears.
One would think that the success of a Batman film would ultimately rise and fall not only with the director, but also with Bale in what many believe to be his final appearance in a superhero franchise. As the Bat, he does his typical growling and glowering, which by now audiences will either buy into or they won’t. As Wayne, however, Bale gets slightly more to chew on before the script lets him down slightly in order to get to the big action set pieces. It’s made clear very early on that Wayne is beat up to the point of being a pro wrestler beyond his prime, which would be interesting to see the character have to deal with, but the idea is quickly abandoned in favour of Bruce just sucking it up and getting back into the saddle even after his character suffers a major setback about an hour or so in.
Hardy deserves special notice for his work here as a villain who on the pages of the comics rarely ever came across as more than a hulking behemoth. Here, Bane still comes across as an unstoppable killing machine, but one with a bit more wit and psychological malevolence than one would think. Sounding like a South African version of Sean Connery, Hardy actually does both physicality and expressiveness quite well considering he only has half a face to work with.
We’re also introduced to cat burglar Selina Kyle, played here by Anne Hathaway, as a sort of secondary villain playing both sides of the Gotham power struggle in hopes of landing a way out of her own particularly vague criminal situation. Playing up the grey area that Catwoman’s character has always thrived in, Hathaway does a wonderful job with a role that could very easily slip into camp. Kyle comes across as more of a Bond movie temptress than a Batman heavy, and she’s a welcome sight whenever she’s on screen. It’s just a shame that she’s nearly forgotten for a near 45 minute chunk of the film. It definitely feels like there will be a lot more of her if the supposedly far longer first cut of the film ever sees the light of day.
The script from Nolan and his brother Jonathan has a lot of elements to juggle this time out and across a lot of different settings, and it’s a testament to their talents as a writing team and their familiarity with the franchise that they’re able to wrap everything up quite neatly on a surface level when they have so many different and new characters running about.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears as beat cop John Blake, a keener who always idolized Batman and who Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has taken a shine to — and with whom he entrusts getting things done during a lengthy hospital stay, since the deputy commissioner (Matthew Modine) holds to a far too conservative and obstinate view of the law. He does a pretty great job in a role that’s quite a bit larger than one might think going in, but he’s wholly up to the task with the exception of a sometimes grating faux tough guy accent.
As for members of the returning cast from the first two films, there are some appearances from some familiar faces, but it’s most interesting to note the trajectories of Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox and Michael Caine’s Alfred, since Freeman for once actually has something more to do than just sit in an office, while Caine doesn’t really do much of anything at all.
Weapons master and Wayne Enterprises president Fox has to deal with a potential hostile takeover from a two-timing minor shareholder as the company’s profitability tanks, thanks to an ill advised investment in a moth balled fusion energy experiment. But he also has to convince Wayne to allow fellow philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, another series newcomer) to spearhead the program’s resurrection and to allow her to help stave off the company’s economic downfall. After two previous films where he was seemingly wasting away in a minor role, it’s nice to finally see Freeman have something to sink his teeth into even if his character isn’t all that deep to begin with.
Caine’s Alfred, however, fares far worse this time out and gets stuck with the unenviable task of carrying the slightest of emotional beats while cranking out some terribly forced expository dialogue. Then, through a combination of plot convenience and contrivance, the film just stops giving him anything to do at all. The man who raised Bruce to become the man he ultimately became should be treated a bit better than he is here.
The plot contrivance spoken of above also causes the movie to stumble quite considerably once the film kicks into high gear about 80 minutes into its 165-minute running time, and it becomes apparent that Nolan has a few too many balls in play at the same time. Somewhat ironically and unlike the other two films, characters inexplicably find themselves in the same place at the same time with little logical reasoning for them to be there, other than coincidence. It’s an odd thing to say, but while the characters themselves are largely intact, the world around them feels spatially distant from them all. The Nolans, to their credit, try to cover this up through some creative editing and from single lines of dialogue devoted to explaining away some truly clichéd actions, but in a way the latter sometimes makes it worse.
There are also a couple of slight technical demerits along the way that distract, but never fully demerit the film, and it’s even more curious that they come from two of the more lauded aspects of the series. First, aside from Bane’s incredibly awesome and bombastic theme, Hans Zimmer’s score here is far too overblown before the film gets around to actually becoming a spectacle. It reaches the point where, early on, it manages to nearly drown out simple scenes of dialogue by trying to blow the audience through the back of the theatre when it doesn’t need to. Second, the sequences of the film that were photographed using IMAX technology are sometimes quite stunning (as evidenced by the film’s opening airplane hijacking and the very beginning of Bane’s reign of terror over Gotham), but too often it’s distractingly edited into the film, with some flashbacks in IMAX and then jumping back to the present in regular 35mm or some parts of an action sequence in IMAX and others shot with standard film. It’s almost like watching a fight scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World dragged out to almost three hours.
It’s also impossible to talk about the film without getting into the socio-economic subtext at the heart of it since such a big deal is being made about it. While it’s true that Nolan’s Batman is a bit more of a fascist character in the vein of Frank Miller’s vision, it’s a bit much to say that a film that started production months before the beginning of the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement is a direct parable. The intent might have come forth a bit more in the editing room, but quite frankly the script follows the series previously laid out ideology to near perfect-T, and it more closely resembles a treatise on how the American war on terror has opened up a quagmire of even worse decisions. It’s hard not to get that The Dent Act is simply code for the Patriot Act or that Gotham’s prison is a Guantanamo surrogate, but the Occupy overtones come far too late into the film’s massive climax to really register as much more than an afterthought aside from the fact that Bane’s grand plan gets put into effect by the not-so-terrifying notion of on-screen stock market swindling. (At least they have to good sense to follow it with a chase sequence.)
And oh what a climax it is. The climax takes up almost 60% of the film with the plot and characters largely set up in a compact hour or so before being thrown headlong into the now anarchic sandbox of Gotham City. Despite the film focusing more on Bruce Wayne’s continually conflicted and oddly apathetic mental state, Nolan delivers grand spectacle and visual suspense like few other directors are capable of today. Even when the editing department sometimes lets him down with occasionally jarring transitions, Nolan always fills the frame with something compelling to look at, and in terms of pacing the prolonged conclusion helps the lengthy running time zip by fairly easily.
It’s Nolan’s outright commitment to spectacle in this entry that allows him to be a lot looser with the material than in his two previously dour and dark entries. For once, Nolan seems to be embracing the camp appeal of the franchise, right up to the conclusion which could credibly be a straightfaced take on the way an episode from the Adam West series could have wrapped up. There’s an odd on-screen love of these characters in a way that makes it feel like Nolan’s almost sad to put them behind him.
The interplay between Bale and whoever he’s in a scene with feels more inspired, loose, and less plot driven than in the previous entries (with the exception of his scenes with Caine, and with Hathaway and Levitt as the best examples of on camera chemistry). There’s a snappiness here that previously wasn’t there and for a film this darkly crafted, it’s the only entry of the franchise that feels like a Batman film in the classical sense of the character. It starts off lighter because it knows exactly where it’s headed by the end and it doesn’t so much want to beat the audience into submission as much as it wants to genuinely entertain.
Still, despite some nifty twists and a more playful feeling, it’s hard not to call The Dark Knight Rises the least of the series. Batman Begins just did too nice of a job setting the stage, and The Dark Knight has simply become too iconic and fabled (and somewhat admittedly overrated) for its own good. That doesn’t change the fact that the ending to the trilogy is a fair and solid conclusion to a decent cycle of films that will leave whoever decides to take the wheel of the Batmobile (or Tumbler) in good hands and with a lot of good will on their side.