Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Movie Review

Kind of hard to believe that it has actually been seven years since the so-called "comic book movie" took a sober hard left with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, a film that essentially took the more literate auteur into the ranks of the blockbuster elite. Having only done one major studio feature prior (Insomnia) with middling success, imagine my own personal reaction when his take on the Caped Crusader turned out to be one of my favorite translations from the printed panel to the screen. How little then did I consider the common thread that binds the majority of Nolan's works (tales of complex individuals, more often men, obsessed with correcting a great wrong, only to create an even deeper pit for themselves to fall into) that I failed to see why he was an ideal choice to flesh out the world of Gotham City, and wayward billionaire, Bruce Wayne's blinding obsession with forging a better future, one criminal beating at a time. So when we at last come to the grand, sprawling final chapter in The Dark Knight Rises, one cannot help but feel like fresh bread, pulled apart at every corner.

Seven years after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham has gone for years without any sign of the now outlawed Batman, who had secretly colluded with a mutually tormented Commissioner James Gordon ( Gary Oldman) into taking the blame for the deadly actions of Harvey Dent/Two Face, thereby allowing the police force to usher in a flourishing era in action against criminals. But the cracks in the facade they have created are beginning to show, as Gordon's life has taken a turn, while Wayne has seen himself become a bit of a legendary recluse. Matters spiral toward the inevitable, upon Wayne's first chance encounter with the alluring, yet formidable Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), which signals the coming of Bane, a mysterious, hulking mercenary whose designs on the city threaten to not only destroy it and its inhabitants, but also the spirit of its once great defender. Easily the most dangerous opposition of the series, and easily a terrible reminder of all that had come before. Now torn between Batman as symbol, and perhaps even guilt-fueled self-sacrifice, Wayne must once again take up the cape and cowl, even if it does mean dying to protect all he holds dear.

As mentioned, the film catches up with the now clearly spiritually brow-beaten duo remaining of the triumvirate established in the previous. And it is made pretty clear that regardless of their mutually saving the city throughout the series, the choices of Bruce Wayne remain clearly and wholly selfish. Whatever good  that could ever have come out of his decisions to fight crime fists first more often than not carry with them consequences that have left all within his very orbit broken and deeply changed, including Wayne himself, who's loss of Rachel Dawes in the previous has led to a life parallel with being something of a living corpse, hiding within the walls of the now rebuilt Wayne Manor. And yet, all he remained close to throughout his one-man crusade against crime and corruption have either been taken away, or compromised. His entire life could have easily provided practical solutions like supporting local concerns, and stopping crime at its source, but opted to fight it out with the symptoms. Even so, his legend is still something on the minds of many young people of Gotham, including rookie cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who perhaps knows a great deal more than most. And yet these terrible threads of fate may very well be the best hope the city has once Bane and his (literally) underground army are discovered.

As a conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises is of gargantuan scale. Even by most spectacle standards, it is a truly startling achievement in that place always remains first with real locations, incredible sets, some phenomenal outdoor shooting work (one again by the always wonderful Wally Pfister), and intense action. One can see every penny spent on the production, and feel the weight of what Nolan is attempting. The core problems lie largely in the structure, and in how much of it lacks the manner of build and impact of the previous. Where The Dark Knight took grand risks by ramping up the madness of the Joker's reign until the viewer is sent bouncing from one section of the city to another, The Dark Knight Rises begins with this in mind from the getgo, and never lets up throughout its running time of two hours and forty five minutes. And as such, the first act feels a little on the jarring side, lacking a manner of grounding that could have helped the narrative later. Possibly the film's biggest misstep happens within the first major action sequence which leads to a decision so forced, that it rings hollow for a certain new character which ultimately leaves him with very little meat to work with by the end. Another unexpected issue here is a decidedly jokier tone  that was quite unexpected considering the often grim countenance of the previous. In a film that is clearly about the end of life, and the  end result of a life of selfish acts, it in many ways takes away from what should be a tightened, more intense experience. Despite all the grandness on display, the end result is surprisingly restrained.

So once we reach the halfway point, and much of the story seems well in gear, a lot of it feels like a matter of course rather than an actual series of twists and revelations. This surprisingly, is also much closer in tone to Batman Begins, which had the distinction of dancing wildly between "realistic" and openly cartoonish, with matters reaching a fever pitch regarding an energy source, and yes, a Doomsday Weapon so that we may have a ticking clock in place for the finale. Which leads one to believe that this is the Nolan brothers' attempt at doing a Michael Bay-style extravaganza. (If suddenly, echoes of The Rock come to mind, it isn't merely you.) The feeling that there were dozens of disparate ideas in mind, and that they were determined to get as many in there as possible is very present to the point that it at times feels like two movies smashed together resulting in periods where one cannot help but feel exhausted when one should feel energized for the bigger moments.

Thankfully, the performances, and still present sincerity in much of the film grants it the momentum to see matters through, even as it truly feels like a world coming to a fiery end. The always welcome Michael Caine's Alfred is especially heartwrenching, as a man at last at a breaking point. He has supported Mr. Wayne long enough, and can no longer stand by and watch his equivalent to a son lose his life to his obsession. Oldman's Gordon remains a shining beacon of humanity, while Gordon-Levitt's Blake continues this thread as a truly likeable cop with razor-sharp instincts and a large heart. It is in his arc that the film's soul truly lives and dies. Being among the first of the "batman era" generation, we have a chance to see the potential of Wayne's legacy, as well as what it could mean for future Gothamites. Also worth mentioning the terrific work of Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Modine as Foley, a veteran cop with much to prove. But the real standout newcomer work to this franchise belong to Anne Hathaway's Kyle, and Tom Hardy's Bane. Hathaway's take on Catwoman is potent, angry, and demands her own film. It's a performance that shoulders a great deal of the weight and power  of everyperson in the piece. Her lot, the complete opposite of Bruce's, by growing up without privilege or stability represents balance to his life lived with money-borne answers. It has shaped her into a bit of a hardened survivor, and a silent champion of those carrying the city's heaviest burdens. And Hardy's Bane is a classical, baroque monster. Single-minded in his own drive toward pain and terror, his reign over Gotham City (and perhaps even Batman/Bruce) is palpable and utterly frightening. He is living absolution, and is the harbinger of the worst possible end for all involved. Even as the story momentum seems to flag at times, it's these memorable characterizations (something of a Nolan trait by this point) that remain irresistible.

Possible Spoiler Time

Considering much of the film's almost prescient use of the divide between "rich and poor", one would think that this is the bare essence of what Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's script was centered on. But what seems to be of greater concern to them here lies back in the origins of the Bat mythos itself - Labels. Duty. Designation. Our place in society, and our inherently human need to break free of this with regularity despite our addiction toward a semblance of order and responsibility. "Structure becomes your shackles" as one character says in one of the least subtle moments of an already unsubtle film. Every character feels bound by their designation, eager to free the inner human, burning inside for redefinition. And yet, Bruce Wayne cannot walk away from the oncoming of what seems to be his self-contructed personal apocalypse. Caught in a terrible gravity , he is the variable, surrounded by those seeking well past their present selves, eager for freedom. And in this sense, Batman , and the villains themselves are locked irrevocably in this death dance, primed to burn an entire population to the ground. So once the true plot is revealed in the breathless final act, and the music has reached a crescendo, and the landscape is a smoky hell on earth, the question of the importance of symbols, and the yearning for a life beyond are illuminated regardless of all the noise. All the while, the existence of the Batman has brought this about, and the film (just as the whole series has) never lets Bruce Wayne off the hook. This is the world his decisions throughout the films have helped create, and it is a horrific one. All the more satisfying to see Christian Bale's final turn in the role played as a man, broken down to the point that even his own body seems ready to be parted with. It is the dilemma of the symbol versus the man that takes us to the final pass of our journey, leading to what could have been a more rousing finish if Nolan had stayed true to all that had been pointing in the same direction. One could argue that it's within the film's final moments that Nolan buckles under the weight he has helped cast throughout all three installments. And for the last minutes to be what they are isn't necessarily a crashing disappointment, but it does feel like something of an apology for the oppressive madness of The Dark Knight. (something one should never apologize for) One might also argue that this yearning for something more lies square on Nolan, who possibly just wants to move on. There are indeed stretches where it feels as such.

And yet despite all of these gripes and occasional story issues (It's a script that feels in need of at least one more rewrite) , The Dark Knight Rises works best as a thrilling, yet deeply flawed epilogue to Nolan's Batman saga. Even when it threatens to crumble under the weight of its own absurdity, the character drama continues to shine through. And even regardless of this perhaps being the weakest of the three films(and possibly of Nolan's work), the series remains a staggering accomplishment of myth weaving, human drama, and philosophical debate disguised as popcorn entertainment. It's that rarest of comic-book based tales, one packed with thoughtfulness and genuine care-mental exhaustion be damned. And as final chapters go, one could do so much worse.


  1. Fine review. Bane is no Joker, but he is pretty intimidating and proves a great threat to Batman, which may surprise some people because it doesn’t seem like Bane has much going for him, other than a scary physique. However, Bane is one of the many reasons why I loved this flick and I’m so glad that Nolan ended this near-perfect trilogy with a bang.

  2. "[..] one cannot help but feel exhausted when one should feel energized" - agreed. There was little room for anything to breath. (I've a different take on Batman that you might like to read at my blog.) Sincerely, Henry Swanson