Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway
If you’re a fan of this site your mind was probably made up about whether you were going to see The Dark Knight Rises or not. So, this review isn’t meant to help anyone make that decision. In fact what I’m about to write is truly meant as a discussion piece for those who have already seen the film. The Dark Knight Rises deserves this sort of post mortem review/discussion because there’s no denying it is the finale to one of the most important trilogies of this era of film. It’s arguable that most influential trilogies are the original Star Wars trilogy, the original Indiana Jones trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and this one. Some fans might also try to put the Matrix trilogy in the list but it doesn’t quite fit. Those films did influence a generation of filmmakers but the quality varies wildly from film to film to say the least. So this is a post viewing discussion/review. With that in mind there will be spoilers aplenty because to truly decipher the quality of the film it must truly be examined. To give you the short of it minus spoilers; this is a great film but it’s not as good as it should have been and definitely in the shadow of the previous installment to the franchise. If The Dark Knight was a 9/10 (and it was) then this film is at best an 8/10. Now to get to the meat of the film:
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are partially responsible for the bar for comic book film adaptations being set so high. The writing and overall filmmaking were elements of comic book films never seen before. These films are character dramas first and super hero action films second. The believability of the characters made it easier to accept masks, gadgets, and other science fiction elements. Christopher Nolan and his team set out to in three films build a character up and potentially rip him down. Other dark Knight apologists will argue that showing Batman too much would have made the film hard to take because well, a cape and a cowl is just too weird. That’s weak sauce because just look at the Joker and you’ll see ridiculous. The Joker was awesome, one of the greatest villains ever put on film regardless of what he wore and this Batman is one of the greatest heroes ever put on film even with a cape and cowl. This generation of moviegoer excepts the outlandish costume. So, let’s just agree that The Dark Knight was a Joker movie and not make excuses for seeing so little of Batman proper. Nolan and co. have made these characters real and they continue to be real regardless of how much they’re on screen. That gets proved in The Dark Knight Rises when there’s an epic fight scene in the middle of the day, out in the light, with the dark Knight in full costume. He looked great and the fight had real impact to the story. Seeing him for a lengthy time in the light didn’t do any harm to the character.
So Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s death in order to give the city a symbol to get behind to help the city begin to fight for itself. By doing so he branded himself a criminal so he had to disappear. While Batman and Bruce Wayne are two different people one doesn’t exist without the other. So with Batman being gone Bruce Wayne also disappears in a near Gatsby fashion. Wayne is beaten and broken, walking with a cane now and hiding in a deserted wing of his mansion. His broken body is a physical representation of his broken spirit. He has succeeded in helping the city fight off crime and Batman is just unnecessary. Batman was Wayne’s therapist if you will. Being the Dark Knight not only helped the city it helped Wayne deal with the pain and anger he still carries over the murder of his parents. Without that outlet he is descending back into the shell of a man that disappeared from Gotham years ago. This sort of dialogue free character development has been a fantastic creative tool for Nolan throughout all three films and it truly starts The Dark Knight Rises off on the right foot. When Selina Kyle visits Wayne manor and steals some jewelry and another important item Wayne finally wakes from his self-imposed exile to learn more about this “catwoman” and to recover what was taken from him. Catwoman is played by Anne Hathaway to near perfection. She steals nearly every scene she’s in. This may be her best acting work to date. At the same time a new villain simply named Bane is on the scene set on causing chaos. The more Wayne investigates the Catwoman and Bane the more he begins to return to the man he was, losing the cane and regaining his confidence. This isn’t going to be a point to point plot synopsis it’s just important to look at the early parts of the film to get a feel of how the Dark Knight actually rises, which by the way happens more than once in the film.
The story that follows is without a doubt the most epic super hero film ever made. The Avengers final fight scene in New York is epic to be sure, but it’s epic in a modern action popcorn sort of way while this film is epic in a near old Hollywood style. The entire film feels like a classically made Hollywood film. The grandeur and spectacle all has weight and feels as traditional as some of the antiques in Wayne manor. The fact that Nolan is able to bring us a modern super hero drama with weighty old world film style is an amazing triumph. In a way this film is The Godfather of super hero films where The Avengers is more Goodfellas. To get specific The Dark Knight Rises is more akin to The Godfather III. It’s the culmination of a deep and complex drama but it is also the weakest in the trilogy.
The film spends a ton of running time selling you on the fact that there’s truly only one ending for Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s given everything to this city, Kyle says to him at one point, and he replies “not yet”. At another point the young cop played by Joseph Gordon Levitt thanks Batman for all he’s done, Batman tells him he doesn’t need to be thanked, and Levitt’s reply is that he might not get to thank him later. These are only a couple of scenes of many that are just desperate to sell us on the fact that we will see the Dark Knight’s demise at the end of the film. They sell it so hard that it’s easy to begin believing that we will get a fake out rather than a true dramatic end. The nail gets put into the coffin in one particular scene where Alfred describes his dream of a Paris trip where he sees Bruce there relaxing with a family, living a good life. So much time is spent on the scene, and it’s sold so vividly that the bookend of the scene actually happening gets shuffled into the cards and a countdown to it begins. As I was experiencing this feeling I thought: “it’s Christopher Nolan, he’s just playing with us.” Then when the predictable coda happened at the end of the film the disappointment actually caused me pain. Apologists will say “Warner Brothers would never let him actually kill off Batman.” Yes they are probably right but that doesn’t mean one of the best filmmakers of this generation should be given points for going for a predictable character ending.
So Bane is a member of the League of Shadows, or he has become the League in a sense. This actually ties solidly back to the first film. This villain being from the League and the continued influence of Harvey Dent make the Dark Knight Rises truly feel like a culmination of the two major storylines started in the previous films. These three films are absolutely one lengthy story, which is quite an amazing success on the part of Nolan and his team. Sadly the Joker only ends up feeling like a footnote to the overall story even though his beating of Batman was key in the growth of the character. Scarecrow actually gets a little more weight throughout the three movies. Unfortunately it’s most likely due to Heath Ledger’s death that the character gets the short end of the stick in the final film. Back to Bane though. So why exactly does the League have such a hate on for Gotham City? I wondered that back with Batman Begins and even more so now. I recently watched Batman Begins and that question mark kept popping up in my head. You can easily argue that Gotham is meant to represent the real world New York City so it is the cultural and financial center of the country. You have to argue that or assume it because it’s never truly defined in Batman Begins. Due to the events of Batman Begins and some even further character development it’s a little easier to see why Bane is in town through.
Bane’s master plan is similar to that of the League in the first film; to simply reset Gotham City, to tear it down to its bones and force the people to start over. He is connected with some shady business types but they are never really developed and their parts in the overall story are a bit convoluted. This leads me to a bulky center act of the film where you just really wish something would happen. The movie is epically long to fit the epic story but there is a stretch in the center where the plodding goes a little long before important stuff begins happening again. That issue could be blamed on some weak editing in the middle of the film. Bane takes Wayne (hehe a rhyme) back to the Hell on earth prison where he grew up to begin a process of breaking Wayne’s spirit. The way that sequence is assembled it feels like the pit is just next door rather than in another country thousands of miles away from Gotham City. Also the breaking of Wayne’s spirit is completely anticlimactic. The dramatic build up between Bane and Bruce (no more rhyming dammit) is thick and palpable and feels like what’s to follow will truly be impactful. What we get are a scant few scenes of Bruce looking at what Bane is doing in Gotham on a TV while he’s imprisoned. The breaking of Wayne’s spirit should have been much more central to the plot and made up the bulk of the middle of the film. The bones of greatness where there but the story just had too many layers and too many beats to hit to give that part of the film the attention it deserved.
One such layer involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. He’s a young cop with a similar background to Bruce Wayne. Levitt is quite good in the film and he truly owns the personality of this character. The problem is that he’s used too often as a plot device. He always seems to know a little more than he realistically should, and he always ends up at the right place at the right time. In one particular exchange he just seems to know everything there is to know about Bruce Wayne. The scene rings heavy handed and too simplistic. The only reason that scene is in the film is to set the stage for the ending. With that said Levitt is great and the scenes of Blake and Gordon teaming up together are so good they nearly warrant a buddy cop spin-off film.
One of the more powerful and expertly executed scenes in the film is that of Bane taking control of the entire city. Again it’s epic, gorgeously shot, dramatically acted, and riveting. He is rolling an atom bomb around the city with a trigger to blow it up at his whim. The only issue is that the bomb is going to blow anyway because it is unstable. It’s not clear whether he knows this or not. The only way to stop it from going off is to jam his remote trigger and get the bomb seated back into an energy creating device in the Wayne complex. In some of the cooler sequences in the film Fox, Gordon, and Blake work secretly together in the city to try and disable the bomb and rescue the city. These scenes are going so well only to hit a bump in the road when Batman finally returns to the city. That bump is that Batman knows everything, including when the unstable material will blow before he’s even talked to Fox, Gordon or the rest. You might try to argue that he knew this would happen before the events of the film but that doesn’t sell because Fox didn’t know it would happen until the bomb was built from the reactor created by Wayne’s company. There’s just no way that Batman could have had this information.
In the third action packed act of the film there’s such an amazing twist that I just can’t talk about it here even though this article is spoiler heavy. It’s just that good and that well executed. I was so invested in the goings on that I just didn’t see it coming and I loved it. With that said the bad guys know that in order to completely stop batman, Fox, or Gordon from reassembling the bomb to the reactor that it was taken from all they have to do is flood the facility where the reactor sits. It means pushing one button. I can understand maybe not wanting to destroy the device while they think they are rid of Batman because it might be of some use for something at some point. But, Batman makes his presence in the city known to them and everyone else way before he actually fights with them. So do they immediately flood the device to keep him from using it as an option for stopping them? Nope. Eventually when the Bat is hot on their trail and nearly ready to take them down do they destroy the device? Nope. They finally do attempt to flood the facility at the very last second in true classic Bond villain style. I was just waiting for the over the top evil giggle. Christopher Nolan is a smarter filmmaker than that.
Once Batman and Bane, and all of the rest of the heroes and villains of the city face off it’s a sight to behold, truly stunning and beautiful. Thank you Christopher Nolan for not harkening back to the style of the first film of cutting fight scenes so tight that you couldn’t see anything that was happening. Here we actually see the fight between Bane and Batman and each punch is thunderous. It seems like with each great moment in the film there’s a failure. The fight between Bane and Batman is rendered meaningless as Bane is eventually defeated with a joke. Sure the gag is kind of funny but it decimates the weightiness of the dramatic closure between the Dark Knight and Bane. It was pointed out to me after the screening that there is a difference between The Dark Knight and Batman. It’s a really true statement actually. Tim Burton made Batman movies. They had fun with the darkness and were slightly campy and humorous. The Dark Knight comics and these films are serious, melancholy, and complex. Bane suffered a Batman ending rather than a Dark Knight finish.
The city is in peril, millions of lives are in jeopardy and Batman must save them all. He’s working through all of this while being beaten and bleeding but all of this time he’s still been silently focused on faking his own death. For a character so invested in helping the city it sure seems a bit selfish to be spending even a little bit of time on this concept. The ending of The Dark Knight, at Harvey dent’s funeral, Gordon read one of the greatest most moving monologues ever put on film. That scene left me breathless at the end of the movie and moved. At Bruce Wayne’s funeral Nolan chooses to simply pilfer quotes that were used in a more dramatically executed scene in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. The entire funeral rang hollow in comparison to the endings of the previous two films and this ending should have been the most important of the entire franchise. Maybe the hollow tacked on feel of Wayne’s funeral is purposeful since it’s completely bogus as it leads to the painful, almost insultingly formulaic bookend ending of the film.
You might have trouble believing that The Dark Knight Rises is a great film after reading this article but the truth is that it’s really good. The things that work in the film are pure magic. The cast is stellar all the way through and the score and design of the film is top notch. Oh and the IMAX footage is mesmerizing. What’s truly incredible about the IMAX footage is that Nolan uses the transitions from regular 35 mm to the IMAX format as dramatic tools. His choices of which scenes to shoot in the giant film format are brilliant throughout the film. The sound on the other hand is, well, imperfect. Bane is tough to understand at times and there are other bits of dialogue that are also a challenge to hear. I questioned some other viewers after the fact to make sure it wasn’t just me having played my guitar too loud for too many years but sure enough many others had difficulty making out certain scenes. The way this film builds on the previous two is complex and fascinating. The way Nolan and his team craft these villains in a post 9/11 world is truly brilliant. These are chaos bent terrorists not super powered aliens. Even the evolution of the reasons that Wayne wears the mask is examined based on life experiences from the first two films. Again, brilliant character development. The film also does a much better job than the previous film of balancing the Bruce Wayne to Batman, to villain screen time. The first film was a Bruce Wayne movie, the second film was a Joker movie, and this one is truly a Batman movie even without him dominating the screen. The Dark Knight Rises needs to be experienced in the theater, in an IMAX theater if at all possible, it deserves that attention. Sadly it isn’t the best of the three. The Dark Knight, even if it isn’t a Dark Knight movie, is still the best executed of the three films.