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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan

CAST:

Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman

REVIEW:

WARNING: WHILE I HAVE ASPIRED TO AVOID OUTRIGHT “SPOILERS”, THIS REVIEW WILL MENTION SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

Along with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers earlier this summer, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has redefined the possibilities of what to expect from a “comic book superhero movie” and raised the bar to a level that future entries in the genre will be hard-pressed to equal, let alone surpass.  While The Avengers served up grand spectacle on an unprecedented scale, Nolan’s Batman films went the more thoughtful, introspective, and in many ways, more groundbreaking approach, defying the expectations and supposed constraints of the genre, approaching the material as deep, dark, serious drama, and making the likes of Spider-Man look fluffy and insubstantial in comparison.  Batman Begins was a respectable launching pad.  The Dark Knight soared above and beyond, seizing the title of, for my money and the money of many others, the most dark, ambitious, and adult-oriented comic book superhero movie ever made, and now Nolan has chosen to cap off his series with a climactic chapter, perhaps the first time a director in a superhero series has chosen of his own accord to conclude his story (as opposed to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner’s X-Men, who were robbed of intended fourth installments by the disappointing receptions of their third entries).  While in my opinion The Dark Knight remains unseated as the most impressive of Nolan’s Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises brings this solid trilogy to a respectable conclusion.

It has been eight years since Batman took the blame for the murders committed by Harvey Dent and disappeared into the night as a wanted fugitive.  In the meantime, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a broken man both spiritually and physically, renouncing his Batman alter ego and becoming a reclusive shutaway in his mansion with Alfred (Michael Caine) as his only companionship.  Gotham City itself, however, seems to be doing well, entering an era of “peacetime”, with organized crime crushed under the Dent Act, although Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), a guilt-ridden workaholic wearied by upholding his lies about what really happened to Harvey Dent, remains wary.  And while Bruce has hung up the cape and cowl, he has made two new allies: young cop and Batman fanboy Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who tries to help Bruce and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) restore the floundering Wayne Enterprises to its former glory.  The peace is broken, however, by the appearance of two new adversaries.  First is nimble cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), better-known to comic fans as Catwoman.  The second, far more dangerous threat arrives in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a burly masked terrorist with a connection to one of Batman’s past enemies and a personal army of mercenaries who comes to Gotham like a conquering warlord with a lot of French Revolution-esque spiel about liberating the common people from the powerful and corrupt (rhetoric which masks his real, more sinister mission).  Bane’s assault forces Batman out of retirement, but the weary Dark Knight is out of shape and ill-prepared.

In my review of The Dark Knight, I compared it to The Empire Strikes Back, a middle episode in a trilogy that stands as the darkest, most complex, and strongest installment.  I still hold that comparison to be valid, but The Dark Knight Rises is better than the Return of the Jedi. While Episode VI was a mixed bag of good material marred by kid-friendly Ewok shenanigans, there’s no such lightening of the mood here.  The tone is as grown-up as Batman has ever been (complete with a brief and tastefully discreet roll in the sack in front of a crackling fireplace between Bale’s Bruce and Cotillard’s Miranda).  The structure is a little unwieldy, especially the sluggish middle section with Bruce out of commission for an extended period and Gotham in lockdown, and a couple plot elements are a little goofy—including the somewhat confusing plot involving Bane and crooked businessman Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) requiring Bruce’s fingerprints, which feels a little unnecessarily convoluted—and both Bruce’s kinda sorta “love affair” with Miranda Tate (which consists of one out-of-nowhere lovemaking session in front of a fireplace) and his flirtatious semi-romantic undertones with Selina are thinly-developed, but when the movie kicks into high gear in the final forty-five minutes or so, it does so on an epic scale beyond anything previously in the series.  It’s not as tightly-plotted or paced as The Dark Knight (Daggett and Matthew Modine’s anti-Batman cop Foley feel like superfluous, not to mention annoying characters), nor does it dare to be quite as dark and edgy (on several different occasions, Rises pulls punches and spares a significant character seemingly facing their doom, where in at least one case, Knight had no such compunction), but nor does it dishonor what has come before. 

The returning series veterans are their usual reliable selves, with Christian Bale emphasizing both Bruce’s weariness and his resolve (once he finally gets back into the Batsuit, which takes a while).  Of any of the movies, Bale probably spends the least time in the Batsuit here, but Batman’s appearances make more impact, and the stakes he faces have never been higher, or he more ill-prepared to confront them.  While The Dark Knight‘s overriding plot strand belonged more to Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight Rises hearkens back to Batman Begins and gives Bruce a more complete character arc.  The Dark Knight Rises features both the most apathetic and the most heroic that Nolan’s Bruce has ever been.  Likewise, Michael Caine has surprisingly small screentime, significantly less than in either Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but he gets a couple emotional monologues beyond anything he’s gotten the chance to show previously in the series.  If anyone has a standout moment here solely for their acting, it’s Caine.  Gary Oldman’s Gordon is likewise weary, weighed down by the burden of the lies he’s been upholding for eight years.  Morgan Freeman serves the same purpose here he has all along, playing Q to Bale’s 007 and hooking Bruce up with some nifty toys, and tossing in a dry one-liner or two.

Of the newcomers, Anne Hathaway is the most scene-stealing, and in fact at times comes close to stealing the show (along with jewelry, watches, and guns).  Her Selina/Catwoman is nothing like Michelle Pfeiffer’s (and much more faithful to the comic character), but Hathaway makes the role her own from her first scene. Considering she’s a romantic comedy veteran, it’s not surprising that Hathaway can handle her character’s numerous quips (she gets the best one-liner in the movie), but she also proves to doubters that she can be sexy and kick-ass.  Selina gets in on a lot of the action here, and gets a couple cool moves (and check out those serrated stilettos).  Joseph Gordon-Levitt does the best he can with a thinly-written role, making Blake an effective sidekick who gets a lot of screentime without being annoying (if that sounds easy, consider the sizable list of actors/characters who’ve failed at it).  Marion Cotillard is largely wasted as Miranda Tate, whose love scene with Bruce comes out of nowhere, with no build-up, and nothing much done with it afterwards.  There’s more of a spark between Bruce/Batman and Selina/Catwoman, resulting in Bruce’s lovemaking session with Miranda seeming like a random detour.

If there’s one specific aspect where the general consensus will keep The Dark Knight a notch up from The Dark Knight Rises, it’s the villain.  A bulked-up, virtually unrecognizable Tom Hardy is saddled with the thankless role of spending the entire movie with a mask clamped over his head (we only glimpse his face briefly in a flashback) and his voice garbled behind electronic distortion effects that render some passages of dialogue virtually unintelligible (though it must be said that Hardy does himself no favors with his strange affectation of, by his own account, basing Bane’s voice off Irish gypsy boxer Bartley Gorman, and giving in to his occasional propensity for hammy scenery-munching in his big speech, which ends up more cheesy than menacing).  The Joker was an eye-opening tour de force for Heath Ledger; the restrictions of Bane don’t give Hardy the chance to make much impression (for much better examples of Hardy’s substantial acting abilities, check out Bronson or Warrior).  In the supporting cast, Matthew Modine and Ben Mendelsohn are annoying, playing their Batman-hating cop and weaselly businessman so hammy and one-note that they’re almost cartoonish.  These two, both in terms of the characters and actors, seem like they belong more in Schumacher’s Batman films than Nolan’s.  There are small roles for Nestor Carbonell (reprising his role as Gotham’s Mayor), Tom Conti, Aidan Gillen, Burn Gorman, Thomas Lennon, and Juno Temple, with sharp-eyed viewers noticing William Devane on TV in a throwaway blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as the President.    

Nolan includes some surefire crowd-pleasing moments.  Knowledgeable fans of the comics in particular will get a thrill from the inclusion of Bane’s most infamous line (and act) from the “Knightfall” graphic novel.  There is a surprise twist, though it’s possible to see it coming.  The Batpod returns, with both Batman and Catwoman taking spins on it, and Lucius Fox also provides Batman with a new toy, a gunship-like flying contraption called The Bat.  There are a couple one-on-one Batman vs. Bane smackdowns, along with a couple car chases and Batman and Catwoman taking on gangs of henchmen.  The climactic car chase, featuring an armored truck, three hijacked Tumblers, the Batpod, and The Bat, is larger-scale than the tunnel chase in The Dark Knight.  This being the final chapter in his trilogy, Nolan makes extensive efforts to bring everything full circle.  More so than The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises cannot stand on its own.  Familiarity with The Dark Knight and, perhaps even more so, Batman Begins, is a must.  While The Joker is conspicuously never mentioned (rumor has it he was originally intended to return, but Nolan scrapped those plans in the wake of Ledger’s untimely death), the legacies of Ra’s Al Ghul and Harvey Dent loom large over the proceedings.  We get walk-on roles from old friends (and foes): Liam Neeson drops by in flashbacks and a dream sequence, Cillian Murphy makes a cameo, we get a quick flashback of Two-Face, and see photographs of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel and Bruce’s parents.     

Partly because of Nolan’s reputation for going in unpredictable directions and sometimes not pulling expected punches, and partly because such a ta-do has been made of this being the final chapter of his Batman saga, a question once unthinkable has loomed large over this film: could Batman actually die?  It is not my place to spoil the ending for those who have yet to see the film.  I will say that while the conclusion is far more straightforward than the notoriously ambiguous and much-debated ending shot of Nolan’s Inception, it does leave things at least partially open-ended.  Also, it will–and already has–divided Batfans, satisfying some while irking others.  As for my $.02, I felt it was a respectful and fitting way to end Nolan‘s Bruce Wayne/Batman story, and find a conclusion that leaves Bruce’s journey with a level of closure while not definitively shutting the door on the Batman legend.

While the two films are very different, The Dark Knight Rises raises the same question I had with The Avengers: where does the genre go from here?  While Nolan and this cast and crew will likely never again set foot in Gotham City, others will come along sooner or later to tell their own Batman stories through their own interpretation of the material, but, while this series isn’t flawless, it’s hard to imagine Batman ever being taken further cinematically than Nolan has taken him.  The Dark Knight remains a ballsier and edgier film with a more thrilling pace and a better villain, but The Dark Knight Rises is no slouch, and brings arguably the most impressive comic book superhero movie series ever made to a fitting, satisfying, and worthy conclusion.

***1/2   

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