I’m going to start this review by saying that I can not remember any time in recent years when I have had as much of a lack of anticipation for a film event such as ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. This is made all the more surprising given my hype and eventual reaction to Nolan’s last Batman feature ‘The Dark Knight’. I was at points uncontrollably ecstatic for it’s release back in 2008. To the point in which I had downloaded a windows widget countdown clock months before its release which I set to its midnight opening. In the weeks leading up to its screening I was changing the channel any time a TV spot appeared, for I not only didn’t want to see any more footage until the actual film but also because the way it increased my anticipation was probably not good for my health. Of course, once it was released I was head over heels in love with it. Saw it in theaters, including IMAX, more times than I can remember, and for over a year after its release I had thought of it as my favorite film of all time.
Now, times have changed and it no longer holds that title but it is still a film I really love. So why was I not as excited for its sequel? I mean one could make a fairly strong argument that ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is one of the biggest movie events in the last few decades when you take into consideration the history of the trilogy, its financial and critical success, how it changed the way comic book adaptations are made and viewed, and how it even played a role in changing the format of the Oscars. This is the final movie in a trilogy that has cemented itself in film history for so many reasons. And yet, my anticipation was passive at best. Was it because I didn’t like what I had seen? Maybe. The trailers were never too well put together, the TV spots offered little to no insight on the story; and I was very worried that the plot and cast were just too big. From the beginning of its production I feared Nolan would try too hard to finish this series on a high note, and surpass the quality and success of its predecessor. This fear grew when all the casting began and early on-set images leaked. It seemed like this was going to be filled to the brim with too many characters and tons of action; because of this I worried that it would then lose all coherence and emotion.
So maybe that was it, maybe I just didn’t care because I felt it wasn’t going to be any good. But that is impossible right? I mean it is Nolan. You know, “In Nolan We Trust” as some fan-boys would say. So what was it? Was I just shielding myself from possible disappointment? Did I want it to so badly be good that I couldn’t risk hyping myself up to impossible expectations?
Either way you may be reading and wondering why the hell I’m even saying all this, but I just want to set up the mind set I had going into ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, one that does not match that of most who wanted to see it, and one which may or may not have had an influence on my final decision on its quality.
Now that I’ve actually seen it I will just come right out and say that on many levels I think it is better than ‘The Dark Knight’…now before I receive any hate or people questioning my sanity, let me explain.
After ‘The Dark Knight’ hit theaters I began wondering what I would personally want from a third and final film if Nolan decided to do one. The thing that always came to mind was I desperately wanted something a bit more ‘intimate’. I didn’t just want another flashy action-superhero flick. I wanted something that tackled serious and dark themes like ‘The Dark Knight’, but also one that would result in getting to really know who Batman was behind the mask. In the end that is what Nolan did here, giving us a much more detailed look at the character while still providing a spectacle on a grand scale that rivals its predecessor. I walked away not only thoroughly entertained, but also feeling like I learned more about what it means to be a hero, not just one behind a mask, than any of the films before it.
‘The Dark Knight Rises’ takes place many years after the events of the last film. With Harvey Dent gone the city has cracked down hard on organized crime. It is a time of ‘peace’ as one character put it. Even Batman, wanted for the murder of Dent, has little to do and Bruce Wayne has become a bit of a recluse. Being Batman was the only thing he had, the only life he knew, and with the city not needing their “Dark Knight” Wayne’s life is rather empty. But his ‘retirement’ was never going to last, and he finds himself needing to become Batman once again as a new threat makes its presence known. This one in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a muscular and ruthless mercenary, who is building an army to unleash some secret assault of Gotham.
Along the way Batman makes allegiances with some new characters. First, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a masked thief who doesn’t really seem to know which side she is on. And Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who seems to know more about the masked vigilante than most other people. But even with the help of them, and a few old friends (Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox), Bane is too much for the aged and physically deteriorated Batman. This allows the brooding masked villain to unleash his rein of terror over the city, taking down the government, police force and wealthy in one quick swing of his fist and giving the “power to the people”.
I should warn everyone that this was not as fast paced, climatic or kinetic as ‘The Dark Knight’. Actually the first hour or so is incredibly slow. Also, it is not at times as funny, with really unique and shocking moments like the ‘pencil trick’ scene either. Still, the way it unfolds at a slow and meticulous pace, building to an explosive final act, resulted in a much more rewarding experience than the previous two films. The sort in which you don’t truly know how you feel until halfway through, as things start to come together, and you really realize how much you are enjoying what has played out. This has a lot to do with the way Nolan ties in the events of the two previous films. Both of which on their own had little to no connection outside of a few characters. But in his conclusion to the trilogy Nolan intertwines narratives, characters and themes from those films as he builds the story here making the trilogy feel like a whole.
At the same time he allows Bruce Wayne to take center stage. Where as in ‘The Dark Knight’ he just seemed to play the ‘good guy’ in a film about the Joker, here he actually must face emotional and physical struggles unlike anything he has ever faced before. In retirement he is lost, missing the love of his life, and unsure as to what to do with himself. When he becomes Batman again he faces a foe too powerful, physically and emotionally, to defeat. Now he must truly stare darkness and death in the face, embrace fear once again and rise from the lowest point we have ever seen this character reach in a feature length adaptation. We finally get to see him go through a struggle that makes him worthy of the cowl he wears.
Along with his development, the new characters around him receive more focus than other supporting roles have in the previous two films. Their relationships might not have been perfect, but Nolan took time to develop them and the story, which is why it is often slow and overall so long. But this is a good thing. For once their motivations, fears and what makes them who they are is presented to us. Because of this, all the eventual action and the grim and always present feeling of inescapable doom are made all the more threatening and powerful. This time around Gotham was truly on its last leg. Not by a nut-job in make-up whose mind was set on nothing but random acts of chaos; but rather a man and his army that turned the city on its head; and instead of the characters just being involved with the action and main plot, we actually see them feeling the effects of it on emotional and psychological levels. This was something I felt was missing from ‘The Dark Knight’. I never really thought anything or anyone was truly in danger in that film. The Joker, although at times terrifying, never really made me feel like he could be the end of Gotham. That isn’t the case here and when watching the film one might think evil could win the day. Plus, until the final moments of ‘The Dark Knight’ I didn’t feel like Batman, or the audience, learned anything about the importance of his character. However here throughout we truly understand why Gotham needs a hero.
I think that is important when considering the structure of the trilogy. The beginning (‘Batman Begins’) was a great origin story, providing a basis for Bruce’s rise to becoming Batman. The middle (‘The Dark Knight’) was the climax of the story, action packed and chaotic, facing a threat that was a direct result of his presence. The ending (‘The Dark Knight Rises’) is more focused on the full effects of everything that came before it, what it has done to the character of Batman, what his presence truly means to the city, and what his final sacrifice must be…which I can not get into without spoiling the ending, but I must say it is the most emotional and powerful conclusion to any superhero adaptation to date.
On a technical level it is about as good as one would expect from Christopher Nolan. The action and set pieces are at times fantastic. A few of the fight scenes, including one with Batman vs. Bane in his underground bunker, are as intense as they are thrilling. The cinematography, though nothing to write home about, is also very good but I can not fully comment on it until I see it in IMAX. I did have an issue with the score. It wasn’t as exciting as it was in the previous films, though I think it fit the tone of the story so it really didn’t bother me.
Performance wise I think we got the best out of Christian Bale and Michael Caine since the trilogy started. As Bruce’s demons reemerge in his life without Batman, and when he is struggling to save Gotham, Bale does a great job in portraying the inner turmoil and physical pain Wayne is put through. As for Michael Caine, I think he deserves some sort of award recognition. Honestly. His performance was so heart breaking. He makes Alfred so lovable, with his feelings for Wayne so potent, that when he has to watch Wayne struggle to move on in retirement or suffer the beatings of another thug you genuinely feel how much he cares.
Anne Hathaway was surprisingly perfect as Catwoman, though they never really call her that. She brought just the right amount of sexuality, humor and ass kicking ability to the role. Her character is also pretty well developed. We don’t get much back story but we understand her points of view and the motivations for many of her actions. Joseph Gordon Levitt, who played a bigger part than I expected, also gave a great performance. For a character that had no basis in Batman mythology he ended up being a rather well fleshed out and likable individual, which makes the ending all the better.
Tom Hardy as Bane was perfect casting in my opinion. The character was more threatening, punishing and thorough than the Joker, and Hardy’s performance and physical presence got that across nicely. Most of his face was covered but he did enough with his eyes to sell his determination and emotions. As for the character, he was just the right sort of villain to orchestrate the biggest threat Gotham has ever known.
Finally, I couldn’t end without saying that the film isn’t without its many, many flaws. Is it bloated? Hell yes. Nolan crams a whole lot of story and a ton of characters together at once and often they don’t get enough time to fully develop. Is it a mess? God yes. I wouldn’t say it has any more or less plot holes than ‘The Dark Knight’, but they are there, which doesn’t help in a story that is at times completely convoluted. One of the most jarring issue I personally had was early on in the film when so much of the exposition was done through not so subtle dialogue. This can all be blamed on the fact that Nolan wanted to tie so much of the previous films in with a plot worthy of an ‘epic conclusion’ and it doesn’t always work.
Still, even with all its flaws I just have to say that sometimes when you overreach as Nolan did, even if at times you fail and it gets messy, the result is still often worthy of a lot of praise which is the case here. As bloated as it was the result is still a coherent and at times deeply emotional story which, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, was all that mattered to me.
So in the end I personally do feel on many levels it achieves so much more than the previous films, bringing the story back to something more attuned to ‘Batman Begins’ character wise but with the same spectacle and scale that we loved from ‘The Dark Knight’. It isn’t a masterpiece and is far from perfect, but it is an entertaining and smart conclusion to a brilliant trilogy that I couldn’t recommend more.