The Dark Knight Rises In Review
Few filmmakers could make me both simultaneously dread and eagerly anticipate a movie the way Christopher Nolan did with The Dark Knight Rises in the months leading up to its release. The anticipation part is easy. It’s the third and final chapter in the best trilogy of super hero films ever made. And it’s Christopher Nolan – following up a movie that brought a sense of stunning grandeur and depth to a comic book character. Unlike anything seen before and quite possibly unlike anything we’re ever going to see again, it’s pretty easy to get excited about something like that.
The dread? I had to wonder if even Nolan, who hasn’t made an average movie yet, let alone a bad one, could succeed where X-Men and SpiderMan failed (although I freely admit the third X-Men movie is kind of a guilty pleasure of mine). The task of making a movie that would even be on par with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is a lot like making lightning in a bottle three times a row. Nolan is a great filmmaker, and he’s only going to get better, but I was weirdly skeptical that he could finish the series on a worthy high note.
I was also doubtful that he could get me to care about Bane, a Batman nemesis I’ve never been able to get all that excited about. I had reservations about Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, and I wasn’t sure where Gordon Joseph Levitt and Marion Cotillard fit in with the whole thing. A lot of new characters were joining the proceedings, and it was hard to get around the thought that it might be too many. Even with a running time of nearly three hours.
One thing is certain: The Dark Knight Rises is not a repeat of The Dark Knight or even Batman Begins. It takes place in the same universe, features many of the same faces and has much of the same epic tone and attention to detail, but it’s not the same story. The Dark Knight Rises might have a lot of the elements we’ve come to expect from Nolan (and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan) and his take Batman, but it’s a much bleaker, grimmer place than when we last saw Christian Bale and company. Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Gotham City no longer has any gripping need for a figure like Batman. That’s fine with Bruce Wayne, who hasn’t been seen as Batman in those eight years. His days are now spent in isolation at Wayne Manor. With nothing but Alfred (another wonderful Michael Caine performance) and regret (yes, Rachel is still very dead) to keep him company, Wayne is just one of the many ghosts haunting the grounds of his estate. The city doesn’t need him, not yet, and Bruce Wayne doesn’t seem to particularly need them either.
Gotham doesn’t even really need Commissioner Gordon (I don’t envy the next actor who plays Gordon—Gary Oldman has created the definitive portrayal). Worn down by boredom, racked with guilt, Gordon stays on as Commissioner out of instinct. It’s the same instinct that served him in the last two films. It’s an instinct that tells him that something is going to happen eventually. The only question is when.
Of course, we know that something is Bane, and we know that Catwoman is going to be part of it all somehow, too. This is the part of the story we expect. Nolan introduces both with style and visual punch befitting both the series and the importance of the characters.
It doesn’t hurt either that Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy both deliver pitch-perfect performances. Hathaway erases any doubts I had about her playing Catwoman about two minutes into her first appearance. She plays Selina Kyle as a woman who never fails to retain control of her reaction to her surroundings. In the moments when we know she isn’t, she certainly isn’t going to actually give that away. Hathaway finds the perfect mix of sexuality, cunning and sincerity. She plays Catwoman as someone constantly at odds with being a cold, selfish femme fatale and someone who wants to do the right thing. Her chemistry with Bale is essential to the movie, so to see them bantering so beautifully is one of the film’s true highlights. Just as much as a highlight as how well Nolan executes two of the most important things about Catwoman: That we never really know where her loyalties lie, and that we’re always a little unsure of how she really feels about Batman, Bruce Wayne or both.
(Copyright 2012 Warner Bros/DC Comics)
Bane is a different story. His mission, to lay waste to Gotham, is a soldier’s mission, and he goes about it with blunt, straightforward brutality. It’s not an easy character to make interesting, but Hardy manages to carve out a surprisingly engaging nemesis for Batman. Bane isn’t afforded the same manic luxuries as The Joker or Scarecrow. He has to be pure, calculated, unrelenting menace. Hardy accomplishes this with sheer physical presence and body language. He goes far with Nolan’s masterful job in the early going of setting him up as a force more than capable of toppling an entire city. Whereas Catwoman suggests she’s more to Batman than just an adversary, we’re never in doubt of that thought with Bane. His mission is unflinching and sincere in the most vicious way possible. So much so that it’s actually possible to believe that he’s capable of succeeding in that mission, and laying waste to Batman as though he’s nothing more than a mild irritant.
(Copyright 2012 Warner Bros/DC Comics)
With just those two characters alone, while also throwing in Bruce Wayne’s turmoil over whether or not to take up the mask again, his strained relationship with Alfred, his potentially romantic relationship with Miranda Tate (Cotillard), a Wayne Enterprises executive with hopes of making Gotham the first city to be run on green energy and even more, there’s a lot of story going on here. Throw in Levitt as a young cop who finds himself suddenly thrust into a critical role in the war against Bane, leave some room for Caine, Oldman, Morgan Freeman and even minor participants like Mathew Modine, and it’s easy to envision the movie collapsing. Two hours and forty-five minutes is a hell of a running time, especially for a comic book movie, but even that length of time wouldn’t be enough in the hands of a less-talented director. One of the miracles of The Dark Knight Rises then is how Nolan keeps everything afloat. It’s a busy movie, but it’s not a bloated, confused one. Everything runs smoothly. Everyone gets time to contribute something important to the final product. Our interest is locked into place from the start.
What’s important to remember about The Dark Knight Rises though is that this still isn’t the same kind of thing we went through the last time. The tone this time around is a far darker one than anything we’ve seen before. If anything suffers here, it’s Batman’s screen time. He is of course the heart of the movie, but The Dark Knight Rises isn’t just another series of fantastic quick cuts and extraordinary heroics set to Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score. For Batman to be a true adversary to Bane, Bruce has to sort some things out first. It calls on Bale to be more than just a guy in a bodysuit. He has to take us through Bruce Wayne’s demons in such a way that we’re going to care about him as much as we care about seeing him as Batman one more time. It’s an impressive feat, and Bale deserves credit for being able to pull it off amongst so much chaos.
It’s Wayne’s struggle to find peace that stands at the core of The Dark Knight Rises. This essential conflict runs through so much of the film’s main story, subplots, social commentary and over-the-top action. The best way to describe it all is that it’s a super hero movie that in many moments doesn’t really feel like a super hero movie. In this case that’s a wonderful thing. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t just finish Nolan’s story. It also finishes a process that began with Batman Begins. One of the greatest accomplishments of this trilogy is that it proves a super hero movie can stand alongside anything else that is supposedly speaking to a higher culture or larger film-making good. That doesn’t make them pretentious. It just means that the genre of these movies can evolve. What Nolan has done here is only the beginning.
Is The Dark Knight Rises as good as The Dark Knight? I have to admit that I really don’t think so. It comes close, awfully damn close, but The Joker is still just a bit more fun than Catwoman and Bane combined, and the black sense of fun he inspires in The Dark Knight makes it a bit more appealing to me than the other two entries in the trilogy. That’s okay. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have to be better. The three main objectives here were to finish the series on a high note, complete the story and yet stand on its own as an individual movie. All of that is carried out in spectacular fashion. The bar for the super hero movie has been set almost impossibly high now.