The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway
Running Time: 2 hrs, 45 min
Rated: PG-13

Review by Brother Reed

In 2005, Batman Begins pioneered the now ubiquitous gritty reboot (in film – it was being done in comic books more than a decade prior) and reintroduced a generation to Gotham’s mythic hero in a way that was more realistic than ever before. Then in 2008, the ludicrously popular follow-up The Dark Knight permanently changed our perceptions of what comic book adaptations could be; it was heady, mature, cerebral, and morally complex. It also featured Heath Ledger in a career-defining role that defied expectations. His Joker was initially supposed to carry over into the third part of the trilogy.

Then Ledger died. This placed the final film in a precarious position, needing to satisfy fans with a strong conclusion while compensating for the loss of the Joker character and the posthumously revered actor who had portrayed him. Surely the biggest fear regarding The Dark Knight Rises is that it would fail to live up to its predecessors. This is oddly appropriate since the film is about failure, just as Begins was about fear. Much as Bruce Wayne must literally climb out of a pit to achieve victory, so the heir to the Nolan Batman Dynasty (hereafter known as the NBD) must look up at the walls of anticipation and scale them.

The Dark Knight Rises is no mere movie. It is a survivor.

And survive it does, but not unscathed. TDKR is undoubtedly the weakest installment of the trilogy and it suffers from several of the same problems as threequels that have come before it. Like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, it’s too long at 2 hours and 45 minutes; yet, like Spiderman 3 there’s so much going on that it still manages to feel rushed. Between introducing the audience to essentially new characters (Bane, Miranda Tate, John Blake), wrapping a sprawling plot and trying to conclude Batman’s personal and moral journey all while providing big-budget spectacle and rousing action, it’s not that the movie gets boring so much as that it becomes fatigued.

In the third act we begin to sense echoes of Return of the Jedi, in which three geographically and thematically separate but connected plot lines are running simultaneously: the space battle outside the second Death Star, the rebels vs. the troops on the Endor moon, and Luke in the Emperor’s throne room. I always found that sustaining these at length began to weigh on the film; it was exciting but sort of draining as well. The same thing happens to The Dark Knight Rises late in the game. Eventually everything comes to a point, but it only works as intended if the audience is still as invested as they were at first. Nolan himself pulled a similar trick in Inception, with an amazing 20-minute protracted suspense climax juggling four separate dream levels moving at different speeds. This cutting between various characters with their own mini-goals supporting the larger plot doesn’t come off as seamlessly in Rises – this is the first of his Batman films that has felt a little slack in places.

Lanes? Where we’re going we don’t need lanes.

Yet another tendency of “three movies” is a feeling of “been-there-done-that.” For example: after its departure into darker territory with The Temple of Doom, the Indiana Jones series returned to a desert setting, nazi villains and a Biblically themed artifact with The Last Crusade, a film that for all its good qualities was far too reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. TDKR features Bane, who, like Ra’s Al Ghul before him, is a member of the League of Shadows and wants to destroy Gotham. Perhaps the best analog once again is Return of the Jedi, whose callbacks to Star Wars included details like the exact same plot, i.e. blowing up a Death Star. There’s something to be said for bringing things full circle, but it has to feel fresh.

Hans Zimmer returns with a bombastic score that rarely lets up. I criticized The Dark Knight and Inception for overusing their score and Rises doesn’t escape that trap either; however, I do like that much of this new soundtrack varies from the last by being much more percussion based and using uncommon time. Obviously Nolan’s partnership with Zimmer has been working for him so he isn’t going to change what isn’t broken. I’d just like to have a few more quiet moments to create space and contrast.

So with all these difficulties and criticisms, I don’t want to be too hard on the Bat Man. What Nolan and crew do accomplish with The Dark Knight Rises is admirable: a fitting end to an esteemed saga that takes Bruce Wayne’s story in a new direction while staying true to what made this iteration work in the first place. Classic Bat gadgets, vehicles and weapons are re-imagined to look like they could exist in a realistic universe (okay, so I still don’t get how the Bat Pod can do that thing with its wheels, but I am not immune to the Rule of Cool). Classic Bat villains are introduced who challenge Batman in new ways. Bane, the gentlemen brute, is the first baddie in the series to outclass Wayne physically as well as trading intellectual and ideological jabs. What’s more, he acts decisively and ruthlessly, unafraid to execute his own people at a moment’s notice if they let him down and unwilling to leave anything to chance. In short, Bane is a formidable villain.

With a foolproof smear campaign and a slogan like “No Bane, No Gain,” this man will certainly be elected.

At least, on paper. Something in the execution seems to numb his sense of menace. Maybe it’s the fact that we never see his face, or that his theatrical, sing-song voice seems inconsistent with his appearance. Tom Hardy is a fine actor and very charismatic. It’s a shame he is stuck behind the Bane mask for the whole film. He does fine, but this role is not a good showcase of his abilities. This character could easily have been played, Darth Vader style, by a body builder and had Hardy’s dialog dubbed over it.

The liveliest additions to the cast this time around are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer John Blake. In the case of Hathaway, Nolan has once again proven his controversial casting choices trustworthy. I was skeptical that she would be right for the role but she slips into the cat suit effortlessly. Her ability to be alternately demure and haughty at the drop of a hat is a lot of fun to watch, and she features in a couple of the best scenes (and gets some nice comic book style one-liners). Hathaway infuses every scene she’s in with a youthful energy and playfulness much needed in a story that could easily be bogged down with too many suffering idealists painted in browns and greys.

Levitt pulls off tough New York detective with aplomb. He’s dependable but never flashy. It was crucial for his and Hathaways roles to work as well as they did, especially with actors like Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman being relegated to small supporting performances. Michael Caine returns as Alfred in a few of the most emotional moments and makes good use of his limited time on screen. Matthew Modine also appears as the cop who doesn’t believe in the Caped Crusader. Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, a scientist and businesswoman involved with Wayne Enterprises’ quest for clean energy, is unfortunately under-written and under-used. This is just one of the many subplots that doesn’t have time to develop as fully as it should.

One thing Nolan has learned through his experience making action movies is how to shoot a fight scene. The combat in the first two films was often muddled and incoherent, but in Rises it’s much clearer. There are fewer cuts, wider shots, more light. A big improvement and a necessary one, given the sheer scale of the action.

Anne Hathaway slinks and purrs as Selina Kyle, never called Catwoman by name (but we aren’t fooled).

Maybe the biggest surprise in The Dark Knight Rises is that there is so little of the Dark Knight. Wayne begins the film as a hobbling recluse and spends much of the film absent, which is about as much as I can say here. I was pleased by some uncompromising story choices that, while they created some difficulties in the film, ultimately left us with good character moments.

I suppose at the end of this review you may simply be wondering if I liked the movie. The answer is yes, though I wouldn’t go much further than that. Rises is not The Dark Knight, i.e., it’s not a game changer, and won’t leave the same cultural imprint that that film did; and it’s not Batman Begins, so it lacks the element of surprise in seeing a totally new spin on the origin story. As a summer blockbuster, though, it’s sufficiently engrossing, intelligent, good looking and action-packed. It draws momentum from the first two movies since we already know and care about the characters and invest in their fate. It’s certainly a heavier film both visually and thematically than something like The Avengers, though it has more in common with what we traditionally think of as a comic book movie than TDK or Begins – more unbelievable situations, quips, general hamminess. I for one couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1966 Batman movie during the climax, for reasons too spoiler-y to mention.

So The Dark Knight Rises survives – it meets expectations even if it doesn’t surpass them. Having seen it, I feel satisfied that the story is closed. Now I will wait with the rest of the world to see what Christopher Nolan will do next (personally, I hope it’s something original like Memento or The Prestige, still his best works to date), and for the NBD on BluRay disc. And of course, we will all watch the skies for the return of the Batman, which – as long as his movies continue to boast $170 million opening weekends – can never be too far away.