“And here … we … go.”
The heavily anticipated conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed series of Batman films arrives to overwhelming critical and commercial expectations and will certainly be one of the year’s box-office standouts. Nolan carries the Dark Knight’s trilogy to an excellent finish with many successes and few but noticeable missteps along the way.
After some impressive early action establishing the muscular, masked villain Bane (Tom Hardy), we are quickly introduced to newcomers Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman, though she’s rarely if ever addressed as such) and Inception’s Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate, board member at Wayne Enterprises), as well as to several personalities who return from Nolan’s previous Batman films.
Of the many characters, new and old, the film establishes with its opening scenes and minutes, probably the most impressive is none other than Bruce Wayne himself (spoiler alert: he’s Batman!), now possessed of quite the impressive beard. As his butler Alfred tries everything in his power to convince Bruce to move on with his life and regain touch with the outside world instead of putting on the mask and cape again, the movie feels like it’s heading toward a Watchmen-esque deconstructive examination of how being a superhero–a vigilante–has affected Bruce’s worldviews and relationships. This interesting plotline boasts a lot of potential, especially with a powerful exchange between Alfred and Bruce, but is prematurely dropped. The movie then quickly shifts into a more standard hero-versus-villain “the city needs you” mode.
It is here that Bane really begins establishing himself as a character: as much as Heath Ledger did an excellent job portraying the Joker in The Dark Knight, Bane’s motivations and history are made clearer and more specific, and in terms of comparing the fictional personalities themselves, Bane feels slightly more complex, though still not very likeable. In terms of acting and costuming, however, Tom Hardy walks a very thin line between being menacing (because of his mask and voice) and silly (because of the exact same reasons), sounding like a gruffer version of Gandalf with a dash of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter for good measure. Bane himself is straightforward in his idealism, but his intense devotion to his own ideas is a joy to watch. As Bane quickly and steadily takes control of Gotham, Bruce shortly finds himself in over his head.
“I won’t kill you …”
One aspect of the plot that may seem tiresome for filmgoers also familiar with the Arkham series of Batman video games, is that the conflict-establishment approach of “villain takes hostages, villain announces that interference will result in deaths, villain gives Batman or other heroes plenty of time to save hostages” is in play here, as is the odd cliche of villains loudly and directly revealing their plans to the heroes for the benefit of the audience. (I think it would be more suitable to shift the story to the villain’s perspective, allowing for plenty of narrative exposition that couldn’t potentially benefit the hero in any way, such as voice-overs.) Without wanting to spoil too much, an “I want you to live to see my plan succeed” moment also arises, though thankfully none of these moments are arguably quite as egregious or frustrating as one memorable “the villain is cornered” scene from The Dark Knight.
The story pacing of these sequences is somewhat cleaner, however–the essential collapse of organized crime within the city of Gotham itself, and the removal of its accompanying subplots, makes the narrative easier to understand. The resulting film lacks the clean “act-one, act-two” partitions of Joss Whedon’s phenomenal Avengers film, but a more even distribution of action from beginning to end (compared to The Avengers) makes up for this. The Dark Knight Rises comes to combine the eventfulness of Nolan’s second Batman film (the similarity in names is somewhat aggravating) with the steady tempo of his first.
Nolan’s third Batman feature indeed seems to feel like more of a sequel to his first than The Dark Knight did, and several of Batman Begins’ plot points are revisited to great effect. I loved The Dark Knight’s emotional conclusion–it was really the only thing I felt the otherwise fantastic Batman Begins lacked–but I preferred the first film’s more or less perfect pacing and storytelling. The otherwise excellent second film felt comparatively uneven and occasionally disorienting not so much in terms of the narrative itself but of its rhythm.
“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
One of the film’s “few but noticeable missteps” comes in the story direction of Selina Kyle. Anne Hathaway does a fine job in the role, but the development of her character and of her interactions with Bruce Wayne comes with several oddities. For starters, justice-minded vigilante Wayne’s early flirtatious attitude with a woman he’s fully aware is an unrepentant jewel thief, seems out of character for him and arguably unwise for her, and this is before his even more unexpected interactions with Miranda Tate come into play. Both Selina and Miranda are quite important to the plot, but Kyle more or less spends a good portion of the film getting into heavily uneven fights, not being secretive or subtle (or even stealing anything after the start of the film, really).
Bruce’s early-film flirtations with both of the female newcomers don’t help to characterize him or to provide emotional conflict for him to deal with: if the romance subplots are really necessary to the story, then it would have been interesting for Bruce to at least have to negotiate some sort of inner “which girl do I care for” turmoil, or to have to reconcile his feelings with the reality of both girls’ past and present actions and personalities. As it is, the romances feel womanizing and careless.
The movie has a lot going on, though this of course isn’t a problem in itself: even though the movie is more than two and a half hours long as it is, and the many characters and various subplots feel more utilized than a number of those in the tragically wasted Iron Man 2, the film nonetheless feels like some corners were cut in the telling of the story.
The debate over whether Bruce Wayne should continue fighting crime or move on with his life, for example, could have used more elaboration. This subplot felt like it was resolved nearly as soon as it began, and a Batman film that united the city of Gotham and the story’s villains against Batman, with both groups continuing to blame Batman for wrongdoings he did not commit, would have made for a much more unique take on the superhero genre, as Batman works to protect a city that openly resents and even hates him, forcing him to examine the depths and the sincerity of his motivations. An economic subplot involving Wayne Enterprises feels fairly inconsequential in terms of limiting Bruce Wayne’s ability to resolve the main story conflicts; another of the film’s subplots picks up the slack here and makes the Wayne Enterprises subplot seem redundant.
“Let’s put a smile on that face.”
For all of its minor issues, The Dark Knight Rises serves as a wonderful conclusion to a widely regarded film trilogy and as an outstanding entry in a genre on which I’d once given up hope after being disappointed time and time again–until I watched Batman Begins and was blown away. Nolan’s character development provides a great but not outstanding context for the story’s actions, but to make up for this, the story is never brought to a halt for the sake of any one character’s story. The musical score is as amazing as one would expect of Hans Zimmer; the action scenes are done very well (two notable scenes include a classic brawl between Batman and Bane, which makes me think of the “realistic” feel of the lightsaber duels from the first Star Wars film, and a memorable and touching moment involving literally hundreds of police officers late in the film); and the dialogue is usually serviceable. And the ending. Oh, the ending! It’s brilliant and powerful, even if I did have a little bit of trouble understanding just what happened at first. But Mr. Nolan, I really do have to say, I am very, very impressed. To all who were involved, well done.
Some readers may wonder whether I would recommend watching The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. (I’ve not seen The Amazing Spider-Man yet.) The Avengers is much more of an all-around *fun* superhero film that laughs at itself without becoming completely ridiculous, while The Dark Knight Rises is a much more tense and emotional story with a very different narrative emphasis. The Avengers’ central conflict is largely an excuse for some excellent character development–the middle act of the film is pretty much exclusively devoted to it, and the characterization is accordingly the finest I’ve seen in the genre–but this results in most of the film’s action being skewed toward the end of the film. The Dark Knight Rises’ story pacing is split more evenly throughout between plot setup, character development, and action, but as a result, small story details can sometimes become lost in the shuffle.
The newest Batman film isn’t quite as intense in terms of violence (though it can be depressing at times) as the previous one was, and there are no horrific facial injuries for the camera to linger on, Matrix Revolutions-style. That being stated, it does contain a fair bit of language and (oddly for the Nolan Batman series) sexual content, and as such I personally wouldn’t recommend that parents take young children to see the film. Avengers, on the other hand, doesn’t contain very much in the way of innuendo or language, and the violence is usually not as intense or brutal as what can sometimes be found in The Dark Knight Rises or its predecessor. As a result I think Avengers will appeal to a wider range of audiences and tastes, and for my personal tastes, I think I prefer that film, thanks to the extreme cleanness of its story pacing. It doesn’t have the emotional conclusion of some of Nolan’s Batman features, but only the reader can decide whether this is something he or she wants in a superhero film or not.
(Thanks go to Wikipedia for clarifications of name spellings and of other minor questions.)