Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Audiences for Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy fall into roughly three camps.  There are the devoted/rabid fans, the casual fan that likes blockbusters that aren't always vapid, and those that just can't get past Christian Bale's "Batman Voice."  After seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I'm reasonably sure that this film won't be changing anyone's mind about the series as a whole.  But what about this last chapter, specifically?

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the end of The Dark Knight.  Does that mean you need to watch The Dark Knight to understand what's going on here?  Well, it doesn't hurt and it gives you an excuse to see Heath Ledger's Joker again, but it's not necessary; it does help the beginning make more sense, though.  Gotham City, once a hellhole of crime and corruption, has now become a safe city, thanks to legislation passed after TDK.  Batman, once a staple in the city's grimy streets, has not been seen since and remains a suspect in a murder he did not commit.  But, other than that, things are just fine.  Instead of spending his evenings with thugs trying to kill him, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has opted to go the Howard Hughes route, avoiding human contact in his mansion and feeling sorry for himself.
He'd put the suit on, but he doesn't want to devalue it by removing the original packaging

Meanwhile, a series of seemingly unconnected crimes and shady business activities prove to be the work of a single mastermind: Bane (Tom Hardy).  Bane claims to be the heir of Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the leader of the League of Shadows.  What does that mean to folks that haven't seen or don't remember Batman Begins?  Bane wants to destroy Gotham City and the dude has, like, ninjas on his side.  Or random street thugs.  Whatever.  Oh, and this time, it's personal --- Batman (more or less) killed Ra's, so Bane is gunning for the Bat.  But first, Bane wants Batman to suffer.  All the advantages Batman has had in the past --- his brains, his brawn, his skill, and his money --- are negated as Bane either removes them from the equation or one-ups Bats.  AND Bane holds the entire city hostage with a fusion bomb.
AND Bane insists on leading when they dance
Things look pretty bleak.  Then again, you have to fall before you can rise, I guess.

The recognizable cast in The Dark Knight Rises swells from past entries, but I generally liked the focus on the core plot and not the characters.  Once again, Christian Bale is Batman/Bruce Wayne.  I think Bale did another great job embodying the odd personality of Bruce Wayne; he conveys the mix of privilege and riches with determination and psychosis quite well.  I've never been crazy about his "Batman Voice," but I generally like his portrayal of the Bat.  Anne Hathaway has a sizable supporting role as Selina Kyle (NOT Catwoman) and she was far better than I had expected.  It's not that I doubted Hathaway's acting skills, but I didn't buy into her costume in the promotional footage.
As it turns out, I actually didn't mind the costume at all, in the context of the film, and I liked the quasi-femme fatale qualities of her character.  However, Batman is the greatest superhero because he has the greatest villains, and TDKR had a lot to live up to after Ledger's Oscar-winning performance in the last film.  I wouldn't say that Tom Hardy's Bane steps entirely out of that shadow, but he was pretty damn awesome.  The character design was very cool and Hardy managed to be both physically intimidating and a believable mastermind.  You can argue that Bane sounded like someone doing a Sean Connery impression through a broken vocoder --- and you would be correct --- but I enjoyed the dialogue I understood (roughly 60%) enough to not mind the bits I missed, kind of like my attitude toward Brad Pitt's accent in Snatch.
Sadly, Bane never says "Man talk, baby" in his Robo-Connery voice
Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up to play a beat cop that sees value in the moral space between Batman and Commissioner Gordon.  Marion Cotillard also has a small, key part.  While neither of these actors stole their scenes, their parts were clearly there to fill thematic purposes, and they played them well.  As for how necessary their characters were...well, if you're going to include them and not make the story as a whole suffer, then this is the way to do it.  Gary Oldman returns as Commissioner Gordon and I thought this was his best work with the character yet.  Morgan Freeman also returned, although in a greatly diminished capacity.  Similarly, Michael Caine once again played Bruce Wayne's faithful butler, Alfred, but he isn't in very much of the film at all.  There are a few other noteworthy bit parts --- Matthew Modine is a useless cop, Liam Neeson briefly reprises Ra's Al Ghul, the guy whose face was digitally removed in The Social Network (Josh Pence) played a young Ra's, and Cillian Murphy returns because...well, just because.

However, the acting in a superhero movie is really secondary to the spectacle.  As much as I enjoyed Tom Hardy here --- and I did, quite a lot --- this is a Big Movie, made for IMAX, and it shows.  The largely practical effects in The Dark Knight Rises were excellent.  The opening scene with the plane being destroyed and the shots of the bridges being blown were my personal favorite visual moments (aside from Bane tossing aside the broken Batman mask), and that ignores the vastly improved Bat-cycle and Bat-plane scenes.
Where do you park that thing?
The action scenes are solid and large in scope, but this series has never been about intricate fight scenes as much as it has been about Batman being a scary bastard.  But with Bane outdoing Batman, does that really work this time?
"I'm not internationally know, but I'm known to rock the microphone"

Director Christopher Nolan did a great job bringing this trilogy to a close.  It ties in with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but has an identity of its own.  The camerawork is good, the big scenes feel huuuge, and this epic sequel managed to hold onto that epic feeling throughout.  As a comic nerd, I appreciated the choices made with a lot of the characters and I was impressed with how many classic Batman ideas were included in this story without it feeling disjointed or suffering from the (lower case "b") bane of superhero sequels: too many villains.  More than anything else, Nolan crafted a tale that is as realistic as a Batman movie can be and actually concludes logical character arcs.  Is this as good as the excellent (but flawed) The Dark Knight?  Maybe not quite, but it's damn close.

Here's the biggest problem with the film, though: there isn't a lot of Batman in this Batman movie.  This is a great story about Bruce Wayne, the man inside the suit, but it is not the quintessential Batman movie.  That's fine by me and was obviously a conscious choice by the filmmakers, but it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.  Yes, Bruce Wayne overcomes personal and physical obstacles in his quest for victory, but there are not nearly as many moments here where the Batman seems truly bad-ass.  You can also make a valid argument that time was an enemy in this film, specifically its liberal use.  The time gap between TDK and TDKR is fine, for the most part, but it raises some interesting questions.  For starters, just how low was Alfred willing to see Wayne sink before telling him about that letter?  The best detective in the city, Gordon, never tried to identify Batman?  Even a rookie could (and did) figure that out --- just look for the guy who can afford all those wonderful toys.
"This Batmobile piece reads 'Property of Wayne Enterprises.'  Hmm..."
And the convenience of the fusion bomb's countdown nearly matching Wayne's recovery period was a bit much.  And how did a penniless Bruce Wayne get from Hell's Toilet, Middleeasternistan, to the US, much less inside the isolated Gotham?  And if removing his mask puts Bane in unbearable agony, how does he manage to maintain such a perfectly smooth shaved head?
A: he has a mohawk ponytail underneath the center strap

So, no, it's not perfect.  Hell, it's not even that fun to watch; it is 2:44 of gritty angst.  It is, however, a fantastic end to a trilogy.   It could have been better if we saw Batman outsmart Bane instead of just punching him in the face, but the scope was so epic that I didn't mind the second Death Star that Batman solved his problems by punching harder.  I will go so far as to say that The Dark Knight Rises is the single best movie to date that features Batman.  I may like The Dark Knight a little better, but the flaws are fewer and less important in this film.  This is also one of the few trilogy endings that actually delivered; I would put this above Return of the Jedi, but below Return of the King and Slap Shot 3: The Junior League
To put it another way, The Dark Knight Rises might not have a lot of Batman in it, but it gets to the core of what makes Batman great; Batman is the single greatest superhero for many reasons, but his legacy, influence, and punk rock DIY attitude toward justice shine through here.  In the hands of just about any other filmmakers, the last few scenes of this movie might have come across as a cheap teaser for the next sequel.  Instead, Nolan & Co. closed the Bruce Wayne chapter appropriately, even if the story still goes on.  This unexpectedly became less about Bruce Wayne as Batman and more about Batman as an abstract idea.  I wasn't expecting that, and I found that approach very satisfying from a film and comic nerd perspective.

And if you really just can't get past Bale's "Batman Voice," enjoy this clip from Attack of the Show.  I think it captures the ridiculousness of The Voice rather well.


  1. Hey Brian, where ya been?
    Nice review, I almost found myself agreeing with you before remembering that actually I had a terrible time watching this movie.

  2. I am not surprised. This is definitely more my cup of tea than yours.

    As for where I've been...well, a combination of an apartment without central air conditioning, a wretched heat wave, and several weeks of employment-related stresses wiped me out. But I never stopped watching movies and I never stopped taking notes, so I'll be trying my best to work through my backlog of reviews in the next few weeks.

    By the way, it's good to see you back. I like where you're going with your writing so far.

  3. ooo lack of A/C makes for very grumpy people, I've not had any since I moved to Australia and it really makes summer the opposite of fun some days.

    I don't envy your attempts to clear a backlog, I'm looking at the noir-a-thon and wondering if i'll ever catch up.

    Thanks for the compliment too.

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