[NOTE: This review contains minor spoilers]
This is the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Does it rise to the occasion, or fall prey to the dreaded 3rd movie curse?…
My review for “The Dark Knight Rises” may get me death threats.
Just so you know, this is not going to be one of those typically gushing reviews you might’ve seen out there. This is — horror of horrors — going to be a brutally honest review. Which for some, justifies extreme responses like threatening grievous bodily harm and/or murder. As the few critics on Rottentomatoes.com who dared give the film a negative review recently discovered.
It says something about the current state of fandom, and says a whole lot more about the fanatical following writer-director Christopher Nolan has amassed so far. In the eyes of the so-called “Nolanites”, the man can do no wrong. “In Nolan We Trust” is the mantra floating around the net. For the most part, the adulation is well-deserved. However, the man is not without his weaknesses. And they are clearly present in this film.
Now, “brutally honest” doesn’t mean I’m going to do nothing except rip this film to shreds. There are quite a few things I love about “The Dark Knight Rises”. Parts of it were in fact so emotionally affecting, I was brought close to tears. But since I’ve already set the tone for the negatives, let’s address those first.
The story takes place 8 years after the events of “The Dark Knight”. Organised crime has been effectively wiped out, thanks to a tough new law that keeps criminals behind bars. A law made possible by a cover-up, for which Batman has taken the blame and been made an outcast. So the only thing left for him to do is retire. That’s not enough for Nolan, since he’s decided to make the guy a physical and emotional cripple as well, apparently due to his crimefighting injuries and the pain of his childhood sweetheart Rachel’s death. Bruce Wayne now spends his days hiding from the outside world.
This has the unfortunate effect of making the hero uncharacteristically mopey. The Bruce Wayne of the last two outings was driven by rage and guilt, never self-pity. 8 years is a very long time to stay hurt, especially for someone with such a strong, nay, obsessive personality. I can buy Bruce hanging up his cape & cowl because there’s no more need for Batman, but is it necessary to show he’s lost the will to be Batman? Nolan seems to think so, as his obvious intention is to put Bruce in a deep slump so that Batman’s return can feel more dramatic. He needn’t go so far. He has Bane for that.
Okay, I’m going to cite a movie franchise that by right has no business being compared with Nolan’s Batman films… the “Rocky” series. Well, hear me out. You know how cartoonishly simplistic Stallone’s boxing flicks are, especially the later instalments. Yet they also work on a primal, visceral level. Hero gets his ass handed to him by the baddie, which gives him all the impetus he needs to come back for a rematch. It’s single-minded. Here, before any of that can happen Bruce seems to take forever to get out of his house and into the Batsuit. Meanwhile, a lot of stuff fills the background. And I mean a lot.
There are subplots galore: a mysterious young beat cop John Blake and how his background in an orphanage ties back to the Wayne family; another cop named Foley who (unconvincingly) goes from selfish to selfless; Bruce’s dabbling in a clean energy project; some corporate shenanigans by enemies of Wayne Enterprises; and Commissioner Gordon’s guilt over the lie he helped Batman perpetrate that’s been eating him up inside.
To Nolan’s credit, all these threads do pay off one way or another. But I’d like to know, why do we need such a busy, crowded film? I just can’t shake the feeling that Nolan added these subplots not out of any real need to service the main thrust of the film — Bruce Wayne’s journey — but from a desire for complexity in his stories.
Nolan is obsessed with structure. He constructs his stories like an intricate jigsaw puzzle, with highly complex pieces meant to fit together to reveal the whole picture. You can see it throughout his body of work: in “Memento”, “The Prestige”, “Inception”, and now this. It works very well for tight, focused stories where there is a clean narrative through-line. Meaning you never lose sight of whose story is being told. And that’s the main problem with “Rises”. It’s simply too sprawling, too bloated that it ends up, if not completely losing sight of its protagonist, then certainly losing its focus. After a while, I started to get bored of all the filler and just wanted the film to return to Bruce Wayne/Batman’s story. And there is a very compelling story in there somewhere, especially in his relationship with his butler Alfred. More on that later.
Also, Nolan revealed in interviews that he (and co-writer Jonathan Nolan) wanted to deal with the theme of social class struggle, which was inspired by Charles Dickens’ book “A Tale Of Two Cities”. All well and good — if he actually went somewhere with it. Any socio-political underpinnings the film may be trying to conjure ultimately ring hollow. Without giving away too much, the revolution that happens here isn’t really about the haves versus the have-nots, and in the end doesn’t even matter to the plot. The only thing it accomplishes, besides providing some cool dystopian visuals, is to add to the overall feeling that perhaps the Nolans didn’t quite figure things out as well as they thought.
This next issue of mine might seem at face value like a fanboy nitpick. But it’s actually a big deal in the context of characterisation. Going back to what I was saying about “Rocky” earlier, one of the biggest pleasures of those movies is in seeing how the hero eventually triumphs in a rematch with the villain. Let’s not kid ourselves here, we all want to see the hero deliver payback because he’s earned it and the baddie deserves it.
“Rises” simply fails to deliver that. At least not in any satisfying way. The all-important “victory moment” over Bane should be no one else but Batman’s to claim, and yet he is pretty much robbed of it. You could argue he already had that moment earlier in their showdown, but as far as I’m concerned the fight wasn’t over. If anything, in a pivotal development both sides suffer a serious disadvantage, so they’re evenly matched at that point. I’m still pissed off thinking about the missed opportunity. Adding insult to injury, all this comes after a revelation that severely diminishes Bane as the powerful character he was made out to be.
There is a positive flip-side to this. The fact that I got so annoyed goes to show how well Bane was built up as the antagonist. I think Nolan made a very smart choice to go with a more physical villain this round, and it’s not just to avoid comparisons with Heath’s Ledger’s Joker (though that’s a futile exercise). The Bane that Nolan and Tom Hardy have put on screen is the living expression of Blunt Force Trauma. In their epic first encounter, you can feel the weight of inevitability bearing down on Batman. You already know he’s not just going to lose, he is going to be utterly broken. How many fistfights can you think of where you genuinely fear for the hero’s life? So kudos to the cast and crew for giving us such a nail-bitingly intense fight scene.
Hardy is a good part of the reason why Bane is so frightening. The guy’s got tonnes of screen presence and even behind a mask that restricts most of his facial expressions, Hardy finds interesting ways around it. The look in Bane’s eyes and the tone of his voice never quite match, and that’s by design. That audio-visual disjoint puts you on an uneasy edge with this guy. I also like the booming, metallic quality of his voice. It’s pretty cool, even if it invites Darth Vader jokes.
Batman himself is well-handled by Christian Bale as always, even if he starts off the film on too sombre a note. There’s a grounded, lived-in quality to Bale’s performance, a sure sign of an actor truly embracing his character. Bale has publicly admitted how hard it was to say goodbye to the role and it shows. His is THE definitive Batman/Bruce Wayne, and will continue to be so for a long time.
The supporting cast are a mixed bag, with Anne Hathaway being the biggest surprise for me. Her Catwoman is sexy, unpredictable and charming, though her romance with Batman feels somewhat forced. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine, if slightly safe in his portrayal of the earnest, determined cop John Blake. A bit more fire in his performance would’ve served the character better. Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are sadly shortchanged by the script, and their characters come off far less engaging than before. And I wasn’t particularly impressed by Marion Cotillard either.
In stark contrast, we have Michael Caine’s butler Alfred Pennyworth. Watching him in “Rises” it suddenly dawned on me: Alfred is the heart and soul of the film and I’d argue, the entire trilogy. He has been Bruce’s unwavering moral compass through his darkest hours. The only reward he asks is not to suffer the pain of burying yet another member of the Wayne family. When Alfred finally breaks down, his famous English reserve completely failing him, it is truly heartwrenching to witness. Caine plays it so beautifully raw. I’m hard-pressed to name any other acting showcase this year that moved me as much as this one.
There are other things to savour. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is suitably grandiose, and on a giant IMAX screen the visuals are breathtaking. He really does do a lot of justice to Nolan’s vision, since the director has gone all-out here to put pure spectacle on the big screen. There’s just something gloriously old-fashioned about Nolan’s style, using a sea of real extras where others would resort to digital stand-ins, or going as wide as his lens can possibly allow to capture the scope and magnitude of a scene. Cecil B. DeMille would be proud.
Gadget freaks won’t be let down, as the Batpod (my favourite vehicle in the Nolanverse) gets a lot of screen time, with a few new tricks up its axle. And while the Caped Crusader’s new ride The Bat may not be the most photogenic, it moves and sounds awesome. I would’ve liked to have seen more use of Batman’s EMP Gun, though.
One of the biggest stars of this show is the Hans Zimmer score. Even when the action isn’t as exciting as it should be, or when film fails to connect on a thematic or narrative level, the music is there to make you FEEL. It’s easily among the most emotive, dynamic movie soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. I hear an Oscar nod in the distance…
Each of the Batman films features a central theme, with “Batman Begins” dealing with fear, and “The Dark Knight” addressing anarchy. “Rises” is about death, both in a literal and figurative sense. It is about finality and the end of things. It’s Nolan’s way of putting his final stamp on the saga and by bringing it back full circle to his previous films, conclusively finishing it up. Unfortunately, death as a theme has unwittingly become even more overt due to a recent real-world event: the tragic cinema shooting in Colorado where 12 people lost their lives. In a morbid way, it sort of lends extra poignancy to the ending.
Of course, with a title like “The Dark Knight Rises” Nolan is also talking about rebirth, or resurrection. So the finale is filled with the promise of new things, the resurgence of hope, and the rewarding of an old man’s faith. The ending is wonderfully rousing and almost single-handedly neutralises all the major grievances I have with the rest of the film. Almost.
I still feel “Rises” is for the large part a frustrating, overstuffed and (occasionally) clumsily-handled affair. Nolan made some shockingly poor decisions story and character-wise. And yet, the film’s many flaws are quite evenly balanced by its virtues. This also means that on the whole, it’s missed the chance to be great and has to settle for merely being kinda, sorta okay.
Now please don’t kill me for saying that.