REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer (story) and Bob Kane (characters)
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

It’s often impossible for a highly anticipated movie to live up to expectations, though Christopher Nolan certainly gives it his all in the conclusion to his Batman trilogy.  The Dark Knight Rises is as large-scale a production as almost anything that Hollywood cranks out on James Cameron’s down time, a pitch black morality play on the grandest scale imaginable.

Nolan is one of the premiere modern directorial maximalists, able to sustain brooding tone and narrative complexity while also delivering spectacle on a blockbuster scale.  His movies, however uneven in quality, are always eye-popping and visually inventive.  The Dark Knight Rises is not the near-masterpiece that its predecessor was, though like the first film in the trilogy it is still a highly admirable, disturbingly relevant vision.

Rises picks up eight years after the Joker and Batman’s face off in The Dark Knight.  Joker isn’t mentioned, both out of respect to the late Heath Ledger and because this movie builds more off the first one.  Its villain, the muscular terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), is the philosophical offspring of that movie’s nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul.  He seeks to finish what Al Ghul started: wipe Gotham City off the map for the moral well-being of humanity.

It’s no fault of Hardy’s that he is almost completely useless as the movie’s central villain.  Though his physical presence is powerful, he could’ve provided the dialogue uttered behind his character’s masked face without beefing up for the role.  Bane is a good villain for the movie despite this, allowing Nolan to bring his vision to a close with the epic, violent scope he envisioned.  Christian Bale brings Batman to tormented life yet again, creating a man forced to decide how much he is willing to give to save his city from annihilation.

The strength of Nolan’s Batman films has always been how he has used the mythology to tap into America’s post-9/11 fears in ways that many other non-super hero films have been unable to.  His caped crusader is not a beacon of hope, but rather a rogue vigilante of privilege whose role in society is constantly shifting.

In The Dark Knight, Joker told him that  when society didn’t need him, he would be cast out like a leper.  This is largely what happens when Rises kicks off, with Bruce Wayne in traumatized isolation, his Batman costume tucked away permanently after having the death of DA Harvey Dent pinned on him.  First seen as a silhouette being gossiped about at a charity event, he comes into focus when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), slinks into his room disguised as a maid and steals his mother’s pearls from his safe.

Hathaway’s take on Catwoman is a great asset to the movie.  Her playful, over-the-top performance somehow manages to stay grounded in the movie’s bleak world instead of sticking out like a sore thumb.  The rest of the new additions, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s spunky detective and Marion Cotillard’s wealthy moralist chief among them, are well thought out if nowhere nearly as fun.

None of these new cast members end up stealing the show quite like Michael Caine does, however.  As the butler Alfred, Caine transforms from a coy, hopelessly loyal advice giver into a tormented, guilt-ridden man.  Though his scenes with Wayne are brief, they hit harder than most of the others.  There isn’t a performance as monumental as Ledger’s Joker here, but the cast, which also includes the excellent Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, is perfectly fine.

Nolan holds nothing back in this final installment, and the last hour is as grandiose and thrilling as it is absurd.  An army of cops charges toward city hall in an attempt to take back the city from Bane and his cultish following.  Gun fire is peppered, but since the movie needed a PG-13 rating this battle is waged largely with fists.  It’s the movie’s weakest sequence only because for the first time it seems that Nolan actually held back a little bit.

For the most part, the action sequences, including a brutal one-on-one fight with Batman and Bane about halfway through, are gruesomely executed.  It’s when Catwoman and Batman team up in a rooftop brawl against nameless thugs that the movie really comes alive, though.  Their distinct fighting styles make even the smallest fight enjoyable and unique.

Nolan is a director constantly battling with himself.  His dialogue can sometimes be over-the-top or too straightforward, but he seems to know it.  The way he chooses to shoot scenes often ratchets up the tension where it could be hopelessly corny if the camera movement weren’t so controlled and the actors didn’t have such a seriousness of purpose.  He is a premiere visual stylist trying to tame and rework his own script, which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan.

For all the ways in which The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t live up to the previous installment, though, it also equally surpasses almost every other summer blockbuster in terms of grandiosity and vision.  It is a deeply disturbing, highly political vision of a country that has problems and few viable solutions.  Bane is a man who plays Gotham for a fool, turning the hopeless New York lookalike into a place resembling Arkham City in the recent Batman video game.

Cut off from the rest of world after he blows up their bridges, Bane sets up a new order in which the rich are plucked from their houses and placed on trial for having more.  Nolan never tried to hide his Dickensian influence (an excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities is read toward the end of the movie), but his idea of class warfare feels decidedly more savage, offering a vision of the Occupy protests as a violent domestic terrorist movement.

Many who look at the movie in political terms may find that correlation troubling.  Nolan makes a point to differentiate the violence from the real movement, though.  The image of Gotham in flames after Bane blows up the bridges and seals off the town from the world show a terrorist movement on an operatic Hollywood scale, not the sit-in protests that have defined Occupy Wall Street.  Dark Knight Rises contemplates Batman’s role in defeating an undeniable evil, and any statement people claim it makes about current events likely shows more about the interpreter than the actual movie.

In Nolan’s version of Batman, the hero is always grappling with how far he is willing to go to  save Gotham City.  The city is cut off and run by thugs, its police force trapped in the sewers beneath the city.  A few cops remain above ground, they themselves turned into vigilantes because the newly-established hierarchy is Bane and his goons.  Expectations may have been too great for the movie to meet all of them, but it does succeed in creating an apocalyptic world where vigilantes are seen as necessary in times of war and vilified in times of peace.

Grade: B

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4 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

  1. The Dark Knight Rises is self-contradictory. There is Bane’s attack on the stock exchange, while plays out as an Occupy-era revenge fantasy—and yet, of course, Bane is the bad guy. Group solidarity is celebrated (the marching policemen, for example) and many jabs are taken at wealth and business, yet the hero is a lone billionaire. Batman operates outside the law, yet law enforcement is fetishized. Scarecrow’s revolutionary court is presented as a sort of nightmare—yet it rightly convicts a slimy villain. You have the suggestion (which I actually think is a smart move on Nolan’s part) that The Dark Knight‘s “print the legend” ending was a bad idea—and yet when the Joseph Gordon Levitt character essentially repeats the same “lie to give them hope” move late in the film (to a busload of orphans, no less!), it’s presented as the right thing to do. Every image seems charged for maximum political impact—with references to the images and words of the French Revolution, fascist Italy, the Bush administration, the War on Terror, the Occupy movement—but there is nothing like a coherent ideology.

  2. I was expecting a B while reading your post. And yes, it’s B. I think Nolan and Heath Ledger had set out an unreachable film that no one could defeat it, even Nolan himself. But if not comparing to The Dark Knight, it may be quite good.

  3. Pingback: Our Favorite Movies of 2012 | CyniCritics

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