Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" Proves A Satisfiying Trilogy Capper

Christopher Nolan once again shows that ambition and
scope have a place in big budget blockbusters.
In the weeks since it hit theaters, The Dark Knight Rises has divided critics. On the one hand, there are the staunch defenders who marvel at the thematic potency and grand scope Nolan injected into his trilogy caper. On the other, there are those that found the film overly ambitious and structurally scattershot, a far cry from the quality of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
In truth, both sides have valid points, but I tend to have a mostly positive assessment of the film. Yes, it’s not as good as the first two, but that would’ve been a pretty herculean task, and it’s unfair to judge the film solely based on that standard. As a trilogy caper, The Dark Knight Rises has different goals in mind, and wrapping up a story can be quite hard to do in a satisfying way. The fact that Nolan achieves a rewarding and appropriate ending, all the while offering first-rate entertainment – that’s a commendable achievement.
I’m not going to deny the film gets silly in parts (i.e. Bane’s wall street plan is goofy, as, with all those witnesses, it would seem pretty easy to prove fraud), but that’s not exactly new to this trilogy. The outcome of Joker’s boat experiment in the second film was almost impossible to swallow and set off the bullshit alarm, but, as is the case here, it was set up well and was a means to an end narratively and thematically.
I have many more sprawling thoughts on the film that I think it might be best to just attack these musings in sub categories. Yes, I could certainly find a way to more cohesively write this thing up, but this is how my mind is working here, so let’s just get into it.
Thematic Continuation
My favorite part of the film is how it continues to highlight the same themes in new ways, offering shading and evolution on ideas Nolan first established in Batman Begins. All three films feature villains convinced Gotham is a cesspool unworthy of saving, and in each one Batman (Christian Bale) is tested and must prove that, given a glimmer of hope, the city – his city – can prevail.
Batman continues to believe Gotham is worth saving.
Nolan has said in interviews that his brother Jonathan used A Tale of Two Cities as a major influencing factor when writing the final chapter and this makes sense given the thematics at play. The film even quotes the coda from the Charles Dickens classic during the eulogy Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) delivers at at Bruce Wayne’s gravesite: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
In line with this, The Dark Knight Rises continues to investigate the importance of legends, symbols and ideals and plays them up in ways that are simultaneously thought-provoking, thrilling and even moving. In Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne first decides to become Batman, he tells Alfred (Michael Caine), "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” In the second film, Batman and Gordon attempt to salvage a new symbol (Harvey Dent), by corrupting what he once intended to be incorruptible (Batman), and, throughout the third film, this is portrayed as a failing on their part. As a result, much of the film is dedicated to Wayne’s effort to restore the symbol of Batman, so that it can inspire hope and become “everlasting” once more (thus, the title “The Dark Knight Rises”).
Many have questioned if John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will become Robin or Nightwing, but it’s obvious that he will continue as the Batman. The Robin reference was just a cute, knowing nod to the fans (and a pretty awesome one to boot). The whole Blake arc is extremely well done (outside of that wretched “You missed a spot” line he says when Batman saves him from some bad guys). I’ve heard people complain about the predictability of it all (as soon as Gordon-Levitt was cast, people began speculating on this story thread), but it seems a weak complaint. Just because it’s predictable doesn’t make it any less involving and appropriate – the main reason it’s been so well established that it’s almost preordained.
The Villains
I’ve heard many complaints about Bane (Tom Hardy). He’s no Joker. His voice is weird. He’s no Joker. He gets wiped out so easily. He’s no Joker…
He may not be the Joker, but Bane is a badass and distinct
Batman villain. The mask? The voice? Awesome.
Really, it’s all nonsense in my mind. As presented here, Bane is a great Batman villain. With his brute strength and brilliant intellect, he’s the perfect foil for Batman, and, although he doesn’t quite measure up to the Joker, he is just as terrifying due, in equal parts, to his fanaticism (he’s such an extremist that Ra’s Al-Ghul excommunicated him) and his amazingly creepy and distinguished look (props to whoever put together that costume).
Hardy doesn’t get to steal the movie in the same way Heath Ledger did, but as part of the puzzle, he excels. He brings an awesomely raw physicality to the part that, combined with the crisp, easy-to-follow camera work (Nolan has come a long way as an action director since the first film), really makes the fisticuff scenes with batman pop. And, although restricted by his mask, Hardy does some interesting acting with his eyes and voice to really add nuance to the role. Speaking of the voice, I know some people are hating on it, but I loved it. It was weirdly hypnotic, unsettling and larger than life, and I couldn’t be happier they went with such a bold choice over a more traditional, grunt-like intonation.
I even love the way Bane goes out. When Talia Al-Ghul (Marion Cotillard) leaves and tells him to keep Batman alive so he can watch the fire, I love that he says “We both know that I now have to kill you. You’ll just have to imagine the fire,” and then I love that he just jarringly gets killed by a bat missile. Some have said it’s a poor exit for the man, but he already got his great last fight scene, and really, it plays like gangbusters.
The one thing I’m not crazy about is how he gets defanged by his relationship with Talia, which undermines the whole fanatical buildup of the Bane character. I’m generally on board with the Talia stuff – it’s a nice nod to comic book continuity and works fine in the film – but keeping her identity a mystery from viewers really diminishes the character by forcing Nolan to keep her on the shelf for the entire outing. It’s fairly obvious, even though they keep Cotillard in the shadows, that she must have a bigger role than that of a thankless romantic entanglement (she’s an Oscar winner!), and so I’d have greatly preferred if the story didn’t treat her reveal like a big twist. It should obviously be a surprise to Wayne, but since it’s not going to surprise many audience members (and absolutely no Batman fans, especially once an heir to Ra’s Al-Ghul is mentioned), why be so obscure?
Bale Continues to Own the Batman Role
It’s often said that the hero is overshadowed by the villains in Batman movies. Although you could make a case for the Joker in The Dark Knight, one of my favorite things about the Nolan outings is that Bruce Wayne and Batman have always remained center stage. In the first, Bale beautifully depicted the Batman origin story, from brash anguish to righteous crusader, all the while playing up the playboy cover story. Then, in the second, he was resolved and committed to his mission, naively hopeful about the progress being made and ultimately terribly wounded due to the death of Rachel Dawes. Here, Bale gets a multitude of notes to play, bitter, disillusioned and beaten down, but also heroic and occasionally light and charming. And he nails it.
Weak reclusive Bruce Wayne was an interesting choice
I don't think full worked. But Bale still brought it.
Still, I do wish they wouldn’t have opted to make Wayne a totally broken down recluse for the eight years between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which is problematic decision for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it takes the realism away when both Batman and Bruce Wayne resurface after such long absences… at the same time (it’s only slightly less annoying than Superman and Clark Kent reappearing after long simultaneous absences in Superman Returns). I mean, seriously, no one would figure this out? Especially when they both die at the same time?
There’s also other issues related to this as well. Batman being away so long really diminishes any sense of betrayal he might feel over the reveal that Miranda Tate is actually Talia. If it had been established they had some sort of relationship that had built over time, it would’ve been a far more crushing blow, and his faith in her (in giving her access to the machine anyway) would’ve made much more sense. Furthermore, his being so weak in the beginning (which admittedly leads to a funny scene with the great Thomas Lennon as Wayne’s doctor) really doesn’t make sense later on (when he climbs from the pit sans machine leg), while also lessening the impact of Bane’s brutal, back-breaking beat down.
Oh, and while I know many people would’ve preferred if Batman bit the dust at the end, I thought the ending was well done. I’m not saying the death of Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have been powerful, but considering they build up the fact that he’s not afraid of death, but rather unable to heal his wounded heart and psyche, I thought it was a better arc for the character as developed. Doing things the other way would’ve at least required a bit of a rewrite throughout to feel truly earned and fulfilling.
Hathaway Earns Her Claws
This is the second Batman movie to have Bruce Wayne and
Selina Kyle dance at a high society ball. Still favor the
magnetism of the first pairing, but all four actors create
uniquely compelling versions of their characters.
Even more so than Heath Ledger in the build up to The Dark Knight, Anne Hathaway had some pretty big shoes to fill in taking on Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer was so dazzlingly off-kilter and sexy in Batman Returns that attempting to essay the same character had to be daunting. Hathaway’s casting was met with a decent amount of criticism, but she silences the naysayers in the film, offering up a Catwoman (although that name is never used) that is cunning, shifty, sexy, wounded and badass. Here, they play down the psychological issues inherent in the Pfieffer version and instead stick closer to the original playful, cat burglar interpretation. Although she’s consistently shown range in the past, I think this performance is going to open a lot of eyes and it instantly primes Hathaway for serious Oscar consideration for the upcoming Les Misérables.
As good as Hathaway is, I do have some issues with the way the script uses the character. Kyle predominately functions as a plot device for Wayne, and although Hathaway and Bale sport a good back and forth, and the film makes it clear that he is instantly intrigued by her, I didn’t really buy the development of the romance (halfway through, I still wasn’t sure if she was in a relationship with the Juno Temple character). Another scene or two would’ve been nice, and by that I mean something that seems natural and not the repeated encounters where Wayne indicates his out-of-left-field confidence in her integrity and character.
That said, she plays the whole thing well, and her return at the end is a major crowd pleaser. As much as I didn’t fully buy the idea that they were falling for each other (unlike say Bruce’s relationship with Gordon or Alfred, this trilogy doesn’t truly earn any relationship Bruce has with a woman – it just tells, tells, tells, with very little show), I liked the idea and the ultimate ending.

Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent adition to the ensemble,
while Oldman continues to shine.
Batman’s Buddies
Although Morgan Freeman gets very little to do, Oldman and Caine continue to craft excellent interpretations of their famous comic counterparts. With Bruce Wayne getting a happy ending, Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is probably the true tragic hero of the trilogy, having sacrificed his morals and lost his family in his pursuit to keep Gotham clean. Oldman nails the weight of that, and it’s also one of the biggest payoffs of the movie when Batman reveals his identify. Meanwhile Caine once again carries the most emotional scene in a Batman film. In the first it was the scene in the elevator, and then, in the second, it was the one where he covers up the note. Here it’s the breakup confrontation, and it’s raw and heart wrenching. 


Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt is a seamless addition to the cast, and he underplays everything with a nice steady resolve. Gordon-Levitt has always been an actor I greatly admire and enjoy, but some have indicated a belief that he is too twitchy and self-conscious in his indie work. It would be hard to levy that criticism against him in his collaborations with Nolan (both here and in Inception), as they have provided him an opportunity to play regular, to-the-point men of action, and he’s met the challenge, offering assured and compelling work.
Plot Holes and Extraneous Characters
In some cases, this movie is downright silly. I already mentioned the Bane plot at the stock exchange, but there’s plenty more beside that. For instance, Batman gets back to Gotham awfully quickly after escaping his prison and it’s pretty dumb that the nuclear bomb has a countdown clock on it. Then there’s the issue of Batman’s bum leg not presenting much issue with his jump out of the prison, and the fact that Bane continues to provide for all the buried police officers, despite killing so many other people at will. And can someone explain how the icy river is sturdy in that scene where Batman reappears to Gordon and his men?
Also, while I get the thematic significance of Matthew Modine’s character, I wasn’t a big fan of the character (and it annoyed me he wore that whole getup, gloves included, in the final fight). The amount of screen time he was awarded just seemed excessive. It also was somewhat distracting to have Juno Temple on hand as a sort of buddy to Selina Kyle and then do nothing with her. I know she’s not a super big name yet, but it was distracting. I think cutting her and Modine would’ve given more time to flesh out the budding romance perhaps, which would’ve strengthened the movie as a whole.
Tech Aspects
The simple bat graffiti that peppers Gotham in The
Dark Knight Rises is perfect piece of iconography.
I know I’ve gone on too long here, but I’ve got to add that this movie looks and sounds awesome. From the little iconographic details (the cracked Batman mask, the little bat graffiti) to Wally Pfister’s excellent cinematography (I already alluded to how great the fist fights are, but there’s also that great scene with Blake in the bat cave and a ton of other majestically shot scenes) to the awesome special effects (the stadium implosion and plane hijacking are real show stoppers). It’s all perfect. Just perfect. And I say this as a guy who didn’t see the film in IMAX, which I’m sure was a pleasure to behold. Oh, and let’s not forget the work of Hans Zimmer, who continues to be a stupendous collaborator for Nolan and really sets the tone here.
Still Reading? Ok, Let’s Close It Down
I do quickly want to point out how dumb the basic summary of this movie could sound: “Yeah well Batman wins, and then he retires, leaving the business to Robin and living happily ever after in Europe with Catwoman.” Yeah… I know! Considering that logline makes it even more impressive that Nolan pulled this whole thing off.
I’ll close by saying that while The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the preceding two Batman films, it stands alongside the likes of Return of the Jedi and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as a somewhat flawed, yet enjoyably awesome and satisfying capper to a major blockbuster trilogy. It’s a very hard thing to stick the landing on an enterprise like this, and Nolan does so here. Looking at the grand total of this trilogy, it’s damn hard not to be impressed. A-