The Dark Knight rises, but he is also the least significant of the main characters in The Dark Knight Rises, and that’s OK, sort of.
The most acclaimed comic book hero film series comes to an epic end as Gotham’s spirit and existence are tested by Bane, possibly with a little help from Catwoman.
There’s so much good to be said about the third Nolan-directed Batman film. Anne Hathaway is a perfect Catwoman. Her sly remarks and femme fatale persona in no way come across as the product of expository stock characters or campy comic book goofiness. She’s sarcastic because she hates, not just because. Her distaste for the wealthy isn’t villainous, it’s more of a reflection of how many, especially people unfairly cheated by circumstances beyond their control, have felt during the on and off recession. Selina Kyle has to fight to survive and she’ll do whatever it takes, from being Bane’s hired hand to seducing congressmen to operating what might be an old-fashioned brothel, where Johns are actually marks who walk out with missing watches and wallets. She’s not relatively whorish though, especially in comparison to the last Catwoman we saw. Her cat-suit’s not from an S&M shop like in 2004 or even 1992. It’s practical this time; it’s a burglar’s work wear. It still manages to be tight and sexy over a toned Anne Hathaway, there are even some pinup photo opps when she straddles the Batcycle. Her swagger is never for the sheer sake of a pose though; her actions are always part of the big story.
The big story was shot in the big city this time. It took me years to finally accept that Chicago would have to serve as the canvas for Nolan’s Gotham. The moment I accept it, “Rises” comes out and NYC not only serves as the backdrop for Gotham, but it’s pretty much made clear that Gotham is New York City. I’m glad Christopher Nolan figured that out, or maybe he just was offered an unbeatable production tax break – who cares? Gotham has been New York’s nick name for over a hundred years, so explicit exposition of city landmarks such as Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, The Queensboro Bridge, Sak’s, and a near-completed Freedom Tower were a nice surprise. It was somewhat unsettling, on a real-life level, to see actual city buildings and bridges crumble after goons walk into the NYSE and open fire on innocent nine-to-fivers. It’s a good kind of unsettling, at least for the sake of quality film, because the graver and more relatable a tragedy is, the more we need and yearn for the villain who caused it to be stopped.
The villain in question is Bane, a jacked up, intelligent mercenary set on destroying Gotham. His intended method is so extreme and harsh that he was exiled from the League of Shadows – that’s right, the same League responsible for Bruce Wayne’s training and the same League that almost destroyed Gotham in Batman Begins. Though he is intelligent, a point applauded and hammered into my head by even bigger Batman fans than me, his most effective threat to the Knight is physical. His mere presence is intimidating and grows as he proves to be many times stronger and many times a better fighter than Batman. He’s a worthy foe – a catastrophe that Batman had thought he ended with Ra’s al Gul, but only thwarted, providing intermission from the League of Shadows and time to deal with the Joker. Bane’s no Joker. His presence is heavy in every way and from the expression that we see on the half of a face that we do see, his memories are tortured. For the most part, Tom Hardy did the character the way he should be, and gave him the justice that he didn’t get under Schumacher’s direction in ’97. My one qualm with this Bane was his voice. The grumbling in The Dark Knight and the a-little-too-oldmanish way that Bane speaks leads me to believe that one of Christopher Nolan’s weaknesses is that he won’t always direct an actor’s voice when needed. This is a tiny weakness though, barely even chink in strong film making armor.
The writing in “DKR” is typically excellent and deep, as it is in every Nolan direction. The comic book version of Batman Begins’ Ra’s al Gul was immortal, not really an acceptable villain trait for this seemingly realistic incarnation of the Batman story. Screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan still managed to address the issue with literary mastery and with a nod to the source material.
The storytelling is gripping and epic – not epic the way that any superhero movie is epic or even the way that “Begins” and “Dark Knight” were epic. “Rises’” predecessors tackled arguments about justice, good and evil, right and wrong, human imperfection, and common welfare and decency – things that Homer’s epics and even older ones tackled. There were long and life-changing journeys in the first two; hard questions were put forth to the hero. This time, we’re given a story that reads even more like an opera or a classic Greek poem. A city crumbles in every figurative and physical way. A government is destroyed and replaced. There is all-out war. It’s long and grueling, in a good way, and though there are intricate twists and turns, its conflict is “elemental,” as Nolan put it himself. The philosophical strokes are broader the third time, and that’s all right. We’re seeing good versus evil, freedom versus fear. It’s a conflict simple and strong.
Bruce Wayne’s story is handled artfully. He’s searching for himself. Once his face was the mask and his cowl was the real person, but now that he’s retired the fugitive Batman, he has to find Bruce Wayne. It’s rough, considering his parents are dead and so is the love of his life. Bale has pulled off the greatest Bruce Wayne / Batman portrayal in history, simply and obviously because he’s the best actor who’s ever had the job (some voice coaching from Kevin Conroy wouldn’t be a bad idea.) Like The Dark Knight though, my biggest qualm with the film was how little about Batman and Wayne it actually was. The second film was called The Dark Knight, and was about the Joker, then Harvey Dent, then Bruce Wayne / Batman. This third film is again more about the villains than it is Bruce Wayne, and especially more about the villains than it is about Batman, and the ratio’s disparity is high.
The biggest setback with this film was Wayne’s alter-ego, the Dark Knight. He had relatively little screen time and was disappointing in presentation. Batman Begins established that Batman would be working mostly at night, because criminals mostly work at night, and the criminal underworld, the narrows, was so densely built that sun couldn’t even shine in. It set Batman up to be the night crawler, the moonlight ninja, a vital aspect of Batman in every form of media since 1939. As it turns out, Batman operates in broad daylight now, in every scene except one (there’s another night scene but it lasts for about two minutes) and that one night scene isn’t all too iconic. Not once do we see him perched at the edge of a building in that classic gargoyle stance. Not once does he swing or rappel with the grapple gun. Not once does he glide with his famous cape. He doesn’t even seem to be concerned about concealment anymore. His ninja training in the power to make one’s self invisible is virtually unused. He walks through the front door of Bane’s lair when everyone is there and without doing any reconnaissance. He makes jokes to himself using the Batman voice when he’s alone. He walks around Gotham at high noon in a gray suit that looks more like something from the Halloween shop than the all-black apparel of Batman Begins, and his “new and improved” suit apparently can’t stop a knife like the one in “Begins” could. When dealing with the likes of the Joker and a bunch of subsequent villains who use knives and not guns, including in this film, keep the suit that’s shank proof.
In Batman Begins, we didn’t actually see the Batman until an hour in, but once he arrived, he was the leader of some memorable scenes. The film was rife with the Bat soaring, swinging, and intimidating, less so in The Dark Knight, but at least it had some awesome Batman scenes including landing on Scarecrow’s car after freefalling down a spiral driveway, and the Hong Kong jump. It took quite a while for Batman to show up in this one, and once he did, we only saw him sporadically and he didn’t even do anything interesting. The fight scenes weren’t clever. Batman seemed to have forgotten his ninja training and just turned into a dumb brawler. How he threw the same plain punches throughout the whole movie, first getting beaten to a pulp, but later becoming a formidable match to Bane, is not explained, though I guess one could extrapolate psychological factors behind his pugilistic victory. The gadgets in his trusty utility belt basically go to waste as he only once seizes the opportunity to use them when they can be of great help. He also seems suddenly unable or unwilling to hide the fact that he’s Bruce Wayne anymore; what’s the point of a mask as an indestructible symbol if he lets just about everyone find out who’s under that mask?
It was good to see Scarecrow again. Cillian Murphy craftily evolved the villain from a Hannibal Lecter type of creep to an escaped Arkham patient whose mind is just gone. Commissioner Gordon is again well played. Gary Oldman’s an accurate reflection of the comic book commissioner in look and lines. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has some show-stealing scenes as Officer Blake. Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a romantic possibility for Wayne, and an extremely well-crafted character.
Concerning production values, everything was great as usual: tasteful and efficient cinematography, good editing and sound, great score (though I miss the small but noticeable James Newton Howard touch that the last two films had.) It’s the plot and story progression that turns me off. I understand that interesting villains and supporting characters are fun to sculpt and examine, but they shouldn’t make the main character seem like a supporter, especially if he’s Batman. Viewers might also be disappointed in a climax that’s quickly predictable and similar to another recent superhero movie.* I needed something, anything – just one scene where the Dark Knight looks like the silent guardian of Gotham after dusk, even if it was a final shot where he glides to camera (c’mon, that’d be a nice circle completion in relation to “Begins.”) I needed something iconic and memorable; that flaming Batsignal didn’t really satisfy. Expect two hours of compelling Selina Kyle, Bane, and Bruce Wayne material, as well as forty minutes of an uninteresting, un-sleuthing, dull, day-walking, flatfoot Batman. The mid-day sun rises.