Movies like The Dark Knight Rises come along only every once in a while. I’m not talking the quality here. It’s when a gigantic pop culture phenomenon finds its natural and definite end, anticipation and hype usually go through the roof. We have experienced that with Revenge of the Sith, Return of the King and the last Harry Potter film. In franchises like these, it is the hero’s (or villain’s) journey that comes to an end after having followed him in several prior films. It’d be too simple to just compare The Dark Knight Rises to any other second blockbuster sequel. The quality-issue aside, this was never going to be Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand or The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. By now Christopher Nolan’s pitch-black superhero franchise has transcended its basic comic book roots and blockbuster origins and has become a pop culture phenomenon only rarely seen in film history. And unlike all those other films, in The Dark Knight Rises’ case the end is definite. Nolan has repeatedly stated that it would be his last Batman film and Bale confirmed that he would not return without Nolan. Nolan has also promised to completely wrap up the story he has set out to tell in Batman Begins, meaning that any Batman film that will come after this (and don’t be mistaken, there will be many) will no longer fall into Nolan’s unique universe. That alone makes The Dark Knight Rises a cultural event.
Unfortunately, being an event of this magnitude doesn’t come without its burdens. Being the final film, there is an immense pressure to deliver, to wow the audiences and to give them something not seen before, something that the franchise should be remembered by. Things are not made easier in The Dark Knight Rises’ case by the mere fact that it is the follow-up to The Dark Knight, one of the (rightfully) most beloved and acclaimed blockbusters of all time. That circumstance is, in the end, the cause of whatever disappointment might arise upon the viewing of the film.
With Batman Begins Nolan introduced a game changer. Coming off the disaster that was Batman & Robin, he didn’t just successfully relaunch a dormant franchise; he effectively reinvented the approach to the genre that existed hitherto. In Begins the character of Batman and, more importantly, his alter ego Bruce Wayne was the front and center of the film. For the first time in the Batman series, the spotlight did not belong to a colorful villain, but was taken by the hero. On top of that, Nolan grounded Batman Begins as much in reality as possible, while never forgetting its comic book origins. It was a crime story with the main distinction that its tragic hero was wearing a bat costume. Nowadays, the influence of Nolan’s movie in the entire genre is undeniable. Batman Begins is the prime example of telling a hero’s origins story, but it also laid the fundament of the trend to make blockbusters darker, gloomier and more somber. As dark as Begins was, however, four years later Nolan has topped it with The Dark Knight. To date Batman Begins stands as a terrific comic book adaptation (as seen by WOKJ users voting it as the #2 comic book adaptation of all time) and yet Nolan has pulled off the seemingly impossible and created a sequel that raised the bar in almost every single aspect, while still remaining very respectful of the ground work in Begins. The Dark Knight was a movie that improved on every single element of Batman Begins and added a few more. It was a movie in which every single moment worked, every single element clicked and every single detail functioned as part of Nolans gigantic clockwork. The Dark Knight is a movie of grand things – grand acting, grand characters, grand ideas and grand execution. From its sweeping camera shots of noir-ish Gotham over the perfect constellation of its multiple characters to its memorable score, The Dark Knight delivers on everything. But above all, of course, towers Heath Ledger as the anarchistic, psychopathic madman who pushes Gotham and Batman to their limits (and beyond). Ledger’s untimely death is just the final factor that plays into the formula of making this performance one for the ages, but even without it, there is no denying that his villainous turn has transcended the comic book adaptations subgenre. Batman Begins was the blueprint for modern superhero movies, but it was with The Dark Knight that Nolan has created his masterpiece. It was his superhero equivalent to a Greek tragedy and as dark and evil as a mainstream blockbuster can possibly be. The daunting task of following up on a movie like this has always looked like an insurmountable challenge, even for someone as visionary and gifted as Christopher Nolan and his brilliant cast and crew. Luckily Nolan himself has realized that and instead of building completely upon The Dark Knight, he instead chose for the final film to serve as a continuation of the story he began telling in Batman Begins.
Eight years have passed since that fateful night when Batman (Christian Bale) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struck a pact to keep the circumstances of Harvey Dent’s a.k.a. Two-Face’s death and his murderous rampage prior to it a secret. Instead it is Batman who takes the blame for Dent’s death upon himself only to become the most despised citizen of Gotham. Only Gordon knows the truth about what truly happened that night and through all the years the truth has been eating away at him. The lie ensured a great career for him and the enactment of the Dent Act which allowed certain liberties for Gotham’s police to fight organized crime. The crime stats are now at an all-time low and the times of Gotham needing Batman seem to be over. Bruce Wayne is living the life of a hermit inside of the rebuilt Wayne Manor, far away from the public. Emotionally he is still tormented by Rachel’s death and physically he is suffering from all the fighting he has done to save Gotham. His loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) is the only person he still communicates with, despite several romantic approaches by his gorgeous business associate Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). It’s not until the theft of his mother’s pearl chain by the master thief and cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anna Hathaway) that his interest in the outside world re-awakens. Shortly thereafter, Gotham is threatened by the hulking masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) who is inclined to finish what Ra’s Al Ghul has attempted in Batman Begins – to destroy Gotham. His meticulous plan with which he outsmarts the police and Batman himself, brings mayham upon the city and him closer to the goal. It’s time for Bruce Wayne to get back in the game with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and his gadgets. However, this time it seems like Batman, worn by his age and his past battles, is not a match for Bane’s unstoppable force. While the hope for Batman’s and Gotham’s salvation wanes, it might be up to Selina Kyle to turn the tide. But whose side will she take?
Christopher Nolan’s ambitions to bring the series to an impressive and epic closure are obvious throughout the film. The Dark Knight was already large in scope, but this one goes all out. If The Dark Knight was a crime epic in the vein of Heat, The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan’s war movie. Once Bane detonates the bridges and separates Gotham from mainland, martial law is declared. All boundaries are off. Gotham becomes a war zone. In his understated and beautifully devastating images, Wally Pfister once again shows why he is one of the best cinematographers of his generation. When Batman and the police charge towards Bane and his army of henchmen, there is no confusion about what this is – an all-out war, as stated by Batman himself.
But until all guns are blazing and the prolonged epic showdown kicks into gear, there are plentiful of quiet moments to sit through. Most of them work, but not all do. The Dark Knight drew its power from its wonderful constellation of characters. Each character started a journey at the film’s beginning and came to its closure at the end. The Dark Knight Rises also boasts an impressive ensemble (we might never see another comic book movie with four Oscar winners and two nominees on board), but the characters don’t click in the same way with one another as they do in the predecessor. Nevertheless, it is a more than worthy continuation of the journey that began in Batman Begins. The crucial elements are all here too. It is bleak, somber and in parts just plain vile, but after the second film that doesn’t pack as much of a punch anymore. Nolan is fully aware of the fact that Ledger’s immortal performance was the deciding ingredient which made the recipe of The Dark Knight work and that this kind of work could not be replicated. Therefore he smartly connects The Dark Knight Rises right back to the first film (a repeat viewing of which I strongly recommend prior to seeing this) and brings the audience to the roots of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman and his motivation to do so. Of course The Dark Knight’s plot is not ignored. Afterall, its ending is the catalyst of the situation that presents itself for Gotham and Wayne at the beginning of Rises. However, Joker is not mentioned a single time in the film. Ironically, his absence is still felt every moment through.
It’s not that Tom Hardy isn’t up to the task of bringing another interesting Batman villain to the big screen. Anyone who has seen him in the shamefully overlooked Bronson knows that he is the right man for the job. However, despite all the intensity and determination in his eyes and his voice acting, wearing a mask limits what he can do in terms of acting. But that is not even the deciding factor. In the end, Joker is not just an iconic villain, but quite possibly the most intriguing comic book villain ever conceived. Bane is just not on the same level. Tom Hardy gets the most out of his role, though. The character’s introduction during an audacious plane hijacking stunt (filmed in the air with little aid of CGI!) is done in a typical James Bond manner (Nolan really needs to make a 007 film one day!) and is no less memorable than Joker’s opening bank heist in The Dark Knight. This entrance establishes Bane as the ultimate badass which he remains throughout the film. He is an imposing presence with the camera work perfectly complementing his appearance. His broad shoulders always fill out the frame when he enters the scene and he moves through crowds or through his opponents like a sledgehammer. There is no mercy in his eyes. Whenever Joker has entered the scene and approaches his victims there was also a sense of imminent dread and unpredictability in the air. In Bane’s case it is different. His menace is, as expected, very physical and unlike Joker his actions are carefully calculated and goal-oriented. He is an immovable mass that cannot be stopped by anything in his way. It is a rare occasion in a superhero movie in which the villain doesn’t use nifty weapons, superpowers or tricks. Bane is all brute force with his body being his ultimate weapon. The workout and the extra 30 pounds paid off. In every moment Bane looks like someone who could take on Batman and win. There are two wonderfully staged and executed fights between Bane and Batman in the movie of which the marketing has shown only fractions. Against the modern trend of fast cuts, Nolan lets the fights play out in a very unflinching manner. The viewers can almost feel the impact of each punch and know that Bane is physically superior to Batman whose body has been battered one too many times.
Nevertheless, the film’s acting highlight comes from what some might consider a surprising corner. Anne Hathaway steals the movie just as he does with jewelry in the film and rarely gives it back. Hathaway’s perfect mixture of smart, tough, sexy and vulnerable makes her a standout female character in this franchise dominated by men. As much as Ledger took Nicholson’s already acclaimed if goofy performance as the Joker from him, Hathaway makes Catwoman her own too. All the doubts concerning her casting in the part are blown away by the finished product. She also handles action scenes extremely well, leaving one to wonder whether we’ll see Hathaway more often in this type of roles now. She’s not the only good actress in the film, though. The always gorgeous Marion Cotillard proves that she wasn’t cast in the film only because of the friendship she struck with Nolan during filming of Inception. Same goes for Joseph Gordon-Levitt who has earned his part as well. As the young and idealistic cop John Blake who has one or two tricks up his sleeve as well, he stands in sharp contrast to the world-worn resignation of Gary Oldman’s Gordon. Caine, Oldman and Freeman all deliver expectedly dignified supporting turns.
However, it is also Christian Bale as the film’s tragic hero who deserves some attention too. He might have played second fiddle to Ledger and maybe even Eckhart in the second film, but here he is once again at the center of the action. With The Dark Knight Rises Nolan has closed the circle that he started with Batman Begins. Despite its epic 164-minutes running time, its plentiful of characters and its bombastic action sequences, the movie never loses sight of the plot at its core – Bruce Wayne’s search for justice and ultimately, inner peace. Bale’s understated, subtle performance might just be the best turn he has delivered in this franchise yet. Limping on a cane as a symbol of his broken interior at the film’s beginning, he rises through the course of the film to finally fulfill his destiny.
And nonetheless, amidst all the epic showdowns, great characters and powerful emotions, there is a lingering taste of slight disappointment. Maybe the film’s biggest fault is really just being a follow-up to The Dark Knight which now certainly looks like the odd man out in Nolan’s trilogy. Nolan’s desire to deliver something epic is ever present and obvious, but he does not succeed with some details. After a furious beginning and before the final act hits overdrive, the movie almost suffocates under its own weight of an overly complicated plot, several political messages and its multiple characters. At times it looks to be trying to be epic just for the sake of being epic. At times it just does not feel genuine. There are also more glaring plot holes here. Not to say that there are none in the predecessor, but with that film moving at such a breathless pace, it is just easier to overlook them. Moreover, even during the action-laden final act, Nolan reverts to some old genre clichés like a hasty, but passionate kiss during a life/death situation or long speeches by villains before they decide to deliver a final blow (which of course comes too late then). I suppose even Nolan is not free from some conventions. In the end, he does not achieve another masterpiece. For that, his scope is too large, the ambitions too great and the expectation too sky high.
That said, once the final act kicks in and the war for Gotham’s future begins, all the film’s flaws are forgotten. The technical execution of the carnage is impeccable and realistic enough to put The Avengers’ (still fun) destruction of New York to shame. At one point an older policeman says to his rookie partner: “Boy, you’re in for some show tonight, son!” That applies to the film’s final half hour as well which brings an extremely satisfying conclusion to the story. This is not Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand or Blade: Trinity. It avoids the curse of the second sequel in a superhero franchise. Not perfect by any means, it is rousing and emotionally sound entertainment. Even though at times it seems as if Nolan is not actually interested in making a comic book movie, but just uses Batman out of necessity to tell his own ideas (in fact, the movie’s first two hours feel like a Batman movie with no Batman in it and Selina Kyle is not once referred to as Catwoman in the flick), Nolan eventually does fully acknowledge the movie’s comic book roots and serves up several ideas and allusions that will please the comic book fans, especially towards the film’s end. One revelation in particular had the audiences cheering at my screening whereas some others are spoiled by months of online speculations and thus do not carry as much of an emotional weight as potentially intended by Nolan. One has to leave it up to Nolan to make a perfect ending to a movie, though. Be it a spinning top in Inception, the joker card in Batman Begins, the Batpod escape with the voiceover narration in The Dark Knight or the shocking revelation in Memento, Nolan never disappoints with his closing moments and he doesn’t here either. The movie finishes on a perfect note, leaving the audiences satisfied with the conclusion and yet somehow yearning for more.