At the end of Christopher Nolan's first Batman adventure, Batman Begins, Gotham cop (and future commissioner) James Gordon warned his new masked vigilante pal about the potential for "escalation" amongst the city's criminal element in the wake of the costumed crime-fighter's arrival. In the moment, that scene existed to set the stage for the arrival of more challenging villains like the Joker, whose flair for anarchy would baffle and befuddle Batman through the course of The Dark Knight. But in hindsight, that scene was really Nolan's warning to us the audience that he was planning on escalating the franchise, not to mention the entire comic book movie genre, far beyond its expected conventions.
The Dark Knight was the initial shot across the bow and now here comes Nolan's third and supposed final chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, which pushes the director's specific vision to its breaking point. With its super-sized three-hour runtime, expansive storytelling and enormous action set-pieces (many of which were filmed in the IMAX format, which is the ideal way to see the movie), Rises is the fulfillment of that seven-year old pledge from Nolan to moviegoers. When the title card finally appears onscreen at the end of the movie, it's his equivalent of dropping the mic and walking offstage. (WARNING: Spoilers Will Rise Beyond This Point)
While Nolan has always incorporated elements from the Batman comics into his own version of the material, Rises is, funnily enough, the first entry in his trilogy to rely so heavily upon the source material for its structure. Working with his brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan Nolan, he's crafted a three-act narrative where each act takes its cue from a specific storyline from the various Bat-books. Act 1 is The Dark Knight Returns, Act 2 is Knightfall (with a touch of Knightquest) and Act 3 is No Man's Land. Comic book fans won't require much more synopsis than that, but for everyone else out there, I'll fill in some of the key details.
The movie opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and, during that time, Batman has vanished from the Gotham stage, chased into the dark seemingly forever by the howls of the angry public furious at his apparent betrayal of them and their shining white knight, Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne has also exited the limelight, hiding out in his rebuilt manor like a Howard Hughes-style recluse. Instead of going to hell in the Dark Knight's absence (as it did in the pages of Frank Miller's seminal Dark Knight Returns), Gotham has actually become something of a paradise... provided, of course, that you're wealthy. The poor and destitute are either locked up in Blackgate Prison thanks to the strict crime enforcement laws awarded to the cops by the much-lauded Dent Act or ignored outright, left to fend for themselves while the 1% throw lavish costume balls where alcohol flows freely.
It's going to take something extraordinary to tempt the brooding, spiritually broken Bruce out of his self-imposed retirement and that something arrives in the form of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who infiltrates Wayne's private quarters and makes off with his dead mother's pearl necklace, as well as a set of his fingerprints. In the process of investigating Gotham's newest (and most attractive) thief, Bruce becomes aware of a more dangerous threat lurking beneath the city streets. Down there in the dark, a masked terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) -- another one-time student of Ra's al Ghul's League of Shadows ninja training school -- is organizing an army to upend Gotham's social order, thus completing his dead leader's master plan from the first movie. If Batman is going to return, now appears to be the right time. (The sequence where Batman hits the streets of Gotham after eight years away is an obvious nod to Miller's graphic novel, complete with one line of dialogue that's lifted directly off the page. Expect comic book fans to laugh and applaud with glee when they hear it.) But eight years is a long time and Bruce's head and heart aren't completely in the game. When he does finally confront Bane, he's left even more broken that he was before and with Gotham's protector gone seemingly for good, there's no one left who will be able to stop the wave of destruction that's about to engulf the city.
With all that superhero/supervillain smackdown stuff out of the way, Nolan arrives at the material he's clearly most interested in: life in a city during wartime. Having blocked the tunnels (with almost the entire police force trapped inside the rubble) and detonated the bridges that lead out of Gotham, Bane has cut the metropolis completely off from the outside world, keeping the army and US government at bay via the threat of detonating a nuclear bomb he jerry-rigged from a fusion reactor developed by Wayne's company. Gotham's wealthy are dragged from their homes and into kangaroo courts (presided over by a very familiar face from the trilogy) while the poor are welcomed to move in and enjoy the spoils of war. With Bruce otherwise engaged, our primary guides to this radically transformed Gotham are Gordon and novice police detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an orphan whose hatred of injustice and desire to protect his city burns almost as brightly as the Dark Knight he idolizes. Eventually, Batman does return (c'mon, you knew that was coming) and rallies the remaining troops for one last final charge against Bane to reclaim the land and soul of Gotham.
Clearly, The Dark Knight Rises is a film with a lot of moving parts being pushed around its enormous backdrop. It's big-picture spectacle and Nolan's attention is so focused on the overall scale of the thing that the nitty-gritty details often escape his grasp. Especially coming after Inception, which was very methodical and deliberate in the way it moved from story point to story point, Rises' narrative hinges on leaps and coincidences that don't always make logical sense. Your frustration or lack thereof with these shortcuts depends heavily on how caught up you become in the cumulative sweep of Nolan's vision. Speaking personally, I was able to explain away some of the gaps, but others rankled me more, especially as filling them in wouldn't seem to require too much effort. Mainly, I think was surprised that Nolan -- whose best movies are, in many ways, feature-length essays on the art of storytelling, including the importance of structure and attention to detail -- would deliberately skip over plot elements and explanations that, to me at least, seemed essential. Watching Rises, I wanted to be completely transported by the movie's scope, but those missing details kept dragging me back down to Earth.
At the same time though, I was always engaged and frequently entertained by Nolan's grand ambitions, as well as his command behind the camera. If nothing else, these three Batman films have allowed him to develop and hone his technical prowess and the leap in his skill from Begins to Rises is enormous. One of the things that's always distinguished these movies from other comic book fare is their reliance on practical effects and that's true again here; the movie opens with a stunning mid-air plane-to-plane high-jacking that's all the more thrilling because the people and planes involved are so obviously real. (Surely there's some digital enhancement mixed in there somewhere, but it was seamless to my eyes.) The rest of the set-pieces are also grounded in a tactile reality that even an enjoyable battle royale like the one that closed out The Avengers lacked. (On the other hand, even in the face of the destruction of the entire planet, the members of that super-team went about their business with more pleasure than Batman displays here. He's not the hero you seek out if you want your derring-do delivered with a smile and a wisecrack or two.)
Amidst all the explosions and hand-to-hand combat, the cast is able to catch their breath often enough to deliver credible, if not necessarily fully fleshed-out performances. Following up Heath Ledger's Joker was a challenge few actors probably wanted to accept, but Hardy effectively plays Bane as an anarchist of a different sort. The Joker approached his crime wave as a kind of game -- Bane just likes to destroy things. (Unfortunately, once Bane's primary function is fulfilled he fades into the background for the middle chunk of the movie. Moving up the movie's big third-act reveal would have made him integral to the rest of the story and given Hardy more notes to play.)
Elsewhere, Gordon-Levitt makes an appealing sidekick for both Gordon and Batman and old pros like Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Modine bring the necessary gravitas to their supporting roles. Bale, meanwhile, seems to enjoy the opportunity to play a version of Batman we haven't seen before -- one who has moved beyond his vigilante identity and, in the end, enjoys his greatest triumphs as Bruce rather than the Bat. As for the movie's few female cast members, they valiantly try to earn their place in a narrative that doesn't entirely know what to do with them. Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate -- a Wayne Enterprises board member who become a key ally of its owner -- spends much of the movie as an afterthought, only coming into her own, so to speak, in the final act. Hathaway makes a much stronger impression as Selina Kyle, who is written and performed as the Han Solo to Batman's Luke Skywalker. Unfortunately, as skillfully as she assumes the identity of a roguish thief, the actress can't overcome the fact that the story simply doesn't require her presence. Many of her functions could have been re-assigned to other members of the large cast and her own personal goal -- which involves getting her hands on a piece of technology that wipes out a person's background, criminal record and all -- is such a boring MacGuffin that Nolan drops all mention of it as quickly as its introduced.
Whenever the summer movie season rolls around, it's all too easy to adopt a binary "It sucks/it rocks!" attitude towards the various blockbusters that pass before our eyes. But The Dark Knight Rises defies such easy categorization. There were things I loved about the movie and things I didn't care for at all. There were moments of extreme grace and beauty and moments so clunky and awkward, I'm amazed Nolan decided to include them in the movie.
And I haven't even touched on the political nerve that Rises strikes in its conclusion; never mind the Bane/Bain thing that certain right-wing talk show hosts have been bloviating about recently -- the final battle (which was filmed on location on the streets of New York's Wall Street), in which an army of cops heroically throws themselves upon Bane's army of mercenaries and members of Gotham's newly emboldened underclass who are thrilled to have taken their city back from the wealthy could be interpreted as a conservative's wet dream. (Whether that's a dream shared by Nolan or if he's simply seizing upon that iconography because he knows it'll provoke a response will be a matter open to endless debate... unless it's suddenly announced that he's directing Mitt Romney's next campaign ad.) And yet, the contradictory feelings the movie inspires feels right, even essential.
Considering Nolan's ambitions for the movie, it would be disappointing if you came out of Rises experiencing only one emotion. Flaws don't have to diminish a movie -- they can snap it into focus and allow it to linger in your mind after more polished and less substantial entertainments have been forgotten. Perhaps the best way to summarize the movie is to borrow the final line from one of the comics that inspired it: The Dark Knight Rises is a good film. Good enough.
Click here to read our reviews of Batman Returns and Batman & Robin.
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Click here to read the do's and don'ts for ending a trilogy.
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