“Every search for a hero must begin with something every hero requires: a villain.” – Mission Impossible II
(Vague spoilers throughout.)
Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy is an emotional and compelling look at the redemption of a hero. It’s got terrific performances from many of the cast, great action beats, glorious IMAX visuals, and an impressive sense of scope that we haven’t yet seen in one of his Batman movies. It’s a long film, though, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t drag a bit as it approached the climax, but the ending is so fantastic that it nearly makes up for the film’s problems along the way. The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy but flawed follow-up to the best movie of the series, and a fitting culmination to Nolan’s interpretation of one of the world’s most iconic characters.
Batman films have often been only as good as their villain, and this long running franchise has certainly seen its share of successes and failures throughout the years. (We detailed all of them in the first episode of The Not Just New Movies Podcast.) Christopher Nolan’s take on the material has been especially successful in this area so far, but Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises can’t possibly live up to the titanic performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. The mechanical mask Hardy wears cripples his performance, blocking out half of his face and leaving no room for emotion to slip through. His bizarre delivery combined with a metallic and muffled sound effect leaves some of his dialogue incomprehensible, and while brief flashbacks give us a tiny glimpse into the character’s history, we never really get a satisfying sense of who Bane is and why he cares about his goal. He shares a similar nihilism with Ra’s Al Ghul and The Joker, but despite his gargantuan and intimidating physical presence, Bane doesn’t quite click as well as the aforementioned foes. The film shares the same basic plot structure as Rocky III, with Batman getting his ass handed to him by a more impressive opponent, being broken down, and, of course, fighting his way back to the top.
Nolan gives Bane’s cause timeliness by creating an allegory for the Occupy Wall Street movement, but I’ll leave those comparisons to someone better educated on that organization and their goals. The director also returns to his terrorism allegory that has pervaded this series, and actually has his villain execute on a lot of what The Joker only aspired to do. The Joker blew up a hospital and a couple of buildings in The Dark Knight; Bane spends months laying concrete laced with explosives and blows up half of Gotham City in TDKRises, putting Gotham under siege and essentially holding the entire town hostage. But there’s no escape plan for him and his devotees, and they’re totally prepared to go down with the ship when the bomb is counting down in the film’s climax. If they are OK with dying, then why not just detonate it immediately and destroy Gotham, as the League of Shadows had been wanting to do for years? The countdown toward detonation seemed arbitrary, and this was the section of the film that almost lost me. “The bomb will detonate in 5 months…23 days…tomorrow…15 hours…12 hours…45 minutes…10 minutes…” It felt as if it was trying to have the audience on the edge of our seats for that entire time, but instead of really ramping up to it, the filmmakers kept the intensity level at a fever pitch for the entire buildup and robbed the actual climax of some of its impact.
Other than Hardy’s disappointing turn, the acting was outstanding. Anne Hathaway was perfectly cast as Selina Kyle, bringing a sexy seriousness to the role and providing some fun banter with Bale. She doesn’t have much to do, though, and I wish her part was much larger. Nolan’s Inception star Marion Cotillard transitioned well into the Bat-verse, Oldman and Freeman were great as always, and Bale himself toned down his Batman voice a bit (probably heard all of the criticism about how ridiculous it got during The Dark Knight) and did some good work as both of his dual identities. But the hands-down scene stealers in this movie were Michael Caine as Alfred and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Gotham City PD officer John Blake. Caine gives a performance filled to the brim with sorrow, a stark contrast to the lighthearted quips we’ve seen from him in the previous films. His relationship with Bruce and their shared history make his actions all the more meaningful, and though he isn’t in the film for long, he really commands the screen while he’s on it. On the other hand, JGL gets a ton of screen time and does some of his best mainstream work here. The soulfulness and pain behind Gordon-Levitt’s eyes as he recounts his upbringing to Bale is one of the best scenes he’s done in five years. And that ending…talk about a crowd pleaser.
From the moment when Batman takes the bomb out over the harbor to the closing credits, this movie achieved sheer perfection. Nolan brilliantly plays with our emotions and tugs on all the right heartstrings, making us feel things for the character of Bruce Wayne that we never have before. By watching Wayne suffer throughout this entire movie, it makes us much more emotionally invested in his journey than we were in The Dark Knight, where the real star is Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent and Wayne/Batman is kept at arm’s length. The autopilot revelation, the payoff of Alfred’s cafe story, and the final Joseph Gordon-Levitt discovery are among the best moments in this entire series, and by bunching them all together, it makes for a hell of an amazing ending.
The film’s IMAX footage is magnificent, adding an immersive feel to the world of Gotham and continuing Nolan’s impressive run as one of the most awe-inspiring filmmakers working in the industry today. No one else uses IMAX to convey such jaw-dropping visuals in narrative features, and even films like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which has that one fantastic Burj Khalifa sequence, have to bow down to Nolan’s mastery of the format. The way he and cinematographer Wally Pfister film simple helicopter shots of a cityscape are some of the most beautifully composed and crystal clear images you’ll see on a screen this year. The action sequences of “the Bat” flying through the city recalled imagery of Tony Stark cruising through Manhattan in the finale of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, but these scenes lack the immediacy that Whedon injected into the Marvel universe.
The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have the engaging villain of its predecessor, and despite its larger scope and thrilling closing minutes, the film can’t quite top the expert storytelling of The Dark Knight. It’s certainly not the worst third film in a superhero trilogy, and it’s only natural that Nolan would eventually be unable to hurdle a bar that he continually set higher and higher. But why do we fall? To quote Thomas Wayne and Alfred J. Pennyworth, “so we can pick ourselves up,” and both Christopher Nolan and the Batman franchise will be just fine moving forward. Qualms aside, years from now we’ll look back at this trilogy as the definitive telling of the Batman legend. Until next time…