Yes, it’s good. Very good, even. I can report that The Dark Knight Rises manages to avoid the fates of X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3—two superhero movies that followed highly successful, almost universally beloved predecessors and failed miserably to live up to them, ending their respective trilogies with thoroughly disappointing and resounding thuds.
But it’s far from perfect, which keeps it just out of range of being a truly great film. Of the three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan, I still prefer 2005’s Batman Begins the most, though 2008’s The Dark Knight comes very, very close. The Dark Knight Rises is maybe a notch below.
It’s not bad at all—far from it, in fact. It’s just not quite as strong as the previous two. It’s certainly the messiest. I don’t know whether it’s due to sloppy writing or carelessness in the editing stage, but there are more than a few moments that left me scratching my head, trying desperately to connect the dots. I found myself wondering, for example, how certain characters knew of one another when, from all indications, they wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Other characters managed to escape from a particularly dire situation and suddenly reappeared in full force, with, as far as I could tell, no explanation given. And a few other characters managed to figure out a very closely guarded secret, and I’m really not sure how. (Maybe—hopefully—this stuff will become clearer with repeated viewings.)
The plot itself is straightforward enough. It’s eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. The Batman has not been seen in public since. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a recluse. Having sustained multiple injuries during his time as a masked crimefighter, he has a pronounced limp and walks with a cane. He never ventures out of his home, the sprawling rebuilt Wayne Manor, and speaks to no one but his ever-loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine). Bruce’s company is failing, his wealth is dwindling, and he resists overtures of help from beautiful businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). He is still reeling emotionally and physically from the events of eight years ago. Meanwhile, a super-strong masked terrorist called Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives in Gotham City and, with his team of loyal followers, sets up shop beneath the streets. From there, he launches a grand scheme that will systematically generate fear, class warfare, murder, and widespread destruction throughout the city. This prompts Bruce to once again take on the role of the Batman, who reestablishes his alliances with Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne Enterprises technical wizard Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). And there are some new players on the scene: maverick police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a gorgeous burglar and con artist. Will they help the caped crusader or contribute to his final downfall? And what is Bane really after, anyway?
The Dark Knight Rises combines elements of several major Batman storylines from the last 25-plus years, including “Knightfall” (the introduction of Bane and his stunning triumph over Batman), “No Man’s Land” (Gotham City is cut off from the rest of the United States and descends into chaos), and the landmark, bona fide classic The Dark Knight Returns (an older Batman comes out of retirement).
But it’s also very much an organic extension of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, blending the sensibilities of both of those films and interweaving and connecting some of their individual elements within the context of a new story. As a sequel, as the concluding chapter of a saga, and as a movie in its own right, it’s very effective. The stakes are high and the damage done is palpable. During a sequence showing the vast devastation caused by Bane across Gotham City, one can’t help but remember what downtown Manhattan looked like on 9/11/2001. And Batman is brought to his knees in a manner that I don’t think has ever been seen before in live action.
There are plot twists I didn’t see coming (and one or two that I did), and several genuine “Oh, $#@%!” moments.
But, as realistic a feel as Nolan has aimed for in these movies, there’s also some stuff that really stretches credibility. Without giving too much away, Bane sets out to destroy the reputation of one of the film’s protagonists, bringing to light a dark secret from the past. But after the brutal atrocities that Bane commits in public upon making his presence known in Gotham, I find it very hard to accept that anyone—particularly good, decent, law-abiding citizens—would believe anything he has to say.
Then again, maybe they didn’t fully understand what he was saying. I estimate that I missed a good 10 percent of Bane’s dialogue, as it was muffled and electronically processed to account for his unique face mask. Some critics have compared the effect to Darth Vader, but that’s not an accurate assessment—I always understood every word that Darth Vader ever said.
The problem is not limited to Bane, though. There are moments when the music and the sound effects drown out the dialogue. I’m not sure whether it’s the film’s sound mix or the acoustics in the theater I was in, but there were moments where I wished I could have turned on the subtitles.
But there was a lot that I liked. I nodded approvingly at Batman’s firm insistence on “no guns” (staggeringly ironic given what happened in Aurora, Colorado). And there was at least one major dramatic payoff that I had been hoping for since Batman Begins—though it didn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would.
The cast is fantastic, from top to bottom. There’s not one weak link in the chain.
Christian Bale does some of his very best work as Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. And while there’s not a lot of Batman here, the stuff with him is pretty great.
Gary Oldman is, once again, simply wonderful as Commissioner Gordon. No more need be said.
Michael Caine has less screen time as Alfred this time around, but he has some terrific moments and there’s a point where your heart really goes out to him.
Morgan Freeman also has a somewhat reduced role, but it’s nice to see him again as Lucius. His scenes with Bale are always a pleasure to watch.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who thoroughly impressed me in the wonderful (500) Days of Summer, practically steals the film.
Marion Cotillard is a welcome addition to the series. Oddly enough, she sort of looks like a melding of Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom played Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s one true love, in the previous films. She’s exotic, enigmatic, and very effective.
Anne Hathaway is downright fantastic, and not just because of the way she looks in the updated Catwoman outfit. She’s a dynamo, turning in one of the film’s best—and certainly most enjoyable—performances, showing different facets to her character and lighting up the screen whenever she’s on it. For my money, she blows away any other actress who’s ever played Catwoman, with the sole exception of Julie Newmar. (True, she’s never actually called Catwoman in the film, but Harvey Dent was never referred to as Two-Face after he got burned in The Dark Knight either.)
As Bane, Tom Hardy definitely has the toughest challenge. Not only does he have to perform throughout the entire movie wearing a mask that covers most of his face, he’s also in the unenviable position of following in the footsteps of the late Heath Ledger, who made an indelible mark as the Joker. Declaring that Hardy lacks Ledger’s charisma, as a number of critics have done, is silly, pointless, and unfair. Bane and the Joker are two very different characters, requiring completely different approaches. Hardy is a good actor and he’s fine in the role. Now, if you want to criticize the choice of Bane as the main villain for this movie, that’s another story—and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. (He certainly wouldn’t have been my pick, as he’s never been a favorite of mine.)
With regard to the ending, which became a hot topic when David Letterman supposedly spilled the beans about it on his show before the movie came out… all I’ll say is, I approve.
I have to admit, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t the movie that I had in my head after I saw The Dark Knight four years ago. It doesn’t go in the direction I thought it would and it’s not the wrap-up to the series that I was expecting—mainly because I wasn’t expecting (or needing) a “wrap-up” at all. Aside from Christopher Nolan wanting his version of Batman to be untouched by anyone else (and he gained enough clout that Warner Brothers acceded to his wish), there’s really no reason why this particular run of films could not have continued indefinitely with other directors, writers, and, if necessary, lead actors. James Bond lived on within the same cinematic continuity despite multiple actors playing him. Yes, they pretty much tried to do the same thing with the original Batman series begun by Tim Burton—Val Kilmer and George Clooney were, for all intents and purposes, playing the same Batman as Michael Keaton—but those films sucked. Ah well. What’s done is done. Another reboot is forthcoming and we can only hope it matches—or even exceeds—what Nolan has achieved with his trilogy.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.