This one has been a long time coming. Even before I saw the film, I was brainstorming a number of clever ways to open this review (a terrible idea, by the way, but I couldn’t resist.) A number of ideas involving references to Batman and Robin presented themselves to me. Little did I know how appropriate one of those ideas would turn out to be. In case you’re unaware, the theme from Joel Schumacher’s final Batman opus was a Smashing Pumpkin’s tune called “The End is the Beginning is the End”, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Song. You may remember a remixed version, memorably used in the Watchmen trailer. But that title, and the way that the song ties back to the Batman of Christopher Nolan’s films, made it impossible to resist. So put on your Bat-slippers, make a nice cup of Bat-tea, hit play on the video below, and read my Bat-review of The Dark Knight Rises.
Oh, and this review will include SPOILERS, so turn back if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Or don’t, if you don’t care. Fine. Whatever. Your funeral.
The Dark Knight Rises is a great film. But it’s also not that great. In the four years since The Dark Knight came out, I went back and forth on whether or not I liked it. In a way, the intense popular response to the film made me search for a reason to hate it, if only to separate myself from the throngs of teenage boys because they “thought it was cool”. Now, of course, I see how stupid that really was. There’s nothing wrong with a truly great piece of entertainment finding a massive audience, and there’s nothing wrong with the variety of ways in which people find enjoyment in things. I watched the first two Nolan Batman films in an IMAX theater immediately before the midnight premier of the new film. The Dark Knight does more than hold up surprisingly well; the film actually got a better audience reaction than I remember the first time that I saw it in theaters.
It’s also important to understand the impact that The Dark Knight had on me as a person. Sure, I pretended to be “interested in movies” for a year or so, but only because it seemed like a cooler thing to be into than the nerdy stuff that would get me made fun of. But then The Dark Knight came out, and it blew my tiny mind. For most film buffs, there is a movie that they can cite which was the turning point in their lives because it “showed them what movies can really do and/or be.” For some people, it’s Star Wars or The Godfather or Jaws. The Dark Knight was that for me. I hadn’t — up to that point — seen a movie that told such a complex story so masterfully, with fully-realized characters and uncompromising vision. I pretended that I disliked it, but only out of intense love. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing this review. I knew somehow that it was good, I just needed to know why. It was the why that I didn’t yet understand, and the why that had me digging frantically through the Internet for answers. I needed to learn what made good movies “good” and bad movies “bad”, and I needed to know how to explain those attributes in my own words. Fast forward a few years, and here we are.
But I’m getting off-topic. That’s six hundred words that aren’t about the movie in the title, but I think you need to know where I’m coming from. The Dark Knight was important to my development, so I was pumped about The Dark Knight Rises in a way that I can’t precisely explain. Hell, I put down cash for the IMAX trilogy screening, that should kinda speak for itself. I diligently avoided spoilers, something I don’t normally do. Yes, I’ll admit it. I’m something of a spoiler-hound. Not this time, though. (This could dovetail into a whole blog entry about my personal feelings on tension and suspense, but I’ll leave that for another day.)
So, on the surface, everything looks great! The acting is great, for starters. Anne Hathaway, as the cat-burglar-who-is-Catwoman-but-nobody-says-it, really surprised me. It helps that this version of Selina Kyle is a bit more complex than past screen editions, even though her relationship with Bruce came out of nowhere for me. Yes, there was sexual tension between the two, but that’s inherent to the characters. The payoff of them sharing a kiss and then later being together came out of nowhere. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake was probably my favorite thing about the movie. He’s a character that’s original to the film, and he’s the only character in the trilogy who feels like a person who was plucked out of our world and dropped into Gotham City. Even if the resolution to his arc can be predicted from the instant he appears on screen, watching him progress along that arc is a joy. But even though these new characters were great, their addition came at the cost of time with fan favorites. Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox gets more screen time than usual, but Gary Oldman’s Gordon is out of commission for nearly two-thirds of the film, and Michael Caine is completely wasted, leaving the film less than an hour in and returning for only a minute or two at the end. However, it’s a testament to Caine’s talent that he still gives the best performance, even with his limited screen time. No one gets choked up like Michael Caine gets choked up. Give him another Oscar already. And Tom Hardy as Bane?
Let’s talk about Bane for a little bit. First of all, I understood nearly everything he said, so let’s get that out of the way. Honestly, he’s not that hard to decipher if you’re paying attention. And the few lines I missed were easily interpreted using context clues. Second of all, that mask is a stupid idea and it should have never made it past the drawing board. It doesn’t look menacing, it looks stupid. The first thing that should come to mind when you see a picture of that mask is, “Hey, won’t this make him difficult to understand?” I guess it’s the best possible way to make the Bane of the comics fit into Nolan’s “real world”, but it’s still pretty weak. Why not have the tubes all over his body, like the comic, but keep the painkiller idea? Maybe make a comment about prescription drug abuse? I don’t know, be creative or something. Do something that isn’t…that. As a villain, though? He’s cool, I guess. He’s scary, and I believed that he posed a threat to both Batman and Gotham. But his presence is where he fails. The instant you see the Joker on screen, you’re hooked. He’s compelling from literally the first frame he appears in. Bane, not so much. He’s just not as interesting to watch. I guess Nolan and Co. kind of backed themselves into a corner by making the Joker so iconic. There was no way that Bane was going to measure up, no matter how hard they tried. Viewed on his own, Bane works pretty well. But in the context of the trilogy, he’s not the best part, and that’s the worst you can say about him.
When the trailer for a movie alone has moments that make your jaw drop, you know you’re in for a treat. And when my IMAX showing of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol had a then-new trailer for the film, which showed the football stadium explosion, my jaw went through the floor. The Dark Knight Rises is chock-full of moments like that. It opens with one, a daring aerial set piece worthy of the best Bond films (please oh please give Nolan the next Bond movie), there are plenty of nice twists in between, and the final half-hour manages the difficult task of being awe-inspiringly beautiful and nail-bitingly tense at the same time. Some of the coolest shots are unfortunately shown in trailers and TV spots, but unlike The Avengers and Prometheus, which fell victim to the same crime, The Dark Knight Rises has much, much more up its sleeve.
Now, I wasn’t going to make this review all about TDKR vs. Avengers, but this film gets something right that every other film this summer has failed at, and I’m finding it difficult to explain what it is. I mentioned in my Avengers review that the film has no scope. It has a grand total of two major set pieces, and the film seems to take place over the course of a holiday weekend. This had an immense negative impact on the stakes, at least for me personally. Prometheus had a similar problem (though there’s lots more to complain about with that film), in that the sheer lack of plot elements makes things feel less important than the movie wants us to believe that they are. Again, I’m not sure how to explain this problem, and I’m not sure if it’s unique to me, but it’s something that The Dark Knight excelled at, and something that The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in again. I guess the best way to describe it is that Avengers and Prometheus didn’t have enough distinct story events in their plots to justify themselves. With Avengers, you’re expecting that a teamup of this magnitude (and with such a huge budget) would give the creators reason to do a huge, globetrotting adventure with multiple plot threads that all come together in the end. Same thing with Prometheus. I can think of about five distinct things that happened in Avengers, at least five that mattered to the story. A lot of it was filler. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, is longer than both those films, and yet it has less filler than both of them combined. A lot of things happen in this movie, and all of them are interesting and relevant to the plot. It’s kind of bizarre that this has been a trend so far this summer. Now that I think about it, Brave had a similar thing going on, and I may have mentioned it in that review. It’s a disconcerting trend, and I hope it passes quickly.
There’s probably a whole blog post in there, so let’s get back to the movie. What I find funny about it is how Nolan sort of retcons a common thread between the trilogy with this one. In the hands of other directors, it may have seemed desperate and a bit pathetic, but Nolan makes the whole “Batman can be anyone” thing actually seem as if it has been his whole point all along, and not just a tiny part of the story. When watching the three films together, appearances of that theme stand out more, and it makes things that seemed out of place seem more coherent. In The Dark Knight, Bruce makes a big deal about how he thinks that Harvey Dent fulfills the same role as Batman without wearing a mask. In fact, he might as well be, and his status as a possible Batman candidate in the eyes of the public comes up multiple times. Therefore, while his descent into madness seemed shoehorned into The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises turns it into something more thematically relevant. Harvey Dent’s shadow looms large over both the events of the film and Gordon’s character arc, so maybe I’m not pulling this out of my ass here.
I guess this is the place to talk about themes, huh? The Dark Knight Rises is stuffed with them, more so than either of the previous films. Here’s another thing that I noticed, watching all three films back-to-back: each one has more themes than the last, and each theme gets less and less attention as the films go on. In Batman Begins, the whole “Bruce is neglecting his family legacy for Batman” thing wasn’t really relevant to the rest of the film, but Batman Begins was so focused that it didn’t really matter. The Dark Knight is jam-packed with themes, and a few of them get left by the wayside to make way for the “big ones”. Nolan is introducing themes right up until the final act of the movie. Did we really need questions about government invasion of privacy during the big action finale? No, because it wasn’t properly set up and it really doesn’t pay off in any meaningful way. But it made the film a little richer, so it can be excused. But The Dark Knight Rises? Holy hell, Nolan does not quit with the themes in this one! I can’t even name them all, there are so many! And they have even less to do with each other than the previous films. There’s the whole “Batman can be anyone” thing, of course, and the Occupy Wall Street vibes, which, happily, are consistent throughout, but then there’s this weird thing about Bane giving people hope so that he can destroy them? Or something? And then a weird comment about clean energy? And why are we rehashing the “fear” stuff from Begins? Hell, they even bring Ra’s Al-Ghul back for a minute-long cameo, where he literally rehashes his goal from the first film and then disappears. I didn’t get the point of the scene at all (and Bruce just magically realizing that the child in the story is Ra’s’ son is lazy screenwriting, by the way). It just doesn’t work. It’s Nolan’s least-focused film to date, and maybe one of his weakest films overall. But guess what? A weak Nolan film is still an amazing film compared to the rest of stuff that Hollywood is putting out this year. The story is gripping, even if there are a few holes. (And hey, note to the internet: PLEASE stop writing “12 PLOT HOLES I FOUND IN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES!!!” articles. No one cares, and most of the items on the list are either meaningless nitpicks or things that are explained in the movie. Stop it.) The characters are well-written, even if a few of them get the short end of the stick. And on top of it all, The Dark Knight Rises has one scene that shook me to my core.
John Blake has just discovered Bane’s dastardly plan: he’s going to destroy Gotham’s football stadium and trap the city’s police force in the tunnels underneath. A shaking, clearly nervous little boy walks out alone into the middle of the stadium to sing the National Anthem. As he sings, his falsetto never wavering, Bane climbs into the stadium, ready to make his entrance. The boy reminds us of another scared little kid, one from the beginning of the story. In both circumstances, we know what’s about to happen. We know the mythology, or we’ve seen the trailers. The tension is insanely high. But Nolan still managed to surprise me. Instead of destroying the stadium right then and there, the villain respectfully waits for the boy to finish and leave the field. As the song begins to reach its end, and the eerie silence builds, Bane comments.
“What a lovely voice.”
If that’s not the best moment of cinema of the year, I don’t know what is. It sent more chills up my spine than any moment in any film in recent memory. Why? I don’t exactly know. Maybe it’s the unbearable tension of the scenario alone. Maybe it’s that little glimpse of Bane’s personality outside of his desire for abject terror. Maybe it’s the fact that the scared little boy in this scene represents the trilogy coming full-circle better even than the uplifting, inspiring ending. I don’t think it really matters, at the end of the day. Despite all its faults, despite all the problems I and others have with it, The Dark Knight Rises has that moment, and nothing anyone can write about it can change that fact.