Back in 2000, director Christopher Nolan was just starting to build acclaim with his second feature film, Memento. Twelve years later, he has now directed his third film in an ambitious Batman franchise, which happens to also be one of the most anticipated films of all time. The Dark Knight is admittedly a tough act to follow and despite sky high expectations, I was not really expecting The Dark Knight Rises to surpass what I consider the best Batman film of all time. Putting that thought aside, The Dark Knight Rises still managed to be a rousing and emotional spectacle that puts a fine cap on Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Wherever people end up in regards to this film, I am just pleased that the Caped Crusader was able to go out in heroic fashion.
Bane: When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die.
The plot of The Dark Knight Rises is fairly complex, even if it is murky at times, so I will try my best to be concise about it. The story picks up 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight, where Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) conspired to keep a secret involving the truth about Harvey Dent. Batman has since disappeared from the public. Gordon has begrudgingly held up the lie and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in his own mansion. Meanwhile, Gotham City has settled into peace thanks to the Harvey Dent Act, which put down an iron fist on organized crime in the city.
Unfortunately, the time of peace is coming to an end, as a ruthless and towering mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) has come to Gotham with plans to destroy the city, through the use of terrorist acts. At the same time, a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), has entered into Bruce Wayne’s life haphazardly, by robbing him. Both of these events lead to Batman coming out of exile, only this time, as the fire rises, the Batman may be the symbol the people deserve, but not the one that is able to stop these deadly forces on his own. Fortunately, Batman does have the aid of a few, including Alfred (Michael Caine), a rookie cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Wayne Enterprises board member named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and of course the head of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). It will be a difficult journey, but hopefully some good can come, before the night falls.
One thing to state right away, this film has been made for IMAX. I am sorry that not everyone is going to be able to find a true IMAX screen and see this film in all of its glory, but Nolan’s decision to use IMAX cameras and have over an hour of this film in that format is an amazing choice that really brings Batman to a spectacular level. Regardless, wherever one is able to see the film, the visual splendor that is The Dark Knight Rises is incredible. Nolan, series’ cinematographer Wally Pfister, and the rest of the team involved, have done some amazing work here in truly widening the scope of the film. There are very specific locations that are gorgeous to look at, even when the tone of the film is at its darkest. The action feels wonderfully dynamic, with an action-packed climax that is sensational. The arrangements of the quieter scenes, which focus solely on the characters, are conceived with careful crafting as well. Speaking of arrangements, Hans Zimmer (without the help of James Newton Howard this time around) has once again found a way to create a distinctive score for this film, just as the visuals set up a distinctive color palette. Add to all of this the tremendous special effects work, which, besides ‘The Bat’ and some key sequences, I am hard-pressed to note any moment as an obvious work of CG, and here is a film that is certainly a wonderful technical accomplishment.
Alfred: Don’t worry, Master Wayne. It takes a little time to get back into the swing of things.
Regarding the actors, Christian Bale does his best work as Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. While there is less actual Batman than one would hope (more on that and other flaws soon), Bruce Wayne is put through plenty to keep Bale involved and at a point where he really has to give it his all as a performer. The Nolan series remains notable for not pushing Wayne away from the story, regardless of how larger than life the villains of the film are. This brings me to the villain(s) of the film. Tom Hardy, for what he has to do, is imposing as Bane and is easily Batman’s biggest threat physically and, in some ways, mentally. The monstrous mercenary is a powerful opponent indeed, with a voice and accent that makes him seem like a maniacal megaphone user, with muscles behind it. Unfortunately, he also proves to be the least interesting of the heavies Batman has had to face. This is no fault of Hardy, but so many other people speak about him and his past and Bane is so focused on his grand scheme for Gotham, while behind a muffling mask, that I never felt I had a chance to get a handle on his personality. Faring much better is Anne Hathaway, who easily proves any of the naysayers wrong with her wonderfully electric performance that makes her take on Catwoman enigmatic, sexy, and deadly. Hathaway is given plenty to do and has great chemistry with Bale, as the two confront each other frequently and on varying terms.
Other performances are equally important and powerful, starting with Michael Caine. Caine has made Alfred into what I can consider the MVP of the series as a whole. He only gets so much to do this time around, but in a key scene, he gives an emotionally powerful performance that says so much about the state of things. Gary Oldman continues to shine as my favorite good-guy character in the Batman universe, Commissioner Gordon. Morgan Freeman’s return is also welcome, as the man is just a great presence here and anywhere, really. Additions to the cast like Marion Cotillard are fine, though the arc of her character as one possible love interest for Wayne feels a bit awkwardly handled. Working better is Joseph Gordan-Levitt, who gets a lot to do, as he is forced to help serve Gotham, given the difficulties that both Batman and Gordon are facing. He is also featured in key scenes with Bale and Oldman, which continue to help establish an emotional core for the story. It is an impressive cast all-around, all the more so because I never felt like the film was too overstuffed with cast members.
Approaching my thoughts on the story, there are things I really loved about it, but it is also where the film finds its troubles. Speaking on the positive side first, I love the way this film feels like the end of a saga. The Dark Knight Rises is indeed the end of this particular Batman storyline and the film feels less like a standalone feature and more like the continuation of an ongoing narrative. Sometimes this does not work in features (and regardless, one could probably find their way, were they not to have devoted knowledge to the preceding films), but ‘Rises’ very much attaches itself to the world and ideas that were setup in the previous features, particularly Batman Begins. I was also a big fan of the direction that this film took and the fact that it went to an extent that makes sense for a film with a scope this large, but is still pretty heavy for a superhero epic that is coming out within the same year that had the exuberant fun that was The Avengers. While The Dark Knight focused on the anarchic menace that was the Joker running wild, ‘Rises’ finds Bane unleashing a tyrannical agenda that puts Batman up to the task of going to war in order to save Gotham.
Bruce Wayne: I’m not afraid. I’m angry.
With that in mind, this film is still problematic in reaching its epic climax. While certain motivations are purposefully held back from the audience until the time calls for it, the use of urban terrorism can only take me so far before I need to step back and ask, “Who is fighting for what here?” Again, this calls back to Bane, as I get the idea that he is a major threat, but his plans, along with other side plots, have a tendency to really stretch things out, rather than add. At some point a line needed to be drawn between what felt like true plot momentum and what felt like filler. The area where expansion could have benefited is in handling the romantic interests for Wayne and how that could have played out in different realities. I would have also liked to have more Batman in a Batman film. Based on where the film goes, it is understandable to see why things happen the way they do, but given my thoughts on the tangled narrative, I still wish I had more cape and cowl. It is fortunate that I certainly was not bored in all of the 165 minutes that is The Dark Knight Rises, but proceeding through a story that does not effortlessly hit all of its beats as The Dark Knight did feels like a significant issue.
It is more splitting hairs than anything, because the film does lead into an all-out exciting climax, with a genuine conclusion that brings the series to a powerful close. I can admittedly say that “fun” is not one of the key words I would use to describe The Dark Knight Rises, which is a different stance than the one I had on the previous entries. However, there are some awesome sights to behold when the action does go down, when you see mano et mano fights between Bane and Batman, when Catwoman is on the scene and taking down her foes, and generally anytime we see any of Lucius Fox’s fancy gadgets in action. It is only fitting that the final minutes of this film really bring everything around, by finding a way to balance the extraordinary with the fittingly emotional resolution that is much needed for a series of this caliber.
Batman, the character and comic universe he comes from, means a lot to me, which many who know me personally are very aware of. It is because of this that I was concerned I would feel too biased to properly judge the film. Having just revisited both Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight, I thought I may have been too concerned about whether or not I was overrating those two prior films and would have similar issues in regards to ‘Rises’. I fortunately do not find that to be the case, as I recognize this final chapter’s flaws. Still, regardless of how much I liked ‘Rises’ overall, it did give me a continued level of appreciation for The Dark Knight, as it is clearer to me just how well constructed that film is in almost every possible way. The Dark Knight Rises is definitely grand in scope and a suitably epic conclusion to this Nolan-directed Batman trilogy, but it does have issues with going too big, while not feeling quite as coherent and entertaining as the prior two films. It is still a tremendous accomplishment thanks to all of the great things in it (actors, visuals, themes, emotional resonance), but it justifiably can’t be everything to everyone. Issues aside, The Dark Knight Rises showed that while the fire did indeed rise, one man does have the ability to pick himself up and be the symbol the people deserve.
Selina Kyle: You don’t owe these people any more! You’ve given them everything!
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.