Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Review

The culmination of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy has arisen in the form of The Dark Knight Rises. Given the critical and popular acclaim heaped upon The Dark Knight -- much (though not all) of it deserved -- expectations for the final chapter in the trilogy were at a fever pitch. The film largely rises to the occasion, with a few significant qualifiers that keep it from being an absolute masterpiece.

Following the dynamic and indelible performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and considering the general dark intrigue that surrounds villains as objects of speculation and hype, all eyes are on Bane this time around. An exiled member of the League of Shadows (the group led by Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins), Bane -- a hulking wrecking-ball of a mercenary hellbent on chaos and destruction, as portrayed by Tom Hardy -- leads an underground uprising composed of Gotham's outcast and malcontent. Though the facial apparatus somewhat obstructs Hardy's ability to emote, his physical presence is dominating and fierce, and the effect produced by his ominous voice as projected through the mask is chilling -- though I'm not sure I prefer this final version of the voice over the more garbled early incarnation. Bane delivers as a cool, compelling villain, except for an event late in the film which I will come to anon.

In the wake of Harvey Dent's death as a martyr (in the eyes of the public), Gotham passed the Dent Act and cracked down on crime (one result of which is the aforementioned criminals that join Bane's uprising), and enjoyed a period of prosperity. Bruce Wayne -- sensing that Batman was no longer needed in the capacity he once was, and physically and spiritually downtrodden himself -- has gone into seclusion in the Wayne mansion and has become a bit of a recluse. But the rise of Bane represents a new need of Gotham's. 

That's the very general set-up for the film, but there's a lot more going on here. The film introduces many new characters quickly, while catching us up with old ones. The opening is a bit disorienting and demanding of the audience, but Nolan juggles the various characters and story threads deftly. I understand the desire to see a more circumscribed story, that focuses more intently on Batman and Bane for instance, though I think this is ultimately more satisfying than that approach would have been.

Especially in Batman Begins, but also in The Dark Knight to some degree, one of the few drawbacks was Nolan's choreographing and editing of action sequences. The Dark Knight had some spectacular action set pieces, but I still felt this was Nolan's achilles heel. Here he has actually improved somewhat in that regard. The set pieces are just as spectacular as in The Dark Knight and they flow more naturally and intelligibly. Fueled by Hans Zimmer's familiar and tremendous score the film is exhilarating to behold, especially in IMAX.

Nolan could easily have set his thematic and narrative inclinations on autopilot and still delivered a satisfying conclusion, but he never takes the easy path. Instead he weaves a dense tapestry of story, drawing on the well of character development in the earlier films to produce a complex and emotional climax to the series. This is part of the reason the plethora of characters doesn't feel overwhelming -- we already know Bruce, we know Alfred, we know Commissioner Gordon, and Nolan trusts the audience to engage with them on a level that connects with the previous films, rather than having to act as if this is a standalone film.

There is a powerful resonance in the image of the forces of evil -- in the guise of 'liberators' opposing the establishment, looking to institute 'justice' -- being charged by an army of cops looking to take back their city, given the clashes between Occupy and the police in the last year. Many conservative commentators have gone so far as to read the film primarily as political allegory, though I think that's a bridge too far. Clearly Nolan comes out on the side of order over chaos, and of regular people working within established institutions over world-burners and revolutionaries, while also attacking the propagandistic rhetoric of certain segments of the left and thus the film presents a nominally conservative worldview, but I don't think this theme dominates the proceedings.

Despite all the narrative brilliance, there are a couple missteps and one almost proves disastrous. The next three paragraphs will contain spoilers, so do not read ahead if you haven't yet seen the film.

One misstep is the common (but always silly) narrative device where, instead of killing the Hero when he has a chance, the Villain puts him in some sort of trap or device from which it turns out to be possible to escape. This was actually common in the Batman television show with Adam West, and perhaps in the comics as well (I never read much DC and so I can't be sure), so this could be a nod to the Batman tradition. Also, in Nolan's defense, if you ever want to imagine a scenario where the Hero is in the clutches of the Villain -- an interesting event -- it's difficult to avoid something along these lines. Still, given the grimy quasi-realist aesthetic of Nolan's Bat-iverse, you would think he would avoid this tact.

The other more serious problem is the late revelation concerning Miranda Tate. Transferring Bane's ostensible back-story to some rich, unassuming, female criminal mastermind at the last minute pulls the rug out from under the audience, to be sure, but it also turns Bane into a subordinate villain and demystifies the mythos being built around him. This wouldn't be so bad except it violates the coolness of Bane and makes the real villain just some random chick. Perhaps that's sexist of me, but I never claimed to be above petty sexism in my comic book inclinations.

At the last moment Bane becomes Darth Vader (mask and all) to Tate's Emperor (only minus the redemptive turn). I'm sure on a repeat viewing it will be interesting to watch Tate's (and Bane's, for that matter) actions and words in a new light, but it still feels a little cheap and less gratifying than if Bane had in fact been the child born into a dark hell who rose. I want that to be him. I don't want him demoted to the level of devoted and somewhat creepy henchman. That said, as much as that alters the film, and as much as I'd rather it be otherwise, the movie still succeeds. And perhaps on repeat viewings the feeling of being duped will subside.

Despite these missteps, The Dark Knight Rises still manages to soar -- literally, as The Bat, Batman's aerial vehicle, plays a big role in key sequences and in fighting the war against Bane's army. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan not only outpaces all the comic-book competition but also maintains his near-monopoly on challenging, intelligent, adult, blockbuster, 'event-film' entertainment.


  1. I too thought this was a pretty amazing movie. Although, another disappointment we had with the movie was the way they killed off Bane. I mean Bane broke Batman's back and was built up as this almost indestructible villain, and then Cat woman just comes into the scene and blows him up? We felt like he needed to go out with a little more pizzazz than that. However, I guess it makes sense because they just revealed that Bane wasn't the villain we thought he was. So, yes, I agree them suddenly turning the villain into Miranda Tate was a let down in multiple ways.

    1. Hi Halee,

      It's funny you mention the way that Bane got killed. I initially had written a paragraph about that, but took it out. You're exactly right; given the twist, it actually makes sense that Bane is disposed of so easily. But that's just another reason to not have the twist.

  2. I never post comments on blogs, but this was a pretty good review. Nice work. I wasn't as bothered by the Tate revelation, it made me think that the Ra's al Guhl was the real villain all along. And Bane in the comics only beat Batman because Batman was worn down from fighting all the guys who Bane liberated from Arkham. Then Bane was easily beaten by the guy who took over while Bruce was recovering (I think his name was Jean Paul). Then, of course, Wayne comes back and beats up Bane. So in comic lore, Bane was a good villain and broke Batman's back, but that's about as far as it goes.

  3. Preston (fka plb)August 1, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Granted: I haven't seen this film, but can the civil disobedience of the Occupy movement be compared to an army of criminals, let alone "the forces of evil?"

    How powerful is that resonance, really?


    1. A) Yes. B) Powerful.

      For someone on your 'side' who sees the same resonance: Of course, his interpretation of that resonance leads to paranoid delusions and absurd conclusions, but he's right about the film's identifying of the villains with OWS.