When BATMAN BEGINS came out in 2005, I knew the face of comic book movies was changing, yet again. In 1989 director Tim Burton redefined the superhero genre with a darker tone, but things were still a bit surreal and fantastical. His first two efforts were admirable and interesting, but sadly when Joel Schumacher inherited the director chair things went a whole lot more campy, a move that ultimately destroyed the big screen personification of the popular DC Comics hero. When director Christopher Nolan took over the franchise, things got grounded in reality very quick, and gone were the silliness and cartoonish aspects we had previously seen. Nolan’s Batman was a tortured man living in a realistic world, plagued with problems we all face, or at the very least could relate to. Christian Bale became Bruce Wayne and Batman, and in doing so redefined the character into something fans soaked up with enthusiasm. In 2008 Nolan and Bale returned to the franchise with a second outing, THE DARK KNIGHT, a film that unfortunately was most notable for actor Heath Ledger’s passing shortly after completion. Some have argued that Ledger’s connection with the sequel is one of the things that made it so popular at the box office, but there’s no denying his exceptional performance as The Joker – a performance that earned him an Academy Award posthumously. It was also an outing that saw a rather overlooked but strong performance from Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent aka Two-Face. It’s been four years since THE DARK KNIGHT shattered box office records and became one the biggest money-making films of all time, and now Nolan and Bale are back for what is being touted as the final entry in their “trilogy” for the character, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
I’ll do my best to keep this plot description somewhat cryptic so as not to spoil the main events of the film… most of what you’re about to read covers just the first 30 minutes.
Set eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, this outing opens with a rather spectacular plane heist, in which we’re introduced to a breathing mask-wearing hulk of a man named Bane (Tom Hardy). This mysterious man is initiating the beginnings of a rather complicated plan that will reveal itself in full as the story continues. On another note, we see that Gotham City now celebrates “Harvey Dent Day” outside Wayne Manor, or rather memorializes the passing of a man once thought to be the city’s white knight. Batman vanished after that day, and hasn’t been seen since, taking the fall for Dent’s murder and the murder’s of others Harvey killed after becoming Two-Face. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) wants to read a personally written confession revealing the truth about that fateful night, but can’t bring himself to do so. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) now reclusively lives in the halls of his giant manor, hobbling around with a cane, allowing his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) to oversee the numerous helpers who maintain the house. Wayne catches one of his maids (Anne Hathaway) attempting to steal his deceased mother’s pearl necklace, and soon realizes this jewel thief is anything but a humble servant. We’re also introduced to Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a well-meaning environmentalist with ambitious aspirations for Wayne Enterprises, and a young and eager patrol cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). There’s also a cocky protege of Gordon’s named Foley (Matthew Modine) and a Wayne Enterprises board member with nefarious plans named Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn). Bruce finds himself getting closer to the necklace thief, who bears the real name of Selina Kyle, a known cat burglar – though he feels there’s more to her than meets the eye. As Bane’s diabolical plan is unveiled over the course of the film, we begin to see that it will take someone like Batman to bring him down. But after several years in retirement, and a company near bankruptcy, can Bruce Wayne hope to defeat his most deadly villain to date?
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a highly-ambitious spectacle that commands attention, and frequently delivers on multiple levels. In many ways it may easily be the most-impressive Batman film to date. The IMAX shots, which are rather frequent this time, immerse the audience into the chaos, and show once again the directing strengths of Chris Nolan. His framing of scenes is powerful and intricate, never allowing the film to feel bogged down or overly glossy. It looks phenomenal. And Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score is equally absorbing, though at times probably a little too loud – fans will undoubtedly complain about not being able to hear some of the dialogue over the music, and they’d be right to do so. This is definitely the loudest Nolan film I’ve seen, and I’m including the frequently noisy INCEPTION in that mix. But you could also argue that the sound design and score just add to the grandeur of the piece, and help deliver the epic style the film carries.
All of that said, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t without its problems… and please, no death threats from fans here. The plot is a bit all over the place, and while paced in a rapidly fluid fashion at times still feels bogged down. Perhaps one of the issues that hurts the project is an abundance of characters. The role of Miranda Tate for example probably could have been left out, and the film most likely wouldn’t have suffered for it. Or Matthew Modine’s character, who feels like he has multiple scenes missing, just seems in the movie without any true purpose. I got the idea we were supposed to see this was a guy who could be a dangerous successor to Gordon in the event things swing that way, but the script never really delivers on those possibilities, or gives the role much purpose. When you have a movie like this, juggling big figures like Catwoman (though she’s never actually called that) and Bane, along with the returning regulars, you’ve already got enough on your plate. Thankfully Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of John Blake is delivered with enough substance to make him a worthy addition to an already massive cast. In fact, he may end up becoming the favorite character for many people in the audience, at least as far as the newcomers are concerned.
The performances are all top notch, particularly Michael Caine, who with only a few brief scenes delivered so much gravitas with Alfred it’s hard not to love him the most. One thing about Nolan’s take on Alfred is he’s always made that character the glue that holds the story together, and it’s never more apparent than here. Caine also brings us one or two of the project’s most emotional moments, and the film is better for it. Christian Bale turns in an interesting and somewhat more somber performance this outing, showing a sensitive side to the tortured soul, and infinitely more vulnerability than we’ve seen before. There are some lengthy moments in the movie where he’s absent, and I imagine it took considerable faith from a leading actor like him in trusting Nolan for knowing what is best for the role. Anne Hathaway does a fine job as Selina Kyle, the mysterious thief with unclear motives. It seems the popular actress fell under a lot of scrutiny from fans when she was announced for the part of Catwoman, but she delivers and makes it her own. She’s sexy, lethal, and fascinating, the way that character should be. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is rather likable here as the ambitious cop never afraid to go the extra mile. He has great scenes individually with Bale and Oldman, and I’m thrilled Nolan realized the potential of having such a solid young actor be mixed in with all these heavy hitters. Joe is one of those people I think has yet to truly break out and become a blockbuster star, but this role is definitely a step in the right direction. Tom Hardy has perhaps the hardest job in playing Bane, a part that requires most of his face to be covered with a mask the entire time. He cannot rely on facial expressions or mouth movements to sell the part, but simply body language. It’s a tough thing to ask of any actor, but Hardy does his best with what is there, and finds a fearful effect in his vocal performance and dialogue delivery. Bane is definitely not as iconic of a villain as The Joker, or even as prolific, but his motives and plans are frightening on a different and more widespread level, which should help solidify his effectiveness in the hearts of moviegoers. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn once again impresses as a slimy Wayne Enterprises board member with his own agenda, and effectively loses himself in an amazing American accent. Perhaps the only disappointing performance in the piece is that of Marion Cotillard, who is normally quite good, but here just feels tacked on and unnecessary. The script never allows her role to become anything substantial, and as a result she feels wasted and rushed from a storytelling perspective.
Returning cast members Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman deliver excellent work, as expected. I love how Nolan has made Oldman’s portrayal of Gordon a more ‘hands on’ guy, never afraid to jump into the action. Here he’s used more effectively in many ways than the last two films, and let’s face it, any Gary Oldman in a movie is always a good thing. Morgan Freeman seemed to have less to do this time out, but still turns in some satisfying dialogue. His scenes with Bale are always smile-inducing, and while his role may not have a lot of meat to it, he’s still a welcome face among the ensemble.
Perhaps the biggest fault of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the same problem with THE DARK KNIGHT, in that the running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes just feels unnecessarily bloated and showy. I’ve found on repeated viewings of THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s rather hard getting through that last 45 minutes, and I imagine this film will suffer the same fate. While I applaud Nolan for giving us an epic conclusion to the character’s mythology, I can’t help but wonder how that running time could have been reduced to a more appropriate level. I’m sure to some extent the studio feels that pain, as it reduces the number of times the movie can be shown in a day. But all that said, it’s safe to assume this ending to the trilogy will make some serious bucks at the box office. Everyone wants to know how it ends, and while it may be a bit clunky in getting there script-wise, the payoff is fairly spectacular… just make sure to pee before you get too comfortable.