The Dark Knight Rises

I review movies to discuss them, not recommend them. As such, spoilers.

It’s good. Not The Dark Knight good, but still very good.

Christopher Nolan rarely disappoints and his Batman trilogy is the hallmark for live action interpretations of what is now, in all likelihood, the most well known superhero on earth. The concluding chapter has plenty of flaws that drag it down from the majestic heights of its immediate predecessor and even from Batman Begins. But it is still a very good movie, a very good Batman story, and a conclusion to this trilogy that will satisfy most fans.

I’m not going to spend much time covering the bases, since it would be mostly pointless. We all know the quality that Nolan brings to his productions. The script is wonderful, the cinematography is mostly flawless, the score is still mesmerising (that chant will be in my head for a long time to come) and no one gives a noticeably bad performance. The overall story is solid, taking much of its key inspiration from the No Man’s Land arc. It’s a long movie, but pacing isn’t an issue.

Each film in this trilogy has its main theme that reoccurs in later movies. Begins had fear, and the battle to confront and defeat fear. The Dark Knight had escalation, and the inevitability of dangerous reactions to the Batman idea.

Rises has both of those, combined with its own main themes: an interesting look at the dynamic and conflict between order and chaos, fascism and anarchy along with the need to “rise” above adverse conditions to achieve victory. It’s a movie that occupies itself with the fall of society and many characters, and their return to the light.

The first theme is seen all over the film from start to finish, and does get beaten over the head of the audience to an extent. Eight years after the defeat of the Joker, organised crime in Gotham has ceased to exist under draconian new laws – the “Dent Act”, passed in the name of a man who may have abhorred them – that have empowered police to a dangerously unconstitutional degree, exemplified by the regretful but determined Commissioner Gordon and his careerist counterpart Detective Foley. It is “peacetime” in Gotham, but it is a false peace built around a lie.

The elites have the power that they wanted and have eliminated the mob problem, but have grown too comfortable in their positions of authority. Bruce Wayne not knowing that his company has ceased providing for orphaned children was a very effective image of that, of the willing rejection of anything that stains the more positive view of Gotham. The result is something akin to the Gotham City we saw in Begins: looking good on the outside, but hiding a growing decay of poverty and desperation. That side of Gotham, exemplified by the Selina Kyle character, is the downtrodden class all too willing to lose the shackles of society when given the opportunity, to enact some of their own justice on the haves and have-mores.

This is a perfectly fine thing to explore, but Rises is very in your face about it. Halfway through the movie, the negative focus switches from the uncaring police/elite structure to the anarchy that is created when Bane cuts off Gotham from the outside world. The “Occupy” overtones are there for all to see, and when carried out to their conclusion in Rises, the result is a world gone crazy, of shattered homes, kangaroo courts, mindless violence, and the tarnishing of strongly held beliefs. Selina Kyle gets the world she longed for, and hates it. The message being sent out about the Occupy movement is loud and clear: taken to the extreme end, the results would not be good, at least when the class divide is manipulated and inflamed by a singular individual like Bane.

It’s an extreme viewpoint that is bound to have some of the more liberal viewers leaving theatres with a grimace. One sequence, where Bane attacks a stock exchange, shows the greedy, half-witted stock brokers of Gotham undone by armed men disguised as the lesser people – shoe shines, delivery men, fast food employees, cleaners. Very little positivity is shown from that point to the “Occupy” element of Gotham, who are led by a terrorist psychopath. In this battle between almost justified fascism and abhorrent anarchism, the redemptive angle is given to the police force and the “elites” of the Gotham business world, buried in the rubble of Bane’s Gotham only to rise again and throw the occupiers out with their bare hands.

They get the hero treatment, while the lower citizens of Gotham are shown either as willing participants of Bane’s rampage, or acquiescent nobodies. Is this the final confirmation of the Joker’s twisted view of humanity, that when the chips are down we will all “eat each other” to survive? Rises does little to argue with that viewpoint save for the actions of several individuals. In the end it is Batman that saves Gotham, not its people as you might have expected the story to (at least partly) go. This is a very pessimistic line to take following the more optimistic ending of The Dark Knight, of a people “ready to believe in good”.

The theme of order vs. chaos is seen most prominently in the final street battle, as the disordered mob of armed thugs that constitutes Bane’s army has it out with the uniformed phalanx of the GCPD, who charge into gunfire with Light Brigade-esque abandon, a potent symbol that loses something in the unreality of the situation. Law and order, with the help of the man operating outside of it, triumphs in Gotham over the anarchy and chaos of Bane, but the operations of the police force and Gordon in particular leave a sour taste in the mouth. It is good story-telling though. Gordon shouldn’t be some flawless ideal, he’s a grizzled veteran of some brutal crime wars. It’s just the one-sided nature of the conclusion, which seems to offer little condemnation for the top ranks of Gotham society that allowed much of the films horror to come to pass, either through direct assistance to Bane or inaction in tackling Gotham’s corruption. This is a movie that seems to give out the message that exploitive capitalism, legally harsh conservatism, focused vigilantism and empowered authority are all preferable to their counterparts.

The other theme is the titular “rise”. This is a movie about a fall, the fall of Gordon from morally righteous cop to liar, the fall of the police in general, the fall of Alfred from Wayne’s confidence, the fall of civilisation in Gotham and the fall of Batman himself from undefeatable symbol to less than nothing. From there comes the rise, coming back better and stronger, having hit rock bottom and learned from it. The Joker’s schemes were one thing, but Bane is on a different level.

The priority in that sense is Wayne himself, who gets broken by Bane and dumped in “the Pit”, a hellish prison, spending a large amount of the movie’s running time trying to get out of it again. There is some fascinating storytelling here, as Nolan addresses a reverse from the theme of the first movie, as Wayne has to actually embrace fear – the fear of death and the rejection of suicidal tendencies – in order to escape from a very obvious parallel of the comics Lazarus Pit. It isn’t really a redemption story for him, but it is elsewhere, with Gordon, with the police, with Kyle.

Ultimately Rises is about the fall, then redemption of Gotham and its society, the rise of the city and its guardians – Batman, Gordon, the police, even Selina Kyle – from the mud, regaining their home turf the hard way having abused or misused their positions for so long, even if some of them had good intentions. It’s a decent angle to take, which captivates enough to be passable, though it falls short of the enthralling anarchy of The Dark Knight (which owes nearly all of its success to the performance of one man, which Rises could not hope to emulate).

Taking some of the key characters one at a time for a closer look. Christian Bale is ever excellent giving an intense, nuanced performance as the recluse who emerges from the shadows one last time. Wayne’s arc is about the choice between Batman and Bruce, between a life lived for the sole purpose of sacrifice and a life lived for the sake of living. Wayne is a haunted figure who seems to embrace seclusion gladly, before finding a better option in the confrontation with Bane. Much is made of Wayne’s apparent suicidal tendencies, though I didn’t see that as much as Alfred was pointing it out. Certainly Batman cannot let his mission go, which leads him down a destructive path, but I was never convinced that he was actively seeking death.

Regardless, Wayne’s time in the Pit is one of the high points for the characters portrayal in Nolan’s universe, as Batman determines to reject his willing embrace with death and face down Bane once more. The conclusion of the final battle allows Wayne to have his cake and eat it too though: he gets to die as Batman in the ultimate moment of self sacrifice, but live on as a runaway Bruce Wayne. That’s a very good way to end the Wayne story, and not one that you will find in much Batman media. But it makes sense in Nolan’s world, where the Batman has arguably done as much harm with his very presence as good. Wayne’s successful walking away from the life of vigilantism is a victory to match anything that Batman accomplishes. Becoming Batman was meant to be Wayne’s way of fighting his inner turmoil, but in the end it only increased it. Defeating Bane and the League of Shadows is one thing, but defeating the memories of his parents, of Rachael Dawes and Harvey Dent, of a fallen Gotham  is another. As John Blake elaborates early on, such pain is hidden by a mask of denial in most people, a literal mask for Wayne. Wayne’s arc is the story of how he makes that mask unnecessary, as Rachael Dawes hoped for so fervently at the conclusion of Begins.

Selina Kyle’s inclusion in the movie was a downer in my eyes, a wasted opportunity. Hathaway gets to be the face of the more idealistic Occupy angle, only to turn against it when it goes too far. As Catwomen she does a fine job, showing off some great acting turns in the opening scenes, but she gets worse as she goes along, and I struggled to buy her redemptive path when she seemed so uncaring about the overall situation later on or her romance with Batman, something that seemed very forced. Kyle’s journey seems to be one designed to act as a mirror for Wayne itself, only Catwomen is actively trying to get away from her past while Bruce tries to embrace it early on. Kyle winds up becoming a hero just as Wayne is trying to get to a point where he doesn’t have to be. Ultimately I struggled to see why it had to be Catwoman/Selina Kyle specifically to fill this role, other to provide someone who could actually fight alongside Batman in action sequences. Her time could have gone more to the characters of Gordon-Levitt or Cotillard in order to flesh them out a bit more.

It is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, the rookie cop John Blake, that is the standout of the supporting performers, the young kid with a troubled past who roots out Wayne’s secret. If Kyle is the idealist (to a degree) of her side of the movie, Blake fills that role for the other, the cop who believes in the system the way Gordon used to, disgusted by the actions of everyone – the forces of both order and chaos – around him. This leads him to turn towards the vigilante option of Batman, but for all the right reasons. You really feel the anger coming from Blake when he discovers Gordon’s deception, when his fellow officers trap him in Gotham during the conclusion. Blake’s path is that of Gordon’s in Begins: the solider of order who is forced to the conclusion that other options are available due to a broken system. The concluding sequences in the Batcave were inevitable, and Rises does a great job of showing that path come into being from start to finish, though I wonder if an introduction to the character in The Dark Knight might not have been better. I can’t really see Gordon-Levitt filling the cowl in future, which is one of the reasons I hope fervently that this really is the end of the Nolan universe.

Gordon himself is as good as he ever was in the other two movies (the very best acted line in the entire trilogy is his desperate “I have to save Dent” in The Dark Knight), a fantastically depicted degree of misery and unkemptness brought to the part this time out from Gary Oldman. Bereft of his family and living a lie that makes him despise himself, Gordon is a broken figure that has to rise into a leadership role he was ready to quit in disgust. Gordon was always the man who wanted to believe in Gotham, in the good fight, but was constantly disappointed. This movie shows the apex of that, of Gordon’s lowest ebb both in his physical body and his soul, before he rises to his greatest victory. Gordon barely has the energy to justify his previous actions sometimes, but still has enough spirit to retort angrily to Blake’s self-righteous criticism. The Gordon character needs that.

Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher relegated the Gordon character to less than tertiary in their movies, but Nolan understood exactly why the character is so important, as Batman’s link to the official world of law enforcement, and the eyes through which we see the awful state of the GCPD. Rises is the culmination of Gordon’s quest to make a better world and a better police force in Gotham, something he has to work for outside the law. Like Batman, it nearly costs him everything, but he pulls through in the end, probably to a well-earned retirement. In a world of billionaire vigilantes and mystical terrorists, Gordon has been one of the most sympathetic, relatable and human characters and Gary Oldman has played him to a tee throughout.

What about the bad guy? Bane’s depiction, radically altered in parts from his traditional back-story, is great and I loved Hardy’s performance. He’s like a more focused Joker, carrying out much of the same tactics but with a clearer and more tangible goal – the actual destruction of Gotham, as opposed to the destruction of its values – in mind. Bane, despite lacking the option of facial expression, comes off an intelligent, thoughtful, ruthless and infinitely threatening in everything he does. He does get a little enfeebled due to the big reveal near the conclusion, but only because the previous plots were laid out in such a clear manner by the man himself. It would be easy to show Bane as merely a muscleman (as Batman and Robin did), but Rises makes a much better character out of him than that. His arc is one of unending success in well drawn plans, only for his entire world view to be shattered when Batman returns to haunt him. I found it interesting that Bane was a character who had to be defeated in body and mind before he was really down and out, making the physical victory subordinate to the battle of will and ideology between him and Batman. Hardy is worthy to be “the man who broke the bat”. The dynamic between him and Batman isn’t as personal or intense as it was with Ledger’s Joker, but it is still mesmerising. Nolan certainly knows how to pick his villains.

Miranda Tate/Talia Al Gul was an inclusion that was less of a surprise to those who know Batman well. Marion Cotillard is one of our era’s great actresses, and though she suffers from a lack of screen time in this early on, she still manages to make us buy her as the manipulative puppet master who turns villain in the final confrontation. The tangled web of the Al Gul family is central to the Nolan universe, and this is the end of it. Though she doesn’t do great with the action sequence assigned to her, Cotillard is still a good bad guy, and the audience is left in no state of disbelief with regards to her motivations and real back-story. Combining it with Bane’s in the manner that Nolan did allowed him to tell the story of the child in the Pit without tacking it all on at one point in the movie as others might have done. In that way, the big reveal is effective as a surprise, even for the more experienced Batman fans. I suspected Tate would turn out to be Talia when she seduced Wayne so easily (a hallmark of the character in the comics) but Nolan had done enough to erase that suspicion from my mind by the time the Talia reveal did come (but not so much that I was left with a raised eyebrow).

Last of the notable characters must be Alfred, who exists in this movie only to nag Wayne it seems. It feels odd that the Alfred character has been so willing to go along with the Batman idea for so long only to turn against it so strongly in Rises, but it is important as part of the process of Wayne losing everything around him and being convinced that it isn’t worth it anymore. Alfred reaches his final straw when he see’s Batman make a fool out of the GCPD in an extravagant manner – echoing a similar scene in Begins – and departs from much of Rises running time. Still, Caine gets to be his emotive best in the hallway scene, reminiscing about his elaborate fantasy of Bruce living a normal life away from the tragedy of Gotham City. Rises going to that conclusion is a little hammy, but backs up the position that Alfred fills, as the guardian and protector of Bruce, who always knows best.

Who else is there to talk about? Morgan Freeman does fine in his reduced role, but his best moment was one film back. Ben Mendelshon is the villainous businessman out to take over Wayne Enterprises, and lacks sufficient time to become a real three dimensional character, as does his stooge Burn Gorman. Matthew Modine, as ineffective cop Foley gets a rushed redemption story of his own that exists only to show Gordon in a better light by contrast. Tom Conti is the Pit prisoner who plays the role of wise man for the recovering Wayne, an Alfred stand-in in many respects. Juno Temple is Holly Robinson, a throwaway part designed to show Kyle as less than a total recluse of her own. Liam Neeson gets his one scene, a fascinating callback to his Begins performance. And nice to see Cillian Murphy turn up in a somewhat crazy cameo appearance as Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane which, while more amusing than anything, serves to back up the longevity of the Nolan universe.

Moving on to the more critical aspects. Yes, Bane is hard to hear sometimes in the film, but that has less to do with Hardy’s choice of voice tone/accent and more to do with some very odd choices regarding score placement and sound editing. Alone, Hardy is perfectly understandable, but mixed with the low sombre tones of Zimmer’s soundtrack, his lines are occasionally garbled. I err to that viewpoint because he isn’t the only one: on several occasions I was straining to hear what certain characters were saying. It isn’t that big of a deal, but is very strange to see in such a high profile production. I really quite liked Bane’s voice in the end, as it gave off that sort of intelligent and air that the character is known to have, even in the comics.

There are some mediocre plot elements. Foley’s inclusion is one of these, a story that really suffers from a failure to launch, his death lacking any emotional punch for the audience. The suggested Bane/Talia love angle was very unclear and shoddily done, so motivations in that regard were a bit suspect. More notably, the movie does stretch the bounds of believability in terms of the second half, as Gotham becomes isolated due to the expertly placed explosives of Bane and his army. Nolan’s universe is one that has always attached itself to realism, but that takes a hit here to an extent. Rises flirts with the more outrageous nature of the actual comics for its last 90 minutes. It doesn’t go over the edge, but comes close. We’ve come a long way, from Bruce Wayne fighting Chinese convicts to dealing with nuclear bombs.

The fight/actions scenes are nearly all great. Nolan shies away from the use of CGI for his action sequences, which is great. Nothing will ever beat the feeling that Batman and Bane are actually hitting each other on screen. Bane could throw a CGI car at Batman’s head and it wouldn’t have added anything to the experience. In fact, it would have worsened it. Nolan’s decision to stick with traditional action sequences imbues a real sense of menace and threat to his villains, especially the hulking Bane.

Special mention goes to the first Bane/Batman confrontation, a truly epic clash where Batman gets his ass handed to him. Taken wholesale from one of the more famous fights in Batman’s publication history, this match-up does everything it needs to do to exemplify Bane’s strength and fighting prowess compared to the overconfidence and inferiority of Batman. As Batman rages that he can find no way to break down Bane’s defences, he falls back on “theatricality and deception”. They don’t work, and the sight of Batman, lying broken and defeated, is a truly stunning image to see onscreen in the way that it is shown.

But compare that to the final confrontation between the two during the battle for Gotham, a much reduced and more straightforward fistfight which Batman seems to win despite fighting in much the same manner as in the first conflict. Bane seems to give up more than be actually defeated – an element of the above mentioned spirit bashing I suppose – before Talia takes over as the primary villain and hijacks the final fight. This was disappointing after the epicness of the first fight, which should have been replicated in the second. Bane’s death is very sudden and anti-climactic, unsatisfying after the cinematic heights that the character and his conflict with Batman had reached previously. It may certainly have had an element of a dead end: Nolan needed to get Bane out of the way, but couldn’t have Batman kill him, so Catwoman shows up and blows him away with the biggest gun available. Not the best conclusion for that character, with Batman not actually decisively beating him like you would expect.

Onto some smaller points. Length is a bit of a problem. I’ve discussed the amount of time I feel was given unnecessarily to Catwoman and some other sub-plots, and the story that is presented probably doesn’t justify the near three hour running time. Pacing isn’t really a problem at all, but there is a lot of exposition and a lot to get through, a lot to set-up and a lot to conclude. Some of it wasn’t necessary.

The reveal of John Blake’s first name was a ridiculous element to add so late on, cheesy to an unacceptable degree, something straight out of the Joel Schumacher films. It was akin to the inane epilogue you’ll find in the Harry Potter series on my list of unacceptable fan service. Many fans guessed the kind of role that Blake would play in this movie before hand, and if this was Nolan’s intention, he should have just named him Tim Drake and got on with it, rather than spell it out in such obvious terms as he does here.

Similar to that is the last bit of dialogue between Batman and Gordon, as Batman lays out very obviously what his real identity is in what is probably the most awkward line in the entire trilogy:  A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hasn’t ended. Not only was it baldy misplaced (the clock was ticking in that scene), it was painfully unnecessary. Gordon never finding out who Batman was – or perhaps figuring it out for himself like Blake did – would have been a far more suitable ending for this relationship than what we were presented with. The traditional interpretation in the source material hints substantially that Gordon either knows Batman’s identity or could know if he wanted to. This interaction badly needed a more subtle approach.

The last five minutes crammed a lot of stuff in, from the bombs explosion to the final shots of Blake taking on the mantle of Batman. It did feel a bit rushed, but in fairness The Dark Knight’s ending was one of the most sudden I’ve ever seen. Wayne and Kyle’s escape from their previous lives was a bit of a hooky ending to give to those characters, but at least Nolan took us on a logical path to that conclusion. I reject some of the assertions going around that Wayne actually did die and Alfred was just fantasizing: Rises isn’t Inception, and there is enough evidence to back up what was actually shown (not least the emphasis on the “Bat’s” auto-pilot or the repair of the Bat-Signal). That being said, Nolan included those shots because he just loves leaving that tiny shred of ambiguity, which I don’t like. The ending might be rushed and clunky, but I’ll take something like that as long as it’s conclusive. It worked in Inception because the entire thing was based around the ambiguity between dreams and reality. This is Batman though and closure is more expected.

Rises doesn’t really come off as the final part of a trilogy in many ways. If anything, in centring on the continuing plots of the League of Shadows and their attempts to destroy Gotham, it seems more like a sequel to Begins, with The Dark Knight serving as a bridge between the two. That the bridge is the best of the three is just one of those things I suppose. Rises has the unfortunate luck to be a really good movie that comes as the conclusion to two better movies. Comparison with Begins and Dark Knight are not unjust or unreasonable, but they should not cloud the judgment enough to dismiss Rises on its own merits.

In comparison with other superhero movies, Rises and the Nolan trilogy in general stand apart. In terms of overall quality I would rate Rises above any one of the Marvel Universe films, even Avengers, but that is just a personal view. On that superhero level, it is very hard to compare the two sets of movies, since Nolan’s Batman films aren’t in the superhero genre, not really. They’re character studies, they’re crime/mobster films, war movies even. Marvel is more flash, effects filled and traditional comic book outlandishness really, while Batman satisfies himself with gritty darkness. The down and dirty world of Nolan’s Gotham is a million miles away from the smooth, pristine, CGI dependent look of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Both have their positives and negatives and both can be enjoyed by the same sets of people. It’s important for fans of the genre to recognise that it doesn’t have to be a competition.

After the depths of the Schumacher era, Batman fans have something they can always look back on with a more uniformly positive outlook. Ultimately, Rises is a great ending to the Nolan universe that provides a fitting conclusion to the story of Christian Bale’s Batman and his crusade against crime. It has its flaws, but none of them are enough to ruin the experience. Nolan’s triumph has been to present us with a realistic, dark, satisfying Batman story of superb quality. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises can now enter the lists of truly great film trilogies. It is unlikely that anyone who tackles the caped crusader in the future will be able to match them or the depth that have brought to the visual portrayal of the world’s most well known superhero.

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5 Responses to The Dark Knight Rises

  1. Great review.

    I agree with you that this was not the best movie in the trilogy, but still was an fitting end to the trilogy. Chris Bale was phenomenal as Bruce Wayne and Anne was great as Selina as well.

    Cheers!

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