When all is said and done, Christopher Nolan has changed the way we look at comic book heroes forever. With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Nolan changed the way filmmakers can view the men and women in spandex; more than just stock characters, they can be given archetypes of grand operatic heroes and storylines without feeling out of place. Bruce Wayne just wasn’t a guy looking to avenge his parents; he wanted to be more than just a man fighting crime. Being the Batman was something that defined him and took over his personality; being Bruce Wayne was just a cover identity to his true calling as the Batman. But what happens when he wins?
That’s what Christopher Nolan ponders early in The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham City has rid itself of organized crime, the death of Harvey Dent inspiring legislation that has effectively crippled the mob in the city. Batman is no longer needed and Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion, rarely seen, as he takes on Howard Hughes level gossip amongst the people. What’ll it take for Batman to come out of hiding? A new foil in Bane (Tom Hardy), a man with the Joker’s love of anarchy but with a brutality the clown never had in him. Throw in the challenge of tracking down a jewel thief (Anne Hathaway) with whom he has an interesting connection, and green technology guru Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) who wants Wayne Enterprises and Wayne to finish up a funding project on a potentially game-changing project.
Throw in Michael Caine as the ever dependable butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s tech guru Lucius Fox alongside Gary Oldman in the always underrated Jim Gordon role, as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a beat cop who wants justice badly, and you have a recipe for a brilliant final act in the Nolan Batman trilogy. And it starts off magnificently with an entrance for Bane that even a James Bond villain would have a hard time topping; it’s easily the best full set piece of action that Nolan has done in his career to this point. Unfortunately it’s all down here for a variety of reasons, culminating in a mediocre at best final film in the trilogy.
Nolan might not have a bad film in him, but he certainly has a pedestrian one in him it seems. The Dark Knight Rises may be the most heavily anticipated film of 2012 after The Avengers but it also may be its most disappointing because for all its positives, The Dark Knight Rises suffers because it doesn’t do much with its villain and doesn’t develop a key relationship between Miranda Tate and Wayne that hinges a key moment in the film’s finale.
A problem with the film is its length. Easily the longest of the three films, there’s a feeling that Nolan is trying to do better than TDK by making this a grandiose ending. Running nearly three hours, it’s a good flow and pace to it but it’s too much plot for what he’s trying to accomplish. There’s plenty of exposition and flashbacks but for what is supposed to be an action film there’s remarkably much more dialogue and expositional moments than it needs. The one thing that has defined the Batman franchise so far is that they’re tight in that department. There’s no excess in the first two films as everything included in the film mattered. In Rises there’s a large amount of bloat; this is a film trying to do too much in terms of stories and characters. Trying to add so many new high profile characters into a film with a plethora of established characters already is difficult to do and Nolan tries to give these new characters an added weight into this universe he’s created. And it starts with his villain, who may be the dullest antagonist in a comic book film in quite some time.
Bane may not be the most high profile villain in the Batman universe, having a major run in the comic books at one point apparently (this writer isn’t well versed in comic book lore), but Nolan tries to do a lot with him. Hindered by a mask that wrecks part of Tom Hardy’s voice isn’t a good start but Nolan has a plan for him that’s fairly interesting. He’s a terrorist for hire, a mercenary with a shared history of sorts with Wayne, and he’s a unique physical challenge for Batman. Batman initially loses his first battle with the man, reenacting a fairly famous comic book moment from the “Knightfall” storyline, but outside of Bane’s physicality there’s nothing new or original he brings to the table. Hardy’s natural charisma and presence are far removed from the equation; Nolan’s version of the character is nothing more than brute force combined with an ideology. Bane is more of a destructive force than the Joker, pure in his destructive thoughts, but it’s not a particularly memorable one.
It makes you appreciate how much of an important part of The Dark Knight that Heath Ledger was; Ledger was able to fully exploit a character that was anarchy incarnate. Hardy isn’t given much of a character to work with and he’s a functioning goon, nothing more. He’s a Bond a villain in a franchise that has generally given more depth and development to its bad guys. Twoface, The Joker, Ra’s al Ghul and the Scarecrow all made appearances in the first two films of the franchise in various forms and they all had development. Bane is a thug, nothing more, and Nolan doesn’t develop any sort of nuance to him. It’s a shame because Hardy has a physical presence to him that makes Bane feel dangerous and yet nothing is really done with him outside of the perfunctory bad guy tactics. There’s nothing new or unique to him; his underlying motivations feel out of place.
You sort of half expect him to go “No Mr. Wayne, I expect you to die!” at one point.
The film’s biggest disappointment is in how it handles Marion Cotillard. Given a prominent role that turns into a really well executed plot moment towards the end, the relationship between Tate and Wayne is critical to this part of the film. It drives the film’s final act and a good chunk of Wayne’s actions revolve around this. Unfortunately there’s nowhere near the sheer amount of plot movement to be able to justify his actions. It means significantly less than it should because Cotillard is given a small role and screen time but is given a pivotal role in the film’s finale. An interesting take and storyline twist, it is intended to mean a lot but ultimately falls flat because Wayne and Tate’s relationship isn’t as developed as it could be. We see them have a handful of moments but Christian Bale spends much more time on screen with Anne Hathaway than Cotillard. That plot resolution feels significant because we have enough of a history between the two that it matters.
It’s a shame because Nolan has a unifying theme to this film that brings the franchise full circle. This is about warriors fighting one last battle, long after their glory years. Batman is long past his relevance to the overall crime problem in Gotham but can’t leave that part of his life behind him. Jim Gordon is in the same boat; crime may be gone from its peak but he’s still a warrior, looking to rid Gotham of even littering. Both men have sacrificed everything for what they are; Wayne’s body is broken and he walks with a cane because of the damage being the Batman has done to him. Gordon’s conscience weighs on him heavily, the cost of covering for Harvey Dent’s murderous rampage for the greater good of his legacy tearing him up.
Nolan examines this concept fairly strongly; this is about the cost of being the hero and how it affects the man. It’s something he started looking at in Batman Begins and developed further in The Dark Knight, culminating in this film. For Bruce it’s the physical cost that tolls on him the most, though having lost the one person for whom he thought he could have a life with afterwards in Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes then Maggie Gyllenhaal) has affected him nearly as much. Gordon’s life revolves around his job; his family has left him and being Police Commissioner is all he has left. The Dark Knight Rises examines this aspect of both their lives but not as in depth as it seems to want to. Both of these men are warriors who have won the war but at tremendous cost.
For Wayne it’s the physical cost, as he may not have what it takes physically to handle Bane and his minions. The way Bale walks and the way he interacts with people show him as a beaten man instead of a champion making a comeback. It’s a marked difference in character from the first two films in that this is the person Alfred never wanted Bruce Wayne to be. He’s someone who gave everything into what he thought was right and lost everything in the process. Bale and Caine’s interactions are at their peak in this film; the nature of their relationship has changed in the meantime too. In the first film Alfred was a mentor. In the second he’s an ally. In the third he’s now the one trying to get him to keep the cowl hung up and come back to the world he left.
It’s a remarkable turn and these small moments between the two are easily the film’s better and more memorable moments. Caine is the film’s standout this time around; given his least amount of screen time in the three films he manages to make every moment he’s in matter and feel important.
For Gordon it’s a mental cost; living with himself all these years with a grand lie, despite its reward, has cost him part of his soul. It may be in passing that his wife has left him and taken their children, moving home to Cleveland with her family, but Gordon is hailed as a hero and Batman the villain when he knows the truth implicates someone else entirely. He waits at night where the disabled Bat-signal used to be, hoping that Batman will show up again after eight years of being away. Gordon’s waiting for one moment of redemption, one moment where the truth can come out and his unknown ally Batman can bathe in the light that a man with a murderous rampage attached to his name can’t have.
It’s those main plots that drive the film but Nolan diverts away from them for other purposes that take away from the film’s overall arc. If they were for interesting things it’d be one thing but Nolan doesn’t have the focus on this film that he did in the prior two films of the trilogy. This is a film that’s bloated and lacking focus in major portions of the film; when critical moments are reserved for characters without the dramatic heft required to carry them it falls flat.
The Dark Knight Rises certainly isn’t a bad film, not by any stretch of the imagination. It just isn’t a good one.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan based on characters created by Bob Kane
Notable Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman