The Dark Knight Rises – Review (3)



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Christopher Nolan’s last at-bat has him pulling out all the tricks.

In terms of cinema, the first decade of the twenty-first century may be looked back on as the decade where the action film was replaced by the superhero movie. Stars of the ‘80s through the mid-‘90s like Jean-Claude Van Damme would become direct-to-video fodder only to be replaced by characters in snug-fitting spandex with superhuman powers. The decade would see no less than 35 movies come to theaters that were based on a published comic of some kind. X-Men may have started the decade, but the big push for superhero movies began with the success of Spider-Man. Little did we know then that a filmmaker, whose greatest achievement at the time was from a movie told in reverse, would elevate the genre to such remarkable heights.

When Christopher Nolan was hired in January 2003 to direct Warner Bros.’ fifth live-action Batman film he did so with the intent to give audiences a proper origins story of the famed Caped Crusader. Mining more than sixty years worth of Batman’s exploits from comics, Batman Begins would give audiences a better understanding of just who The Batman is and the motivation behind his actions. Nolan would follow it up with The Dark Knight four years later, a film so profound that it didn’t just make waves in Hollywood it made tsunamis. The sequel was a watershed moment, or a game-changer if you prefer that buzzword. He could have walked away after the sequel; it ended in resounding fashion, seeing The Batman ride off, not into the sunset, but into the darkness.

However, the release of The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, sees the filmmaker continue to utilize sleight of hand before revealing the truth. In some respects his trilogy bares resemblance to the three acts of the magic trick as depicted in his film The Prestige. With Batman Begins Nolan gave us a man who became more than a man. One who could move in shadow and dispatch his opponents stealthily. The sequel took what worked so well and made it something extraordinary only to see the masked vigilante of Gotham City disappear. But the third act, or the final chapter in this case, involves bringing him back – one last ah-ha moment to instill a lasting impression on the audience.

The Dark Knight Rises comes full circle to complete the origin that began eight years ago. As a standalone it is a strong film, but would feel incomplete without the two previous entries. It would be like watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two having not seen any of the others and wondering why Ralph Fiennes, as a weirded-out magical albino with a bad nose job, wants to kill some kid who looks to have had a run in with Zorro’s blade.

Viewing The Dark Knight Rises as the finale of a trilogy is the best way to look at the material. Trilogies are always tricky, and have far too often led audiences to risk instead of reward. This is especially true in superhero movies. But Nolan’s creation is a different animal. As the finale of a trilogy, the film is comparable to what George Lucas did with Star Wars (well, the original trilogy – back when “the Force” didn’t need to be explained as someone having a high Midi-chlorian level) and Peter Jackson’s success with The Lord of the Rings.

Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker isn’t one to tread lightly on dark material, often giving audiences moral quagmires that feel like intellectual landmines. And his ambiguous conclusions – like the spinning top in Inception or the open-endedness of Memento – are a welcomed change to the happy endings we have come to expect. Instead of dumbing down Nolan is smartening up audience expectations when it comes to mainstream cinema. The arrival of The Dark Knight Rises comes as we see our country overrun with movements (be it occupational or the tea-serving variety) and with a system of government that continues to live up to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” And yet we always keep falling for the new boss.

The Dark Knight may go down as the most revered of the three films, presented as an epic crime saga but with comic-book characters (and a theme that echoes the turbulent times in a post-9/11 world), but The Dark Knight Rises has a greater relevance to our current state of affairs. We as a society are content to be lazy, docile creatures that take what life gives us. As we work forty-hour weeks in order to buy things we don’t need, allowing ourselves to be susceptible to a stilted perception of quality of life, our infrastructure continues to rot. The greediness of a select few has caused instability from below, to the point where the support begins to give way and everything falls. Without proper sustainability and stable ground the children of today may be stuck with no options, unable to cross the suspension bridge to a town called Hope, instead having to stare intently at the no man’s land that is their future.

The wasteland I describe is evident in the film, as the City of Gotham becomes the playground for Bane, a mercenary for hire that is distinguishable by his Hannibal Lector-inspired facemask and Darth Vader-esque cadence. Tom Hardy plays the villain but you wouldn’t notice it’s him at first. While Hardy plays a formidable adversary, he comes at a disadvantage following Heath Ledger’s masterful performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Whereas The Joker was about madness and lunacy, Bane is about brutality and force of will. Our Caped Crusader is at a substantial disadvantage – Bane is just too powerful – so when Gotham’s silent guardian finally does save the day it is in resounding fashion.

The story is eight years removed from the events surrounding the death of district attorney Harvey Dent, a white knight in legal briefs. Or so the citizens of Gotham are led to believe. Millionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) sacrifices his alter ego’s cape and cowl so that the city could have a better future. But it is a future built on a lie concocted by The Batman and put into practice by Commissioner Gordon with the passage of the Dent Act, a piece of legislation that put an end to organized crime.

Bruce Wayne, here depicted as a hobbled hermit dweller not unlike real-life millionaire Howard Hughes, is content to live out his remaining years at the famed Wayne Manor (fully rebuilt after being burned to smithereens in Batman Begins) without much face-to-face interaction. While the still hobbled after eight years is a hard sell, considering Wayne has enough money to make himself the six million dollar man if he wanted to, we basically have the Dark Knight as an aging pugilist who has taken off his gloves feeling physically incapable to go one more round. Needless to say, he does put on the suit again and in the process goes on to justify a signature line spoken in The Dark Knight.

Living high on the hog away from the Gothamites Bruce Wayne is still able to see the misery that exists in the citizens. But the solution isn’t as easy as writing a check or starting a scholarship fund. Batman must come back. More than that, Batman must live as an extension from Bruce Wayne the man. So Wayne must be destroyed. And just like the City of Gotham, the old money millionaire is outsmarted and outmatched, before eventually being carried to a secluded location where he can begin his final transformation to become something more than a man. To become the legend he was meant to become.

Fans of the famed DC Comics hero may find fault with Christopher Nolan and his interpretation. While I contend that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t the story he originally wanted to tell, as Heath Ledger’s untimely death nixed the possibility of Batman matching wits with The Joker again, he does his best to present the audience with a rewarding story that completes a saga. That’s not to say the film is devoid of problems. There are moments where the narrative becomes too much with too much exposition and ancillary characters (feeling like Batman and the Inception All-Stars at times), and trivial things to nitpick.

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the trivial, though the passage of time is a glaring concern as is Bruce Wayne’s return to the city after being in a secluded location far removed from Gotham, or even a busting metropolis like Metropolis.

Fortunately, audiences will be treated to some strong acting, even for roles that looked to have been introduced with little rhyme or reason. Planting my tongue firmly in cheek, Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar Selina Kyle is simply purrfect. She again proves that you shouldn’t take a casting decision at face value alone. (Remember the reactions people had when Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker?) Though she is never referred to as Catwoman the audience knows better. Kyle gets the better of Wayne on more than one occasion and acts as a moral compass unsure if she wants to go right or wrong. Given some of the better one-liners in the film, Hathaway makes an impression, cutting a figure so slim it’s easy for her to get the better of her male counterpart marks.

Morgan Freeman is still having fun as Bruce Wayne’s tech-guy Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon provides an interesting study in character. Having been seen as a sergeant, lieutenant and police commissioner in the span of three films, Gordon is a morally conflicted man, having held true to lamenting Harvey Dent each year on the anniversary of his death knowing full well that his police record as commissioner is built on a lie. His determination for a better Gotham has led to his wife divorcing him and taking the kids to live in Cleveland. The city is all he has left. She was his mistress and they are both still dirty.

By far the best standout of the old regime is Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne’s trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth. There is one scene where Caine and Bale share a tête-à-tête inside the manor that may be troublesome to comic-book readers who hold their relationship in high regard, but it is an intimately profound conversation that only helps Wayne in his transformation.

Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, who also may be a friend with benefits for Mr. Wayne. Her role looks to be a throwaway, but why waste a throwaway role on an Oscar winner? That question is answered eventually. You just need to have patience.

By the time The Dark Knight Rises reaches its conclusion it leaves us with wanting more. That’s a compliment. But Christopher Nolan is done. He wraps everything up, slaps a bow on it, and calls it a day. I’m done telling my story, now it’s somebody else’s turn.

The Dark Knight Rises has its share of problems that prevent it from being as iconic as The Dark Knight, but the film will remain that last hurrah giving Nolan’s Batman trilogy superiority over all other superhero movies. And it may never be supplanted.

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

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