The Dark Knight Rises (2012) / Action-Thriller
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and language
Running time: 164 min.
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy
Cameo: Liam Neeson, William Devane, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, James Farrior, Bill Cowher, Patrick Leahy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Years ago, I had claimed that, despite its faults, X-Men: The Last Stand was the best third film in a superhero series to date, which goes more to show how ideas seem to dissipate once the origin is established and best main villain is out of the way. I'm happy to report here, that is no longer the case. The third and final entry in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy concludes with nearly three hours of stellar epic developments sure to satisfy the legions of fans expecting things to go out with a bang. Interestingly, the film doesn't feature Batman as much as you'd expect, mostly concentrating on what a Gotham might be like without anything but the shadow of his presence. if the last film explored the themes of a post-9/11 environment, this one mixes the terrorist threat with the fears of a financial collapse, still fresh in the psyches of a world populace on the precipice of bankruptcy. It's not as scintillating a theme for a superhero flick, but still resonates thanks to good storytelling.
Set eight years after The Dark Knight, we find Gotham having just enacted the Dent Act, named after the late Harvey Dent, designed to give law enforcement the upper hand when it comes to dealing with the elements of organized crime that has plagued the city for so long. Dent's demise had been pinned on Batman (Bale, The Fighter), who has been mostly retired since, especially as Bruce Wayne, now out of the public eye, has been left hobbled by the wear and tear that comes with being the city's fiercest protector and vigilante, while his prowess in the business arena has been dwindling after the failed and very expensive construction of a clean energy project that also happens to contain a nuclear core capable of cataclysmic destruction. Catwoman (Hathaway, Alice in Wonderland) lures Wayne out of hiding, while Batman finds himself also back in the spotlight when a vicious terrorist named Bane (Hardy, This Means War) has crashed and taken Wall Street for an untold sum, in a move that threatens to bring widespread anarchy for all. As Commissioner Gordon (Oldman, Deathly Hallows Part 2) is laid up in the hospital one of his loyal officers (Gordon-Levitt, GI Joe) does a good deal of the grunt work in finding out the whats and whys. Then disaster strikes when Bane finds a way to take the entire city hostage, thanks to the threat of devastating nuclear annihilation.
Somewhat missing is the kind of charismatic nemesis that Batman usually does battle with. Instead, we have the lesser-known Bane, whose one real claim to fame in the DC Comics universe comes from being the villain who happens to put Batman out of commission for a good, long spell in the infamous "Knightfall" story arc. Instead of a professional wrestler's attire he wears in the comic book, Bane wears more rugged but conventional clothing to cover his hulking and muscular physique, and his one identifying trait is a large nose and mouth mask through which he speaks in a heightened, booming (and somewhat comical) tone. What Bane lacks in fanciful dialogue and daring feats, he makes up for in intensity and fear factor. He's a large man with an ugly contraption glued prominently to his face, very intelligent in addition to his emotionless brutality, and consummately unpredictable. But unlike the way previous Batman villains have been handled, his look feels inorganic, more like a comic book look than any previous character. If the villain is lesser, the stakes are far larger, as the entire city of Gotham hangs in the balance, awaiting Batman's actions.
The lack of charisma in the villain is picked up with the appearance of Catwoman, casting Anne Hathaway as the lithe and uber-crafty thief, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt fills in the blanks as an honest cop and Batman devotee, John Blake. Catwoman should always provide sizzle and be a catalyst for Batman to reach outside of his comfort zone, and while her role doesn't take the spotlight much of the time, you always want to see more of her, which is the true test of whether the character is utilized well. John Blake's inclusion is a bit more difficult, as we're introduced to a new and relatively unremarkable rookie cop character that, at first, we're wondering who he is and why he seems to be taking up so much screen time. In the end, it all makes sense, but it's not quite as seamless as it could have been.
The tone of the film is dark, as is the cinematography. This is in keeping with the other films in the series, in which many scenes are not always easy in terms of making out just what's going on. The special effects are often a highlight in a Nolan film, with his tendency to avoid CGI gimmickry when possible. When it does occur, the scenes feel out of place, such as a cheesy spectacle at a Gotham Knights football game where much of the climax takes place. It's in the trailers -- a football player returns a kickoff while the earth behind him collapses behind him. Moments like this feel more Michael Bay than Christopher Nolan and cheapen what would otherwise be a mature and complex (well, as much as a superhero flick can be) storyline. The scenes of the Scarecrow's (Murphy, In Time) mock trials for some of the prominent citizens of Gotham, which the Nolans say are inspired by Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities', are barely necessary and go on long for their purpose. The main story itself takes a twist at some point that also feels like it is the stuff of lesser movies, and is made worse by Nolan not quite able to handle the transition without turbulence in the tone shift.
But, in the larger scope of the film's value, these moments amount to nothing more than quibbling on a very good summer entertainment. Ultimately, the series does try to conclude on an emotional note, but, despite emotive displays, there is an aloofness to it that comes from hours of cold stoicism throughout. The citizens of Gotham are rarely behaving as individuals, rather than a chorus of homogeneous peoples in the distance who are fodder for bad guys to get good guys, so if millions of them are slated to die, we sense the importance of this mentally, but not emotionally. We've never quite gotten a firm feeling for these people, or even the central characters outside of their archetypical or allegorical importance to the overall story, so it's a bit much to ask us to care for them as people we feel any level of intimacy toward. Still, it does strike a satisfying chord, even if it isn't a human one, and Nolan dabbles a bit with Inception-style ambiguity that should keep the fan-boys chattering in discussion forums for years to come. While it may be a notch below the brilliance of The Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises still rises head, shoulders and cowl above all others in the increasingly overpopulated genre of comic book fiction that makes its way to the big screen.
©2012 Vince Leo