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Josh Reviews The Dark Knight Rises

Although I really enjoyed Batman Begins, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how spectacular the follow-up, The Dark Knight, was going to be.  I didn’t expect it, and that film knocked me flat.  I’ve revisited The Dark Knight several times in the last few years (I just wrote about it last week!) and I continue to be dazzled by its grim majesty.

The Dark Knight is so good that it immediately puts its sequel in an unenviable position of having to equal or top a masterpiece.  The Dark Knight Rises is not at the level of The Dark Knight — it’s rather unrealistic to hope that it would be.  It is definitely more flawed than its predecessor.  But it is a ferociously entertaining film, smart and serious and with bold intentions, and it brings Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to a sure-footed conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises is a huge film — it’s scope is far larger than the previous two films, as are its ambitions.  The film is set over a period of many months (which I love, as it really gives the story and the characters room to breathe).  Crazy, crazy stuff happens in and to Gotham City in the second half of the film.  Sure, the Joker terrorized the city in The Dark Knight, but what happens to Gotham in the film’s second half takes the scope of this tale to a whole other level.

The main ensemble continues to shine.  All the main surviving characters from the previous two films return and each gets his time in the spotlight.  Michael Caine’s Alfred gets some big emotional scenes, and the great Mr. Caine is, as always, tremendously effective.  More than ever before, Alfred is the heart of this film, and the lone anchor keeping Bruce Wayne tethered to some sort of reality.  Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox.  He gets a great “Q” scene early in the film, and I was pleased that Lucius stayed involved in the story as Bane’s grip on Gotham city tightens as the film progresses.

Gary Oldman is spectacular, once again, as Commissioner Gordon.  I got a bit worried at first when Gordon gets sidelined to a hospital bed — in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight I wished there was more of Gordon.  (The whole Gordon-pretending-to-be-dead bit in the middle of The Dark Knight is one of that film’s only mis-steps.)  But luckily the Commish gets a lot of meaty scenes in the film’s second half.  Gary Oldman just IS Commissioner Gordon at this point — he is absolute perfection in the role.  When the Batman film series is inevitably rebooted, I suspect this is going to prove to be one of the toughest roles to re-cast.

Of the new arrivals, Tom Hardy does fine work as Bane.  I never much cared for the character in the comics, but I quite enjoyed this interpretation crafted by the Nolans and Mr. Hardy.  The look of the character is suitably creepy and mysterious, and wow Mr. Hardy is HUGE — absolutely physically intimidating.  He has an extremely difficult job, having to act behind Bane’s big face-mask, but boy does he pull it off.  Bane is presented as both the physical and mental equal of Batman, which gives the film a strong sense of threat and danger.  One of the most electric scenes in the film is the big Bane-Batman fight in the sewers of Gotham City at the film’s half-way point.  Even if you hadn’t read Knightfall (the comic-book story-line from the ’90s that introduced Bane, which culminated in Bane’s breaking Batman’s back), the scene is dripping in dread and danger as you just know it’s not going to end well for our beleaguered hero.  Bane is an extremely credible and dangerous threat to Bruce Wayne, and this has to be so otherwise the film wouldn’t work.  (Let me also comment that I am VERY glad they re-worked Bane’s audio from the impossible-to-understand version audiences encountered when the prologue of the film screened in IMAX before Mission: Impossible IV.)

Anne Hathaway is also strong as Selina Kyle (the film never calls her Catwoman, and thank heavens for that).  I was pleased to see subtle bits and pieces of her back-story borrowed from Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One (it was great seeing her blonde-haired friend Holly!) without wasting too much time to fill in all the blanks.  One can easily see why Selina catches Bruce’s eye, and I loved the first scene in which Catwoman and Batman kick ass together on Gotham’s rooftops.

Marion Cotillard plays the other new woman in Bruce Wayne’s life, Miranda Tate.  We don’t get to spend nearly as much time with Miranda as we do with Selina, and I feel we get to know Selina much better.  Still, Ms. Cotillard is luminous as Miranda, and she really sells the character as the film gradually peels back her layers.

I loved Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character.  This is a great example of an audience-surrogate “every-man” character (of a type that often gets stuck into these big epic films) really working.  I found myself really investing in this young cop character, and I bought into his character arc.  This character could easily have felt like a real time-waster, with the audience wishing we’d cut back to Batman or Bane or one of the other pre-established characters already, but that didn’t happen at all.

I have written many times before on this site of my crazy wish for Mr. Nolan and his team to have followed up The Dark Knight by adapting Frank Miller’s other seminal Batman comic (on top of Batman: Year One, which I had mentioned earlier): The Dark Knight Returns, Mr. Miller’s version of the Last Batman Story.  (Since the previous film was called The Dark Knight, how perfect would it have been for Mr. Nolan and his team to follow that up with The Dark Knight Returns???) Although they didn’t go that route, writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (working from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer) did clearly pull a lot of inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns for their version of the Last Batman Story.  The whole idea of an older, out-of-shape Bruce Wayne stepping back into the cape and cowl (which is basically the story of the first half of The Dark Knight Rises) is, of course, the heart of The Dark Knight Returns. The great bit where an older cop realizes immediately that Batman has returned, and tells his younger partner that he’s in for a show, is right out of The Dark Knight Returns.

As with Mr. Nolan’s previous two Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises draws influence from many classic Batman stories.  The whole second half of the film is of course inspired by the year-long Batman story-arc called “No Man’s Land.”  The filmmakers also purloined the very best line from the DC Universe epic Kingdom Come, “so that’s what that feels like.”  (Sadly, they totally botched the execution — it takes Batman so laboriously long to turn his head in his thick costume, I knew immediately that Catwoman would be gone by the time he looked back.  Oh well.  It’s still a great line.)

Hans Zimmer’s score is fantastic.  I loved the moments when the pounding, percussive Batman theme (developed by Mr. Zimmer and James Newton Howard on the first two Nolan Batman films) comes into play.  I also loved the chanting intensity of Bane’s theme, and the way it mirrored the “Rise!” chant of the prisoners in the pit.  That was super-cool, and a nice bit of thematic parallelism.

The Dark Knight Rises is a long film, but I didn’t find myself looking at the clock or getting antsy — I was thoroughly hooked into Mr. Nolan’s story.  After the crazy intensity of The Dark Knight, the early going of The Dark Knight Rises wisely dials things back a bit.  The film starts off at a somewhat lower key.  But boy does the tension build and build.  Almost the whole last hour of the film is one big climax, with the stakes (and the decibel-level of the soundtrack) building and building and building, as Mr. Nolan continually cuts back and forth between all the different characters scattered around Gotham, each one fighting either to save the city or to destroy it.

While I had a hugely enjoyable time watching The Dark Knight Rises in the theater, I have found that the story doesn’t quite hold together once you spend some time thinking about it.  (This is in contrast to The Dark Knight, which I think holds up to repeat viewings extremely well.)  While nothing in The Dark Knight Rises was bad or ridiculous, there were definitely aspects of the film that puzzled me or that didn’t work for me as well as I might have hoped.

First of all, I am puzzled by the film’s structure.  The Dark Knight Rises basically tells the same story twice.  In the first half of the film, a weakened Bruce Wayne must retrain himself to get back in shape to be Batman.  After he is broken by Bane, in the second half of the film a weakened Bruce Wayne must again retrain himself to get back in shape to be Batman.  Isn’t that weird?  This connects to my next issue:

At the end of The Dark Knight, I did not at all expect that those events would have caused Bruce Wayne to hang up the suit and start being Batman.  I thought he’d go on fighting crime, just now without any allies in the police department.  I love the eight-year jump between the end of The Dark Knight and the start of The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a bold story-telling move.  But it didn’t quite work for me that Bruce has been hiding in his mansion doing nothing for those eight years.  Consider how much stronger the story would have been had we been told that Batman had been continuing to fight crime for those eight years… only to then, at the peak of his skills and abilities, be broken by Bane and have the second half of the film be Bruce’s struggle to either give up or die or somehow recover from his dreadful injuries to return to the cape and cowl and defeat Bane.  I feel that would have worked better, and then the second half of the film wouldn’t have just been repeating the story of the first half.

That also would have allowed me to, in my mind, sort of believe that all the other Batman stories from the comics might have happened during that eight-year period when Bruce was still Batman, between these two films.  Because as the films present events, if you think about it, Chris Nolan’s Batman really only has ONE adventure.  The first film tells his origin, then he has one big adventure (versus the Joker and eventually Two-Face in The Dark Knight), and then this film tells of his end.  Isn’t that a bit bizarre?  I would have preferred to have been able to imagine lots more Batman stories having happened between his beginning that we saw in Batman Begins and his ending here in The Dark Knight Rises.

My other major gripe with the film is that we never really got to see how the average citizen responded to Bane’s take-over of the city.  It’s sort of implied that the average citizens rose up and attacked the rich and well-to-do (we see this happening in one quick montage), but it’s unclear whether the average Gothamite truly turned to Bane’s side or not.  The story seems to imply that they did, but whenever we see Bane’s men they just seem to be his criminal followers.  I think the whole Gotham-under-siege aspect of the film’s story would have been a bit more effective had we seen more of whether Bane’s point of view was shared and/or adopted by the average Gotham citizen or not.

(I also don’t really understand Bane’s plan.  If ultimately that bomb was going to go off — and sheesh, has there ever been a slower-acting doomsday device in movie history?? — then why exactly did Bane waste all those months trying to get Gotham City’s 99-percenters to take over?  Why not just complete his mission and wipe Gotham off the face of the planet and be done?)

I love the way The Dark Knight Rises connects with Batman Begins. Once again things all come down to fear (as I wrote after my recent re-watching of Batman Begins, fear was incredibly central to that film’s story), with the issue of Bruce Wayne’s fear or lack thereof being crucial to his surviving his imprisonment in that pit prison.  I love how the prison pit into which the broken Bruce Wayne was thrown in this film mirrors the shaft into which young Bruce Wayne fell (which lead him ultimately to discover the bat-cave) in the very opening scene of Batman Begins. The imagery of Bruce looking up a dark circular tunnel/shaft into a circle of light seeming out of reach strikingly connects those two events.

I love that we see Bruce’s father again in this film, and that his mother’s pearls factor into the start of the story.  I was waiting for the line “Why do we fall, Bruce?”, so important in Batman Begins, to re-appear, and I was delighted when it did.  Most of all, I loved the connection of the story to Ra’s al Ghul, and how we circled back to the League of Shadows and their desire to destroy Gotham.  That was great.  All of those connections really help sell The Dark Knight Rises as the end to one unified, complete story told over three films.

I applaud Mr. Nolan for having the guts to go ahead and tell his version of the Last Batman Story.  Very few long-running pop culture heroic characters ever get a real ending.  (Will there ever be a Last James Bond story??)  I know this series will be rebooted in a few years, and I don’t care.  For now, I think it’s brave and it’s bold (little DC Comics joke, there) for Mr. Nolan to actually give us a cinematic version of the final story of Batman.

I’m going to now discuss the ending of the film, so BEWARE SPOILERS!!!

Still here?  Remember, I said BEWARE SPOILERS!

Ok, here we go.

Since The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan’s Last Batman Story, what did I think of the film’s ending?  Did Mr. Nolan stick the landing?

Ultimately, I walked out of the theater very satisfied.  I was pleased that each surviving character got a little button, there at the end.  I will admit to being quite surprised, after the grim nature of the previous films, just how upbeat the film’s final ending was.  It was a far happier ending than I’d expected!  That satisfied me as an audience member who had grown to care about these characters, and so was pleased by seeing some happiness in the ending.  Though after thinking about it for a while, I do wish Mr. Nolan had been a bit more FINAL with his ending.  I’m not sure I really needed to see Bruce Wayne at the end there.  That seemed a little too easy.  That life seemed like Alfred’s dream for Bruce, but not Bruce’s dream for himself, nor that realistic an end for this character.

I also wasn’t quite sold on Catwoman as Bruce’s new love at the end.  Clearly there were sparks between the two in the film, but I think the filmmakers made a mistake in splitting the audience’s attention and affection, and that of Bruce himself, between Miranda Tate and Selina Kyle throughout the film.  From scene to scene it was hard to tell who we were supposed to be rooting for Bruce to wind up with, and it was hard to tell which woman was really interesting him in a romantic way.  That may be truer to real life than many movies are, but narratively it felt weird to me.  (What are we to make of Bruce’s sleeping with Miranda and then leaving her that night to meet up, as Batman, with a cat-suited Selina Kyle?)  If there had been ONE woman who we’d seen Bruce gradually fall for over the course of the film, learning to let go of his doomed love for Rachel Dawes, then maybe seeing him with that woman at the end would have been more powerful.

(Also, exactly whose money were they living on there at the end?  I though Bruce was broke!  Is Batman living large on Catwoman’s stolen funds??)

I loved everything with Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, and his discovery of the cave.  I loved the film’s choosing to end on his rising to his feet in the batcave, surrounded by bats.  It was a great image, and forces the audience to consider the film’s title in a new light.  (I will say, though, that I hated the way-too-on-the-nose revelation of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character’s real name.  I had a big smile when the woman behind the desk said he should go by his real name, but that smile dropped when she said “Robin.”  I would have preferred had his name been Dick Grayson or Tim Drake, something comic fans would recognize without being so obvious.)

With that end-place for Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, I really wish Bruce Wayne had wound up where Frank Miller left him at the end of The Dark Knight Returns — having tricked the world to think he’s dead, he’s now secretly training a new, younger crimefighter.  (OK, at the end of The Dark Knight Returns he’s training MANY young crime-fighters, but I think you get that point!)  That dynamic worked really well in the animated series Batman Beyond, in which an elderly Bruce Wayne helps train a new, younger Batman.  That would have felt a lot more RIGHT to me.

So, OK, I have some problems with The Dark Knight Rises. The film’s reach may exceed its grasp, but I am still wildly impressed by the film’s ambition and its aspirations.  They swung for the fences, and whereas this is not a home run like The Dark Knight was, it’s a solid triple.  The film is wildly entertaining and inventive.  It’s extraordinarily well-made, beautiful to look at and and intensely engaging.  It’s an extremely solid ending to this chapter of Batman’s story on film.  I applaud Christopher Nolan for the seriousness with which he has approached the character of Batman.  Considering how easy it is to get these sorts of superhero characters, and specifically Batman, wrong (see: Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), the incredible quality of this trilogy of films is an incredible achievement, one that will not soon be topped.  I can’t imagine what a rebooted Batman film series could look like, after Mr. Nolan’s incredible work.  These three films will be influencing future cinematic interpretations of Batman for decades to come, mark my words.

So for now I guess I’ll just say thank you to Mr. Nolan and his team of collaborators for a hell of a ride.  Live-action Batman has never been done better.  I can’t wait to watch this one again.

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