The Dark Knight Rises Review

There was a game I played quite often as a child. I would don my very own cape and cowl and pull on a black shirt, emblazoned with a yellow oval surrounding the symbol of the bat. I would dash around the house, vanquishing invisible foes in a flurry of martial arts and imagined gadgets. Eventually one of these goons I was brawling with would turn their weapon on one of my family members in a desperate attempt to escape my fury. I would, of course, instantly throw myself in harm’s way and take the oncoming bullet to save the life of my loved one. I would fall to the ground motionless and in all likelihood: dead. Then someone, my father or my mother, would step over and peer down at my appearing lifeless body and exclaim “What? No blood?!” With that I would leap up to my feet and return to the skirmish with renewed vigor and I would deftly defeat the remaining lowlifes threatening my family.

I played this game constantly, and my parents were always willing to oblige in the role of the bemused onlooker. This entire scenario was inspired by a near identical sequence Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. I don’t recall when I learned about Batman, and I don’t know if I can properly explain why I became so enamored with the character. To me it feels as though he has always been a part of my life, acting as a brilliant example of virtue, morality, and self sacrifice. His principles are mine, and his strengths are the ones I aspire to achieve in me. Batman has and will continue to be an influence on my life.

I am thrilled to live in a time where the character of Batman has had to chance to shine and for his story to be adapted in the best way. Christopher Nolan and his team respect not only the fans of Batman, but the very person of him. Because of that they have been able to craft the greatest superhero trilogy yet, and one of the best series of films ever.

“Perfect” is not a word I throw around lightly. I’m hyperbolic in my praise of movies I like. I use “incredible,” “amazing,” and “exceptional” all too often. Not “perfect”. “Perfect” is a word reserved for true achievements in cinema. Not necessarily in any objective sense, but in a personal sense. Which to me means all the more. So when I say that The Dark Knight was as near to a perfect film as I’ve ever seen, I mean it. That movie is special. It is lightning in a bottle in the fullest sense of the phrase. A culmination of a great script, precise direction, beautiful cinematography, and a phenomenal performance from Heath Ledger. Nolan had a tall order coming into The Dark Knight Rises if he was going to top its predecessor. While he doesn’t exactly succeed, what he did do is create a thematically and emotionally powerful film that concludes The Dark Knight Legend with satisfaction, beauty, and hope.

We are immediately drawn back into the Nolan’s world of Batman with a stunning opening aerial set piece that serves to introduce us to Bane. His hulking frame consumes the frame as his imposes his will onto his victims through brutality and paradoxical charisma. He stands clutching the lapels of his coat, evoking the image of Vladimir Lenin. Which is fitting because he has come to start a revolution in Gotham not unlike the one the Bolsheviks led. This is not a man to be trifled with and is going to be quite the obstacle for Batman to overcome.

Eight years have passed since the secret fall of Harvey Dent and the public condemnation of Batman. In a moment of desperation Gordon and Batman decided that they needed to hide what Dent had done. They believed it would be for the good of the people. They lied and let Batman take the blame for Dent’s death and the murders he committed, because Batman is whatever Gotham needs him to be, and he can take it. While their intentions were good, a lie is wrong and lies fester and breed more lies. Not only that, but Batman’s sacrifice, as selfless as it was, wasn’t a true sacrifice, but that’s something we’ll get to in another post.

The lie worked as best it could and the city has been enjoying peace for years. Over those eight years Gordon’s will has been eaten away by hiding the truth, and he’s nearly ready to break. He’s carrying around his resignation speech that will reveal to the city what really happened to Dent. Then there’s Bruce Wayne. He’s broken, physically and mentally. As punishment for his failure to protect the city and the woman he loved, he has cloistered himself away from the world. There is sits in anguish, refusing to move on with his life, much to Alfred’s dismay. Soon though, the foundation of the peace is threatened with the appearance of Bane. Bruce finds himself needing to don the cowl again if Gotham is to survive.

By now it is pretty clear that Christopher Nolan knows how to make a movie. With each film that he’s directed he has pushed the limits of what he can achieve with the moving image. While his scope has expanded his focus has remained on telling stories with intimate drama at the core. He has succeeded in this endeavor to varying degrees throughout his career, but perhaps never quite so expertly as he does in The Dark Knight Rises. The foundation of this final installment is Bruce’s personal journey of facing the pain that he has let dictate his life’s decisions, and his struggle to come to terms with it and his assumed responsibilities as Batman. This struggle, paired with incredible pathos brought to the screen by both Michael Caine and Christian Bale, serves as the crux of the story and it carries us through all the bombast. By tethering the action to this deeply emotional arc Nolan creates a film in which we care for the characters in it so when all hell breaks loose it isn’t a vapid brouhaha, it is genuine danger and stakes.

Bruce’s single story would be enough to carry a film on its own, but as I said before Nolan’s scope has widened. Along side his story we get two other excellent character arcs: Selina Kyle’s and (particularly) John Blake’s. Combined with Bane’s revolutionary plot, Gordon’s resistance, and some fantastic action set pieces, the film turns into a sprawling epic. Which might be its most notable weakness: it is huge. There are a seemingly innumerable amount of moving parts. I haven’t even mentioned Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) or Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine), both characters that get ample screen time and have, by and large, satisfying story arcs of their own. Fortunately the movie is handled with meticulous care. In a lesser director’s hands this movie would have been crushed under its own weight. Still you can’t help the feeling that there’s just a bit too much going on and that a tighter focus might have delivered an even more powerful film. However despite its enormity, and length, everything that we see unfold on the screen informs character, which is paramount. There’s hardly a throwaway moment in the whole thing. Perhaps it could have been cut down, but each scene adds more than it takes away, so everything still works.

In The Dark Knight Heath Ledger created the definitive version of the Joker and his performance will be legendary for years to come. With that in mind I can’t imagine what was going through Tom Hardy’s mind when he knew he was going to have to follow that performance and with only a fraction of his face visible. Well if there is one thing this trilogy has done best it is casting and Hardy is one hell of an actor. He imbues Bane with the necessary menace, intelligence, and brutality. Reportedly he packed on thirty pounds to give the villain his impressive physique. The whole effect is stunning and he comes off as Batman’s most threatening enemy yet. When the two finally face off (in an absolutely breathtaking showdown) you can tell that he is physically Batman’s superior and suddenly our hero is in serious trouble. That’s never happened before, I can’t say that I have ever been concerned for Batman’s safety in a fight. Not true here.  And even through all that when Bane’s story is fully revealed Hardy is even able to drum up some sympathy for the character’s tragic past. It is quite the performance.

One of my favorite aspects to this movie is that it is much more Bruce Wayne’s show than The Dark Knight was. We’re given plenty of time to spend with Christian Bale as he emotes Bruce’s anguish. Watching him leaning on his cane, wandering Wayne Manor in despondency is rather depressing, but as he finds purpose again in returning to his vigilantism it is equal parts worrisome and invigorating. His scenes with Michael Caine’s Alfred steal the show. I don’t need to convince anyone of Caine’s ability to create pathos in his performance, to quote my father “he knows what he’s doing”.

It seems to me that Nolan and his longtime cinematographer Wall Pfister decided to do something different when they shot this. Aside from the use of IMAX (which is incredible and you must do all that you can to see this in its proper form: 70mm film projection) they shot Batman in a completely different way than they had previously. In the last two films he spent most of his time in half light, coated in shadow and usually in wides or tight close ups. The first time we ever get a truly good look at Batman in costume is his interrogation of The Joker. He’s in this harsh fluorescent light, and suddenly the costume becomes visually concrete, but we spend so much of that scene in tight shots that we don’t get a good full view of it. Not so in The Dark Knight Rises. Batman is constantly in full view in the frame, and often in full and direct light. We get these close ups where you can get a full sense of his face, and his eyes seem to be more prominent than before. The effect, it seems to me, is to remind us that it is a man in that suit. Batman previously was practically just a figure, an agent of justice, divorced from his human counterpart. Granted, I’ve only seen the movie once, but I think the way he’s filmed in this marries Bruce and Batman in a way that we haven’t seen before. Batman loses his invincible quality as we see him as he is: a man in body armor. And that only helps to add to his vulnerability when he comes face to face with Bane. It is a bit jarring at first, but as the story continues you see how it plays into the narrative and it raises the stakes all the more.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Hathaway is the best version of Catwoman we’ve ever seen. And I must gush about how great Joseph Gordon-Levitt is. His character is given a wonderful arc, and his earnest portrayal is just plain great. I didn’t know what his role was going to be, so getting to know John Blake was a true treat.

Once again Hans Zimmer provides a frenetic, pulse pounding score that knows when to quiet down and to play to the emotion on screen. Honestly, that guy hasn’t turned in a bad soundtrack yet.

What The Dark Knight Rises does is to take the story we were engrossed by in Batman Begins and bring everything full circle. As the plot threads start to tie up and weave into a beautiful narrative it is hard to not think that they had some of this in mind when they set out. What it does is to take all the themes and stories that have been at play and bring them to their dramatic conclusion. As I sat and reflected on the movie for hours and hours after seeing it on Sunday, I began to see this incredible jigsaw of a story falling into place. This movie fulfills the legacy of the last two and brings everything to a fitting close. It is a wondrous feat that gives us one of the greatest trilogies of our time.