Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (A Third Opinion)
It’s been 4 years since The Dark Knight smashed it’s way into theaters and shook the comic-book movie world forever. Four long, arduous and theorizing years that kept fans guessing and casual onlookers wondering what exactly we were going to get in the epic conclusion to the trilogy. I think that before you dissect The Dark Knight Rises you need to go back and look at the first two entries, particularly Batman Begins which (in no secret) is the catalyst for a lot of the storytelling elements for this movie. Begins was a way of giving birth to a legend, The Dark Knight gave us the fall of a legend and The Dark Knight Rises brings us the rebirth of a legend. In order to advance the story of Bruce Wayne further the filmmakers felt it was needed to go back to the beginning and flesh out a lot of those same ideas in order to wield them into a different mold.
I appreciated the “wholeness” of this movie in the way that it brought everything full circle and touched bases with the events of Begins and The Dark Knight out of respect to the story and the audience. In Begins we had the clash of ideals between Ra’s and Bruce Wayne as they fought for an underlying code that eventually deteriorated their partnership after Bruce understood the full meaning behind his mentor’s motivation. On top of all of that we had the blatant imagery of Ra’s Al Ghul, a man who lost his wife and wanted nothing more than to find a worthy student that would ultimately become his successor and act as a son along the way. Couple that with Bruce Wayne, a boy who lost his parents and is struggling to deal with the injustice of their murders and the vengeance-fueled desire that is burning inside of him, questioning his indecision at every turn. He now finds a father-figure that takes him under his wing and offers solitude as someone he can relate to, one that understands the kind of loss that only he could. Having Bruce Wayne cast aside the offer of everything he’s been searching for from Ra’s was the final step in his gradual transition in Batman Begins and solidified a new level for why we love comic book stories. When you take The Dark Knight into consideration you have to look at the painful repercussions of Batman’s existence in Gotham, the double-sided duality of Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne as well as the social and political commentary. Everything from the terrorist actions of The Joker to the privacy-breaking sonar device used by Luscious in the climax of the movie are both directly inspired by real-life events. Batman is Gotham’s Dark Knight, a symbol that can be anything the city needs while Harvey is Gotham’s White Knight, the face of justice and the one that the people of Gotham long for. They need to know that they can believe in their judicial system and trust the structured laws of their political parties to put away crime and abolish their fears. It’s funny when you look at Batman’s ideals and Two-Face’s ideals because they’re looked at as two sides of the same coin. On one hand you have Batman and his mentality of justice over vengeance, where taking a life is a sin and a trait of the very people he’s trying to put away. It’s the last thing that separates himself from the villains of Gotham City. On the other hand you have Two-Face who believes in the value of a similar code of ethics or structure where unprejudiced fairness reigns supreme in his mind. There was a reason that Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s murders when so many people asked why they couldn’t have just blamed the maniacal Joker for the deaths. It’s believable and makes sense, right? I mean, the joker did just murder a handful of Gotham citizens as well as hold the city captive as they watched helplessly from their TV screens.. why not blame him? Because blaming the Joker would go against everything they stood for and contribute to the corrupt guidelines of what the people of Gotham fear the most. Rules and laws are unbreakable, just like Batman’s code of ethics. He would have to stand trial and the truth would eventually emerge from the hearings, further squashing the peace that Gordon and Harvey fought so hard to bring to fruition. So Batman takes the fall for the city and becomes what Gotham needs him to be, and during that time they needed someone to blame. They couldn’t be allowed to see that Harvey Dent, their incorruptible face on the war against crime was just as corruptible and easily broken down as the next guy in the end. They needed that hope.. and Batman gave it to them.
One of the things I love so much about Nolan’s Batman movies is his ability to ground a comic into a reality that still feels like it has the whimsical elements to support itself in both sub-genres. Batman Begins took comic-book source material and rooted it in a gritty, harsh environment that could make us believe that this story could actually exist. The Dark Knight expanded on that by stripping away more of the comic elements and replacing them with a crime-drama that could stand on its own as a great movie without Batman characters in the starring roles. Then you have The Dark Knight Rises which I believe took elements from both of those and applied it to a much more ambitious movie that is grand in scale and aware of what it is on the inside, and because of that you have an added layer. What that did for me is mold the trilogy into a unique idea of being one book with three very different chapters. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen from some people is that the tone of this movie feels less restricted and more open to comic-book ideas like one-liners and expanded realism. This is something that didn’t bother me as much because I always felt like it was there in the previous two movies, notably highlighted by Nicky Katt’s role during the baited chase scene in The Dark Knight. I think the problem here isn’t the tone that was used but how the heavy moments seem less dire than the heavier moments from The Dark Knight. Yes we got one liners in that movie but when The Joker appeared or when Two-Face was rolling around town offing cops I felt a sense of fear, and that sense of fear never traveled with me during the tension-filled moments of The Dark Knight Rises. I felt the massive scope of the movie and I felt the extra weight to the final plan of the villains but it felt less personal and because of that it felt less threatening. That is something that hurts the movie in my eyes or at least hurts it enough to bring it down a notch from the second chapter of the trilogy. I believe that it brought it closer to Batman Begins, which is where the movie wanted to go, so in a sense it accomplished the task from that perspective. It also made me think about the original Star Wars trilogy in the way that A New Hope was like an older fantasy tale set in space and complete with a princess, a dashing rogue, a wise old “wizard” and the masked villain but told in an entirely new way. This was like how Batman Begins took the familiar aspects of an exciting and campy comic-book world and presented it to the audience as something entirely different. When it came to The Empire Strikes Back it was genre-bending in the way it portrayed a Sci-Fi space opera told on an epic scale with a Shakespearean, downer ending, much like The Dark Knight did with the comic-book approach. Return of the Jedi brings the tone back to that of the first movie but again distances itself even further from the original tone, giving us something that stands out even more when following a movie like The Empire Strikes Back, and that is loosely what I see with this Dark Knight trilogy. It’s not so much that the tone is bogging the movie down but when comparing it to the cliffhanger of The Dark Knight that dropped us into the starting point of this movie you find yourself distancing what you’re watching from the previous entry.
Which finally brings us to the reintroduction of Gotham City during The Dark Knight Rises, which has now lived 8 years since the night Harvey Dent was “murdered” by the vigilante known as “The Batman”. Right off the bat we’re introduced to a Gotham that has been molded into a peaceful version dependent on a judicial system that benefits from the “Dent Act”, an act that allows criminals to be denied of parole and closes the loophole in the previous versions of their trials. This very truth is eating away at Commissioner Gordon as he can’t take the constant lying and appraisal given to Harvey Dent, the man that murdered innocent people and held his family at gunpoint. Something that this movie did well enough for me is that it set up a city that felt the immediate feedback of the events from the ending of The Dark Knight. We don’t feel like all of that was for nothing and we get a sense of the sacrifice for the greater good, even though it winds up destroying the mentalities of the ones directly involved.
Within moments of the movie’s opening you can tell that this particular chapter is straying away from The Dark Knight’s dependence on villains and will instead bring us back to Bruce Wayne as the focus of the movie. This film again mirrors Batman Begins in the way that it’s most compelling arc is the one of Bruce Wayne and the way he needs to repair himself and adjust to facing a new threat in Gotham. To fit with the scale of the movie they had to up the ante with the presence of a villain that had the wits to be a tactical mercenary and the brute strength to over-match Batman physically. Bane is an absolute monster with no regard for human-life that breaks the mold of “the brute without a brain” that we’ve seen time and time again in movies like this. The opening moments focus on a plan from Bane that introduces us to a character that feels like a cunning strategist who can be to two or three steps ahead of Batman at every turn. That scares me more than a hulking mass of muscles that can punish Bruce until he learns to outwit him with some cheap theatrical trick or escape clause. One of my favorite things about Bane is how he had a similar journey to Wayne’s in the way that he was born out of tragedy. His line during their first encounter about being “born in the dark” while Wayne merely adapted to it was pretty fitting to both parties and helped paint the portrait of an adversary to Batman that was unlike anything he had ever seen before. His character builds slowly and is always a presence on-screen, even if he doesn’t have as much to work with as a villain like The Joker or even Ra’s Al Ghul. This all works well enough because of Tom Hardy’s ability to relate his feelings and emotions through his eyes that stands out as something I can’t remember seeing in a movie before. Look, the movie might be made for you or broken for you on the character of Bane and how you feel they handled his moments in the film. He has a unique voice that some have downright mocked and others found interestingly maniacal when compared to the menacing character he’s portraying in the flesh. For me personally I found it unique and refreshing for a character of this size and magnitude, but if you feel differently I can’t possibly see faults in it. Most of that worked for me because again, I felt like it fit the tone they were trying to go for which was realistic enough to ground the movie with the other two films but open enough to have fun with the material. The only problem I had with the Bane character is that he’s brought crashing down to Earth with an ending reveal that sticks out and ultimately hurts some of the build-up throughout the movie. It kind of contradicts him in a sense that it sheds new light on his reasoning and planning but doesn’t completely douse the flames of his motivation.
Maybe these smaller missteps by the movie are easily acceptable to me because I saw it twice in a span of 25 hours and that second viewing did wonders for my outlook on the film, or maybe it’s because the character arc of Bruce Wayne in this movie is so damn close to perfect that it helps to elevate everything around it. The Bruce Wayne we’re presented to here is a man without purpose. He’s lost without the cowl and has relegated to sort of just wandering around with no motives beckoning him forward. Once he became Batman there was no going back to the life he had before, and when that life was taken away 8 years ago he fell headfirst into darkness. He hangs around his mansion all day and rarely makes public appearances, he’s bankrupt Wayne Enterprises down to its last resources by a failure to show interest in the company or touch basis with their investors. He is a broken man, both mentally and physically as we see that he hobbles around with a cane and has lingering effects on his body from fighting crime for years as the caped crusader. Knee cartilage? Gone. Scar tissue throughout his body and concussive damage to his head is the price he paid to keep Gotham safe from vigilantism. His transformation from the man we see in the beginning of the movie to the hero he revisits in the end is pulled off in near flawless fashion. This was Christian Bale’s love-letter to Batman fans and he easily brings us his best performance of the trilogy. He’s simply mesmerizing as a Bruce Wayne that we feel so connected to and so emotionally invested in that we can’t help but cry when he falls and cheer when he rises. One of the best additions to the Batman we see in this movie is the way he growls and grunts through his fights with Bane over the course of the narrative. It’s clear that this is a broken down Bruce Wayne who’s met his match in terms of pure physical intensity with Bane. Bane wants to pick him apart piece by piece and crush him from the inside out in torturing fashion. Bruce almost needs to psyche himself up to match the ferocious intensity of Bane and you can not only see that with his character’s body language but you can hear it in his voice. He’s tired, he’s beaten down and he’s over-matched in every aspect so to see an immortalized superhero like Batman brought crashing down to Earth is something special, and it’s one that helps Wayne’s arc immensely. Also, speaking of fights the movie has two incredibly massive showdowns between Batman and Bane that are beyond satisfying and perfectly executed. We’ve seen the evolution of Batman’s action scenes from the crowded and zoomed in environment of Begins to the expanded opening of The Dark Knight to a wide-angled one on one throwdown in this final trilogy… and it’s really damn satisfying.
This brings us to the rest of the cast and damn, what a cast of supporting actors we get in this one. Nolan seems to have a never-ending line of Hollywood’s A-list just begging for a chance to be a part of his projects and he shows it off with the lineup in this movie. One particular standout is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, Nolan’s version of Catwoman that does her best to distance herself from the iconic Michelle Pfeiffer portrayal in Batman Returns. Just like we saw with The Joker there’s bound to be a debate between movie fans as to which actress gave us the better version of Catwoman, and again they’re both extremely different. It’ll come down to personal taste, biases or familiarity with certain versions of the source material and it will always be ongoing. What Hathaway brings to the role is something that I felt was missing from the last Catwoman, and that was the ability to break-off the sexuality and playfulness in relation to life-threatening scenarios. We aren’t given a ton of time with Selina Kyle but the moments that we do stood out for me and helped me dive into a three dimensional character that’s more than just skin-tight leather. We get someone who is like Bruce Wayne in a lot of ways but seems to have abandoned her stance on right or wrong in favor for something in her own best interests, and because of that they have great on-screen chemistry. I bought into their relationship in the beginning of the movie that started with “opposites attracting” and evolved into one of unforeseen similarities, it all just worked for me. She’s seen enough from Gotham City that most likely molded her into the persona that she is when we find her in The Dark Knight Rises. Juno Temple’s character is merely there to show the nurturing side of Selina Kyle while continually driving home the idea that there is some good inside of her. I thought that this version of her character was written and performed in a way that honors who she is in the comics but rebirths her into the “Nolan-Universe” in an appropriately fitting way. If she does her best to steal scenes away from her moments in the movie than JGL does his best to own the audience every time he’s on screen. What can I say? Levitt is just a really solid actor that nailed the eager officer of the law that can see through the bullshit and wants nothing more than to instill hope in others. His scene on the bridge towards the end of the movie sums up his character perfectly and he has the best arc in the film next to Bruce Wayne. You already know what you’re getting with Oldman, Freeman and Caine and all 3 of their characters have similar screen time with differing results. Alfred gets a particular interaction with Bruce Wayne that tests their relationship and has a repeated value to the rest of the movie and Gordon gets less to do than in The Dark Knight, as he’s relegated to a side character again.
When it comes to the pacing of the movie we’re given the standard Nolan pacing that is properly relentless and keeps you hooked from start to finish. I noticed that it feels bloated in areas due to its ambitious nature and the amount of time that the entire story covers from start to finish, but ultimately they make all of it work. This movie’s scale and ideas are, for lack of a better word, absolutely massive. This could work both for and against certain aspects of a movie like this but with Christopher Nolan’s direction it all feels very natural and it’s handled in adequate fashion. At two and a half hours long it felt like a mere 90 minutes as I watched it unfold and that hurt the first 40 minutes in my eyes. The problems I had on my initial watch was that they were reintroducing so many characters as well as establishing new ones that some plot points were merely skimmed over, some were brushed aside and some were left without much to expand upon. It felt clunky to me and it took a while for the ball to start rolling because we had to touch basis with so many different scenarios. Maybe this is a personal complaint but with everything this movie wanted to do I felt that it would work better by slowing down the opening and expanding upon some of the ideas it introduced us to, rather than glancing over them. Now if you felt this way I can reassure you that on the second viewing it all flowed much more smoothly and came together even better. Some aspects that I felt could have been expanded were no longer needed and the times I felt rushed now felt necessary. I can’t say that a second viewing will do that for everyone but it certainly did it for me, as I was a bit underwhelmed with that aspect during my initial watch.
I also can’t talk about this movie without mentioning the absolutely phenomenal soundtrack from Hans Zimmer that put his signature stamp on another entry of the Batman saga. Music is such an integral part of a film and it was the use of the score here that really played up some of the dramatic and enthralling moments of the movie. In The Dark Knight Hans Zimmer and Nolan decided to use something called “musical foreshadowing” where they eliminated Batman’s theme from the movie outside of 2 moments in the film, and they did that to keep you immersed in the drama of the characters. I think that the absence of music works well in certain areas and most notably in one of the Batman and Bane showdowns during the first part of the film. It’s incredibly effective and it takes the glamor and “Hollywoodized” idea of it being a staged production right out of your mind as you’re thrust into the middle of the moment. Kudos to Hans for another brilliant score and to Nolan for having the presence of mind to use it only when needed.
Now, I’m about to look at some elements from the conclusion to this movie and there will be heavy spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it you can look away now and come back in the next paragraph.
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First things first, the entire scene with the bomb and the explosion just felt out of place for a Nolan Batman movie, or at least for me it did. In a matter of minutes you go to Batman saving the city to Batman dying to Bruce Wayne’s funeral and a statue being put up in Gotham. Wait a minute, what? SLOW DOWN! If this was indeed the way Bruce Wayne went out then it felt like a rushed death that was pretty clichéd for a character of this magnitude, and when you find out that it isn’t I guess you can forgive some of that but not all of it. The Talia reveal felt a bit rushed for me because she was an entirely different character in the beginning of the film and our lack of familiarity with her is what distanced us from that transition. Yes, I understand that she was incognito during the entire movie and the bait and switch wouldn’t have worked in the sense that the Ra’s reveal did in Batman Begins because of the way she was written but I think that’s a fault on the screenplay. The reason that the first switch in Begins worked so well is because Ra’s and Ducard are the same person with different names. That’s it. Their ideals, motivations and characteristics are fleshed out in the beginning of the movie and are exactly the same as when he shows up in the end, if just a bit more twisted. The problem with giving us the Talia reveal at the end of the movie is that A. we know nothing about her character and B. we’re forced to swallow the pill of her back-story and connect that with a calculated evil all in a span of 5 minutes. It just felt… rushed. Were her motivations clear enough that I could buy into why she would want to burn Gotham from the inside out? Yes, absolutely. The power of losing someone and the vengeance that it can cause is something that’s been used time and time again and I didn’t mind that emotional response for a character as great as Ra’s Al Ghul. She wanted to avenge her father’s death and carry out his plan, as well as cement the legacy of The League of Shadows. Again, it wasn’t the reveal of who the character was that bothered me, it was how that specific moment was handled. How does Bane look in all of this? Not good at first glance because it looks like he became more of the face of the operation instead of the driving force behind it. Some people felt like Talia was pulling the strings from behind as Bane was the face of her motives, just as the Watanabe version of Ra’s Al Ghul did for a brief couple of moments in Batman Begins. However, upon further review it looks more like Bane and Talia worked hand in hand as partners rather than a submissive relationship. Talia was there to infiltrate Wayne Enterprises, get the hydrogen bomb and lay the groundwork for the funding of their project. Bane took care of the physical labor and the tactical strategies that comes with a full-scale invasion of a massive city along the lines of Gotham. For example, Talia would get the blueprints of Wayne Enterprises and hand them to Bane who found the armory and exploited it with explosives during the sewer fight halfway through the movie. The reason that I felt his motivational tyranny wasn’t completely compromised by this reveal is because it added another layer to his ambiguous origins. I know that to some this revelation brought Bane down to merely a pawn in the grand scheme of things but I loved seeing how far he would go to honor something that he truly believes in. We’re first introduced to him as a monster with little code of honor in the way that he openly murders the people who swore themselves to his cause, but seeing him as one that has hidden values and relationships only gave him more depth in my eyes. Bane was an incredibly unique villain and he managed to end the movie as a rather mysterious one as well, and for me that all worked in the same way that The Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul worked in Batman Begins: because this story focuses on Bruce Wayne. Now to the massive reveal at the end of the movie that Blake was actually named Robin and was given the keys to the bat-cave to carry on the legacy of Bruce Wayne. I’ll admit that there was a small part of me that was really disappointed when they said “Robin” instead of “Dick Grayson” but the idea is what works best here. He was the Robin of the movie and worked hand in hand with Batman, much as his partner in the ongoing comic-book world. Batman is a symbol who’s existence is to be whatever the people of Gotham need and it’s repeated throughout the entire trilogy enough to know that this is a passing of the torch in a way. He exists to inspire good in people and Blake was clearly a character that bought into the legend of The Batman. Gotham City will always need Batman’s existence and Bruce Wayne can’t always be there to carry the flame towards the finish line, he just can’t. This was one of the best parts of the ending nd it handled everything beautifully by perfectly wrapping up a lot of the moments mentioned in the previous two movies to give us a launching point for a reboot, or maybe just a really cool way to end the trilogy.
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The Dark Knight Rises is a truly epic film that is satisfying enough on a purely visceral level for its aesthetic appeal and grandness in scale. Thankfully that isn’t all the movie is as the character arcs and transitional pacing were top notch through most of the film. Is it flawed? Yes, it isn’t perfect and it falls short of its predecessor in many ways but it manages to capture what most of the fans loved so much about the previous films which places it perfectly into the trilogy in my eyes. A lot of the flaws at the end of the movie and towards the initial introductory build-up can’t be overlooked or ignored and they hold the film back from being something even better than “great”. How the Nolan movies will compare to the best film trilogies of all-time won’t be seen for over a span of a few years that consist of multiple viewings as both a standalone movie and a final chapter to a series. What I really appreciated about this effort was that it went out with a bang and gave us moments of the Batman source material that we’ve been longing to see done right on the big screen. This movie is littered with thrilling action sequences, some heavy emotional drama and character transitions that’ll make you cheer and squeal with delight. Bane’s plan in terms of scale was absolutely massive and it brought us an interesting and fresh dynamic for this Batman series. It gave us the imagery of Gotham in ruins, with society’s roles flipped upside down as the lower class took back what they felt was owed to them. It touches on a lot of moments that we see in the news and the media everyday and that helped relate it to a realistic sense of belonging. The amount of pressure that was on this movie to deliver a fitting end to a highly popular and widely accepted Batman trilogy was astronomical. So many superhero trilogies have tried and failed miserably in their attempts to deliver fans a satisfying third entry while still being able to stand on its own two feet. Above all else this movie delivers in those two important aspects and while it is flawed at times and it doesn’t match the levels of genre-breaking greatness that we saw with The Dark Knight it still manages to be an emotionally compelling final piece of Nolan’s Batman puzzle… and one that I really just had an absolute fucking blast with.