by Matt Smith
note: This review contains heavy spoilers.
I have been reading Batman since I was about five or six years old. I spend roughly thirty dollars per month on Batman comics. I have a pull list at the best damned comic shop / music store on the planet: Scratch ‘N’ Spin Records in Columbia, SC. I loved the Burton Batman flicks, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the ‘60s TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. Batman: The Animated Series is probably the single best iteration of Batman in any moving image medium. Until yesterday, I was slightly underwhelmed with Christopher Nolan’s take on the iconic universe. Batman Begins was enjoyable but didn’t take the character nor his nemeses (the Scarecrow in particular was given short-shrift) as seriously as they should have been, and the follow-up, 2008’s The Dark Knight, moved every element much farther down the road toward a realistic depiction of the Batman and his villains, but lacked a sense of pointed direction. What was the Joker leading all of us toward? Why did it matter to kill off Harvey Dent at the end of that film?
While disappointed with some of the questions left dangling at the end of both the first and second films, this weekend’s The Dark Knight Rises is a satisfying conclusion to both, though it almost completely ignores the events concerning the Joker that shook Gotham City and its residents so hard in the previous film. Instead, we return to the League of Shadows, the organization formerly headed by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and the terrorist attacks carried out by Bane (Tom Hardy), who now heads the League. Bane has come to destroy Gotham, hell-bent on completing the task that Ra’s failed to do in Batman Begins, and as an added bonus, to break the body and spirit of Gotham’s bat-suited savior.
After a rather spectacular opening featuring a mid-air kidnapping and plane crash, Bane sets to his plan of isolating Gotham from the rest of the world, and to this end he plants a nuclear bomb that cannot be disarmed right in the middle of a football game. The bomb will deteriorate and go off in a matter of months, but can also be blown at any time by a detonator held by an anonymous citizen within the city. After laying out the ground rules (no one can leave or enter the city, the rich will live on the streets, the prisoners held under the Dent Act will be freed from Blackgate Prison) he places the bomb into one of three constantly-moving armored trucks, which will play an integral part in a race against time in the film’s third act.
When the film begins it has been eight years since Dent’s death and Bruce Wayne has left the cowl behind and never leaves the east wing of Wayne Manor. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar posing as a maid, enters his private quarters and lifts his mother’s string of pearls–and his fingerprints–from a safe. Intrigued with this new woman, Bruce decides to look into her past and track her down. At the same time a young cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) discover a vast army amassing in the sewer system beneath the city, led by Bane, and provide impetus for Batman to come back to Gotham once more and fight for its citizens.
I found The Dark Knight Rises to be the most evenly structured of the three Nolan Batman films, with well-written characterizations, a plot that didn’t seem to drag as much as some of the second film’s did, and action sequences that were finally executed really, really well. I enjoyed that every character had some nice moments, and I was particularly pleased with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s addition to the cast as Gordon’s man inside a department that has grown increasingly hostile to him. John Blake’s backstory, complete with orphaned childhood and insistence on being a force for good in a bad world, should carry heavy portents and signs for those familiar enough with how the Bat-universe works. The reveal at the end was handled about as well as one could hope, and by building the character throughout the film without being blatant about his trajectory, the film manages to make it seem unforced and natural. Yes, I thought, this is the way it should be.
Tom Hardy’s turn as Bane, though never quite reaching the heights of the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, is also inspired. His vocal performance, heavily muffled through a respirator permanently attached to his face, is a bit like someone doing a Sean Connery impersonation backwards through a Darth Vader mask. Physically he’s in full-on Bronson mode, with thick body-builder neck and bone-crunching punches. In the fight featured between Bane and Batman in the middle of the film, there is no music, only the sound of one massive blow landing after another as water pours from everywhere above them deep in Gotham’s sewers. Fans familiar with the “Knightfall” storyline already know what happens in this scene: Bane breaks Batman’s back and spirits Bruce Wayne away to a secluded prison from which he is made to watch as Gotham is crippled by the attack at the football game and the subsequent threat of the roaming nuke.
Alongside Hardy, the rest of the cast rounds out nicely as well, with Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle proving to be just the right mix of hero and villain, and with Hathaway herself turning in a top-notch performance. There will be haters, no doubt, but this take on the character is light years away from Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic portrayal in 1992’s Batman Returns. Here she is presented as a thief for high-powered clients who makes a living off of fencing jewelry on the side, stolen mostly as a diversion for her true mark. In keeping with Nolan’s realistic take, she is also never once referred to as “Catwoman,” but there are headlines that refer to her as a “‘cat’ burglar.” If there’s anything wrong with Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s that there isn’t enough of her, though I did appreciate her appearance at the very end of the film.
I have, until now, not discussed Marion Cotillard. Her character, from the moment she arrives on screen, should be easily established by fans, though I’m counting on her twist moment accruing more head scratches than knowing nods in the general audience. When she reveals in the final act that she is Talia al Ghul, Ra’s’s daughter, the plot comes together, but she doesn’t last very long after that. She dies fairly soon after this development, and I feel that if any character in the film is deserving of more attention, it is Talia, who plays an integral role in the past twenty or so years of the comics. I don’t mind the retrofitting of Bane to make him a mercenary, or that he has become one of the leaders of the League of Shadows, but to give Talia such short shrift without first establishing that she is every bit as formidable as her father is an injustice that far too few will take issue with. Aside from that, it’s also a waste of Cotillard, who, for much of the film, is basically meant to stand around and look like a love interest for Bruce Wayne.
Wally Pfister’s images are once again impeccable, and on 70mm look quite magnificent. I wish the film had been shot entirely in the IMAX format, and also that people likely to see the film as “The IMAX Experience” knew the difference between a screen of the proper size with 70mm projection and a digital print projected on a slightly-larger-than-average screen in a converted multiplex auditorium. It sounds nit-picky to say that, I know, but it’s the beauty of the image of a 70mm print that is at stake, and if people are ever going to make a trip to see something in 70mm, they should do it with this film, with roughly 3/4 of the film shot in the format. This is unprecedented for a studio film. On top of that, though, the images themselves are gorgeous, with rich browns and blues; winter on film has never looked so earthen-toned, with only hints of white on the ground and gently falling snow. The fight in which Bane breaks the Bat is also full of compositions that play with light and shadow, dry and wet surfaces, and contrast the hulking, brutish menace of Bane with Batman’s more slender frame and quick fighting style.
Nolan still shows a knack for telling a compelling story, but here I feel he ups the ante just a tad and actually focuses on the images. Indeed, rather than expositional dialogue taking up a lot of screen time as the characters sit around talking with one another, we actually see it happening. Contrasted with the rather dialogue-heavy sequences explaining the rules of the dream world in his previous film, 2010’s Inception, Nolan seems game to actually show his audience what is happening in Gotham. That this often happens on top of other, further exposition is beside the point. What matters is that he is finally relying more on the visual elements of filmmaking to tell his story, and it has improved the overall quality of his work.
We have here the end of an era, and a fitting one. I think the majority of audiences will be very satisfied with The Dark Knight Rises, though there will be some who find it too illogical, too full of holes and too nonsensical. I can’t sway their opinion, but I know that as someone who found fault in some of the construction of The Dark Knight, I found this effort to be the Batman film I wanted it to be, held together by a variety of elements as opposed to just a particularly strong set of performances and a pleasing visual palette. In a way it’s a shame that Nolan won’t return for a fourth film. He was finally getting started.
4.5 out of 5 stars.