Originally Reviewed – 8/12/2012
As much as I love a silly Wes Anderson flick in the middle of summer blockbuster mayhem, eventually the Batman comes knocking.
This summer, there’s no escaping the Caped Crusader. After a successful first installment and its game changing sequel, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has reached mass awareness, reminding me of that fateful Summer of the Bat from 23 years ago. Much like the original 1989 feature, even if you don’t know a thing about the Man in Black, you know about this film. Online, on TV and around the water cooler, anticipation and expectations have been sky high. Could the film possibly best the standard set by its predecessor? Probably not. The second act is always the most interesting part of any story and the new Batman franchise is no exception. But is it a good ending to the story? Absolutely. Not only is The Dark Knight Rises a near perfect finale to the greatest superhero series ever put to film, it’s an expertly made and thoroughly satisfying piece of pop cinema.
Where Begins told the origin story and The Dark Knight cemented Batman as an anti-hero, this film starts on a very different tone. Taking place eight years after film number two, things have never been better in Gotham City. Crime is at an all time low and while the rest of the city basks in their newfound safety, Bruce Wayne has nothing to do but be a Howard Hughes style recluse. Remember it’s been four real years since we’ve seen Bruce Wayne on the silver screen, so to see him as a hobbling hermit is a shocking reintroduction to the classic character. The opening Bane / plane dropping set piece is only the action prelude the producers and fanboys crave. The real beginning is Bruce Wayne with a cane and this sets the tone for a slow but very important opening third of the film.
In fact, the opening of Rises makes one thing very clear. This is NOT a Batman movie. Begins was Batman’s origin story, important in getting the Schumacher taste out of our mouths. The second was Batman doing Batman things against Batman villains. Joker was the driving force and to combat him, Batman had to be the Batman we all remember from countless movies and comics. The latest film is most certainly a Bruce Wayne movie. Nolan realizes that Batman is just the by-product of Bruce Wayne’s scarred psyche and instead of rehashing the previous movies, takes the dangerous route of resolving a character we’ve never seen fully resolved in any Batman media. This gives Christian Bale free reign to give his finest performance in the series. It was a risk but the slow build of the opening 45 minutes paves the way for an interesting and satisfying resolution of Bruce Wayne and by association, the Batman character.
Of course, this isn’t Masterpiece Theater we’re talking about. There are still plenty of eye popping set pieces that look glorious, especially in IMAX. Many of the good bits have been spoiled in the trailers, but it matters little when seen on the big screen. My only gripe with the action is that it has very little of the Batman flavor to it. Where The Dark Knight had aerial stunts and hand to hand ass whooping, the action in Rises is limited mostly to car chases and a giant airborne machine called “The Bat”. The action has a mechanical feel to it and while Batman does square off in the usual “two guys attack while the rest wait their turn” style, the result seems watered down. While it all makes thematic sense, the action seems less visceral than the previous films. Also troubling is Nolan’s uninspired vision and design of Gotham City. Let’s face it. Gotham is any big city in America and instead of the heightened visuals of the Burton features, Nolan’s Gotham is drab, boring and uninteresting.
But there’s more to Batman than cowls, gadgets and that tank he cruises around in. Batman has always been as good as the people around him and the supporting cast of Rises works in varying degrees. As I’ve said in previous reviews, Christopher Nolan is all about theme and the periphery characters in Rises all do a fine job in supporting that theme and moving the story along. The main villain is Bane (Tom Hardy), a mask wearing terror monger who threatens Gotham. While not on the level of The Joker, Bane is a perfectly suitable villain, even if you can’t understand half of what he’s saying. To further complicate Batman’s life is the mysterious jewel thief Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Hathaway does a very nice job in the Cat Suit, despite her character having little development in the script. In fact, every outside character has little reason to be there except to the serve the story. From Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “always there in the nick of time” do-gooder cop to Marion Cotillard’s environmental activist, the actors all do well in the roles given, but they never seems like real people. More like pawns moving the story to an incredibly satisfying conclusion, the supporting cast of Rises never gets more than lines to say, making the obligatory alliances and romantic collusions come off forced and unbelievable.
In thinking back on this film, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my uncle. After seeing this movie, he put together a laundry list of things that didn’t work or make sense and e-mailed them to a big time Batman fan. His friend’s answer to each complaint? “It’s Batman.” To me, that’s a cop out, much like when defenders of the Star Wars prequels shrug and say, “It’s the work of The Force”. The answers to a films giant plot holes can’t be resolved by a mystical macguffin. It’s just the result of sloppy writing. But when I think back to my experience with The Dark Knight Rises, my complaints can be answered in a similar way: “Who cares.” Despite my nagging issues with the final stanza in the Nolan Batman series, the result is still an entertaining and fascinating finale to the greatest superhero series ever made. Even with the sugar coated ending, I left the theater smiling, fully satisfied with a well told, well acted story. It may not be the revelation The Dark Knight was, but Rises is a fantastic ending to an epic saga.
Score – 85%