The Dark Knight Rises

Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).

Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.

While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.

More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:

I was quite pleased that the film is fully a sequel to Batman Begins with Liam Neeson reprising his role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Bane being (seemingly) his inheritor. Knowing the comics as I do I felt pretty stupid for not seeing the revelation of who Bane was working with, although I kind of suspected earlier for different reasons.

At first I felt disappointed that the heart of the film involved Batman having to re-learn his purpose and overcome a physical obstacle to regain his place. It all felt a little too easy, a little too implausible. But the sequence where Bruce escapes from where Bane imprisons him was so well staged that it won me over. It’s one of the two best scenes in the film.

While I wasn’t blown away by Anne Hathaway’s performance as Catwoman, I thought she was pretty good. Certainly she was evoking the Catwomen of the 60s pretty effectively. The tension between her and Bruce Wayne was well done, and she was properly written as an ambiguous and flawed character, giving her room to redeem herself in the end.

I agree with a few who have said that Tom Hardy was largely wasted as Bane, though I haven’t seen him in much else. I assume Bane’s voice is Hardy’s (perhaps processed), since why bother signing him otherwise? I’ve read that Hardy realized his performance would be primarily physical, and I guess he does a good job with what he has to work with (which is more a limitation of the role than the writing of it).

By contrast I thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt did an excellent job of playing Office John Blake, who is the primary supporting character in the film – so much so that I’d expected there would be a corresponding villain whom he’d face off with, but his story goes in a different direction. Blake is essentially Jim Gordon when he was younger, a contrast which isn’t played up as much as you’d think although the two have a lot of screen time together, but he serves as a reminder of what Gordon has sacrificed in the name of the Dent Act. Blake’s sacrifice is that although he’s a hero, he’s forced to take on a less visible role, and that he does so is what makes his character so admirable.

At the end, of course, we learn that Blake’s first name is Robin, and that he inherits the Batcave, and it’s easy to see him starring in some hypothetical fourth film in the series – a new character with a different personality and different challenges – although I understand this is it for Christopher Nolan and the franchise, so it’s just a tantalizing suggestion.

I saw the revelations in the conclusion coming (although I did briefly wonder if Nolan would have the balls to actually kill off Batman in the climax), but that didn’t keep it from being the other best scene in the film: Redemption and a happy ending for the hero who never seems to get a happy ending in the comics. The one thing I wish is that Alfred had changed his plans and actually gone over to join Bruce and Selina when he sees them in Europe, and that Bruce had essentially welcomed him back into his life.

Overall, a very good film. I think what Nolan’s really accomplished here is to make the viewer care more about the characters and their situations than about the superheroes. While the fight scenes are nice enough, they actually felt like the least interesting part of the film. A few other films (notably Superman: The Movie) approached that feeling, but The Dark Knight Rises fully realized it.

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