The least satisfying entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy by a disappointingly significant margin, The Dark Knight Rises offers a crammed cluster of activity — including a dozen or so key characters, and just as many insert-now flashbacks — and only about half of it sticks. That’s because the film, unlike its two accomplished forerunners, takes the straight-up seriousness characteristic of Nolan’s cinema and mixes it with a faultily twisty screenplay that feels dishearteningly more related to the film’s comic-book origins than the tangibly believable events depicted in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Much will be made of the size of the ensemble here, and while it makes sense, in some respects, to claim that the film’s inconsistent engagement is a result of a too-sprawling cast of characters, it was more the overarching storyline of the film — and the lack of fully-realized thematic elements therein — that detracted from the overall impact. Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a character here that I didn’t enjoy watching, but the framework of the events they find themselves in are really rather pedestrian and uninteresting, and doubtless made so by the formidable bar Nolan has set for himself within his Batman universe.
Speaking of which, this trilogy-ender picks up an entire eight years after the dynamic conclusion of The Dark Knight, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hung up his bat-suit for good in favor of maintaining Harvey Dent’s golden-boy image. It’s a decision that produced a punishing impact on Batman’s legacy, tarnishing his reputation and rendering the figure an amoral villain in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. But save lives it did — as we’re told early on, the Dent Act that surfaced shortly after Batman’s disappearance has since worked wonders in putting criminals behind bars and restoring peace to Gotham’s haunted streets.
The arrival of a terrorizing gas-masked beast, however, threatens the city’s enduring peace. In the opening scene, which is as viscerally thrilling as The Dark Knight‘s ingenious bank-heist but a lot more absurd, Bane (Tom Hardy) hijacks a CIA plane, and grabs possession of a Russian physicist (Alon Abutbul) who bears a great importance to Bane’s Gotham-destroying agenda.
Meanwhile, over at Wayne Manor, Alfred (Michael Caine) is still presiding faithfully over the grounds, while Bruce, scarred more than ever by his past, hides out in his wing of the mansion, unshaven and limping with a cane. He’s initially drawn out of his hermit-like hiatus by cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who swipes his mother’s pearls from his supposedly unbreakable safe and leaves a trail of mysterious clues behind that gets Bruce’s mind racing.
Like Bruce, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, underused) also has to live with the secretive guilt of what happened eight years ago, and although Gordon has changed Gotham into a city free of organized crime, he remains nagged by the fact that the foundation of the Dent Act is a lie, even if it is an honorable one. A sensitive rookie cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), begins to notice the insecurity behind Gordon’s eyes, and starts digging to find the truth of what really happened that night.
The cast’s other key addition is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who’s been in discussions with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) about the idea of Wayne Enterprises backing her proposal of a clean-energy project to foster environmental health. Both Alfred and Lucius plead with Bruce to give the lovely and smart Miranda some of his attention, but he shows consistent signs of hesitation.
The decision of Nolan and his screenwriting brother, Jonathan, to make Bane the film’s villain is a perfect one in theory — unlike Heath Ledger’s blood-sucking Joker, Bane is an imposing physical animal with a carefully planned agenda. And his character works best when he’s merely that — a fearsome force sweeping through Gotham, breaking people’s necks and breathing through a wire-caged entrapment while doing so. When he’s called on to diatribe, however, he’s less effective, not necessarily because his oddball voice is weirdly pitched and sometimes unintelligible, but because the man-with-a-plan persona isn’t as terrifying or convincing as Ledger’s nihilism.
That’s not to say Bane should’ve been detailed with The Joker’s eerily philosophical edge. It’s merely an explanation of the fact that Bane’s presence loses weight when he’s forced to act out his master plan. Whereas the trilogy’s first two films — with the exception of a precious few Liam Neeson lines from Batman Begins — remarkably maintained a rigid realism, most of the mechanics of Bane’s motivations and the city-under-siege climax require a suspension of disbelief that Nolan was previously able to avoid.
That said, The Dark Knight Rises works better on a second visit, once expectations are tempered to account for the film’s primary function as the final storytelling piece in a unified series of films. And it serves that function terrifically, with Bale’s late-game heroics bringing his character’s journeyed arc to a pleasingly soul-challenging conclusion. But when judged on its individual merits, the film doesn’t have the same grounded force as The Dark Knight, which, in addition to acting as a standalone crime saga, was a broodingly committed tragedy. That Nolan’s conclusion here is less spirit-crushing isn’t the ultimate problem — it’s that the narrative which precedes the final images feels like scattered set-up, as if the screenplay was written with the ending finalized, and then everything else placed in, often arbitrarily, to connect the dots to that ending.
But Nolan, unsurprisingly, is working on a grandiose scale here, and even when things feel treacherously out of place, it’s hard not to marvel at the scope. Money-wise, the reception of the film will surely be compared to that of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, but to even compare the two in terms of artistic ambition would be an insult to Nolan’s craft and ability. He’s always reaching for something beyond the genre constraints he’s working under, and if The Dark Knight Rises is the clearest example of those restraints limiting his cohesion, it’s still a rumbling, tumbling, rip-roaring beast of an attempt.
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