Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises (With Spoilers)

My review of The Dark Knight Rises in no way panders to that segment of comic book fans who have far too much invested in and an odd sense of entitlement over iconic superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spiderman, et al.  Those fans are nearly impossible to please unless filmmakers deliver the exact film that these zealots have envisioned in their minds’ eyes.  Most often this does not happen and those individuals are left to rant and rave across message boards about how director X,Y, or Z epically failed to remain true to original cannon.  But no matter what BatFan5789 posts online or John Doe at the local comic shop tells you, the truth is that while the general structure of origins may exist, there truly is no one right version to any of these heroes.  Over the last seventy plus years since Batman’s first appearance, the character has been brought to life in many different incarnations with each storyteller lending their own respective creative nuances to the character.  So in considering the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it is not about whether he got things right in this movie, but really about whether you enjoyed the final chapter to his version of that story

The short answer for me is that I did.

I am not a Nolan apologist though I am a huge fan of most of his work.  I did not walk out of the The Dark Knight thinking it was on par with The Godfather Part II, but I thought it was a very entertaining movie.  So I did not go into The Dark Knight Rises expecting a movie that would redefine the genre and sweep the Academy Awards.  And while the movie is not perfect, it is an incredibly well shot and extremely entertaining story that finds Bruce Wayne a recluse 8 years after his last appearance as Batman.  Gotham is enjoying prosperity in his absence under the watchful eye of Commisioner Gordon and the false memory of Harvey Dent.  But a new threat is rising up that threatens the city’s newfound prosperity that requires the return of Batman.

So what doesn't work in this movie is that it falls victim to the “3rd Leg of a Trilogy” syndrome.  So often it seems that directors feel compelled to stuff as much as possible into the last leg of a three-part story even to the point that film’s plot seems metaphorically to be bursting at the seems (i.e. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Spider-Man 3, et al).  In a lot of ways, I think this is born from the creative team’s desire to leave its loyal fan base completely satisfied.  What happens though is that the bloated plot begins to feel loose, the focus drifts, and the pacing gets thrown off.  The Dark Knight Rises suffers this a bit during its transition into the third act, but at the same time I cannot fully complain as I could not think of a set of details that I would absolutely have wanted removed from the film.  Still, it did make the film feel less lean and less nimble than its predecessor. 

As for what works, there are many things.  As you watch the film unfold, Nolan’s cinematic style is operating at its best and this is evident by the cuts between scenes, the attention to detail, and the devotion to character development.  Nolan has a distinct way of telling stories and as you watch the frames unfold, you know that you are watching a master at work.  The brilliance of this particular story is that while on the one hand you are watching the last chapter of Bruce Wayne’s Batman, at the same time you are unknowingly witnessing the origin story of John Blake.  And as much as this is a Chris Nolan/Christian Bale movie, it is almost equally a Chris Nolan/Joseph Gordon-Levitt film.

Speaking of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he stands out from the cast by delivering the strongest performance of all.  As detective John Blake, Gordon-Levitt's presence in the movie is very much like the young and up and coming star on a basketball team of aging veterans, who injects youthful exuberance into the proceedings.  Gordon-Levitt has shown himself in the past to be a performer with great range, and in this film it seems as though he has elevated his game to a new level.  There is an interesting mix of anger, defiance, faith, and hope in his performance that makes it fitting that he is the last person you see on screen in the movie.

The second standout performance in the movie is delivered by Anne Hathaway.  It is no easy task to portray a character that has to be alluring and at the same time a legitimate physical threat, but she does so with flying colors while exuding the moral ambiguity that defines the character of Selina Kyle.  We have seen curious portrayals of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer) and we have seen what it looks like when the performance goes terribly awry (Halle Berry), and in understanding how difficult it could have been to make this character fit properly into Nolan’s Gotham City makes Hathaway’s perforamce all the more admirable.  She truly delivers some of the best scenes of her career.

The third standout performance belongs to Tom Hardy.  He has already established himself as a dynamic actor with his performances in Bronson, Warrior, and of course Inception and his work in this film is another notch in the belt.  It is no easy feat to deliver a compelling performance onscreen with much of your face concealed, but Hardy expertly leverages posture and other forms of non-verbal communication to bring the menacing character Bane to life.  His physical transformation into this bruiser is admirable.  Over the course of the film he allows the layers of his character to peel away culminating with a single touch of his mask from Miranda Tate.  It is a masterful performance.

It feels funny to have gone this far into the review without discussing the man beneath the cowl, but Christian Bale is solid as Bruce Wayne.  He slips into the character the way most of us slip into an old pair of sweat pants from college.  It is not an exceptional performance, but it is a very good one.  The same can be said for Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman – the men who have played the heart and moral compass for Bale’s Batman.  The three very accomplished actors finish the trilogy as they started – expertly applying their craft in a way that elevates the movie from a very good movie to a great one.  In a lot of ways, they represent the viewers in the film, watching the exploits of Wayne/Batman and emoting in the ways that we the fans react.  As for Marion Cotillard, hers was the performance amongst the principle cast that left me a bit underwhelmed.  This is partly due to the fact that she has set the bar so high in some of her other performances (Inception, Midnight in Paris), but also because of the nature of her role and the various other mechanisms that exist in this film.  She is not bad.  She just is not great. 

I have already been asked a number of times how I feel this movie stacks up to The Avengers.  It is not a surprise question because of the proximity of their respective releases and their shared genre but it is not an apples to apples comparison.  The Avengers is an incredibly fun movie that celebrates all that is good about the comic book genre while also acting as a groundbreaking venture combining a number of franchises under one umbrella.  Nolan’s Batman trilogy has always been an attempt to ground a comic book character in the “real” world by telling a narrative that demands to be viewed (and not disregarded) as something more than a genre film.  However if I had to make a choice, I think I prefer The Dark Knight Rises ever-so-slightly over the The Avengers.

The best compliment I can pay a movie is to say that while leaving the theater, I found myself wishing it did not come to an end, and that's how I felt as Joseph Gordon-Levitt stood on that platform as the screen drew to black.  The third act of the movie is amazing and the last ten minutes of the film are the best ten minutes I have seen on the big screen all year.  It truly is a fitting end to one story and a fantastic beginning to another.  We know that there are no more sequels no matter how the movie may leave one asking for more.  But then the point of Nolan's movie has always been (As Bale's Wayne eloquently reminds us) that anyone can be the person behind the mask because the Batman is more than just a man – he is an ideal.  For Nolan, his story to tell was Bruce Wayne's participation in this enduring ideal and thus, the story will live on in whim and imagination...or at least until 2016 when WB reboots the franchise.  My guess here is that if you read this review, you have probably seen the movie, and if so my advice is to see it again.  I guarantee that you will see something you missed the first time and that it will make you love the movie a little bit more.

Standout Performance: To the director Christopher Nolan for having a vision and seeing it all the way through with each film surpassing its predecessor.


  1. Though I agree that this movie is one of the best of the year, I think that The Avengers is better. But, that is a personal preference. I absolutely understand why you would rank it slightly above The Avengers. I also agree that it left me wanting more. As soon as I left the theater, I said that they have to make another one. Lol.

  2. Anne Hathaway stole the show. Soooooooooo good! Marion Cotillard wasnt bad either.

  3. Loved it! JGL just keeps getting better and better! Hardy was fantastic. Hathaway surprised me, as I was skeptical when she was announced as Catwoman.

    As we left the theatre, one of my friends said, "Who wants to go run through some walls with me?!" That is the best thing about the movie. You left pumped up...ready to conquer anything!