Dark Knight Rises, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)

July 17, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dark Knight Rises, The Poster

For most superhero franchises, the third movie is a trap. It's there that the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher iteration of Batman started its rapid descent. It's there that the Christopher Reeve Superman saga had the wheels come off. It's there that Sam Raimi lost his way with Spider-Man. The list goes on. Movie #3, at least when it comes to a comic-book inspired series, is often one too many, the result of greed not creative necessity. It's a little different with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, because the second sequel, named The Dark Knight Rises, is also the last chapter. And not having to plan for a fourth installment affords the filmmaker an extraordinary opportunity: the ability to conclude a superhero saga. That's something we really haven't seen before (although it kind-of, sort-of happened with X-Men). In fact, it's so rare that it could be argued that Nolan has ventured into virgin territory.

Nolan's decision to make The Dark Knight trilogy a self-contained series allows us to consider the previously unthinkable going in: Could Batman die? If there's a given in any superhero movie, it's that the title character will be around at the end credits. No spoilers here - I'm not going to reveal the Caped Crusader's fate - but the potential of his demise will be in many viewers' thoughts before they see the movie. And that's the genius of the way Nolan has sold and constructed his films. Never have the stakes been higher in a product of this genre.

There will probably never be a darker superhero series than what we have seen with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises; these movies have forever altered the way viewers see superhero stories and the way filmmakers approach them. Before Batman Begins, there was a standard template that most superhero movies followed (some more closely than others). Batman Begins cracked the mold and The Dark Knight smashed it. Those weren't lightweight entertainment for popcorn-munching Saturday matinee viewers. They were deep, rich motion pictures - films that could proudly stand alongside any serious Oscar contender released in November or December (although, inexplicably, The Dark Knight was snubbed in the Best Picture category, with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button getting a nod instead). Now, makers of superhero movies are faced with a choice: either go huge like The Avengers or go serious like The Dark Knight. Nolan has helped render the traditional approach obsolete.

The Dark Knight Rises is the longest, darkest, and most ambitious of the three. In the final assessment, it must be acknowledged that Nolan has perhaps overreached in trying to top The Dark Knight, yet this is by no means a failure. The structure is a little unwieldy, there's too much exposition and too little Batman, and one twist is transparent from the early going. The Dark Knight Rises ultimately justifies its length (in fact, a good argument could be made for a longer cut) and the last 45 minutes is nothing short of spectacular. From the point where the narrative takes a leap of faith, it never lets up.

Fans of the Caped Crusader have a long wait before he makes his appearance and, when he finally arrives, he isn't what he used to be. A commentary on mortality, perhaps? It's not the only philosophizing Nolan does. As was true in the previous installments, he shows an obsession with sociology and the essence of human nature. When faced with the grimmest possible outcome, do people turn rabid? Or, as The Joker learned, is there something more enlightened buried deep within mankind? A lot of what happens during the course of The Dark Knight Rises hearkens back to Batman Begins not only in terms of thematic content but in terms of narrative thrust.

The story opens eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight, when Batman rode off into obscurity to allow the image of the disgraced Harvey Dent to remain unsullied. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, a broken man hidden away in his rooms with only his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), to tend to his needs. He pines for a lost future with the long-dead love of his life, Rachel. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), the masked mercenary once ex-communicated from The League of Shadows by Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson, seen only in flashbacks and dreams). He has come to Gotham to wreak havoc, an activity at which he is an expert. Not unexpectedly, this is a cover for his true motives. Only Batman can stop him, but Batman is no more. By the time Bruce pays a visit to Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and see what new gear this Q-like tinkerer has invented, he has acquired two sidekicks. The first is Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a disciple of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). The second is a nimble cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Bane, however, proves to be far more than the aging, injured Batman can overcome and Selina is not as trustworthy as Batman initially believes her to be.

The level of suspension of disbelief for The Dark Knight Rises is high, but not as high as that for The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man. Despite its dark tone and sometimes lugubrious approach, this is first and foremost a superhero movie, as is evidenced by some kick-ass action sequences. Most of these are more hardware-oriented than physical in nature, although there are a couple of one-on-one grapples between Batman and Bane, and Catwoman/Selina gets her kicks in on more than one occasion. But the highest octane action comes with vehicles attached: Batcars, Batplanes, and a Batcycle with new and improved handling. Nolan knows how to use this stuff without overdoing it. No fear of CGI overload here and, thankfully, no 3-D! (You can't get it even if you want it, although I'm not sure who would fall into that category. You can get IMAX, though, if you wait long enough for a seat to open up.)

Batman is more heroic, more flawed, and more conflicted than in either of the previous two movies. At times, he makes Hamlet look decisive. In the end, we get the character we yearn for, but a lot has to happen for the movie to get to that point. Jonathan Nolan admits to having been influenced by Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities when writing The Dark Knight Rises, but one line more than any other became the seed that germinated the final story. You don't have to wonder about it; it's referenced explicitly.

Ambiguous endings have become something of a Nolan trademark, and one can interpret The Dark Knight Rises' final few scenes to be more or less optimistic, depending on your personal inclination. This is nowhere near as maddening as the concluding image of Inception, but neither is the resolution as clear-cut as it might initially seem.

There's no shortage of star power in the cast. Although no one achieves the level of ferocity exhibited by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Nolan wisely doesn't push his actors toward imitation. Bane is an entirely different sort of villain - he's smart but not sadistic, yet capable of a brutality The Joker could not approach. A bulked-up Tom Hardy is almost unrecognizable behind the steel mask and his voice has been Darth Vaderized (making some lines of dialogue unintelligible). The Joker won Ledger a posthumous Oscar; Hardy won't be nominated. It's like comparing Alan Rickman's bad guy in Die Hard to the adequate, generic one who followed in Die Hard 2.

Bale has an opportunity to swap spit with two co-stars. He and Anne Hathaway click, even though their "romance" never goes beyond the flirtatious stage. Things are frostier between the actor and Marion Cotillard, who plays Miranda Tate, Wayne Enterprises' new CEO. Bruce and Miranda have sex in front of a fire, but there's more heat coming from those flames than from their love affair. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman play more mournful versions of their familiar characters, emphasizing the movie's grimmer trajectory. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a welcome addition, proving that it is possible to inject new blood into an established mythology as long as the new blood isn't represented by Shia LaBeouf.

Those who attend superhero movies in search of goosebump moments may be disappointed to learn that, despite running at nearly three hours, The Dark Knight Rises has relatively few of these, although those it offers are top-notch. Nolan rarely allows levity to intrude on his darkness and, when it happens, it's often gallows humor. (Take, for instance, the best one liner, which is delivered by Catwoman.) Hans Zimmer's score is perfect for the material - not iconic, but well-matched to the action. And Wally Pfister delivers some memorable images - the first shot I can remember of Lower Manhattan dominated by the new Freedom Tower (still under construction) and a helicopter shot of Batman that should be made into a poster.

Having delivered his full Batman saga, Nolan can move onto other projects content that he told the story he wanted to and did it to the best of his ability. Of the three movies, The Dark Knight stands as the strongest. It is the most edgy and daring of the three and, like The Empire Strikes Back, it flies in the face of a common perception that middle chapter of a trilogy is the least rewarding. Looking at the finale, The Dark Knight Rises is no Return of the Jedi. It's a more complete package without an Ewok in sight. It allows fans to leave the theater satiated and a little dazed, and possibly wanting to see it again to catch everything they missed the first time. Yes, there are flaws, but The Dark Knight Rises gives this Batman trilogy a platform high atop the superhero pyramid from which it may never be dislodged.

Dark Knight Rises, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)

Run Time: 2:44
U.S. Release Date: 2012-07-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1