BLOCKBUSTER: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises (USA, 2012)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine

 IMDb Top 250: #18 (17/8/12)

The level of hype and acclaim accorded to The Avengers has led to a strange feeling surrounding the new Batman film. While The Dark Knight was hyped for months and constantly heralded as ground-breaking, The Dark Knight Rises has almost taken a back seat in terms of build-up to the point where it already feels slightly... old-fashioned. In my review of Kick-Ass I commented on the constant cycle in comic films between light and dark, and the success of The Avengers, in all its glorious silliness, could mark the next changing of the guard.
Until this change is cemented, however, we fans of all things dark, bleak and serious have cause for celebration. For The Dark Knight Rises is a very good, thought-provoking and exciting conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Gotham Trilogy. Like its predecessor it never quite lives up to either the hype or the high standard set by Batman Begins. But it does manage to correct some of The Dark Knight's narrative flaws and beats The Avengers to the title of the year's best comic book blockbuster.
Picking up eight years after the last film, The Dark Knight Rises devotes much of its early energies to establishing continuity with the first two films. Harvey Dent's death and the lies surrounding it have been institutionalised under Commissioner Gordon, and the new characters that are introduced link back to the League of Shadows, who trained and subsequently fought Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. These narrative choices introduce the central theme of the burden of Batman on Bruce Wayne, how the character is inescapable, and the consequences of the paths he chooses.
The film returns to the territory of Batman Begins in showing Bruce Wayne in isolation from the character. While in the first film he was still working out who or what Batman was, here the problem is that he and Alfred know only too well what the role entails. The physical and psychological damage he has sustained makes him at best reluctant to return, while the success of the Dent Act in clearing up crime makes the role of a masked vigilante redundant.
Purely from a character point of view, Nolan does a very good job of showing the pain caused to Wayne by Batman. He returns to the Nietzschean philosophy of the first film, showing how monstrous and tortured Bruce has become in his fights against other monsters. One of the running themes of the comics is that the people Batman is fighting are different only in their ends, not their means. As in The Dark Knight, Wayne believes his return would attract criminality as much as deter it, and he is unwilling to take such a risk after all the hurt he has sustained.
While Nolan's films take place in a completely different universe to the previous wave of adaptations, The Dark Knight Rises merits some comparison to Batman Returns, due to the presence of Catwoman and the attempt to balance two villains, something Tim Burton never quite managed. The emphases are completely different, with Burton focussing on the fracturing of identities while Nolan is more interested in realpolitik and the changing nature of criminality. But the film does a better job than both Returns and The Dark Knight in balancing multiple plotlines, so you can always follow what is happening. (And to state the obvious, Tom Hardy's Bane is better than the one in Batman and Robin. Clearly there's no contest, but just for the record).
One of the big problems with The Dark Knight was that it occasionally felt episodic. For all the brilliance of each and every set-piece, there was a niggling feeling that you could watch them in any order and they would still make the same amount of sense. In The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, there is a genuine feeling of terrifying escalation, with the set-pieces building to a satisfying, nail-biting climax and all the character development coming in the right order. This is a particular achievement with regards to Catwoman, who changes sides so often in the comics that her development can often appear to be going in circles.
Even by the standards of its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the bleakest and most relentless instalment of the trilogy. Whatever black humour was in The Dark Knight (such as the pencil scene) has been replaced by an overwhelming sense of the world collapsing around the characters. Both Batman and Bane are seeking a utopian Gotham, but both are aware that such an eventuality may only come about with their deaths. There is a greater fatalism to the story, with Bruce Wayne accepting his fate with all the silent dignity of Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim.
The ideas of The Dark Knight Rises are as topical and intelligent as we have come to expect from Nolan. The film explores how ineffective Batman's vigilantism can be: when he first re-emerges his presence distracts the police from their pursuit of Bane. There are on-going comments about terrorism, nuclear weapons and the politics of martial law, all epitomised by Tom Hardy in an outstanding performance. Nolan may have gone on record as saying that none of the Batman films are overtly political, but they strongly echo the questions and events dominating the international agenda.
For more casual fans that only go for the action sequences, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't disappoint. The set-pieces are superbly orchestrated, particularly the opening scene involving a plane being dangled in mid-air from another plane, which then falls around the actors towards the ground as Bane escapes. The Batwing is an impressive replacement for the Batmobile, and the fistfights between Batman and Bane are great to watch. Most painful of all (for all the right reasons) is the scene of Bane breaking Batman's back, made famous in the comics and now definitively immortalised.
The performances in the film are of a very high quality. Christian Bale is in his element as the tortured, guilt-ridden antihero, and the Batman voice is less problematic than it was before. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very good as Blake, confirming his status as a reliable supporting actor. Tom Hardy is outstanding as Bane: it may take a while to tune into the voice, but his physicality is deeply intimidating. And Anne Hathaway, whose casting raised several eyebrows, excels as Selina Kyle/ Catwoman, turning in one of the best performances of her career.
There are some problems with The Dark Knight Rises which prevent it from entirely living up to its hype. It is too long at 2 hours 45 minutes, even if it doesn't always feel like things are dragging out. The final set-piece involving the disarming of the bomb wanders into that silly territory of so many action films, where time slows down to allow things to be saved at the last minute. It may be a tried-and-tested convention, but when Nolan has given you so much invention, it feels a little disappointing.

More disappointing, however, is the ending. So many modern blockbusters have endings which seem out of character, deliberately leaving things open to give sequel writers an easy break. Despite Nolan's assurances that this is his final Batman film, and that Bale is done playing Bruce Wayne, we still have to put up with a clunky introduction of Robin and a final shot which threatens to spoil everything. If this was forced on Nolan by Warner Brothers, it's cynical but understandable. In any case it's as pointless and artistically unsatisfying as the ending of Steven Spielberg's A.I..
Despite its length and problematic ending, The Dark Knight Rises is a very good, intelligent and gripping blockbuster which rounds out Nolan's trilogy in some style. It improves upon The Dark Knight in terms of narrative structure without quite reaching the intellectual heights of Batman Begins, let alone Inception. But that's a relatively small complaint in light of a great example of what blockbuster filmmaking can and should be like. Whatever Nolan decides to do next, it'll be well worth waiting for. 

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A worthy conclusion to a weighty trilogy


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