Editor’s Note: Out of sensitivity to those affected by the shooting in Aurora, we’ve delayed publication of this review until today. We hope that our readers are not offended by our endorsement of what we feel is a film that can and should be appreciated outside of the context of the actions of a mentally ill mass murderer.
The release of the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been overshadowed by a tragic spree shooting in Colorado. When I arrived at the theater for a matinee showing today, the place was less than a quarter full . . . and it remained that way. People were also clustered near the rear of the theater, and a somber and weird overall atmosphere pervaded the place. And, okay, I’ll admit it, I was feeling a bit irrationally paranoid sitting there as well. It was not a typical blockbuster opening day.
As for the film itself, The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy final chapter in the series that should please both casual fans and comics readers like myself. While I would argue it is the least successful of the three films, and there are some weaknesses I’ll get to below the cut (where moderate spoilers lie), it is still extremely well-put together as we’ve come to expect from Nolan, and it ties up the trilogy neatly (but not too neatly).
There were several concerns I had going into the film based on what the studio and director gave to the press during production and promotion: Was Anne Hathaway able to pull off Catwoman or would she flop? Would Bane be intimidating and complex, or boring (especially coming after Ledger’s Joker)? How would Nolan and company “retire” Batman? And, as Kyle pointed out previously, were the expectations or the film so high that it would inevitably fail?
The answer to the last question is no. While I agree with those who have found the storyline a bit weak, Nolan’s real strength in telling this story isn’t plot, or even the action sequences, it is how developed his characters are. In fact, Nolan does such an exceptional job with the supporting cast that the film (quite intentionally) borders on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake becoming its primary protagonist. And the close of the film hints at a possible continuation of the series in this vein (though Nolan has vehemently stated this is the end).
Alongside strong performances by Gordon-Levitt and known quantities Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman, Hathaway proves to be a capable, though not exceptional, Selina Kyle/Catwoman. While the catsuit/mask/ears still strike me as too cutsie for the gritty world of Nolan’s Gotham, Hathaway does a solid job of making Kyle the tough, sometimes-enemy/sometimes-ally to frustrate Batman.
While Catwoman works quite well in the film, Tom Hardy’s Bane feels mostly like a plot device to move the action along. Obviously, short of going CGI-style like Hulk in The Avengers,he can’t be the huge beast from the Knightfall comic storyline.
But Bane’s degree of menace is too assumed . . . rather than proven by his actions. He doesn’t exude danger the way Ledger’s Joker did, and this is largely due to the film’s reliance on brute physicality both in his character and in several action sequences. I’m all for seeing a good slugfest, but The Dark Knight Rises has altogether too many that seem ludicrous.
A case in point is the late confrontation between Bane’s henchmen and pretty much the entire Gotham City Police force. Once this devolves into a punching donnybrook (despite the number of firearms at the outset), with Batman and Bane squaring off in the middle, it seems that the creative energies of the Nolan team may have reached their limit so far as action goes.
On the positive side, Nolan returns to material from the first film, Batman Begins, and brings back the League of Shadows storyline. This puts the lackluster Bane into the role of henchman to a superior villain, which works better than him as the mastermind supervillain. While resurrecting this storyline may initially strike some as derivative, it provides the logicality and motive for what is otherwise a kind of mediocre plot. It also allows for Bruce Wayne to develop a particular love interest (who Batman comics readers will pick out long before the actual reveal), which adds additional tension to the Batman-Catwoman relationship and tightens up the overall plot.
Much has been made prior to the film’s release about the its class politics and relation to recent and current political and economic issues (ie, the Occupy movement). While a relationship to, and critique of, our current state of affairs is pretty much a given in any worthwhile version of Gotham City, these topics are handled deftly and with complexity in the movie. While justice and right-and-wrong remain pretty dualistic (it’s Batman, for crying out loud), class divisions are not simply lumped in with that. Only a complete idiot could interpret The Dark Knight Rises as some simple propaganda film.
Finally, I have to say that the biggest strength of the film (or at least the thing that worried me most about them messing up that they didn’t) is how it ends. I’m not going to give it away here, but “retiring” Batman the way Nolan does works exceptionally well and neatly closes this version. The ending stays true to the possibilities developed in some of the comics, and it leaves the door ajar for something else to emerge.