The latest Batman film has a rather hubristic title considering how much it has to live up to: it is a sequel to “The Dark Knight”, which is generally considered the greatest comic book based film ever made, as well as director Christopher Nolan’s even greater “Inception”, the best summer blockbuster film of the last decade. But while it doesn’t exactly succeed in surpassing Nolan’s previous two films, it manages to get enough right that it is sure to go down in history as one of the most successful finales of any film series.
While the previous two installments in the series had little direct connection plot wise, “The Dark Knight Rises” binds together important plot elements from both in order to lay the ground for this film’s story. This is both the best and the worst thing about the film: while the way in which it pays off seeming loose ends from the earlier films is satisfying, the return of weak plot elements from the first chapter in the series (2005’s “Batman Begins”) prevent the film from reaching the level of “The Dark Knight”. That second installment far surpassed “Begins” because Nolan figured out how to keep the elements that worked from the original, and toss out most of the ones that didn’t to craft what was essentially an epic crime thriller that was able to stand alone, outside of the context of the larger series. While “Rises” shows Nolan continuing to grow as a filmmaker, the obligation to return to the missteps of his earlier work is a big part of what makes this one of his weaker films.
The film opens with a stunning and memorable action sequence that far surpasses that of any previous Batman film, in which the film’s central villain Bane (played by an unbelievably bulked up Tom Hardy) allows himself to get captured and taken on board a plane, in order to kidnap (and fake the death of) a Russian scientist, for mysterious purposes. While this scene isn’t actually that important to the overall story of the film, the imaginative staging and Hardy’s bizarre and scary vocal performance make it comparable to the stunning opening sequences of Nolan’s two previous films.
After that we discover that 8 years have passed since the ending of “The Dark Knight”. The public still believes that Batman murdered Harvey Dent, and Gotham’s “hero” hasn’t appeared since. Jim Gordon has managed to use the incident to pass the “Harvey Dent Act” which allows the police far greater power, including the ability to deny parole to criminals. This has managed to make Gotham a far safer place, but it exists essentially as a police state, and the gap between the obscenely wealthy and the impoverished is greater than ever. Without Batman, or his lifelong love Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne has retreated from the world, rarely leaving the east wing of his house. It turns out that some years ago he invested most of Wayne Corps’ resources into a machine intended to harness fusion power, a project led by a board member named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), but suddenly shut it down when he discovered it could be weaponised. This crippled the company hugely, and he ceased to play an active role in its development. His ever faithful butler Alfred desperately wants him to return from his self-imposed exile, but Bruce has given up on the world.
Enter Selina Kyle (a stunning Anne Hathaway), who breaks into Bruce’s manor (seen here for the first time after being mostly destroyed in the first film) who breaks into the east wing, stealing the necklace Bruce’s mother was wearing when she was killed, but most importantly Bruce’s fingerprints. It turns out she was hired to steal the fingerprints by a crooked CEO, John Daggett (a character based on the animated series’ crooked pharmaceutical businessman Roland Daggett). Kyle had made a deal to give Daggett the prints in exchange for the “Blank Slate” program, which would allow her to erase her criminal record from every database in the world, leaving her free to live a normal life outside of the confines of Gotham, but Daggett betrays her. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon discovers a secret underground lair in which Bane has taken up camp, and barely manages to escape alive, and Bane hatches a plan with Daggett to run Wayne Corps. into the ground so Daggett can take over. And finally there’s the introduction of the film’s moral compass, a young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the only character uncompromised enough to become a true hero in the eternally grey area of Gotham. It may sound like I’m giving away a lot, but these events only take place in about the first hour of the film, before the real thrust of the story gets started. The result is a complex, and sometimes overbearing knot of story threads that manages to serve as an analogy for America’s worst fears in the wake of 9/11, and a commentary (and perhaps critique of) the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Heady stuff for a superhero film, but make no mistake: this is a superhero film through and through, much more-so than Nolan’s previous Batman films. “The Dark Knight” in particular seemed to be trying to distance itself from other comic book films in order to function as more of a “Heat” style epic thriller, with much more grounded and plausible takes on The Joker and Two Face characters than appeared in the comics. “Rises” is chock full of comic book logic, highly implausible developments, and over the top villains. Though he no longer has a steroid pumping tube in the back of head, and isn’t able to double in size, Bane is essentially a cartoon villain, and Hathaway’s Catwoman is a fun, sexy, wisecracking type of character: Nolan has finally let go of his rather pretentious attempts at “realism” in his previous films and gone for broke.
The area in which “The Dark Knight” improved the most over the original film was the performances, but it was unclear if a third film would repeat that success, since Aaron Eckhart and Heath Ledger, the real game changers in that the previous film, would be unable to return. Yet the cast here is more than capable of picking up the slack, and the performances are much better-rounded than in the previous films. Christian Bale’s performance in the other films seemed cold, distant, and aloof: he was attempting to show how disengaged Bruce had become emotionally since the death of his parents, but his character just came across as dull and unlikable. Here he finally shows the vulnerability and pain that came across in his great performance in “The Prestige”: despite having less screen time than in the other two films, his character gets a lot more definition and development. Michael Caine also improves here immensely in his few scenes: his wisecracking performance seemed a bit like he was on autopilot in the other films, but here he manages to portray just how deeply Alfred cares for Bruce, and delivers his best performance since “The Quiet American”.
But the performance that people will leave the film talking about is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle. Kyle only appears in maybe 30-40 minutes of the film’s 165 minute running time, but Hathaway makes the most of every scene. The range on display here, particularly early in the film, is astonishing. She can shift from a terrified maid, to a confident and in control burglar at the flip of a dime, and in her most surprising scene she plays the role of the terrified victim only moments after beating up several grown men. Hathaway’s performance is so convincing that we actually feel frightened and sympathetic for her, even though we know it is an act. Best of all, her character is just fun and believable, and Hathaway exudes a cool assurance that lets us know we are in good hands. The character functions much like The Joker did in “The Dark Knight” (though her character is less thematically important): it’s thrilling every time she appears onscreen and most of the film’s best scenes feature her prominently. While this Catwoman may not make us forget about Michelle Pfeiffer’s similarly stunning performance in 1992′s “Batman Returns”, it certainly lives up to it. For some reason Hathaway has yet to be taken seriously by most audiences, despite managing to go toe to toe with Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”, and her realistic, transformative performance in “Rachel Getting Married”. If this performance doesn’t manage to put her on the map, then nothing will. Though Kyle is not the most important figure in the film, she is what makes it work: her lighter, carefree attitude to life manages to keep the film from sinking under its weighty themes. Though spinoffs are usually a bad idea, it would be a shame for this to be her only appearance as Selina Kyle: there’s just enough of the character to make one wish for a film in which she played a more central role. Tom Hardy does fine work, and it’s hard not to admire his physical commitment to the role, but Bane’s voice straddles the line between silly and scary, and it is a bit disappointing how much less threatening he is than The Joker. Oddly, Marion Cotillard is the black sheep in the cast: whereas she was the emotional lynchpin in every other film I’ve seen her in, her character is unnecessary and highly disposable here, and her performance follows suit. Miranda is underdeveloped to the point that she barely exists, and it’s difficult to see what her romantic interest in Bruce is. Whereas Hathaway and Bale have surprisingly intense chemistry, Cotillard’s scenes with him fizzle, and her final scene in the film is an almost embarrassing display of bad acting.
The film’s structure is problematic as well: while it begins with a nicely paced first act, which is capped off with an absolutely stunning action sequence in which Batman first reappears on the streets of Gotham, the second act suffers from a surplus of ambition. Attempting to weave together three epic and famous story arcs from the comics (The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall, and No Man’s Land), as well as various elements of other comic stories, the film is incredibly overstuffed. It also suffers from Nolan’s tendency to force the plot to fit the themes he’s trying to explore in too obvious of a fashion: his biggest weakness has always been his tendency to sacrifice storytelling logic for thematic resonance, a tactic that is taken to incredible extremes here. The second half of the film is absolutely riddled with plotholes and unbelievable developments, even by summer blockbuster standards: a huge step down from his airtight “Inception” script. The film is insanely overlong as well: half an hour in the middle could easily be trimmed either to cut down the length, or could have been more wisely used to feature more of underserved characters like Gary Oldman’s loveable Commissioner Gordon, or just to give Hathaway more time to do her thing. Still it picks back up in the third act, which is tense, exciting, and surprisingly moving, in spite of a forced and predictable shock reveal that occurs extremely late in the film.
Still the film does so much right it’s hard to fault it too much, and at its best it feels ripped from the pages of a great Batman comic in a way that no other Batman film has to date. Nolan’s weakness in the first two films was the action sequences, which were so darkly lit and choppily edited it was hard to tell what was going on. Although there are only four major action sequences here in a nearly three hour running time, they are all exciting and memorable, particularly when seen in the film’s intended IMAX format. Although Nolan’s Batman films are all extremely flawed, they are also standout examples of what summer blockbusters can strive to be, and provide plenty of fodder for discussion and thought. This may be far from Nolan’s best film, but as a capper to one of the more successful trilogies in film history, it is still an achievement that helps to cement his status as one of the greatest current English language filmmakers.