Friday, July 20, 2012

This Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Quick Review: A fitting end to the epic Nolan Batman trilogy. See it on Imax if you can.

Full Review: Christopher Nolan did not set out to make DC Comics' Batman. He made Christopher Nolan's Batman. If you are expecting to see the comics come to life, you might be disappointed. The Dark Knight Rises is an epic in the traditional sense, right up there with Lawrence of Arabia and even Les Misérables. I can understand why not everyone is going to enjoy it. The story is huge and ambitious, and it's more about the final journey of Bruce Wayne than it is about Batman beating up the bad guys. This is about a city under siege and the fight to reclaim it. It's about why it is Batman who matters, not the man underneath.

Of course, the best way to judge this movie is to look at how well it concludes the trilogy. Thankfully, Nolan stuck the landing and learned from the mistakes of the X-men and Spider-Man trilogies. (As did the studio execs, it seems) I'm certain many lessons were learned from the previous Batman franchise as well. Nolan kept the story simple and straightforward. Even with an expanded cast of characters, the focus was on one main villain and his plot to take over and destroy Gotham. Everything else, every subplot, every new face, served that story. Despite the nearly three hour running time, this movie never felt overwhelming or over-stuffed.

From here on in I'm going to be talking about some specific movie elements. We're entering into major SPOILER territory, so if that bothers you, stop reading now. I won't take it personally. Spoilers ahead:

The first thing I want to address is the villain: Bane. This is the second time we've seen him onscreen, and this is easily the better portrayal. (As if there was any doubt.) The Bane of the comics is both strong and cunning. He beats Batman by out-thinking him, wearing him down to nothing and then breaking him. Bane might be a megalomaniac, but he's not an over-the-top scenery chewer. Instead, he simply dominates. We got that Bane in this movie, a dominant strategist who knows how to psychologically torment people into submission.

Tom Hardy proved an effective choice for Bane. We already knew he could handle the physical aspect of the role from his turn in Warrior. He is also no stranger to Nolan's style, as we saw with Inception. If there is one quibble I had with the character, it's that his voice sounded too much like a bad Sean Connery impression. I was expecting something a bit deeper. However, had they gone with a deeper voice, he would have had his own "Batman voice" and that might have been ridiculous. Fortunately, you get past the voice quickly enough when he starts killing people.

The other major "villain" added to this films was Catwoman. Easily the best movie Catwoman we've seen, Anne Hathaway brings the right amount of fire and ferocity to selina Kyle. Unlike some other versions I could mention, her costume is stylish and sexy without being ridiculous. While we don't get a lot of her backstory, we know enough to care about her. She's sympathetic without being weak. There will be the inevitable comparisons between Catwoman and Black Widow. While yes, the characters are similar, Selina Kyle is her own character and a very good addition to the Nolan universe.

A final major addition is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As soon as he was cast, rumors swirled about who he might be. While he seemed like an appropriate Riddler, his role was something altogether different. He's Bruce Wayne's kindred spirit, a fellow orphan of tragedy. I loved how and why he knew Bruce was Batman and what he did with that knowledge. If there's one thing you are going to regret not seeing, it's what happens to this character the moment after the credits roll. While yes, the answer is pretty obvious, it's still something I wished we'd seen in the movie.

The biggest regret for this movie is the tragic loss of Heath Ledger. When Bane launches his master plot and takes control of Gotham, the city's criminals run wild. Our old friend Jonathan Crane returns once more, and it's a terrible shame we didn't get to see what The Joker was up to during the chaos. Still, I believe Nolan made the correct choice of not recasting the Joker or even alluding to him. Such a move could have easily backfired, and Nolan had enough going on besides.

As usual, Christian Bale performs admirably as Bruce Wayne and Batman. And yes, we get more "Batman voice." We see a Bruce who has been lurking in the shadows for years after having given up the cowl, and we see what it takes for him to put it on one last time. This is a Bruce Wayne who is not invincible, and this is a Batman with a very human operator. Purists might not like a Batman with human frailties, but this makes a more compelling story. Batman must remain a symbol, and what does it take for the man to keep that symbol alive?

Returning favorites Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are just as good as Lucius and Alfred respectively. We see less of Alfred in this movie than I'd prefer, but what we get is some of his best moments in the series. We do get plenty of Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordan, and as usual he is fantastic. It wouldn't be the same without our old friends.

For The Dark Knight, Nolan reportedly found inspiration in films like Heat and Citizen Cane. For this movie, I wonder if he watched Scream 3, because this movie follows the Scream trilogy rules to the letter. According to Scream, not only is the villain bigger and harder to stop, it also will tie back to the very first movie in some way, wrapping it up. We got the unstoppable villain in Bane, and we get the tie back to the first movie with the return of the League of Shadows, complete with Liam Neeson reprising his role as Ra's Al Ghul.

As I mentioned above, this is not the DC Comics version of Batman, and that's because in the comics, Batman's story never ends. He never stops, he never quits, and there's always another battle. The Dark Knight Rises is the last we'll see of this Batman, and that's a good thing. We've seen what happens when a Batman film franchise just keeps going, and Nolan was wise to stop at three. When taken as a whole, Nolan's Batman trilogy tells a complete and satisfying story.We don't need any more.

This Dark Knight Rises allows Nolan's Batman films to join the select few trilogies that are consistently good all the way through. It's the first superhero series to pull off this hat trick, and hopefully it will serve as an example to other franchises. We need more filmmakers and studios who get that these movies are more than cash grabs, more than a source of merchandising. They can be good films that will live on long after they stop selling the toys.

It's also a lesson in how to make the most of the theater experience. As with The Dark Knight, portions of the movie were filmed in Imax, and it is well worth it to see it in that format. The larger frame and the big screen add so much more to the experience, and I'm glad Nolan went this route rather than 3D.

Of course, it wouldn't be Batman without incredible action sequences, and Nolan does not disappoint. Nolan has figured out how to direction action, meaning that it's not a jumble of shaky-cam images. (Something he had a little too much of in Batman Begins.) Instead, we know what's happening onscreen and aren't overwhelmed. In Imax, the major action sequences are even better, particularly Bane's first appearance and his unique take on airline hijacking.

This film also gives us a few timely parallels to what's happening now. In 2008, The Dark Knight had clear allusions to the War on Terror. This time around, we have class warfare and something analogous to Occupy Wall Street, particularly with Bane's claims of returning Gotham to "the people." The movie doesn't make a definitive political statement, though, and instead serves as a Rorschach test. What you see in these themes will say more about you than it does about the movie. You'll get out of it what you bring into it, and that's the definition of good art.

In case you can't tell, I liked this movie, not just as an individual film, but as the final part of an epic story that began in 2005. We will easily argue for years to come about which of Nolan's Batman films is the best, and I'm certain that debate is already burning through many internet discussion boards and chat rooms. But what is less arguable is whether Nolan succeeded in his trilogy. He did.

The Dark Knight Rises is not just a good Batman movie, it's a good movie, and that's why it works. If more directors follow Nolan's lead, the genre will have the respect it deserved, and I'm hoping that films like this will lead the way.

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