A Totally Biased Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Legend Ends

One of the most epic, satisfying, and exceptionally well-crafted endings to one of the greatest sagas of all time.

I know. And I don’t ever use that word. Epic. It’s just too mainstream. But, seriously… This movie is epic. Maybe even epically epic. If there is such a thing. And even if there’s not, holy shit, is this movie still fuckin’ good…

So, let me preface this entire review by getting a couple of things out-of-the-way: 1.) This is the 3rd time I’ve been to a midnight showing, and it’s the 3rd superhero movie I’ve stayed out late for. Don’t like it? Well, that’s too bad! They don’t HAVE midnight showings for anything else. Except Twilight. And you can go fuck yourself if you think I’m staying up late for that. 2.) This review will be as SPOILER FREE as I can possibly make it, but when I went to see the film, I avoided details and plot points like the plague, and knew only two or three things about the film, which were that it takes place eight years after The Dark Knight, Catwoman was in it, and Bane was the villain. That’s literally it. And if you want my advice? See the film knowing just that much, because you’ll be in for quite a few surprises and you’ll probably enjoy the film more for it. If you don’t care about a few minor, or obvious, plot points? Read on.

The Chris Nolan Batman franchise changed the way Superhero movies are done. He made Bruce Wayne, and by extension, Batman, into an emotionally complex, motivated character that was just as much a real person as the rest of us. His films have been firmly grounded in the real-world, where nothing truly supernatural or unexplainable occurs and the superhuman feats accomplished in the Marvel films are nowhere to be seen. How odd then that this film does away with that, where a villains schemes are so intricately masterminded and his resources so infinite that an entire city is made his hostage. More than a small departure, I would say. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Make absolutely no mistake, this movie is absolutely overwhelmingly fantastic, possibly even the best superhero movie ever made. Of course, like anything, it’s also not without its flaws, few or trifling as they may be. But, and it can’t be said enough, even in spite of them, this movie is still. fucking. awesome. The first film in the trilogy dealt largely with fear, and the power that comes from overcoming it. The second film was about chaos and how futile it can be to try to fight it. This last film? It’s about pain. And boy, is there plenty to go around.

Bruce Wayne was never going to have it easy. We knew that from the very beginning. And the events that transpired in The Dark Knight only cemented that. A man who was consumed with grief and guilt over the death of his parents has been made into a mere shell of his former self, crippled with age, the guilt of the loss of his great love, Rachael Dawes, and the loss of the once noble and idealistic DA turned mutilated killer Harvey Dent (who I felt stole the show even from Heath Ledger, but I digress). Gotham, however, has prospered since Bruce’s great sacrifice as Batman, with the twisted, corrupted, concealed truth of the memory of Harvey Dent  giving the city’s justice system the strength to finally overcome its violent criminal organization and make the city safer than ever, even without the aid of the Caped Crusader. In fact, the mantle of Batman has been almost completely given up. Retired and turned recluse, Bruce has not left his estate in eight years. Alfred worries that Bruce will wither away into nothing and that the Wayne legacy will be lost. We are made to believe, from the start, that even if Bruce put the cape back on, Batman may not be able to save the city as he has time and again. And quite frankly, we DO believe it.

Enter Bane. An overwhelmingly powerful physical combatant, who is blood chillingly brutal, and a brilliant strategist. He is the perfect counterpoint for Bruce’s now frail, aged state. So perfect, in fact, he’s able to take Gotham City hostage. And outsmart Batman. Who is supposed to be an absolute genius. It’s here, the villain, that the films few flaws rear their ugly heads. In fact, I’m going to get this out-of-the-way: I don’t feel that Bane outdid the Joker. And I wouldn’t really be comfortable with saying it was close. Why? I’m glad you asked…

The Joker was an absolute. They gave no explanation as to where he came from, how he became who he was, and they made no attempt to even explain his motivations. He simply… was. It gave him an air of mystique and helped us to latch onto the idea of simply The Joker, without making him into someone relatable or identifiable, and in his case, it worked. He was terrifying and psychotic. Bane is given a considerably more fleshed-out back story, and although it does a little to humanize him, it doesn’t work as well as you would hope. The biggest problem with Bane is simply the execution. While it’s tough to find flaw with Heather Ledger’s Joker, which was over-the-top and gaudy and totally animated, Bane is, although purposely, made into somewhat of a contradiction by making him such an “imposing” figure, at all of 5’10” tall, with such a grandiloquent manner. Tom Hardy reportedly put on around 30 pounds of muscle for the role, though with the gut he has it looks like he used HGH, and despite being fairly bulky and menacing, his words inspire his followers. He poetically rallies more to his cause with impassioned tirades and eloquent diatribes. Where’s the problem, you might ask? Well, dear reader, read on…

The problem with Bane, which arguably isn’t necessarily a problem, is actually his mask. For my personal taste, it’s both a blessing and a curse. While Hardy did everything he could with his eyes to convey humanity behind the bizarre maw, the mask simply robs him of his soul. Even though it seems he got more screen time than Batman, and has a simple, but effective, origin explained, he has no tangible personality or really any soul, two things the Joker had in spades (DAMN, I’m good!) and two things that made Heather Ledger’s now legendary portrayal of Bats’ archenemy into such an astonishingly transcendent and overwhelmingly powerful success. It is a simple and plain fact, The Dark Knight would not have been as successful if Heath Ledger had survived the ordeal he suffered through to create such a dark, menacing character. The Joker’s soul may have been black, callous, and evil, but he still had one. He claimed to be an agent of Chaos but was instead a GOD of Chaos. The embodiment of unruly and random violence. Bane, by comparison, falls a little flat, and I found it increasingly difficult to identify and relate to him in any capacity whatsoever. It was simply difficult for me to latch onto a villain with the emotional range of Hannibal Lecter in his muzzle. Although robbed of a soul, the mask makes him much more effective in the sense that he becomes even more emphatically cold and ruthless, which fits his place as this film’s Dragon to the surprising and astonishing Big Bad. It actually balances the character out to make him an exceptional 2nd fiddle to Heath Ledger’s sensational once-in-a-lifetime performance.

The Joker was an absolutely resounding success on so many levels. Even his tagline, “Why So Serious?” was so monumentally clever and intelligent that it’s hard to grasp without reading into it. I sound like a nerd right now? Maybe I do, but take a minute with me to think that over: Why so serious? Why is it so clever? Take these films for what they are: a SERIOUS take on the ridiculousness of superhero films. Details like this crop up all over all three of these films, and their serious, realistic and gritty take on drama helps them to transcend the idioms of other, more cartoonish superhero films. It also helps to keep them from being as fun, which is a very minor gripe, but something I feel I have to mention. Nolan’s films have been accused of being boring, overly serious snoozefests, and while I would never go that far, I can’t help but feel that the lighthearted nature of Marvel’s films does wonders for the balance of those pictures. I just have more fun if a really great joke or quip catches me by surprise, and the Marvel movies have them in droves and droves and droves. While this film has it’s share of jokes, they are so few that, as I write this, I have a hard time recalling them. It’s not something to hold against the film, but the serious nature and tone makes it feel significantly more heavy than other hero flicks. Batman is beaten down, broken, scarred emotionally and physically here, and the toll that 10 years has taken wearing the mantle of Gotham’s Protector has such great implications that there is serious concern over whether or not he will live through the tortures he endures. It may just be that it’s the 3rd and final film, but I found myself in despair as I wondered whether or not Bruce would live, and when the film finally reached its exciting conclusion, I couldn’t believe the outcome.

Without question, Bruce has fallen on hard times, and while both of the Dark Knight films have seen him hit new lows, he’s at a point in this film that we never imagined he would be. He is stricken with grief, guilt, and even arthritis. His relationship with the loyal batman (not THE Batman… Just… click the link…) Alfred is so strained that… Well, you’ll just have to see it. It’s these hurdles and tribulations that make Batman so compelling: he is a REAL person, a REAL human being, made of flesh and blood, who overcomes such insurmountable odds that he can’t possibly be JUST a person. But he is. He feels pain and loss and weakness the same as anyone else, and that’s why Batman is so endearing, why he is so everlasting to fans. He’s a person. He is relatable and identifiable, stands and fights for the universal good that we all wish we could stand and fight for. And it’s a good thing that he is written so well, because some of the other new arrivals aren’t so lucky. While Bane is more “completely” written than other villains were, it’s Catwoman and John Blake, a cop with exceptionally powerful intuitive instincts, who showcase how a supporting character should and shouldn’t be written. While Blake is a fully realized, fully fleshed-out character, with interesting, compelling, and, most importantly, EVOLVING morals and ideals, Selina Kyle is reduced to a repeating cameo. Her cat burglar (that’s where “Catwoman” comes from) character simply wants a new life, to get away from everything that’s after her. Exactly what she’s running from, we never found out, nor is it even hinted at or alluded to, and with Gotham so cleaned up, it makes it hard to argue that it’s simply “the wrong crowd,” or to even imagine who the wrong crowd would be any more. Despite the problems with her character, she manages to steal nearly every scene she appears in, and absolutely demands the attention of viewers, and indeed even the attention of the people she shares the screen with, simply through the conviction of Hathaway’s remarkable performance.  She is smart, funny, sexy and graceful, the absolute best manifestation of Catwoman from the comics ever seen on film. Bravo.

The strength of the casting has always been one of the bright spots for these films, and the tradition continues here with remarkable efficacy. The leading actors have always been brilliantly cast, from Bale as Bruce to Liam as Ra’s al Ghul, to the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, but the film’s strength of casting has been equally, if not more so, brilliant in its supporting roles. Gary Oldman’s turn as Gordon is one of the most likable and complex as ever seen on film, where he struggles with his position, forced to praise the man who tried to murder his son. Blake, even as an everyman, is just as heroic as Batman. Even tiny, seemingly inconsequential roles are given weight and authenticity by very capable and popular TV actors, such as Reggie Lee as a trapped police officer, Wade Williams in an ironic turn as, for once, a prison’s warden, and Desmond Harrington as a cop who just thinks he’s doing the right thing. These roles wouldn’t have any lasting impact if not for the incredibly gifted actors who were called upon to GIVE them impact. The film’s best cameo, however, is a surprise reappearance by a psychotic psychologist whose done his work and earned a place as a mainstay of Nolan’s vision of Gotham.

I find it absolutely worth noting that Nolan is easily one of the most talented director’s of this generation, if not the MOST talented, if for nothing else but his uncanny ability to take a mediocre, generally hammy, or even poor actor, and utilizing them to perfection in a role that suits their abilities and makes them better than they ever have been before. Batman Begins saw Rutger Hauer, constantly guilty of Chewing the Scenery, as the conniving, power-hungry CEO of Wayne Enterprises. The Dark Knight had Eric Roberts in all his slimey, slithery, slick mobster glory. And this film turns the perpetually ho-hum Matthew Modine into a man of consequence and eventual action, turning him into as legitimate an actor as any who appears in these films. I absolutely cannot say enough good things about how awesome I find this, because I find it totally and irrevocably fucking awesome.

What can be said about the technical aspects of the film that you wouldn’t already know? The cinematography is perfect, as is now the standard with Chris Nolan’s work. The lighting is both moody and foreboding and gives Gotham the atmosphere of being its own entity, a dark and gloomy place with little hope, unpleasant for even the strongest of its denizens.  The sound is loud, intense and lends a visceral nature to most of the film, although some of the voice-work is soft or difficult to understand, but the moments Nolan chooses to leave out the sound while playing only the soundtrack are especially lovely. Flourishes like this are sprinkled throughout, and they’re touches more directors don’t use NEARLY as effectively as Nolan does. The fact that it was shot entirely in iMAX also gives the film a crisp, clean look that sets it apart from other films. The soundtrack, however, is where this film should, and will, draw considerable praise. Hans Zimmer’s work is without flaw, and the themes for both Batman and Bane are stirring, gripping, dynamic, and overwhelmingly and commandingly powerful. The only real knock I have against any technical aspect is the occasionally jarring transitions in the editing. It’s something Nolan has done quite often, ever since Batman Begins, and it’s neither artsy nor interesting. It’s annoying. Suddenly cutting to a loud noise from a quiet scene does not add to the movie, nor does it make sense from a viewing standpoint.

Even the imperfect execution of the antagonist can’t keep him from being one of the greatest villains of all-time, and the increased scale and scope of the film helps it break free from the series’ realistic confines, to become one of the best films ever.

Although I suffered a mild, and may I stress MILD, disappointment with the villain, there is no argument that the action in this film is some of the finest ever captured. The 3rd act, though bombastic and grandiose on a huge scale never before seen in a Batman film, is absolutely one of the best ever in a film. Hands down. The intricate writing done by the Nolan brothers on this film reaches all the way back through both prior installments, plucking throwaway lines and giving them such huge consequences and victorious payoffs, that I dare say this is the best written superhero film ever, if not one of the best films period. The huge jump in scale and scope to the film gives it an immensely satisfying feel as an ending to the saga, and easily catapults itself to the top of the short list of epics that ended the RIGHT way (sorry, Star Wars, you aren’t on that list). In fact, the change in scope for the project feels so drastic from The Dark Knight that, at first, I didn’t feel the two films necessarily fit together. I initially wondered if Nolan deliberately made the film huge to try to compete with The Avengers, because the comparisons are inevitable, but after recalling that this film only came out two months after Avengers, I brushed that off. But then I started to speculate that perhaps they knew they couldn’t top The Dark Knight. Perhaps they knew that Bane wouldn’t be better Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, perhaps they knew that in the confines of the dark, violent reality Nolan has established, they couldn’t have a fittingly epic and rewarding conclusion to one of the greatest sagas ever created. Maybe they overcompensated for that by simply making it bigger, faster, louder than the Dark Knight ever was. Maybe they overdid it and put too much in, made the exhilarating climax more heart-racing and pulse-pounding than anything they’d ever done. And ya know what? That’s just fine by me.

 

 

 

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