This weekend sees the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final piece of his Dark Knight trilogy. There are two ways you can look at this film and the series as a whole, as films or as Batman adaptations.
The differentiation between those perspectives is something that I have been struggling with since the classic The Dark Knight hit theaters in 2008. Nolan is a master cinema craftsman, his Dark Knight movies are some of the most well made blockbusters in the history film.
The problem I encounter, is that these films have become increasingly less ‘Batman’. It is not that I think Nolan doesn’t ‘get’ the character, I think he just doesn’t really care.
So at the end of the day I am stuck with two opposing sides to my opinion, one that respects the cinematic merits of the Nolan’s trilogy, and one that is increasingly frustrated with its seeming disrespect shown to some key aspects of the source material.
From this point on my review will weave in and out of spoiler territory, so proceed at your own risk. If you are on the fence about seeing the film this weekend and want a non spoiler recommendation, I can say to you see the film. For all the qualms I have, it is still a well made piece of cinema that should be seen on the big screen with an eager crowd.
You cannot separate this film from the biggest flaw of The Dark Knight. During the climax Batman makes a personal sacrifice to save the reputation of Harvey Dent, one that means he has to take the fall for Dent’s murder. This was resoundingly dumb, and even in the vacuum of just that film made no sense for the character.
It made sense to salvage the reputation of Dent, but the city was just held hostage by a terrorist with a network of well positioned thugs all throughout the city. Heck, Dent was already kidnapped once in the film, it would have stretched no imagination to pin the blame on The Joker or his goons.
Instead we get Batman on the run, and the entire world of The Dark Knight Rises hinges on this single, dumb, move. When we finally catch back up with Bruce Wayne at the beginning of this film he has hung up the cowl and is living like a broken recluse.
So immediately I am confronted with a creative choice that is incredibly un-Batman. Bruce Wayne is the worlds greatest detective, he is smarter than that. He wouldn’t go slinking away in despair because some one blew up his maybe-girlfriend. In fact, that would probably make him pound the streets harder.
Structurally this also accounts for one of my biggest problems with the film, it feels repetitive. The movie opens with a lengthy stretch that is building to the return of Batman, then he comes back for an act, but is shuffled off again. Then we are treated to another lengthy stretch this is building to the return of Batman.
It almost feels like Nolan had the idea for the first third of this movie in his head when writing the end of The Dark Knight, because as a result of that ending the start if this film makes a ton of sense. Then once he gets Batman back he is just jumping back into another story of Batman being dumb which causes him to disappear for another long time.
While this is a suspect structural issue, the film doesn’t crumble because of it. Nolan’s skills as a director keep us engaged the entire time. The supporting cast is really the film’s secret weapon that keeps you involved, even the villains who are not without their own flaws.
No matter how real you are trying to make your Super-Hero movie, there is something that you need to get right every time, the villains. For example, The Dark Knight has one of the greatest villain performances ever, Rises fails to match that lofty water mark.
That is not to say Tom Hardy as Bane is a failed character. In fact, I was very pleased with how well Nolan managed to turn a character with a rather goofy appearance and premise into something of a believable threat to this Batman.
No, the problem lies in the fact that most of the most dramatic and important villain moments don’t seem to have the kind of impact they should. The fights between Batman and Bane don’t really carry the intended weight of their moments. The whole ‘breaking the Bat’ scene just doesn’t have the juice it should have.
By the end of the movie it is revealed that Talia Al Ghul has been calling the shots the whole time. Bane’s menacing presence, that we spend nearly two hours dreading is, immediately shut down and dispatched with ease so we can go on a rather silly car chase climax. Again, the villains are not bad, the film just lacks an impact that should be coming from these foes.
On the other end of the spectrum, the additions of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are fantastic. Hathaway’s Catwoman in particular really steals the show. Her character fits very well in Nolan’s version of Gotham, and is actually one of the few characters that stays true to her comic origins.
Gordon-Levitt’s Det. Blake is an interesting new facet to Nolan’s universe as well. One of my major complaints about Nolan’s interpretation is his seeming disdain for the concept of a Bat-Family. To him it is wrong, that Batman would become the patriarch to a whole cadre of heroes and anti-heroes who are drawn to his nobility and sense of Justice.
Blake represents the closest thing we will get in the Nolan movies to a Robin, but what makes that so frustrating, is that Blake would make a terrific Boy Wonder. His addition to the movie almost proves Nolan’s own notion of Batman’s sidekicks wrong.
To me the character of Blake is a symbol for why I am so frustrated with Nolan’s adaptation. Much like Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Blake is essentially a perfect origin story for a character we want to see, only we will never, ever see it. With Harvey Dent we see the best Two-Face origin committed to cinema, only we never get a real Two-Face. In much the same way we see a pitch perfect Robin origin that is going to leave us with no payoff because this film is a definitive end.
I understand there is no time in this finale to put Blake in a costume, but why tease the end of the film with laughable fan-service like his given first name actually being Robin, and him finding the Bat-Cave. To me it represents a lack of understanding why fans like the character of Robin, and the Bat-Family as a whole.
Which comes to my eventual conclusion. Nolan doesn’t care about the world of Batman, at least any aspect of Batman outside of its most basic and core concepts. The problem as a film fan and critic is that isn’t really important to question of the film’s ultimate quality.
My issues stem from my preconceived notions and the works of past story tellers. Nolan is giving his version of the Batman story to the world, and the fact that he has progressively gone further away from what the character is in the hearts and minds of fans is a side-note, not a death knell.
If you have been on board for this franchise from the beginning, this finale will not disappoint. You might even find the eventual progression of these characters emotionally satisfying.
But for me Batman is more than this, and while I can marvel at the technical splendor of the film and its great performances, I leave the experience hollow and looking for more. So I grade the film as a passing effort and an appropriate end to one of the better trilogies in movie history, but a far from definitive version of a character and world that can be so much more.