Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Grim But Neither Dismal Or Disappointing, The Dark Knight Rises Will Please The Discriminating Fans.

The Good: Acting, Plot, Character, Themes, Continuity/Style
The Bad: I could have lived without Miranda Tate/Marion Cotillard, Some of the premise is hard to buy.
The Basics: In the sprawling conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, The Dark Knight Rises pits Bruce Wayne against a brutish general and a catburglar who inspires him to once again take up the mantle of Batman.

Christopher Nolan had a near-impossible task in following up The Dark Knight (reviewed here!). The difficulty was not in how to follow the plot or where to take the characters, but how to develop Bruce Wayne (and Batman) from where he was left into a new story that is both compelling and utilizes villains in a way that does not feel familiar from prior Batman films. In that sense, The Dark Knight Rises is the success many of the fans have been clamoring for. The film effectively concludes the current Batman Saga and it does so in a way that is (it is hard to call such a depressing film “satisfying”) consistent with the mood and direction of its predecessors.

The Dark Knight Rises is not one of Christopher Nolan’s perfect films, but it is close and it remains better than at least ninety percent of the other films ever made (or, at least, that I’ve seen). Because there seems to be a lot of vehemence by fans (who have not seen The Dark Knight Rises) against critics who do not consider the film “flawless,” I’ll dispense with the negatives right up front. First, The Dark Knight Rises hinges on a premise that is somewhat hard to buy. Without explicitly referencing the Joker, The Dark Knight Rises proves his ultimate thesis from The Dark Knight; that when the chips are down people will turn on one another like a pack of dogs. When Gotham City comes under siege, the masses turn on one another and seem to largely accept Bane's rule as "freedom." As an anti-capitalist, it is pretty offensive to think that The Dark Knight Rises equates tearing off the shackles of economic slavery with the willingness to follow a criminal psychopath. Moreover, the idea of "exile" from the beseiged Gotham works fine for winter, but it was not winter when the city fell; how there was not a mass exodus of swimmers is a bit tough buy.

The only other issue of note with The Dark Knight Rises came in the form of Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate. Cotillard plays opposite Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and the two have no real chemistry and the character of Miranda Tate did not add enough to the mix to justify her presence. I could have lived without her in the film and felt the movie would have done just fine with a strategic rearrange around her character. Sure, her character brought symmetry to the Trilogy - and it is highly recommended viewers rewatch Batman Begins (reviewed here!) before checking this film out, but for the die-hard fans, Cotillard's true role is utterly unsurprising. In fact, for a film that makes so many implicit connections - like Holly being Selina's sister, the iconic moment where Bane injures Batman, etc. - based on the established Batman universe of the books, Miranda Tate's role is more insulting than enlightening. But more than that, outside the convenient symmetry, she adds nothing to the mix. In other words, in a ship filled with familiar characters and compelling new ones – Bane, Selina Kyle, and John Blake – Miranda Tate just felt like deadweight or a symbol.

Eight years after Batman had Commissioner Gordon begin a chase that allowed Harvey Dent to die as an apparent hero, times have changed in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is no longer the flamboyant playboy and Commissioner Gordon and his police force have effectively cleaned up the streets of Gotham City. While Bruce Wayne is drawn out of his seclusion in the rebuilt Wayne Manor by Wayne Enterprises business, he encounters Selina Kyle at a benefit for Harvey Dent. When Kyle steals his mother's pearls and his fingerprints, Bruce Wayne sees a larger plot brewing. Forewarned is not forearmed, though, and soon Bane begins a series of attacks on Gotham City.

Liberating prisoners to create his own private army and capturing Bruce Wayne to make him suffer as he destroys the peace of Gotham City are steps in Bane’s larger plan, a plan that is solidified by isolating the island and arming a nuclear weapon. As Gordon and John Blake work to find Bruce Wayne and stop Bane, Selina Kyle faces her own demons and as Gotham City crumbles, Batman must overcome the wounds Bane left him with and return to Gotham City to save its populace.

Bane is a much more convincing and interesting character than he has been portrayed as on the big screen before now. In fact, seeing Tom Hardy as Bane made me go back to look up Bane’s appearances in the Batman graphic novels, as he is in the only Batman book I have in my collection, Knightfall (volume 1 is reviewed here!). In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is an effective and ruthless general. Nolan is smart to make him more than simply an agent of chaos; he is not just a villain who wants to watch the world burn. While Nolan's motivation for Bane as a criminal agent of freedom is fine, it is not quite as compelling as Selina Kyle's motivations (i.e. to save her sister and get a clean slate). While Nolan ultimately gives him sufficient motivation by the end of the film to make him a compelling villain, in many ways, Bane is just a tool. And he is damn near impossible to understand in many moments with his mask in place!

As for the special effects, the best thing that can be said about the special effects is that the film does not feel like a special effects film. Instead, the various tech elements that Lucius Fox cooks up and Batman utilizes look and feel very real, lending a credibility to the action scenes. The grounding of the special effects helps the viewer remain rooted in a very dark, but compelling world.

Which brings us to the themes. One of the key elements that has separated Nolan’s Batman films from other cinematic Batman endeavors is the strong use of compelling, deeply-intelligent, well-developed themes. More than simply a generic battle of good versus evil (Superman, I’m looking in your direction!), Nolan’s Batman endeavors have a thematic resonance to them that outlasts the action-adventure elements. In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, the film is deeply concerned with consequences and responsibility. The theme is developed well with both Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selena Kyle as she grows throughout the film.

On the acting front, the returning cast gives their usual impeccable performances. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine provide constants that help the viewer buy into the fact that this is the same general world we left at the end of The Dark Knight. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a wonderful addition to the ensemble and he brings an energy and enthusiasm as John Blake that replaces well the character of Rachel Dawes. My perennial favorite Anne Hathaway takes the role of Selina Kyle and makes it her own. I suppose I shall have to go back to my argument advocating Hathaway for Wonder Woman (that’s here, be sure to check it out!) and change all the “if’s” in relation to her pulling off the action role of Catwoman to “now that she has” because Hathaway is entirely convincing when she does the physical work as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

Tom Hardy is unrecognizable and wonderful as Bane. A far cry from a role like Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, the role of Bane requires him to be both the tactician and the brute and he pulls it off. Hardy is at his best, though, when he must use his body language (not just brute strength) to emote in scenes opposite Christian Bale and he lands those scenes.

As for Christian Bale, he returns as Bruce Wayne with the intensity that has made him so plausible in prior outings. He is given more to do as Bruce Wayne that requires him to be a more physical actor and he lives up to all our expectations of him.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises might not be flawless, but for the discriminating fans who have been dreading that the film cannot possibly live up to the hype, it is time to relax; The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy conclusion of a dark story that refuses to give viewers an easy answer or replace substance and reality with a feel-good ending.

For other live-action DC superhero works, please check out my reviews of:
Green Lantern
Jonah Hex
Superman Returns
Wonder Woman - Season 1


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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