Poster of Dark Knight Rises/Property of Warner Brothers (Photo : Warner Brothers)
The era of the blockbuster trilogy has consistently met with a similar fate and a daunting question in its wake: Why is Part three always a failure? The Star Wars series reached a high point of maturity and tragedy with "Empire Strikes Back" before reverting to juvenile fiction in hopes of tempering the darkness and ending the trilogy on a lighter tone. The Lord of Rings' final piece found itself unable to end comfortably and dragged long after the story had been concluded. In the realm of comic book movies, the third Spiderman movie never found an identity the way its two immediate predecessors could, leading to a lackluster ending.
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Now comes Christopher Nolan's much anticipated conclusion to the most successful franchise of the last decade and that question naturally reasserts itself with a vengeance and in a twofold manner. Is "The Dark Knight Rises" a satisfying ending to the Batman trilogy? But the most prevalent aspect of that question is: Is this film better than its genre-defining predecessor?
Nolan's trilogy has found itself constantly changing form and adapting itself. Franchise starter "Batman Begins" brought an origin story structured like a structured Greek tragedy with a villain more typical of your average comic book movie. "The Dark Knight" started bending the structure of the previous installment and brought calculated chaos to the proceedings; much like the personality and temperament of its central villain the Joker. That film evokes a classical film noir crime drama until its final act strips it all away. Now comes the post-modern "Rises," which is easily the most chaotic of the three, but underneath it all is a well calculated plan to tie up its seemingly disjointed parts; this of course is encapsulated by the film's main villain Bane who is brutish and explosive on the outside, but harbors an intellect and control like no other. Likewise, Nolan represses a political and philosophical agenda behind the pomp and circumstance of explosions and action set pieces.
"Dark Knight Rises" is set 8 years after its predecessor. Harvey Dent has been idolized and a law named the "Dent Act' has taken away all parole and court liberties from mobsters. The result is that organized crime has died away in Gotham and as a result, there is no need for a Batman. Of course Batman fell from grace as the man accused for killing Dent and alter-ego Bruce Wayne has been unable to cope with his new life away from the Cape and Cowl. His new life style is that of a recluse who people seem to have lost respect for.
Movie Starts Slow but Brilliant
"Dark Knight Rises" surprisingly gets off to a rather slow start despite a brilliant heist sequence in the air (shot on planes and with no green screen). Nolan takes his time to set up all the main players in the film, all 8 eight of them, and the results are dialogue scene after dialogue scene with the occasional action sequence to pick it up. At times the main threads of the narrative seem confused in the early going, but Nolan never abandons his audience and by the end of the film is able to tie all those loose ends more or less tightly.
The re-emergence of Batman about 45 minutes into the film also represents the story's main launching point and from here, Nolan grips the audience with a tale of redemption filled with tremendous twists and turns and brilliant action sequences. The final hour of the film, which feels a lot like the climax of Nolan's last film "Inception" (but more involving and polished), is one of the best finales to an action film I've ever seen.
Leading the charge is a brilliant turn by Christian Bale, who fresh off his Oscar victory in "The Fighter," brings his best portrayal of the conflicted hero. Bale retains the cool quiet nature of his hero, popping the occasional sarcastic comment toward a thieving burglar or Lucius Fox. In this turn however, Bale adds a subdued melancholy that was never evident in prior installments; the tragedies suffered in the first two films and the increasing loneliness are clearly apparent in the weary look that Bale carries through much of the first act. This is not quite the same cocky playboy of prior installments, and despite Wayne reasserting himself as a hero later in the film, Bale's performance tells us that this is not the same man and never will be.
Like Heath Ledger's casting as the Joker, a great deal of initial hesitance surrounded Nolan's choice to bring Anne Hathaway into the fold as the iconic Selina Kyle/Catwoman (she is never actually reference by this title). However, like Ledger, Hathaway proves Nolan's choice to be a brilliant one. She brings a sensuous and yet conniving charisma that borders on stealing every scene she is in. Hathaway's Kyle starts off as a sort of enigma; charming but dangerous. She surely doesn't let her feelings hang around. As the film unfolds, the character starts to open up a bit more and even if Kyle never explicitly states anything, her eyes tell us the world behind her mask. She may never be as iconic as Ledger's Joker, but this is the best iteration of Catwoman in any Batman movie. More importantly, it reminds us of how strong an actress Hathaway truly is.
Now to address the big elephant in the room: Bane. More specifically, how does Tom Hardy's turn as the muscular foe compare with the act he had to follow? For starters, Nolan made a smart move and ensured that the story not only facilitated the Bane character, but that Hardy's Bane was nowhere near the character that the Joker was. The Joker was a madman, sadistic, nihilistic, chaotic and yet brilliant. Hardy's Bane is a terrorist with an emotional motive. He is ferocious and powerful in a physical manner that the Joker could never be. Comparisons to Ledger are unfair and unnecessary considering that Hardy is clearly not trying to emulate Ledger in anyway. The mask covering his face may cover his mouth (which is where audience members have a tendency to look), but it puts extra attention on his eyes. And his eyes tell us everything we need to know. For most of the film they are ferocious and frightening, but one particular scene plays to Hardy's tremendous skills as an actor and shows the audience so much more depth. Those complaining about the sound mix and being unable to understand Hardy are justified, but to a minimal degree. His words are more or less comprehensible 90 percent of the time (still not acceptable for such a high profile film) but do not generally distract enough to hurt the performance or the film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt enters the fray as the mysterious John Blake who represents the idealism and many ways more than one, also portrays Bruce Wayne. Gordon-Levitt brings his trademark assurance and confidence to the role and is one of the more riveting characters in the franchise. In many ways, he is the "co-protagonist" of this story and the arc that he traverses by the end left fans in the theater applauding and cheering. I won't say too much, but Warner Brothers may have found themselves a new star around whom to build a franchise.
Marion Cotillard brings her beauty and charm to Miranda Tate whose character serves as a love interest to Bruce Wayne. Her character has a major revelation at the end that twists the plot in an unexpected direction, but ultimately she may be the least interesting of all the film's players.
The other returning cast members Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman, reprise their roles and add new layers of nuance in this film. Caine stands out and represents the emotional core of the film; a man who has done all he can to protect the one person in the world he loves but who sees that his efforts have grown increasingly in vain since the first film in the trilogy. Every time Caine has a monologue or speech in this film, it truly breaks your heart. Oldman's Commissioner Gordon is just as broken a man as Wayne is to start the film. His guilt over lying about Dent has gotten to him. Oldman brings a repressed sadness and weariness to the role. Finally Freeman brings maturity and levity to the proceedings.
Movie Imagery and Sound
Cinematographer Wally Pfister, also fresh off an Oscar win, provides this film with brilliant vistas throughout. Much of the film is set underground (Notice how Nolan's trilogy descends from the skies of Gotham in "Begins" to the streets in TDK to the sewers and dungeons in "Rises" as another arc in the series) and as a result features dark contrasting imagery to match the film's brooding and harsh nature. The other major technical player to pitch in brilliantly is composer Hans Zimmer who brings the most percussive score in the trilogy. Nolan and Zimmer's Wagnerian aspirations are at their most pronounced and effective in this film as a leitmotif seemingly connected to one character (Bane) reveals itself to not only represent something else in later stages of the film, but also represents a link and connection between characters that one would think to be completely different. The score never intrudes but only builds the film slowly and assuredly. This film is the most operatic of the three Batman movies, and its brilliant synching of the score with the story supports this notion.
Thematically Nolan continues his ponderous tone confidently. Throughout the first two films, Nolan philosophized about the nature of the hero and his limits. In "Begins" he pondered why a man would put on a mask and risk his life to fight crime. In "The Dark Knight" he pondered the limits of the hero and how he could go from carrying the mantle of good and winding up on the wrong side. Now he not only adds a thinly veiled political statement but ends his trilogy with the realization that a hero can really be anyone, mask or no mask. The film's final act follows its numerous characters to pitching in to save Gotham in different ways and to varying results. The story does not always unfold the way one might expect, with some characters getting the more heroic moments than others at different times in the final sequence.
911 Aftermath, Wall Street, and Selina Kyle
The film evokes a post-911 world with certain imagery representing the destruction of Gotham in a similar manner to the destruction going on around the world in the aftermath of 911. The Wall Street Stock Exchange is clearly identified and Bane's terrorist raid on Gotham evokes the French Revolution and Bolshevik Revolution with similar results. As the rich get thrown into the streets and the masses raid their homes, Selina Kyle's friend Holly (Juno Temple) says that "Now it's everyone's home" in response to Kyle's statement that a family once lived here. Nolan questions the extremism of destroying societal structures throughout the film. However, my one gripe with this agenda is that he never follows through at the end. Once the dust settles on the drama, he never comes back to resolve how this sort of society rebuilds itself. Do those societal structures return in place? And if they do, how are they revised in the aftermath of an apocalyptic revolution? That is probably a discussion for a different film, but since Nolan is likely not back for that one, it was disappointing that he never brought a perspective on this question.
How it Fares to its Sequels
But the most important question left to answer is how this measures up to its predecessor and how it affects "Rises'" legacy and effectiveness as a third act in the Batman Trilogy? The comparison is unfair as context is a major player in a particular film's immortality. "The Dark Knight" redefined the comic book film with its philosophical intrigues, its calculated structure, and an iconic performance that set the milestone in not only comic book films, but all films in general. "The Dark Knight Rises" comes in four year later with the expectations of topping that film by redefining the genre yet again. Nolan is clearly not interested in redefining the genre with "Rises" but simply following up on the premises that he had developed back in 2005 with "Begins." And "Rises" undoubtedly sticks to that commitment and follows it up tremendously to the very end. For those looking for a genre defining hit, "The Dark Knight" will always be seated on the throne. And while "Rises" may never rise to that level, it has set the bar in another department. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, and any film trilogy now have a benchmark for how to end a trilogy. "The Dark Knight Rises" is Nolan's ideal swansong to his cinematic essay on Batman and heroism.