Monday, August 6, 2012
"The Dark Knight Rises" - An Epic Review to an Epic Conclusion
It really has been a long time since "The Dark Knight". In the four years that have passed since June 2008, the world has changed in ways I never could have imagined. Outside of the seriousness of the global economic crisis (remember when we had money?) and other pressing elements of current affairs, there's also changes to pop culture that no one could have predicted. Superhero movies don't just decorate the Summer movie season, they absolutely dominate it, with Marvel Studios cementing their status as a force to be reckoned with, particularly after the titanic box-office performance of "The Avengers". It's hard to believe, but in the time since "The Dark Knight", we've had two Iron Mans, Captain America, Thor, Green Lantern (sigh) and for better or worse, a new Spider-Man (crazy as it may seem, Tobey Maguire's last outing came out just one year prior to "The Dark Knight"). And despite all of these colourful additions to the genre, they were all just biding time before the return of the Caped Crusader, the absolute king of the genre (sorry, Clark).
Needless to say the release of "The Dark Knight Rises" was a huge event for me, personally. Batman is far and away my favourite fictional character, and not just because of the comic books, but because of the Animated Series, because of the previous movies, because of the toys, because of the Adam West series, even because of the video games. Bruce Wayne has invaded every form of media that has ever meant anything to me and no matter how much older or wiser I get, no matter how many flaws I start to see in the concept, I'll never stop being captivated by his ongoing struggle to save his city. What excited me so much about this film was that in its promise to be an ENDING, we might just finally see the fruits of his labours. We might finally, definitively, actually see Batman SAVE Gotham.
More than anything else I've ever written for this site, I've found this review really difficult to write. It's impossible to be entirely objective about a film I desperately wanted to enjoy, so in a sense, my advice may not be the best to go by. This particular incarnation of Batman has meant the world to me, ever since watching "Batman Begins" in UCI Tallaght, where my friends and I were absolutely floored by how utterly straight and serious this version was played, in stark contrast to previous films. Watching that film always brings me back to that particular first screening. I'll never forget my sudden realisation during the sequence where Bruce is being trained by Ducard in the Himalayan mountains. Ducard shows him the various tools and methods of a ninja and how to become invisible. My mind was suddenly flooded with memories of the Animated Series and the comics. "These guys GET IT." was the predominant thought rushing through my 15-year old head. It was already the best Batman movie ever and we hadn't even seen him in the cape and cowl yet. I emerged that day proudly and was quick in announcing that "Batman Begins" was not only my favourite Batman film, but my favourite film ever. That exclamation changed over the years, but every time I watch the film, I'm reminded of how it's really not that outlandish a choice for that coveted honour. It's definitely, definitely up there.
Then came "The Dark Knight" three years later, and my feelings were similar, but different. The film was much more of an ensemble crime drama than the raw, visceral Bruce Wayne epic of the previous film. Everything was upgraded and updated, everything was sleeker and even more serious. Batman operated out of a barren store-room rather than a subterranean cave (and when he did appear in-costume there was something...off about his voice, compared to the last film). Much more emphasis was put on the credible police work done by James Gordon and Harvey Dent. And obviously there was Heath Ledger's Joker.
Don't get me wrong, I LOVE his performance and he makes up so much of that film's iconic status, but unlike Bale's Batman, which was an absolutely loving embrace and distillation of everything that worked about the character, injected with realism and credibility, Ledger's Joker was a total re-invention. While he was undoubtedly electric and dominated every second of screen-time, the Joker of "The Dark Knight" was more of a realistic look at a typical motivationless supervillain, rather than an actual translation of all of the fun that made Joker interesting before. The themes of chaos versus order were kept in a big way though, so the Batman/Joker rivalry was more or less the same, even if Joker's modus-operandi was scaled down. The film was obviously objectively better than its predecessor and I love how Batman comprehensively defeats the Joker in the final act (not just by incapacitating him, but by disproving his claims about people's hidden intentions). Batman's final sacrifice of his good name (to ensure the successful elimination of the mob) was outstanding and it left me hungry for more. I desperately needed to see how Batman was going to be able to continue to inspire people to do good, now that his name was in ruins.
With "The Dark Knight Rises", Christopher Nolan promised to address all of the concerns I had at the end of the previous film.
So let's (finally) get down to brass tax. Did I like the "Rises"? Yes, yes, yes indeedy do. Was it objectively better than "The Dark Knight"? No. Did I PREFER it to "The Dark Knight"? Yes.
The first thing I'll say is that "The Dark Knight Rises" is not quite as thematically effective or as intelligently-structured as its immediate predecessor. It moves at a lightning-fast pace and while I was definitely never bored, certain events transpire so quickly that it leaves you feeling like something's missing. Lots of people are complaining about plotholes and while repeated viewings explain most of these problems away effectively, it still possibly makes you yearn for a more cohesive film that can satisfy on the first viewing. Make no mistake, you'll need to see TDKR more than once. What effortlessly saves the film is its massive acting performances (probably the best ensemble performance of any superhero film), its outstanding, practically-achieved action (there's a police chase in the film that is absolutely SEXUAL), it's better, larger focus on Batman himself and the goals he set up for himself in the first film, and its deliriously effective, legendary, iconic ending.
Basically, because of its fairly significant flaws, I can't pretend like "The Dark Knight Rises" deserves to win "Best Picture" at the Oscars (the way "The Dark Knight" definitely could have), but it's also quite possibly my favourite Batman film ever made.
The premise, for those of you who don't know, is that Bruce Wayne has ceased being Batman for 8 years, following the sacrifice of his good name at the end of "The Dark Knight". Thanks to Batman and Jim Gordon covering up Harvey Dent's crimes, successful legislation in Dent's name has resulted in the lasting eradication of organised crime, negating the need for a Batman. Unfortunately though, the weight of this lie has effected Gordon and Bruce heavily, with both men waiting in the wings for things to go wrong again, so that they can somehow redeem themselves.
Enter Selina Kyle and Bane. Kyle is a duplicitous cat burglar who performs a daring robbery on Wayne Manor, which reawakens Bruce. Bane, a mercenary with a past rooted in pain and tragedy. Bane is a man who wants to 'liberate' the citizens of Gotham from the unfair shackles of wealth and corruption. Coupled with the corporate meddling of shady construction magnate John Daggett, it's clear to Bruce that the Dark Knight must Rise.
Even summarising the plot of this massive movie results in something convoluted and hard to keep track of. Even moreso than its predecessors, "The Dark Knight Rises" is hard to follow and its efforts to become "bigger" and "better" leave the viewer wondering if Nolan's attempts to tell a compelling, intelligent, cohesive story got lost somewhere amongst everything else that was going on. There's a lot that happens in this film that will leave first-timers scratching their heads. As I've stated already, most of the perceived plotholes are explained away during repeat-viewings, but the fact that future viewings have you searching for explanations at all, is arguably a failure in itself. Personally, I thought that "The Dark Knight" was wrought with aspects of this same over-ambitiousness (and "Inception" showed gasps of it here and there as well), and that glaring Ed Wood-like mistakes were glossed over by over-enthusiastic fans ("Five dead, two of 'em cops!" what fifth person did Harvey Dent kill?). Frankly, similar problems abound in this particular film. Sacrificing attention to detail in favour of artistic ambition is uncomfortably becoming one Nolan's trademarks.
Another problem with the previous films is that the dialogue was occasionally a little bit too comic-booky and a little bit over-the-top. "The Dark Knight Rises" suffers hugely from ridiculous dialogue that comes close to ruining certain scenes ("I came back to stop you!!"), and again certain characters make assumption and deductions that seem a little far-fetched given the circumstances (Alfred reveals Bane's allegiance to the League of Shadows as if it was easily obtained information; the League is supposed to be a devastatingly secretive organisation). Again it feels like certain scenes' dialogue could have been fleshed out a bit more.
The biggest narrative problem in "The Dark Knight Rises" that I could see was that it was a laboured sequel that requires you to almost be intimately familiar with the previous films. Both "The Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins" could be watched by someone who had never seen a Batman film before; a huge strength of those films. The opposite is true of this film, which is wholeheartedly rooted in the atmosphere of those previous installments, particularly "Batman Begins". The whole third act of the film won't make a lot of sense to people who haven't seen "Begins". In saying that though, in many ways, TDKR's reliance on those previous films enhances the trilogy as a whole, tying all three films together. Some people have complained that "The Dark Knight" didn't really feel like a true sequel to "Batman Begins". I certainly understood this complaint, and I feel as though "The Dark Knight Rises" is the glue that connects the other two films. In that respect, it works really excellently as a conclusion, an epilogue, rather than a new installment in its own right. In that sense, I can really get a feeling for why people were disappointed in it and why I enjoyed it so much. In some ways, I suspect that Nolan may have even been trying to make an 'epilogue' instead of a true third installment on purpose.
In terms of things I DID like, there's lots of fun little nods and references to Batman's history in "The Dark Knight Rises", maybe even moreso than there were in the previous films, and I lapped them all right up. From scenes lifted almost word-for-word from specific stories (the old cop and the young cop chasing Batman really made me smile, "Oh boy, son are you in for a show tonight!") to characters like Daggett from the beloved "Batman: The Animated Series" having prominent roles in the film (even if his name is 'John' in the film and not 'Roland' like it was in the cartoon) to all the memorable imagery and plot points from stories like "The Dark Knight Returns", "Knightfall", "No Man's Land" as well as one scene which I suspect was a direct nod to two films from previous Bat-generations. "Rises" picks and chooses from the history of the comics, excellently distilling some of the very best stories into one narrative. The previous Nolan films did this to an extent as well, but it's clear that the most amount of research went into "Rises"; something that made me enjoy it even more. Even my mother commented on how similar in atmosphere the film was to the Animated Series.
Speaking of the atmosphere generated in the film, a lot of that is down to the absolutely titanic performances delivered by the actors in this film. Tom Hardy was absolutely astounding as Bane, elevating dialogue that would have been disastrous in the hands of a lesser actor. He shifts from being wonderfully hammy (at times I almost wished he had a moustache to twirl) to being downright chilling. People complain about his voice...I don't have time for these people. His voice was badass from the very start of the film.
I think I speak for many people when I say that I was truly taken aback when Anne Hathaway didn't suck as Catwoman. Quite the opposite in fact, she embodied everything I like about the character from the comics, jettisoning all of the over-sexualisation her character is often privy to. She wasn't perfect 100% of the time, but she succeeded in making her morally ambiguous Selina Kyle completely likable, an unenviable task. In comparing her to Michelle Pfeiffer, she's obviously playing a completely different kind of Catwoman, far more level-headed and with entirely different motivations; resulting in a more laid-back, understated performance. Her version of the character won't end up being as culturally iconic as Pfeiffer's, but Hathaway's version of the character didn't get licked back to life by cats, so go figure. I definitely consider Hathaway the best version of Catwoman so far.
Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman return with top-rate performances from all three. Oldman possibly doesn't get as much screen-time as he did in the previous film, but his performance is just as impressive, with the effects of age and his Big Lie weighing heavily on him. Oldman's greatest scenes are at the beginning of the film and later on at the very end, during a truly heartbreaking scene with Batman. Despite a memorable scene or two, Morgan Freeman is mostly relegated to exposition in this film, which should hardly come as a surprise given how massive the film is. Nevertheless, he holds his own in a part that would have been disastrous in the hands of a lesser actor. Michael Caine is a tour-de-force in every single scene he's in. Every time he was on screen I found myself aghast at the fact that there is a series of films where an actor THIS GOOD plays Alfred Pennyworth. He's absolutely phenomenal and it's very difficult to hold back tears during some of his scenes.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays John Blake, an idealistic young cop with a lot in common with Bruce Wayne. It would be perfectly acceptable for JGL to get lost in the sea of distinguished actors, but he performs outstandingly. I can't really talk too much about him in the spoiler-free section of this review, but needless to say his first scene with Christian Bale had me absolutely convinced at his right (and his character's right) to be in this film. The same goes for Marion Cotillard, who plays Miranda Tate, a board member of Wayne Enterprises...
Finally, we come to Bruce Wayne/Batman as played by Christian Bale, the Batman of my generation. In "Batman Begins", Bale was absolutely outstanding as Bruce, injecting a three-dimensional tragedy into the character, while always remaining lovable, like someone you'd want to hang out with (despite his massive wealth and traumatic life experiences). He was AMAZING as Batman in that film. Absolutely my favourite in-costume Batman portrayal ever. In "The Dark Knight" he was given less to do both as Bruce Wayne and as the Caped Crusader. As the title character, he still appeared in a lot of that film, but I felt like his scenes just didn't have the impact they had in the first film. This wasn't helped by the fact that his once-awesome "Bat-growl" had deteriorated into an awkward lisp.
In "The Dark Knight Rises", Bale is back with a vengeance, upping his game immensely. From his very first scene in the latest film, he owns every second of screen-time he has, both as a result of improved direction and a meatier script. While it's a pity Batman didn't get an updated Batsuit in TDKR, Bale looks much better in the costume, thanks to his larger physical frame (I felt the newer Batsuit in TDK made him look skinny - this problem is absolutely abolished in "Rises"). His voice, while still a bit too over-the-top, is nonetheless cooler than it was in "The Dark Knight", possibly because Batman gets more dialogue in this film in-costume, so we're able to get used to it and even grow to love it. It helps that the film hearkens back to "Batman Begins" so much, as it reminds us of why we ever fell in love with Bale's interpretation of the character in the first place. Bale has matured with age and presents to us a wiser, more fatherly version of Bruce Wayne, who while still full of the rage and storminess we see in the comics, never quite reaches the levels of dickheadedness we see in the source material. Now more than ever, we BELIEVE in this version of Bruce as a man who could actually save the city. And I love his sexy new hairstyle.
As soon as I saw the very first promotional image of Christian Bale as Bruce from "Batman Begins" (above), I knew we were on to something special. For seven years, he has embodied the essence of Batman and brought so much of the source material's magic, previously unexplored in other Batman films, to our attention. Other actors will come and go in the ongoing cinematic legacy of the Dark Knight, but Christian Bale will always be my Batman.
From this point onward, this article will be rife with spoilers, so you've been warned.
...Miranda Tate turns out to be Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, the (secret) primary antagonist of "Batman Begins". Upon first viewing, this isn't a very shocking twist and doesn't leave the same amount of gravitas as did the twist in "Batman Begins", but upon repeat viewings, you spot some amazing instances of deception throughout the film and in Cotillard's performance. In the final scenes of the film, Talia is played as a straight-up villain who wants to destroy Gotham and Batman along with it. At no point does she refer to Batman as "beloved" and she quickly meets a grisly fate in an epic air/land chase. To be honest, I much prefer Talia as a clean-cut villain and never appreciated her as a love interest for Batman. In "Arkham City" Batman puts all of Gotham in jeopardy to ensure Talia's safety...and that really rubbed me the wrong way. So good riddance to bad rubbish. In terms of performance however, hats off to Cotillard who delivers admirably.
One of the most effective components Christopher Nolan has created in his particular vision of Batman is Bruce Wayne's ambition to create an idea in people's heads of what Batman is and to sustain that idea for the long-term benefit of the city. Bruce tells Alfred in the first film that "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne." "The Dark Knight Rises" moreso than the other two films cements Batman as an idea, an original creation of Bruce Wayne's rather than an actual physical being. This has always been evident in the films as we've learned that unlike the comics in which Batman is the true identity and the foppish Bruce Wayne the true disguise, here we have a Batman that is a disguise, a playboy Wayne who is a disguise and Bruce, the man who creates all of this deception for a worthy cause. This human Bruce has a specific set objective from the very first film: the elimination of organised crime and the creation of an effective police force through his action as Batman, a man who can operate outside the law, a man who is ideally not a killer (although Batman breaks that rule in all three films). I have always praised this approach, as it stops Batman from being the dreary, disenfranchised cynic of the comics, who believes that his crusade is basically fruitless, that he will never win and that he just roams from villain to villain in some attempt to redeem himself. Batman is never seen "going on patrol" in the Christopher Nolan films. He's not The Punisher. He has a specific objective from beginning to end, which gives us a plausible end-point for his mission, for the first time in the character's 70-year history. These films AGREE with Bruce, they don't believe him to be insane, right-wing or sickeningly classist. Make no mistake, Christian Bale's Batman is a hero. A self-made superhero.
At the end of "The Dark Knight" Bruce successfully defeats the Joker, and by sacrificing his heroic status, he and Gordon manage to definitively wipe out the mob's stranglehold on the city. The problem here though is that Batman, the IDEA that makes people better than they are, is defeated. This is where "The Dark Knight Rises" succeeds. While in more than a few ways, the film doesn't quite succeed at being as cohesive as its predecessor, it flawlessly gives us a context where people can believe in Batman, as well as goodness in general, again. When Batman releases the 3,000 police officers that Bane has trapped beneath the city, they are no longer complacent as they were in the beginning of the film, they are no longer afraid of standing up for what's right (embodied by Michael Modine's character Foley) and they are no longer viciously corrupt as they were in "Batman Begins". Finally, Gotham City has a righteous law enforcement system of men and women willing to die for the good of the city. Bruce Wayne's goal has always been to "rid the city of the evil that took [his parents'] lives". "The Dark Knight Rises" allows him to do that. For the first time in 70 years, Batman doesn't just win the battle. He WINS THE WAR ON CRIME. Batman is comprehensively triumphant at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises", and unlike previous 'endings', he even gets to live happily ever after.
Which brings us to John Blake. I, like many predicted that this character would be an analogue of Robin, grounding Batman in the original ideals of his mission, and preventing him from straying too far into the darkness, or losing faith in himself. The scene where Blake meets Bruce Wayne for the first time, revealing that he strongly suspects (or "knows") that Wayne is Batman, is terrific and is completely plausible as the kick Bruce Wayne needs to start considering the return of the Dark Knight. People have complained that it's implausible that Blake would make such an assumption of Wayne based solely on their shared experience of watching their respective parents get murdered. I understand this implausibility, but thanks to the writing of the scene and the sheer determination in Joseph Gordon Levitt's acting, I buy the bejesus out of it. And not to use this kind of trump card, but that's exactly the kind of wild, instinctive detective-work Robin would employ in the comics. Throughout the film, Blake very much acts in the Robin mold, doing groundwork for Batman and Gordon and always remaining staunchly loyal to the Dark Knight and the hope he promotes throughout the city, going as far as to "tag" Batman's logo around the city (calling back to Batman's similar tactic in "No Man's Land").
In the final moments of the film, we learn that John Blake literally is Robin, that 'Robin' is his actual first name. Many cringed at this, some complained that it should have been revealed that his name was actually 'Dick Grayson' or 'Tim Drake'. I disagree with this for a number of reasons (and not just because the scene wouldn't make any sense as a result). First of all, I can guarantee a strong 80% of the people going to see "The Dark Knight Rises" wouldn't know who the hell "Tim Drake" was and a lot of them would at least have forgotten who "Dick Grayson" was, as well. It makes more sense to solidify the reference and just make it John Blake's actual name. Plus by making it his birth-name, it pretty much guarantees he's never going to run around in a costume calling himself "Robin" and have that be his secret identity.
More importantly though is the genesis of the character, and the reference's relevance in the final moments of the film. When Robin was created in 1940, he was created as a way of allowing the readers a character who, while still romantic and dashing, was someone they could relate to a lot more than Batman. In the 70+ intervening years since Robin's creation, this idea has become a little bit lost as Dick, Jason, Tim, Stephanie and Damien (and anyone else who has called themselves 'Robin') all developed more in their own unique identities. It made sense for Nolan to create a new character to enable the original idea behind Robin. It would have been a disservice to any one of those characters had John Blake turned out to be one of them, because he embodies traits of all of the Robins.
Anyway, the strength of Blake being revealed as 'Robin' is that we suddenly realise HE'S ONE OF US. Throughout the film, Bruce reminds us that "Batman could be anyone", well John Blake is 'anyone'. He's the faceless character onto whom we can transpose ourselves. The seemingly dead Bruce Wayne leaves John Blake the proverbial 'keys' to the Batcave and the final shot of the film is one of the black obelisks rising, with John Blake atop them. When I initially saw this, I thought it was a bit weak as an ending "So now Joseph Gordon Levitt is Batman? Come on..." I said, leaving the theatre, still delighted by Bruce Wayne's final fate. Upon repeated viewings however, I felt differently.
We're not explicitly told whether or not Blake is going to immediately don the mantle of the Bat - it's not exactly like he trained with the League of Shadows, and besides does Gotham need a new Dark Knight straight away? - but that's not really the point. The point is that Bruce Wayne has clearly passed the torch onto John Blake. Or if you like, Batman is TELLING US that now it's OUR TURN to be the hero, in whatever way we can. Essentially, WE can be the Batman. Seeing as how Bruce's goal was always to inspire people and teach them that any one man could make a difference ("A hero can be anyone," he tells Gordon), there couldn't have been a more fitting ending to this amazing trilogy.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is certainly a very busy film and after three viewings, I'm still not entirely convinced that the whole film lives up to the sum of its parts. However, its parts are truly wonderful and are satisfying enough that I know I'm going to be watching this film again and again for years (I can't wait for the Bluray, for the inevitable back-to-back marathons). As an ending to the greatest superhero movie series of all time, it's outstanding and it more than definitively closes the three films. These films kicked off a proud legacy for Batman. Unlike previous movies to feature the character, they didn't just make Batman a 'cool Summer franchise'. They elevated his exploits into the realm of Cinematic Valhalla, creating a proud legacy that lifelong fans like myself could point at and say "I told you so," to all of the dissenters who could never quite get our undying love for this enduring character. Sadly, unlike "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings", this trilogy's impact will probably be diluted by the inevitable swarm of newer Batman films (or Justice League films) that are more than likely to be made even before the end of this decade. For me though, these films will always be the Batman saga of my generation.
Walking out of "Batman Begins" at the age of 15, I had never been so delighted at a film in my entire life. Within weeks I proclaimed it my favourite film of all time. Now, seven years later, having walked out of "The Dark Knight Rises" (a film that deals heavily with conclusions and the passing of torches), my brother Andrew, aged 15 quickly proclaimed this new film to be his favourite film of all time. You couldn't ask for a more perfectly cyclical sequence of events.