July 20, 2012

by Derek Defoe

Lies told and secrets kept hidden underneath the surface rise to the light in Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman film. The ending of The Dark Knight had a certain inspiring romanticism to it and the choices made by its characters. Out of respect for the late Heath Ledger, The Joker is not given any mention whatsoever in The Dark Knight rises, but we can feel the reprecussions of his battle over Gotham, now eight years later, leaving our heroes scarred. The battle was won and peace was achieved, but peace built on a lie is only so stable. Hope crumbles and war begins when a new foe makes way for Gotham, and Bane is not kidding around. He has an agenda. He's not looking to test Batman, he's looking to break him in every way imaginable.

What I've always found appealing about Nolan's Batman films is how they blend comic book fantasy and plausibility so seamlessly. The trick of the first film was to get us to believe how and why a man would dress up as a bat and fight crime and it was done remarkably well. Now we're meant to believe how the city he's set out to protect could fall under the terrorism of a methodic, menacing villain supported by the proper resources and willingness to follow through with an evil scheme that is alarmingly convincing in its execution. Everything happens so gradually, and with such a calm and calculating attitude from Bane, that it's almost unbelievable how far it is taken. Rises goes into surprising directions that I was not expecting, it reaches a point where we're almost looking into an Orwellian future.

Some of it may be a little too on the nose, though. Maybe too much for its own good. The class struggles. Bane sabotaging the stock exchange. A child sings the Star Spangled Banner as an act of terror awaits in the darkness. A torn American flag waves in the wind. It's heavy handed, for sure. But the movie has some serious balls about it. You have to admire that.

As the third entry in a planned trilogy it does its duty as bringing everything to an escalated and incendiary conclusion, and makes a bold attempt to bring Batman and Bruce Wayne's journey full circle. What I've noticed about these movies watching them all again is how refreshing it is that our hero doesn't have a grand plan the whole time and there are no easy solutions. Wayne is incredibly human, he's unsure of himself, he does have weaknesses and doubts, and does, indeed, have limits. Rises finds Wayne in a similar place he once was in Begins, lost in despair and in emotional darkness. Rachel makes a good point in the last film, a day is bound to come when Gotham will no longer need The Batman, but Bruce, well, that's another story.

And poor Alfred, as his oldest friend, has to sit idly by while Bruce still struggles with his demons. This was the first time in these movies where their relationship is actually put to the test, and I liked that aspect of it. When even Alfred isn't there for him, you know that's a big problem.

I thought Bale did an incredible job bringing yet another layer of dimension to the character, the movie brings him to his lowest lows and highest highs and while the movies each have a different flavor to them and the villains come and go, what's remained consistent throughout them all for me is how invested I truly am in his struggle for good. When he reaches the absolute most hopeless point of the movie, when all seems lost, he's basically starting at zero again. Through his suffering he learns to be Batman again, he truly earns it, and when he rises from that prison pit he is Batman reborn, a Batman with the fear of death, truly, sincerely, deeply not for his own benefits, but as a Dark Knight aimed at perserving his city, a Batman who would no longer need Batman for himself.

Bruce Wayne was given justice in the story, to an extent, but I think it's in the supporting characters where I felt a little short-changed. Alfred goes pretty much M.I.A. for two thirds of the movie and Comissioner Gordon, a character I've come to love from these movies, has his role reduced considerably to make room for some new characters including a young idealist beat cop played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. He's a big part of the movie, most definitely, but he does his job, he helps out Batman, he has maybe one or two moments where we get some insight of the character and that's about it. In passing they just happen to mention that his family left him. It's never mentioned again. It felt like too much of a brush-off for me. As far as I'm concerned, and through the impression The Dark Knight left with me, Jim Gordon was just as important to the overall story as Batman was. Batman had resolution with the story, hell, even Alfred had a nice little endnote, but Gordon? Nothing. The movies had invested a lot in him. It bothered me. I suppose we're meant to assume he'll continue his life in cooperation with The Batman.

I must also mention that out of all the films this one has the least compelling villains. Don't get me wrong, Tom Hardy was great for the role and I even actually really liked the voice he chose. Bane was an effectively formidable villain with unique traits and just a terrifying beast of a figure with the unmatched ability to wound Batman's body and soul, but it's his actual motivations that left me unsatisfied. I'm absolutely certain he believes in his cause, but after all his big speeches, after all the chaos he has spread, it's revealed he's doing nothing more than following orders from Talia Al Ghul, who, in turn, is following orders from a dead man. She's fulfilling her father's it because she truly believes in it or is it more a matter of revenge for his death? It doesn't help that she literally switches personalities at the last minute from the compassionate Miranda Tate to the evil Talia at the drop of a hat. They do their best to establish the villain's drives through exposition and flashbacks but to not-so-great of effect. It was a problem for me. Batman could, and has, had deep, long conversations with his adversaries in R'as Al Ghul and The Joker about why they're doing what they were doing and they were extremely eloquent in establishing what they were setting out to do. Bane and Talia, quite unfortunately, speak in generalities.

Amidst the several characters being juggled in the movie is the morally ambiguous Selina Kyle, A.K.A. Catwoman. She was a definite standout and I thought Anne Hathaway was fantastic in playing the sly femme fatale who can match wits with the Bat, and what's more, undergo a pretty moving transormation where she comes to realize and share Batman's ideals after living for herself and for a life of crime for too long. After all, a clean slate can be more than just a computer program.

The action scenes are dazzling and Nolan has no doubt provided us with yet another jaw-dropping Batman adventure. I was disappointed with the climax, though, and I couldn't help but think about how poorly it compares to the last act of the previous film. It was so interesting and uniquely constructed, with Batman employing his SONAR technology, saving hostages whom the police believed to be henchman, fighting The Joker as hostages are left with a horrifying decision to make for themselves down below, all leading to a showdown between three men, exhausted and warped by the circumstances, once a great team, now in the middle of a deadly game of chance. It was just exceptional. It fit so perfectly well with the movie. With Rises, after all its amazing action, after 2 hours and 45 minutes of story, it all boils down to a ticking time bomb, and our hero sacrificing himself to save the day, and everyone thinking he's dead, but, oops, he's still alive. We have seen that countless times in movies, as recently as The Avengers. It was a letdown.

When this series began it gave us a hero with a task that was impossible and neverending, and it's a story with no easy answers. The Dark Knight Rises, in an attempt to conclude as a trilogy, fails, if only in a very minor way, to give us the easy answers. The paradox in that is how hard it tries to arrive at them. If anyone deserves a happy ending it's Bruce Wayne, but if by its very definition his struggle against evil has to be ongoing, it arrives in a very, very grey area.

It's revealed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character is actually Robin, or at least some warped incarnation of him. Whether you like the character not, he is important to the overall mythos of Batman, and if Nolan just had to do it, if he just felt the duty to include him in some compacity, there was no better way around him than how he's portrayed here so Nolan has done incredible work in that respect. But then Bruce Wayne runs off with Selina Kyle and lives happily ever after, passing the torch to Robin, who we can guess will take up the cape and cowl. Nevermind that he has no training, that's a mere nitpick, but if you're going to take a comic purist stance on that ending, it's not just a cheat, it's maddening. Batman is a symbol, more than a man. We know this. Is there such a thing as a symbolic passing of a symbol? If that's the case, I guess it works.

I've only seen the movie once and no more than 24 hours ago but these are my general thoughts on it for the time being. Its flaws are more glaring than the other two, which I fell in love with immediately, but it could be due to my own reservations and my own resentment at the fact that these movies had to end. Nolan could have made 50 of these movies and it would easily not be enough for my consumption. It brought the story to an end in a way that was unexpected and may challenge the way you see Batman from a perspective of the comics. But if Nolan's films have acheived nothing else it was moving beyond conventional storytelling, beyond the comics, and into legend.

Directed by
Christopher Nolan

Produced by
Emma Thomas
Christopher Nolan
Charles Roven

Screenplay by
Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan

Story by
Christopher Nolan
David S. Goyer

Christian Bale
Michael Caine
Gary Oldman
Anne Hathaway
Tom Hardy
Marion Cotillard
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Morgan Freeman

Music by
Hans Zimmer

Wally Pfister

Edited by
Lee Smith