Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Last night, I finally had the chance to see, study, and enjoy The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment in Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Gotham City and its characters. In the first film, Batman Begins, Nolan establishes Batman's origin story and sets the stage for the future films. In The Dark Knight, Batman is tested by the psychopath Joker, and his only hope of retirement, Harvey Dent, is transformed into the villain Two-Face, who Batman has to put down. The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after these events, with Gotham in peace-time, Batman deemed a fugitive, and Bruce Wayne hidden away in Wayne Manor, all but given up. However, an encounter with a cat burgular piques Bruce's interest, and soon he re-embraces his role as Gotham's hero, just in time to be faced with his most dangerous threat: a trained killer and psychotic genius named Bane.

Nolan pulls inspiration from many versions of the Batman lore, and he even takes some liberties to create his own unique take on the heroes and villains of Gotham City. His series is noted for it's darkness, grittiness, and realism, as he's avoided the more over-the-top plotlines and villains in favour for the more reality-based characters and stories. Of course, the series is still fantastical, and takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, but Nolan has paved the way for future superhero interpretations, and hopefully has helped sway the world away from the more cheesy, cartoony versions of hero vs. villain films. I found the first film, Batman Begins, to be quite dry, though the exposition and pacing was necessary to set up the next films. After seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I'd still probably name The Dark Knight as the strongest film in the series, though TDKR provides a lot to be impressed by.

Regarding the aspects of the film that I enjoyed, the coolest thing about these movies is seeing these settings, characters, and stories that have only existed in animation and less-impressive Batman films come to life like we've never seen before. To actually get a chance to see the Batcave, all of Batman's gadgets and vehicles, and of course, Gotham City's bright lights is a very cool experience for a life-long Batman fan. Since Burton, nobody has been able to capture the mood of the Batman comics the way that Nolan has. In this particular film, the pacing was also near-perfect. I've read criticisms that the first half the film is a jumbled mess, but I didn't find myself feeling that way. I sympathize with Nolan, there's a lot of story to tell here and everyone has a different idea of what makes a movie 'exciting'. I was impressed by the masterful mix of storytelling and action, and while the entire plot itself may have been predictable, you never quite know when a shoot-out is going to break out or when Bane is going to appear and cause some trouble. And while I definitely had problems with the overall story, I found that the execution of the film (the cinematography, the performances, the character/setting design) was so amazing that I was able to forgive rushed plot points and logical inconsistencies, the kind of things that internet trolls live for.

An all-star, ensemble cast is something that Nolan has become known for throughout his filmography. He never relies on one or two talented stars to carry his films, he chooses a wide array of seasoned dramatic actors who can elevate the material beyond just another corny superhero movie. In this case, he borrowed heavily from the cast of Inception, as TDKR features Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine. And of course, there's Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman to round out the all-star cast.

Here's a sentence about each leading performance: Bale was believable and widely-ranged in his role as Bruce Wayne, but pretty typical in his Batman gear, I'm glad he toned down the voice a bit from the last film. Michael Caine is always amazing, he's my favourite old-timer actor, easily. I recognize that Tom Hardy is a very dynamic and talented actor in his other roles, but I found that he was lost in the character of Bane, with the character design and that weird, haunting voice, he was barely recognizable. Anne Hathaway just about stole the show as Selina Kyle, with her ability to switch from an innocent, timid girl to a seductive and dangerous vixen without warning, she was very spunky and likeable, one of my favourite aspects of the film. Gary Oldman IS Jim Gordon, he is totally believeable in that role and he was definitely the best choice to play this iconic part. Marion Cotillard just annoys me, I can't exactly place what it is about her, could just be the accent, but I never quite buy her delivery in anything I've seen her in. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I am a proud fan-boy of, helps carry this film with his performance as detective John Blake, a character who I believe Nolan created for the purposes of this film. Then there's Morgan Freeman as Morgan Freeman, no surprises there. Finally, Cillian Murphy makes a surprise cameo, reprising his role as Scarecrow, and he uses his small amount of screen time to demonstrate just how fun it can be to be a crazy asshole villain.

While I definitely enjoyed the film and will likely return to it in the future, I did have one major problem with it: The Bane and Batman showdown. I know that it's always annoying to be the guy who complains 'that's not like it was in the books, they totally changed it!', but here, I feel like Nolan and friends missed a major opportunity. In 'The Broken Bat' arc in the comics, Bane comes to Gotham specifically to destroy Batman and take his role as reigning king of Gotham. He absolutely obsesses over Batman/Bruce Wayne, constantly studying, analyzing, and testing the hero over the course of 6 months. And finally, when Bruce is at his most exhausted, near death, stumbling back into Wayne Manor, that's when Bane shows up for their showdown, a violation of Bruce's sanctuary. It's an easy fight for Bane, but that's exactly what he wanted. He's not just a brute, but a master strategist, who allowed the escaped Arkham inmates to do most of the work for him. However, in the film, Bane's main motivation is not to rule Gotham, but to totally destroy it. I'm fine with this, as I expected Nolan to take his own liberties. What I'm not as fine with is the fact that Batman doesn't seem to be important to Bane at all, only a mere after-thought, a nuisance. He has much bigger plans, and beating the crap out of Batman is only another check on his To-Do list. So when Bane and Batman face eachother the first time, I didn't have chills, I didn't have excitement from the build-up, I just found myself thinking: 'Oh, so it's going to happen now'. The choreography of the fight itself was brutal and satisfying, but I also had a problem with the historic moment from the comics: Bane dropping Batman over his knee and breaking his back. In the comics, this moment is shocking, violent, and heartbreaking. In the film, Bane just bounces Batman off his knee and is done with it. Just not the epic showdown that I was expecting or hoping for.

For a movie that clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, what I'm about to say may not be a popular opinion: I honestly could have done with another 20 or 30 minutes to flesh out certain plot points. I said earlier that I enjoyed the pacing, in terms of the mix of storytelling and action, but I found that a couple of important moments were kind of rushed. A major example of this is Alfred's exit. Throughout the beginning of the film, the audience feels tension between Bruce and Alfred, as Alfred wants him to leave Batman behind and move on to a new life. When he sees that this isn't going to happen, he decides that the only way to get through to Bruce is to leave. Their farewell scene is beautifully acted and heartbreaking, but I just found it to be too abrupt, too early in the movie, and a little too forced. They have their conversation, and Alfred is gone. I could have done with a scene showing Alfred packing his things and saying goodbye to Wayne Manor.

The finale of the film was also problematic for me. First off, being the experienced film-fanatic that I am, it was quite easy to predict that Bane was not the one who escaped from the pit prison, that it was a female child, and that the girl grew up to be Miranda Tate/Talia Al Ghul. So when the twist finally came, I wasn't shocked. Also, just a note to future action film-makers: Any time an atomic bomb is in play, the tension just disappears. We all know that the bomb isn't going to go off, that the world won't be destroyed, and that the hero will somehow move it away from the danger zone and detonate it safely over the ocean or in space or whatever. So when I saw that this was the route the film was taking, I was disappointed and a little bored, I knew then that Batman would save the day and that Gotham would be saved. I was still excited for the hero vs. villain final showdown, but the bomb aspect didn't add to my anticipation.

Then, of course, there's the hotly debated scene right near the end, where Alfred lives out his fantasy and sees Bruce living happily ever after with Selina, after we had been led to believe he had died while setting the bomb off. As a fan of sad endings, I prefer to take the stance that Alfred was merely imagining Bruce and Selina as a way to come to terms with the death of his surrogate son. Though I do believe that the film-makers are expecting us to take these scenes literally and come away thinking that Bruce did in fact escape with Selina. Then there's the final twist in the movie, the revelation that John Blake's first name is 'Robin'. All throughout the film, Blake is one of the heroes, like a young Jim Gordon, he will do the unpopular thing if it means doing the right thing. Blake is built up to be the man that Bruce was hoping Harvey Dent would be: Gotham's new protector, one that doesn't have to wear a mask. I've read speculation that Blake will become the next Batman, or even become Robin, but I took this ending to be more of a symbol. Sure, Blake knows Bruce's secret, and the film ends with him entering the Batcave, but I don't see this as a sign that he will become Batman, only that he is Gotham's new hero. The 'Robin' thing is just a nod to the comics, just a really obvious easter egg for the fans, just a metaphor for the hero that Blake is going to be. As much as I'd absolutely love seeing Levitt go on to star in a new Batman franchise, I also found this to be the perfect ending to the series, as Batman has finally found a new successor, one that understands him and knows how to protect Gotham.

All that being said, The Dark Knight Rises will be considered a classic for years to come. Sure, the internet haters are running wild with cries of 'plot-hole', but I suggest that you do not take this movie too seriously. If you can accept that a millionaire orphan dresses up like a bat and battles freaks and mobsters to save a fictional city, then you should be able to forgive logical inconsistences and perceived 'plot-holes'. So relax. Regarding the future: Although Tom Hardy as Bane may not be as iconic as Ledger's Joker was, he played the part well and will likely be recognized for that character for the rest of his career. This film has also helped Levitt cement his position as an established leading man and he's only going to get better from here. For the future, I hope that Nolan keeps creating entertaining and thought-provoking films, as I've been a fan of his since Memento, but I'd love to see him wipe the slate clean and try his magic on brand new actors that he hasn't worked with before.

In terms all film versions of Batman, TDKR is ranked pretty high in my books. I liked it much more than Batman Begins, and a million times more than Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, but I still consider The Dark Knight and Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns to be the best adaptations of the Caped Crusader that I've seen. Despite the problems I had with The Dark Knight Rises, it's a must-see for any comic-book or action nerd, just don't take it too seriously. Have fun with the movie and it'll reward you kindly.

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