Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises is Big, Ambitious and Disappointing
It’s clear, now that The Dark Knight saga has concluded, that the character of Batman was never high on Chris Nolan’s priority list.
I don’t mean that as a dig. Nolan had more ambitious intentions with this character and his world. The idea of taking a pop culture icon like Batman and using it as a channel to address deeper themes works and worked wonders in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight in particular (as many, cleverer minds have pointed out) is a pretty flawless representation of our collective response to terrorism, notably the September 11th attacks.
In The Dark Knight Rises issues are tackled again but the balance between summer blockbuster and thoughtful political/character piece is nowhere near as sharp as its predecessor. As such, the great send off for one of the biggest comic book franchises of all time is bloated, messy and utterly underwhelming.
Nolan’s finale begins eight years after Batman rode off at at the end of The Dark Knight. Batman hasn’t been seen since that night and Bruce Wayne is a recluse, his body ravaged and his spirit broken by the loss of his friend Rachel Dawes. In the aftermath of Harvey Dent’s death a piece of legislation called the Dent Act has cleaned up Gotham and the city is enjoying it’s safest period in decades. But a new menace, known only as Bane, is coming to Gotham seemingly to bring The Batman out of his near decade long retirement.
Tom Hardy has the hardest job in this film. Lightning in a bottle doesn’t begin to describe Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker. It’s not hyperbole to call it one of the great movie villains of all time. It was never going to be an easy role to follow and damned if Hardy doesn’t throw everything at it. His Bane is ferocious, intense and scary but Hardy is hampered by some poor decisions. Bane wears a mask that obscures most of his face leaving just his eyes visible. Hardy is too good and too large a presence to disappear behind it but removing 60% of an actor’s features is problematic. Added to that, his dialogue has been noticeably rerecorded in ADR and inserted back into the film. The whole thing gives his scenes an oddly artificial quality, like he’s speaking over a tannoy system. Your mileage may vary, a friend said “I’d rather take distracting and understandable over realistic and nonsensical” but it’s a distraction that lessens, what is otherwise, a huge performance.
The other two newcomers, Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, nearly steal the film. Hathaway is effortlessly cool as Selina Kyle, the sort-of-villainous/sort-of-heroic thief and brings some desperately needed levity to the film. Her playful flirting is perfectly judged, and while initially jarring against Nolan’s more dour aesthetic it’s a wonderful addition. Gordon-Levitt brings humanity to the film as John Blake, the rookie cop who joins Commissioner Gordan’s (Gary Oldman) task force. Blake is a vital addition to the roster. Bane’s plan (initially at least) involves speaking to the people of Gotham. He tells them to take back their city, but unlike The Dark Knight there are hardly any Gothamites in the film. Blake is the closest thing to a regular civilian The Dark Knight Rises offers and when the film threatens to get a bit too wacky toward the end Gordon-Levitt keeps it grounded. In fact, Blake probably has the most satisfying character arc in the film.
Bale does his best work as Wayne here. I say Wayne because there is surprisingly little Batman. It’s pretty much acknowledged now that for the most part Batman is the least interesting thing in his films. Here the focus is on the Wayne the man, not Batman the symbol. Surprisingly, he gets to have a lot more fun in this one. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle share banter and Bale is as comfortable delivering one liners as he is growling lines like “I’m not afraid, I’m angry”.
The whole cast is uniformly great (Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are relegated to supporting roles but they bring it). It’s just a shame their work is in service of a script that collapses under its own weight.
The film is just too ambitious. It borrows from a number of acclaimed Batman stories; No Mans Land, Knightfall, Dark Knight Returns before essentially becoming a sequel to Batman Begins. Nolan, in his enthusiasm keeps adding and adding. The film tries to say so much but ends up saying nothing. The occupy movement, the various banking scandals, terrorism (again), institutional corruption etc. It’s all there but there is no commentary on any of it. In The Dark Knight the real world parallels were subtext, here they’re like cue cards. A cynical person would say it’s there to distract from the fact that, come the conclusion, this is a film about a mad man with a big ticking time bomb. A cynical person, though, not me.
The more I think about it the more I believe that it’s the eight year gap that scuppers the film. The film has a bizarre structure. If you’ve seen any of the trailers for the film (or if you’re at all familiar with the Bane from the comics) you’ll know that Bane bests Batman physically. This leads to a prolonged section of the film as Wayne struggles to rebuild his broken body. This is fine (Wayne has THE best chiropractor in the world) but we’ve already seen this. The entire first act is Wayne rebuilding his broken body to face this new threat. We all love Rocky right? We love seeing our hero come back from defeat but seeing it twice in a film that’s nearly three hours long is just baffling.
But worse, the film is, at times, down right sloppy. There is a moment very early in the film where a character reveals that they have always known Wayne to be Batman. Not only is the explanation trite (although you ignore it based on the sheer talent of the actor) but Wayne accepts this immediately and continues, business as usual. Toward the end a character who has been nothing but an antagonist is welcomed onto the side of right because… the character wants a clean slate?
Reading back I realise how grumpy I must sound. My esteemed colleague calls me picky and I suppose I must concede. There’s a lot to enjoy. Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad films and The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a bad film. Once all the various schemes, subplots and double crossings are on the table the film leads into a grand and very exciting climax, but it comes after a very long and muddy set up. Like I said it can be enjoyable but as a capper to a trilogy as big and influential as this it’s disappointing. The frustration is that all the pieces were there; the great cast, a great director, the return of Hans Zimmer’s enormous score, but there wasnt enough care at the script level. No one wanted to jettison anything (there’s an entire subplot early on about Bane’s operation bankrupting Wayne, a subplot that has seemingly no effect on Wayne or, indeed, the plot), so what is a pretty straightforward revenge story ends up choking on it’s, far too numerous, plot strands.
The Dark Knight Rises falls short because it tries to do too much. In fairness I’d take that ambition over something like The Amazing Spider-Man (a cynically made film that rests almost entirely on its casting) but in this instance what should have been a sure thing just doesn’t measure up.
I’m going to lose friends over this aren’t I?