Four years ago, after watching The Dark Knight and having my mind suitably blown, I said repeatedly that I'd be absolutely content if they never made another Batman movie again. So perfectly did the filmmakers hit the nail on the head with what precisely a big screen Batman opus could accomplish that there was simply no way to ever top it. So why bother trying? Sure, there were some dangling plot threads unresolved, with our hero on the run from the police after taking the blame for several crimes he didn't commit, but that was okay. He'd get out of it somehow. He is Batman, after all. We just didn't need to see it. Ever.
After watching director Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated trilogy-capper, and even after appreciating a great many things about it, I still stand by that earlier sentiment. The Dark Knight Rises is resonant emotional, and sometimes beautiful, but it's also overlong, overstuffed and oftentimes frustrating. It manages to pack in enough moments of true cinematic mastery to make it worthy of watching and appreciating, even as it takes a series of baffling and unnecessary storytelling detours that only weaken the overall experience and make this trilogy land just short of the greatness it could have had.
As we join the action in this installment, eight years have passed since the Joker's brief reign of terror through Gotham City left several police officers dead, and beloved DA Harvey Dent criminally insane (and also dead, natch). In the aftermath of those events, a new law passed in Dent's honor has given the authorities unprecedented powers to eliminate organized crime in a way that's made Gotham virtually crime-free for nearly a decade. The trade-off is that the Batman, having allowed himself to be scapegoated for Dent's crimes, has disappeared entirely, with his millionaire alter ego receding from public view into a life of secretive seclusion.
Of course, things can't remain so sedentary for long, and when criminal mastermind Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked brawler with ties to the Batman's own history, executes a plan aimed at bringing Gotham to its knees, Bruce Wayne is forced to give up his latter-day Howard Hughes act and suit up for the greater good. Also along for the ride this time, in addition to dependable utility players Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Morgan Freeman (quartermaster Lucius Fox), and Michael Caine (trusted manservant Alfred Pennyworth), are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a beat cop named Blake, Marion Cotillard as Wayne's business associate Miranda Tate (with some secrets of her own), and Anne Hathaway as a burglar who'd be called Catwoman in any other movie, but is only ever referred to as Selina Kyle here.
Just one look at the bloated list of characters whose arcs we follow should clue you in that The Dark Knight Rises treads dangerously close to what I will now and forevermore refer to as "Spider-Man 3 Syndrome," where so many new and divergent plot and character threads are introduced and require attention that the one character who ends up getting left behind is the one we're ostensibly supposed to care the most about. It's almost as if Nolan lost interest in his lead partway through the proceedings and decided to cast his gaze elsewhere to keep himself engaged. Thus, we're saddled with interminable stretches of a Dark Knight movie with no "Dark Knight."
Another way the Spider-Man 3 comparison (one I make with no pleasure) rears its head is how Nolan's Bat-series has been compressed and compacted into a trilogy, regardless of necessity or appropriateness. As I said a few weeks ago while discussing the much-loathed final installment of the Sam Raimi Spider-series, "there's no Sherwood burial or flight to Avalon for Batman or Superman or their ilk." That's what separates these modern myths from their literary forebears. Batman has been beating back the Gotham underworld since his 1939 debut in Detective Comics #27, and he's in no danger of stopping anytime soon. These are stories that, by their very nature, don't end. They can't.
Of course, the needs of filmic storytelling are different from those of serialized comic books, so it's understandable that Nolan approached the project with a clear beginning, middle and end in mind, with an elegiac tone to the proceedings as the air of finality begins to settle in. It's not his reasons I fault, but rather the execution. Without dipping my toes too far into spoiler territory, there's a difference between closure and closing, and by choosing to make The Dark Knight Rises not just his last Batman, but the last Batman, Nolan essentially tells the story that should never be told, and does so in a way that leaves the status quo so cracked that the only way to put Humpty Dumpty back together is to reboot the thing yet again. Which is a shame.
With all that said, and even taking into account my issues with some storytelling choices, from perplexing character beats (in a particularly egregious lapse, one key figure disappears with nary hide nor hair for the entire middle, only to re-emerge without explanation during the closing moments) to baffling plot points (Bane's whole plan for Gotham doesn't really withstand much scrutiny), the script by Nolan, brother Jonathan, and David Goyer, is rarely, if ever, dull. And again, Nolan's preternatural abilities as a director are on full display. From the harrowing opening scene with Bane freed from captivity on an airplane, to the entire third act, with its sprawling shots of Gotham cops taking on Bane's men, and Batman's snazzy new jet flying high over the cityscape, there's rarely a moment that's not visually engrossing.
Also, as is expected with a cast like this, the performances are uniformly good. Bale and the other returnees are of course fine, even though it feels like we barely get to spend any time with them. Bale in particular feels like a spectator to his own story, with Bruce Wayne flitting in-and-out, and making only two or three appearances in his full Bat-regalia. On that point, another qualm I have is how, if we follow the movies' internal timeline, Bruce was Batman for about six months to a year between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, after which he went into hiding for eight years, and then re-emerged for another day or so. That doesn't really give him very much time on the clock to grow into the "legend" they spend so much time telling us he is.
If anyone emerges as a genuine star here, it's Gordon-Levitt, the de facto lead for much of the second act (and about whom a last-second reveal is likely to elicit either gasps or groans). Hardy too disappears into the role of Bane, who no longer has the drug-induced super strength from the comics but does get to recreate the character's most iconic four-color moment. The one knock on Hardy is one he has no control over: unfair comparisons with the late Heath Ledger's unforgettable, Oscar-winning take on the Joker last time. On the other hand, Cotillard and Hathaway are left underserved, doing the best they can with nothing parts. Hathaway in particular is fine, but is done zero favors by a script that seemed to include Catwoman more as merchandising obligation than storytelling necessity.
The Dark Knight Rises isn't quite a swing-and-a-miss, but it can't help but feel like it. And even if is, I'm still sad to see this series end. Maybe it's just that the earlier movies were simply too high a bar for any filmmaker to top, even the man who made them. Said I of The Dark Knight in '08: "Not just a perfect comic book movie, not just a perfect Batman movie, but darn-near a perfect movie, full stop." That remains true today. Given that, and given how Inception in 2010 raised our expectations for Nolan even higher still, I suppose it's altogether expected that his final Batman entry glides us back down to Earth, a reminder that the figure behind the camera, just like the figure behind the cowl, is indeed just a man after all. B-
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