At this point, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are just as much about filmmaker as they are about the Dark Knight. This isn’t an issue of the vanity on Nolan’s part, this is a result of the work of a director who can very fairly be referred to as an auteur, and his radical revision of Gotham City that has swept popular culture in ways that Bob Kane’s superhero never had before.
The reputation he’s built for his Batman movies – as well as for himself – have reached intimidating heights. And with his decision that The Dark Knight Rises would be his final film, Nolan was practically daring himself to successfully find a way off the cliff of expectations that the previous installment, The Dark Knight, left the series dangling from.
The Dark Knight Rises sees Nolan successfully climb down with a film that is unsurprisingly wide in birth and big on thrills. He doesn’t get away without a fair few scratches, but movies this ambitious should be allowed this range of a hit-to-miss ratio when the hits hit as hard as they do.
A lot happens in The Dark Knight Rises – so much that it may have been better suited as a short run of comics, or even a mini-series. But a girth of material has never stopped Nolan from packing everything he can into one feature (his previous two films add up to five hours). But Rises sets a record, both in its running time (2 hours and 45 minutes) and its stacking of characters and story lines; not only is there more material in this movie, but it isn’t seamlessly assembled. Even as long as it is, you can tell the movie is more rushed than it would like to be. The editing is skillfully clipped, not letting a single second simmer that is not completely necessary.
The Dark Knight Rises, in this sense, borders on being a jumbled mess cutting and tearing at its own foundations trying to cram so many story points in. But as much as is thrown at you, and as many narrative shortcuts as the story takes, it never moves so fast that you can’t keep up. This is a film that you have to leave your brain on for to be able to follow, but it’s never incomprehensible.
The same can’t be said of Bats’ big bad of the film, Bane. Force-of-nature Tom Hardy is perfect casting for the mammoth foe, a character written to break Bruce Wayne’s back. Heaped onto his sickeningly muscled frame is a ventalation device that obfuscates Bane’s face and voice, turning an intimidating physique into something much darker and less clearly-human. The metallically throaty voice is never easy to understand, and some lines will escape you entirely; but they still accomplish Hardy’s primary intention: to scare you into submission.
Hardy is just one of a large and notable cast. That includes the return of actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman, all of whom barely have to lift a finger to make their character arcs (or lackthereof) interesting. We also get newbies like Marion Cotillard in a role that is more difficult to sell than it appears, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who threatens to steal the show whenever he shows up.
The only debatable down-note in its ensemble is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle. An appropriately flirty thief who knows how to get what she wants out of a mark, Hathaway as Kyle (aka Catwoman) is an interesting character that sticks out for her Old Hollywood charm in a series that kickstarted Current Hollywood’s fetish for grit.
All of these characters are thrown together as Gotham faces its most significant threat yet, a situation that takes hostage everything but the city’s most basic aspects of life. For two hours, as Nolan builds the doom and gloom with as much spoken exposition as visual, the movie meddles along. Never boring and never thrilling – but very, very tense. Hans Zimmer’s score surges and booms every down beat, and Wally Phister’s photography (over a third of which is filmed in IMAX) paints an expansive and empty Gotham where every point for the enemy is devastating.
That all changes when the final act arrives, and Batman knuckles up to beat the clock. The first two steady-but-still are easily redeemed by the spectacle and excitement in watching the rise and falls of the good and bad guys – even the bait-and-switch twist towards the end is fascinating and doesn’t drop a note in its reveal.
Its highs and lows taken together, The Dark Knight Rises is a lot like the Tumbler that serves as the Batmobile in this trilogy. Unlike the traditionally sleek and precise Batmobile, Nolan’s Tumbler is too big for the roads and roofs it cuts into, blowing blocks of concrete out of buildings and making a mess – but no one is going to remember its destructive driving as much as its ability to destroy.
It’s hard to talk about The Dark Knight Rises without mentioning Heath Ledger’s Joker, a performances so perfectly chaotic and aloof that it could pacify a lot of the things that didn’t work in The Dark Knight. It’s to The Dark Knight Rises detriment that it doesn’t carry such a cure-all, let alone that it has to live in its shadow.
But The Dark Knight Rises is such an epically grim film that it deserves better than being remembered as the threequel that couldn’t live up to its predecessor, even if it is.