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Does Batman rise, sink or tread water? VERDICT WITHIN. – The Dark Knight Rises

July 20, 2012

So here we are at last, at the end of both this summer’s blockbuster genre slate and the terminus of the wildly successful and enormously profitable Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman trilogy. The season started out with the Avengers bang, slid into a Prometheus funk, and then wallowed in a pointless Amazing Spider-Man. Will The Dark Knight Rises triumph over all, or find itself somewhere in the in rank and file? Or, gasp, will it be the worst of the bunch?

Before that, though, some context for the series, so you all know from what standpoint this review is coming from.

Batman Begins was good, but somewhat lackluster. Nolan got a lot of credit — and justifiably so — for distancing the franchise from the Joel Schumacher years, which had taken the engaging oddness of the Tim Burton films and the colorful camp of the Adam West television series and fused them into some hideous Frankentein’s monster of afwulness. But it was the entry of the trilogy that didn’t quite fit with the look and feel of the other two (like Star Wars with is successors). It felt like a standard Hollywood movie, replete with generic scenemaking, and it was better than serviceable, but wasn’t great. Then along came The Dark Knight, which was in many ways excellent, a professionally crafted film with a Joker performance from Heath Ledger that etched itself into the annals of moviedom. The film’s craft somehow elevated our retroactive evaluations of Begins, a promotion by association — a rising tide raises all boats. Gone were the Narrows and that dopey Simpsons monorail that cut through the heart of Gotham, gone was the horribly out-of-place Katie Holmes (though Maggie Gyllenhaal, her replacement, didn’t set the world on fire either), and so were the flashbacks to Thomas Wayne, who was played by an actor turning in a brief but singularly irritating performance.

That said, even in Knight there were some problems (problems never acknowledged by the most ardent of the Nolan jihadists). It thought it was much smarter than it was, using the slick action sequences to three-card-monte a plot that wasn’t all that masterful. The Joker’s omniscience spackled over far too many holes. And, in an offense that probably bothered few, but did me, the movie explained itself too much (at least too much to be considered truly transcendent). The characters spent a lot of time standing around telling the audience what BIG IDEAS (that I didn’t find all that big) they were seeing on screen, and that wore thin. That wasn’t helped by the fact that BATMAN’S VOICE MADE ME LAUGH EVERY TIME HE OPENED HIS MOUTH. It had been altered a bit from the stunning goofiness of Begins, but it still at crucial moments left a lot to be desired. Audiences shouldn’t giggle when a fearsome vigilante speaks, okay? This is a small thing but a huge problem, one that you really can’t get around.

But let me be clear, before I start getting death threats, that I LIKED BOTH MOVIES AND THOUGHT THE DARK KNIGHT WAS PRETTY DARN EXCELLENT. I mean, the “bad cop” reveal and aftermath alone will stand the test of time like few other superhero scenes. So stow the Molotov cocktails.

And now we come to it. The verdict. And it is?

Rises, while once again showcasing Nolan’s mastery of crafting films that propel the viewer forward, suffers from a script that leaps and hops and isn’t at all focused, and is stabbed in the side (somewhat literally) by a twist that almost makes the whole thing collapse under the weight of flashback exposition and dramatic pretensions. Plus there’s like an hour in there where nothing really happens and Batman is AWOL. It’s a thrill ride with deep lulls, but performances by series veterans and newcomers keep it from veering off the rails.

Some observations follow. Light spoilers, and I’ve tried to scrub anything severe. But tread lightly.

  1. The action starts eight years after the death of Harvey Dent at the close of the Joker’s rampage. Our hero has been gone since, in part due to new laws passed to honor Dent’s law and order spirit, but more so for the crushing death of Rachel. I have a problem right off the bat (no pun intended, but what the hell, there it is). That Bruce Wayne would go into retirement over the loss of a woman undercuts the believability of a man driven enough to go through hell to fight evil. In a franchise that’s made a big deal about staying grounded and believable, and not incorporating the supernatural elements of Batman’s universe, this is troubling, because that Rachel broad must have cast a spell over poor Bruce to do this to him. Was she really Zatanna? “uoY lliw hsirehc em revo lla srehto!” Whatever. I never bought Rachel as the big love of his life, so I guess I wouldn’t be in the market for this. Moving on.
  2. Of the returning stars, Michael Caine and, yes, Christian Bale have to be singled out for praise. Caine shows what a pro he is, taking limited screen time and generating more emotion in a few minutes than entire movies usually do in hours. When those old eyes tear up and when those sweatered shoulders start to sag, there isn’t a soul watching who won’t be moved. Maybe Caine isn’t the perfect Alfred Pennyworth, but he’s an acting treasure. And Bale, who I’ve never bought in on 100% as Wayne/Batman, finally made me fully care about him this time around. He’s more haunted, and his journey from beginning to end outstrips anything else we’ve seen from him in this role, even Batman’s origin journey in Begins. He goes from a limping recluse to a restored vigilante to a broken shell to something more than he was before. He vanishes for much of the middle of the film, and his absence is noted. You can’t wait for his return. As it should be.
  3. The one dud amongst the new arrivals is Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, who never once dons that sobriquet in the film’s runtime. I’ve read a number of reviews that say hers is only better than Halle Berry’s take on the character (that I had honestly blocked from my memory until the last couple of days), and I can’t disagree. It’s not all her fault. She feels somewhat extraneous to the film, an add-on that the script, messy as it is, could have done without. She delivers some key goods and information, but never seems all that necessary to advance the plot. And don’t get me started on her fighting prowess. I realize there are such principles as leverage and counterweight, but her wafer-thin frame is a tad too good at tossing around people double her size.
  4. Tom Hardy’s Bane is a worthy successor to the Joker, not up to that level, but charismatic and engaging in ways that the Clown Prince could never probe. Though his voice at times veers into an unintelligible ADR morass (it sounds, deliciously, like if Sean Connery played Darth Vader), his menace and physical presence present Batman with a foe unlike any faced before. You’ll recognize some of the iconic “Knightfall” beats, but this character is someone that the Venom-addled behemoth of the comics never was. Underneath that pain-killing mask of his (which looks like a spider in its death-curl) there’s depth. He’s more than just a back-breaking madman. Unfortunately, all this is ruined in the final reel, as he transforms into some cuddly teddy bear (a homicidal one, granted) while the suddenly exposition-laden plot spins out of control, and then he’s gone. We hardly knew ye.
  5. If there’s one character that steals the show, it’s Gotham cop John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He carries much of the heroic burden of the film, defending Gotham as the police force is immobilized and Bane unleashes his reign of terror on a trapped populace. That he does it without all of Batman’s high-tech gizmos makes him all the more noble. He has genuine gravitas, and his little (but big) reveal at the end doesn’t feel forced like the big plot-heavy one does. In an odd way, it’s a relief.
  6. Much has been made about the film’s commentary on modern concerns of the urban psyche, as we find ourselves caught between plutocracy on the one hand and a surging, increasingly agitated underclass on the other. Bane generates nothing short of anarchy as he takes over Gotham, and what follows is one part French Revolution (complete with a storming of the Bastille) and one part Occupy movement run amok. His assaults on finance and the privileged seem to want to say something, but you’re digging in a dry well if you look for any message in there. Unless the lesson is to wait for a guy in a batsuit to show up in a flying bottle opener to punch our way out of societal trouble. If that’s the case, then MESSAGE RECEIVED. A round of fascism for everyone.
  7. The Hans Zimmer score follows in the throbbing footsteps of its predecessor. Look, it’s great and all. It puts you on the edge of your seat, even when people are just walking around. But I can’t help but think of South Park’s parody of Inception whenever I hear it. They’re right on. It’s intense, but when it comes down to it, it’s obfuscation. It drowns out a lot of the plot holes. Hey, it’s night now, but wasn’t it daytime just a minute ago, look there’s even a timer on that computer that OH WAIT THERE GOES THAT MUSIC YEEEAAAAAHHHHH.
  8. Mathew Modine is in this, following in the Eric Roberts scrap-heap salvage tradition. And so, once again, is Batman fan and United States Senator Patrick Leahy. Wonderful.
  9. The action scenes, which Nolan perfected in The Dark Knight, are splendidly kinetic, and they’re the true bread and butter of this entire series. While they’re not as constant as that throbbing score would trick you into believing, they don’t disappoint when they’re happening. Many will find these alone worth the price of admission. They wouldn’t be wrong.
  10. I’m not sure to make of where the film leaves us, as characters assume new roles with the series coming to an end. Could there be more? Yes. Would I want to see more? I would. Will we? Probably not. Would I want tighter scripting, which doesn’t take convenient shortcuts? Definitely. (I think Bruce Wayne may have walked from the Middle East to Gotham. Exhibit 4E, your honor.)

Everyone says that it’s unfair to compare this to The Avengers, and they’re right. They’re different kinds of filmmaking, with this Bat-series sharing more with the Jason Bourne universe than fellow comic book properties. But you have to compare them. It’s unavoidable. And all I can say is this: I enjoyed The Avengers more than Rises, and I think it’s a better film. No, Avengers wasn’t genius filmmaking, and yes, it had flaws. But it pushed every button of delight in my moviegoing soul, and at no point did I want to leap at the screen and slash it with my keys. When there’s that big reveal in Rises — and oh, you’ll know it when you see it — I almost rolled my eyes right out of my head. I kind of knew it was coming — most knowledgable Bat-fans will — and I was still unprepared for how derailing it was. Perhaps others won’t be so vexed by it. I hope so. I want people to have fun at the movies, and I think that they will here. But there are some hiccups along the way.

It’s been an interesting ride. Here’s hoping that next year’s Man of Steel, which has an artsy trailer attached to this, gets the broader DC ball rolling. And maybe somewhere down the line we’ll finally get to see the cowl meet the curl on a real genuine movie screen. Wouldn’t that be something.

For the craft and some marvellous performances which overcome most of the things I didn’t like, I give The Dark Knight Rises three and a half Bane masks out of five:

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