Review: The Dark Knight Rises
The concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is another extravagant, ideas-laden take on the superhero genre, operatically tying up loose ends with all the hallmarks of a final episode.
Let’s talk ideas then. Howard Hawks’s 1932 gangster flick Scarface allowed audiences to identify with and bask in the instant gratification of the criminal lifestyle as an escape from keeping their fingers crossed that hard work and the American Dream would reward them at the end of a humdrum and laborious existence. In line with his touch for modernising fears and desires, Nolan lets a series of contemporary public outrage fantasies chaotically play themselves out in The Dark Knight Rises.
Tom Hardy’s villain (or terrorist if you prefer), Bane, brings menace and physical superiority while exacting the carnage and destruction of a warlord upon Gotham City. It’s important to distinguish between Nolan’s ideas explored and ideas merely alluded to, but falling definitively into the former category are the corrupt officials and stock market traders first against the wall when the villain’s tyrannical coup comes to life.
It’s presented like the French Revolution, storming the Bastille and all, with nods to nuclear tension with Iran, policies based on untruths, martial law, the role of heroes in peacetime and failed states (to the extent that someone says: “It’s like a failed state”). A great deal of these themes are only contemplated in a very loose sense, though ideas are still as much of driving force as the action set pieces. And the two are weaved together in such a way that there’s barely a question of whether Nolan delivers solid summer blockbuster entertainment since the film is more than a series of fireworks tied together by a clichéd script. Though when the deluge of spectacle arrives it absolutely pisses it down.
The psychodrama circling Bruce Wayne is, for better or worse, heavier than ever, but more impressive is the studio letting Nolan have his superhero protagonist spend so much time hanging around various places getting his shit together instead of hitting people. Even when it does feel a bit monochrome, the peaks and valleys of action and drama are mostly well-timed and Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent score maintains a sense of urgency (despite a key battle scene where it is commendable on account of its absence). The script isn’t as hammy as the superhero genre’s average and the bold-faced, operatic seriousness in a film about a man who bashes goons while wearing cute little ears on his head doesn’t collapse under its own absurdity – disbelief is adequately suspended.
Though you couldn’t call Christian Bale’s performance understated, the way he assimilates himself into the style and aesthetic of Nolan’s vision secures his position in the top two onscreen representations of the character, even when he’s taking on a supporting role alongside the rest of the ensemble cast. Tom Hardy has the biggest shoes to fill, following Heath Ledger’s Joker, and remains imposing for most of the film. His unsettling presence is offset only by an element of exposition toward the end that weakens his character for the sake of plot, whereas the blank canvas of the Joker in the previous film strengthened his position as the embodiment of chaos.
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in everything but name wouldn’t be quite so necessary had the script been written slightly differently. Her character is there because it was decided she would be, not because it couldn’t have worked any other way, although the film, to its credit, avoids the kind of pervy, lingering shots that it could have featured. A weepier Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler/conscience Alfred brings a comfortable familiarity, while Gary Oldman delivers another strong and subtle performance to an ever more complicated role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s protégé cop is relatively strong in a role that would be gratingly annoying in any other film.
Nolan is still today’s best blockbuster director as much because of his assumption that audiences are not complete numbskulls as his proficiency at blowing things up. Though many ideas included in The Dark Knight Rises don’t develop as much as others there won’t be another action film for the rest of the year that leaves as much to talk about afterwards.
Films like Hawks’ Scarface moral centre would stem from epilogues about crime and wrongdoing being punished in the end. They were a statement of ideology as well as a way to get the preceding violent delights past the censors. With an open-ended, postmodern edge, The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t scream answers to its questions, but with Batman at the helm of a counter revolution to restore the status quo to Gotham, a similar kind of conservatism is betrayed. That is to say the film doesn’t thematically end up in a completely different place to others of its ilk, but it’s as much the presence of the discussion, the journey rather than the destination, that makes it a richer experience.
The defining aspect is spectacle and in that way The Dark Knight Rises is, above all things, a blockbuster and will be primarily judged in such terms. At the source of the ideas that Nolan brings to the table, some more fleshed out than others, there is a hyperactive mind that doesn’t seek to insult the intelligence of the viewer. Maybe the film could do with dialing back the narrative and pumping up the concepts. Maybe that’s why the trilogy always has always had the smell and not always the taste of absolute brilliance, but I dare any production on this scale to wander into a realm in which the idea of corruption in social structures plays such a key role.
Though it might not dislodge its predecessor from its slot on IMDb’s top 250, The Dark Knight Rises is a solid conclusion to a solid series, not perfect, but intellectually obese in a sickeningly anorexic market. Nolan’s trilogy remains a high watermark for inconceivably expensive filmmaking, balancing its bloat and heft with the spoils of a director barely compromising his vision.
Here’s what our other writers thought about The Dark Knight Rises:
Where The Dark Knight Rises succeeds is through the central cast. Anne Hathaway is brilliant, Tom Hardy a brooding presence throughout and Christian Bale is as superb as ever.
The supporting cast (Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard) all excel. However, the film falls down on a plot that at times falls into cliché and asks the audience at times to suspend their belief as characters make decision that are not so much out of character as completely nonsensical.
All-in-all, the elegiac finale is a great descent into Nolan’s ominously dark world of Gotham City and is a worthy ending to the franchise. However, with expectations this high and a previous film that good, The Dark Knight Rises just fails to hit expectations. But, then again, the chances of those expectations being met were never high anyway.
While The Dark Knight Rises does have some imperfect moments, the story is great and it features some wonderful set-pieces with some of the best character performances I have ever seen in a superhero film. It’s those performances which stand out — in particular Bale’s Batman and Hardy’s Bane.
Bale once again shows us Bruce Wayne’s tortured self, physically and emotionally to perfection and proves that just because you’re playing a man in a costume, it doesn’t mean he can’t have heart. The Dark Knight Rises is an epic film in every sense — in terms of scale, vision, characterisation and spectacle. It may also be imperfect, but it is brilliant nonetheless.