The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

In-between the hype and the criticism, The Dark Knight Rises stands as one of the most ambitious superhero films, but consistently under-develops many of its most compelling and interesting ideas. There is a magnificent film buried in-between new characters, mediocre action and misplaced human drama.

At it’s finest moments, The Dark Knight Rises is a film about Gotham. As Bane (Tom Hardy) holds Gotham hostage, the city begins an underground movement to take back the city. Spearheaded by Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young cop who still believes in Batman, this story plays with ideas of revolt, reckoning and revolution.

Problem is that this comes late in the film. The opening hour deals with the aftermath of The Dark Knight, introducing Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway), Blake, Bane and Miranda (Marion Cotillard), a new member of the Wayne Enterprises board, and dealing with eight year absence of Batman and the recluse Bruce Wayne has become.

Some of these new additions are delightful surprises. Catwoman and Blake are great additions to the story. Anne Hathaway’s performance is the finest in the film, mysterious and confident, but also able to mask herself at a moment’s notice in order to allow herself to slink away into the night. Blake is also a great new character as a somewhat fresh cop who’s willing to push the bound of the system. His ultimate shift isn’t given the best development, it feels like a scene or two is missing from his arc, but he adds an extra dimension to the people of Gotham.

However, Bane as the villain of the film brings along a number of problems. I get why the film has Bane as a character, it allows the film to do certain things, but the implementation of his character is mind-numbingly bad. From the electronic voice to the cartoonishly evil masterplan, Bane’s presence is a reminder that the whole proceedings are so fantastically comic-bookish that they clash with the “realism” many fans have touted as one of the most compelling elements of Nolan’s interpretation of Batman.

And the big showdowns between Batman and Bane are glorified fistfights. Here we have two sharp minds that build cunning plans to solve major problems in the film and their epic showdowns are simply bar brawls? Batman does get some cool gadgets, but unlike the previous two films, they’re clearly there more because Batman is expected to have gadgets and less because they actually allow for an interesting narrative solution or action spectacle.

After three films, the inherent silliness of superheroes has caught up with Nolan’s Batman. There are moments where Bane and Batman stand amidst a crowd of fairly normal looking people when it becomes obvious how silly it is that the film is delivering what is essentially nothing more than a average Saturday morning cartoon episode with a thick glaze of gravatas.

However, there are a lot of story beats that are superb. The city hostage premise works fantastically, even if the means to doing it are terrible. Bane’s origins are
great and Nolan give it a nice twist that will make it both familiar and fresh for those who already know his origins.

Also, for once in the films, Bruce Wayne does something of importance. In fact, Bruce Wayne gets a lot more screentime than Batman and that’s good thing. Watching Wayne use his resources and relationships to bring the city to to life instead of simply being Batman shows a compelling transition in the character, one that brings into question how legitimate Batman is as a means of stopping crime. It also shows how much Bruce Wayne can change Gotham.

These moments show me a film I want to love. There are some fantastic moments in the film, easily the finest moments of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but it’s trapped inside a clunky film. Ultimately, it’s a film shacked by expectations of what entertains people. There are action scenes and the trapping of Batman, but it doesn’t seem like Nolan has a passion for these like he did in the first two films.

Instead, the film is going through the motions, hitting action beats but never with the sense of awe of The Dark Knight’s finest sequences. I also wonder how much incorporating the comics fits into Nolan constraining the film. While some, like Bane’s origins work great, the film lingers so long on incorporating the retired Batman going back into action premise of Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.

I wonder if Nolan wanted to adapt that into a film but felt he couldn’t, therefore the setup never brings the audience to the payoff. This may be an older Batman, but after a couple of early missteps, it doesn’t come into play as much as it should. Batman Begins does a better job demonstrating how Batman physically strains Bruce Wayne.

For every excellent moment in the film, there’s another that demonstrates why trying to make Batman “realistic” doesn’t work after a certain point. I do hope that Warner Brothers and DC continues to make Batman films, and they’d be fools not to at this point, I just hope they embrace the fact that audiences recognize that superheroes exist in the realm of the fantastical.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing