REVIEW SUMMARY: Messy, way too long, and with far too many missteps and misguided elements, Nolan’s final chapter in the rebooted Batman franchise still remains watchable because of its outstanding cast and several breathtaking sequences.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Batman is called back into service eight years after taking blame for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent to save Gotham City from the psychotic Bane, and enlists the help of the mysterious jewel thief Selena Kyle.
PROS: Visually stunning, with outstanding performances by the leads and supporting cast; incredible action sequences.
CONS: Underdeveloped ideas and story; overlong; intrusion of science fiction elements breaks the tone of the series.
Despite the incredible high-tech gadgets, powerful souped-up vehicles, and near-magical ability of his utility belt to rescue him from any nefarious jam (much like Doctor Who twisting the knobs of his sonic screwdriver to turn any series of unfortunate events, ultimately, to his benefit), Batman is not, and never has been, part of the science fiction universe. Large though his shadow looms over the ever-growing corner of genre populated by four-color heroes of a far more fantastic bent (from orphaned alien Superman to Amazon Wonder Woman, from laboratory success Captain America to super-science accidents Hulk and Spider-Man, incredible and amazing or not), Bob Kane’s seminal creation shares far more in common with the crime fighters of The Strand or Black Mask, a Sherlock Holmes in cape and cowl, a Continental Op who goes down the noir mean streets in operatic fashion.
Director Christopher Nolan understands this, which makes his take on Batman intriguing. The Gotham City of Batman Begins takes place in an urban cityscape built on the foundations of the collective unconscious. By The Dark Knight Rises, his final chapter in Warner Brothers’ rebooted franchise, Nolan breaks down the buffer separating Gotham and New York City (it was obviously Chicago in The Dark Knight) in what occasionally seems like a reverse nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where Paris stands in for the obvious titular dystopian city. His take on Bruce Wayne (again played by Christian Bale), too, shows more familiarity with the “blonde Satan” of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and ennui of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe than with any of his previous media iterations. The artistry on display from his creative team always worked in the series’ favor. The Avengers may match it for epic scale, but The Dark Knight Rises wants to be more than just the greatest, most epic comic book movie ever made: it wants to be the form’s Citizen Kane, its The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, its (and given the 165-minute running time, you can’t really escape the comparison) Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Lofty ambitions. And make no mistake: Nolan deserves credit for aspiring to a kind of geek Akira Kurosawa or Stanley Kubrick rather than Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams (or post–Raiders of the Lost Ark Steven Spielberg). While his goals worked brilliantly in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, his vision obstructs The Dark Knight Rises to such a degree that, while still providing several great scenes and some meaty themes and ideas, it reverts back to the murk and pretension of Tim Burton’s Batman, and exacerbates the problems with Nolan’s previous entries. By turns undercooked and overheated, it wants to rise like its title, but too often lurches. It wants to wow (and when it does…wow), but usually frustrates.
Consider the opening sequence, in which Bane’s small army rescues him from a CIA plane in mid-flight. An airplane drops cables and tows the fuselage as cultists launch an aerial assault that seems lifted right out of a never-made James Bond movie (if EON has any sense, it will sign Nolan up for the next 007 effort, pronto), thus initiating the bulk of the action. Breathtaking though the sequence is (and on an IMAX screen it is breathtaking indeed), it never erases from memory the interrogation of three prisoners suddenly brought onto the plane. The officer in charge (Aidan Gillen) questions them on Bane’s (Tom Hardy, bulked up, pate-shaved, and wearing a mask feeding him painkillers, all but unrecognizable) location, but never bothers removing their hoods. Sorry, no; that’s the first thing a CIA officer would do, and unfortunately is indicative of the comic-book plotting hampering the Brothers Nolan’s script. (Nolan and his brother John wrote the screenplay from a story by David S. Goyer and Nolan.) And yet, unless the prisoners wear their hoods, the scene simply doesn’t work.
Bane, a former member of the vigilante League of Shadows—according to Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), disavowed by its leader Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson in a cameo) for being too extreme—plans to do what the League could not in Batman Begins: destroy Gotham City, a symbol of decadence and corruption, once and for all, first by breaking the Batman and sending him to the pit where he was (according to legend) born and raised. Then he cuts off Gotham from law enforcement and the trappings of civilization (in a sequence that brings new meaning to the term shock and awe), thereby letting its citizens tear each other apart, and then with the rapidly decaying core of a fusion reactor developed by Wayne Enterprises, which Bane keeps in a truck driving around Gotham’s deserted city streets. The scenario provides Nolan with the perfect opportunity to pull out all of the apocalyptic stops; some of it works, as when a makeshift judiciary holds Swiftian court hearing (presided over by psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, once again played by Cilian Murphy), yet it also smacks of the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham. Though the city has been under siege for months, obviously everybody is getting enough to eat because nobody incites a food riot, and no trash lines the streets. Nolan pulls his punches when he should see them through.
Why would Bane be so obsessed with the destruction of Gotham? Since the death of Harvey Dent eight years ago (the movie’s time-frame since The Dark Knight) and the subsequent disappearance of the Batman, Gotham City’s crime has dropped dramatically. Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), eaten by the guilt at letting Batman take the blame for Dent’s death, seems to want Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) to replace him. Bruce Wayne has mothballed the tumbler and the Batcave and gone full-tilt Howard Hughes recluse…until thief Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) attempts to steal his mother’s necklace. (It’s the comic-book movie’s version of Meet Cute, and one of The Dark Knight Rises’ high points.)
Her fire and sex appeal incite him in a way that a prospective relationship with clean-energy socialite Miranda (Marion Cotillard) does not. Then a body is discovered in the sewers, leading “hotshot” cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to uncover, in pretty short order, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, Bane’s plot, and ultimately, as Gotham City tears itself apart, to assist the Batman in the final confrontation.
Though a lot happens in The Dark Knight Rises, too much of it drags. Its more than two-and-a-half-hour running time should give it a degree of depth and breadth akin to Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, yet the ideas never coalesce. Too many of its political ideas languish under a lack of real thought, and one key plot element seemingly comes out of nowhere. Problematic, too, is the inclusion of more science fictional vehicles; in the period during Batman’s semi-retirement, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) develops tumbling wheels for the Batpod and an air vehicle called simply the Bat. Both attempt to up the movie’s wow factor, but they clash with the fastidious verisimilitude that grounded The Dark Knight. Even the movie’s time-frame makes little sense, and begs more questions. One wonders why, in the eight years since the events of the previous entry, nobody mentions the Joker, or that he has even tried to escape from Arkham Asylum. (Yes, I know Heath Ledger died shortly after filming The Dark Knight, but his villainous clown is not even mentioned.)
For all of its many faults, however, The Dark Knight Rises shows flashes of pleasure, and occasional grandeur. The cast, as usual, turns in outstanding performances, with Hathaway and Gordon-Levitt standing out. (Hathaway steals each scene she’s in, and looks stunning in the catsuit.) The sequence in which Wayne must heal and drag himself out of the pit where Bane resided for so long may go on too long, And when the final battle comes between Batman and Bane, it shows off the epic brutality one would hope. It gives glimpses of the great movie buried under the pretty good one.