The Dark Knight Rises (Spoiler Free)
(This review is entirely devoid of spoilers, unless you count me mentioning how the first scene of the movie starts, that it has action in it and a guy named Bane as spoilers, though if you do you’re now already spoiled so read on ahead anyway. Full version is HERE, where the actual spoilers are still hidden, just in case.)
“Why do we fall, Sir?” Why does every review start with that question? Perhaps because it plays in perfectly with the plot of the film and obviously with its title. I think though that in constantly repeating this one old question – it has now become Batman’s “With great power…” – we are missing out on an important new one, “Why do we rise?” and more specifically, why would Batman and where to?
There are other important things to be found and not found in the films title; among them a certain number, three. Though it may only be the second Dark Knight title and lacking any visible three this movie is undoubtedly the third act of a trilogy and plays out as such; it wraps back around to reference past events while simultaneously wrapping up the future of the franchise with a fitting finale. Though it’s also very much a trilogy of its own, or at least tackles enough new material to be one; what begins as a small character drama blows up into a mid-scale corporate conspiracy then continues to grow and grow into a bigger conflict as the months whir by, exponentially brief, much bigger than Batman himself. The film then is at least structured in a more traditional sense, wherein which everything is building towards the big third act rather than aping, as its predecessor did, a rollercoaster with a series of scales and spills. Unfortunately though despite its obvious strengths this third act undercuts so much of what made the first two special, both within the individual film and the trilogy as a whole.
So we rise because people expect escalation in their entertainment, they want bigger and they want better; but The Dark Knight was seen by many as the biggest and best superhero film ever made (myself included). So if the series had already risen to nefarious heights then where could it go but down? What could it do but fall? And that is just what The Dark Knight Rises almost definatively does; though what is still up for debate is whether it is a drop measured in inches or miles? Is it a drop that the series and its star could possibly survive?
Literally speaking the film skips the actual fall of the Bat, opening eight years after the events of The Dark Knight in a peaceful Gotham, one carried on the now straining shoulders of Bruce Wayne. Act One. The film is at its best during this opening hour, an hour that most clearly mirrors Begins with its quiet but intense character beats. Every moment that we spend with series old hands Alfred, Gordon and a new battered Bruce are fascinating, as is trying to fit together everything that happened over those eight lost years (Nolan knows how to handle missing time in movies more than anyone). Then things start to ramp up a little and we and Bruce start to spend more time with some new characters: corrupt suits, a courageous cop John Blake and the stand-out Selina Kyle as they all chase after the shadow of Bane. These scenes are fittingly spectacular, empoying that clever, clinical and cerebral kind of action that Christopher Nolan is now known for. Unfortunately though together they eventually find him and this is where the film starts to fall apart.
Once Bane openly enters the spotlight as the film’s big bad – ranting about his evil plan, laughing manically and surely wishing that his mask wasn’t stopping him from growing a great twirl-able mustache – Act Two begins and the film becomes a proper blockbuster; things get bigger but become less interesting for it and the film slips out of Nolan’s hands. The action loses a lot of its intellect here and is a lot less impressive for it; it stops being about who is involved and what inventive scheme they are enacting and more about the sound and fury of it all, brute force in place of brains, and this is a slope that the film continues to slide down throughout; one obviously reflected by its starring villain.
Nolan and Hardy hyped their Bane heavily during the promotional run before the premiere, probably because he’s not a household name like the Joker was. During all of this they spoke of how they hated the previous film incarnation of the character, the meathead musceleman, and wanted to make their Bane a much bigger mental threat to the Batman. While I can see where they tried to do this, overall they didn’t quite pull it off; his punches hitting much more than his plans. Worse though than being a brute is the way that Bane is played as pure evil, a super-villain in a supposedly realistic film. The Dark Knight went to such pains in keeping the history of its Joker ambiguous but the series takes the opposite route here, laying on his history as a major plot thread but one that plays as peripheral to the primary storyline, none of that past applying to the man we see on the screen, its superfluous. I’ll be honest, I found the editing to be both scarier and more shocking.
It is the third act where the strange splicing together of scenes stops being a simple distraction and starts causing the film to leak story. Like a literal comic book page this part of the film is a series of short images snapped over the span of five months where we are left to fill in the blanks between them, providing the pictures their motion and context. It’s one thing to flash forward between films but during it is much trickier and despite his pedigree for trickery this time Nolan fails to pull it off perfectly, leaving things feeling a little too light as a result of the most fascinating parts being left on the cutting room floor. The material that does remain however is mixed at best, feeling very much like something we would see in a Marvel movie or an actual comic book and not this dark and gritty world that we have come to love and respect.
As in those other successful superhero films the world of Gotham all comes together here with characters new and old combining in interesting ways, all of which make the absence of the Joker seem conspicuous but admirable. Mostly though it is the shallow spectacle that this act apes, but not nearly half as well. Bane and his army are larger than life villains and their plan is suitably preposterous, well at least it would be were it actually revealed to us properly; see, I’m still not entirely sure what he was trying to do or why he was trying to do it which is strange given how blatant the anti-Investment Banker theme is made. Unlike the War on Terror through-line of the last film there is no denying this reading. Lots of possible reasons are thrown around: revenge, democracy, etc. but again the more ambiguous “Chaos!” of the Joker seems to make so much more sense than any of these do.
In fact lots of ideas are thrown around but it is the biggest and not the best ones that are grabbed, the spectacle setting the pace of the story and not the other way around as it should be. We get that there is an anonymous triggerman because it mirrors the boat scene and that’s cool, but back it up. There is something in the ideas he issues but they are never actually explored, they’re simply there to give Bane an army, which in turn only happens to lend a bigger scale to the final few fight scenes. During which time Alfred just dissapears, Lucius is left floating and Gordon sits in the back of a truck despite being heralded as all-important; these characters needed to get great closing beats almost as much as Batman but they don’t really get them, the time is instead spent on showboating and empty theatrics.
I known I may sound like a massive hater but know that I didn’t want to be one, I had the highest hopes for this film and had been reassuring everyone for months that it would live up to them but as Bane says, it is this hope that hurts us most. Though the story is strong throughout the execution of it is not (See: No Man’s Land and Knightfall, the two obvious inspirations, for an example of how to do these plots properly) and that is not something I ever thought that I would say about a Nolan film. Worst of all though is the fact that for a good hour the film is great on both levels and so my hope seemed like it would be realistically sated, but then it cuts you off at the knees, twisting away that good work and leaving you instead with a sour taste in your mouth. I thought that I would for sure leave this film with a hunger for a fourth, but instead i’m happy with that impossibility and hoping instead that the re-boot can learn from this films mistakes. I mean, all it can do from here is rise, right?
(No, this is still a good film. I want to clarify that. It’s good and as George Clooney has proven Bats can go very bad, so there may well be a bigger fall in the franchise’s future.)