With all due respect to Spider-man, Brave, Bourne, etc, with the arrival of The Dark Knight Rises to stand aside The Avengers and Prometheus, we’ve now had the big three movies of summer. The Avengers blew audiences away, while Prometheus left movie-goers cold and frustrated. So where does Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his dark and contemplative Batman trilogy stand among them?
Well, it’s a little in the middle.
The Dark Knight Rises is – as you would expect – very much of a piece with Nolan’s previous two instalments, and in many ways is an absolute triumph. It’s got an iconic villain, a strong supporting cast who add a lot of heart to proceedings, and tackles some weighty themes and ideas, throwing a lot at our introspective hero to deal with. And, of course, Batman has a few new toys to play with, and plenty of stuff gets blown up.
By now Nolan knows this world and its characters and themes so well that it almost effortlessly rises above other blockbuster fare simply by virtue of being a Christopher Nolan Batman film. It’s a supremely accomplished work.
More than any of the previous instalments, TDKR is very much an ensemble piece, and there are lengthy stretches where Christian Bale is absent from the screen. Thankfully, then, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand to virtually carry the movie as young-but-spirited police officer John Blake. Levitt is outstanding in the role. With a steely determination to do the right thing, his well-drawn character becomes the heart of the film. (At least when Michael Caine isn’t on screen, anyway).
The other main addition to the cast is Anne Hathaway as one Selina Kyle; better known to you and me as Catwoman. Hathaway is perfectly cast as Kyle. She’s fiercely smart, possessing the same “flair for the theatrical” that Batman does, and she’s more than a little capable.
Hathaway is sexy, without ever resorting to the fetishistic nature of previous incarnations, and her presence ignites Bale’s performance. The dynamic between Selina and Bruce is excellent, and the pair sizzles on the screen.
The film is also littered with a multitude of well known character actors in minor roles – almost to a point of distraction. And then of course, there’s Bane.
It was always going to be a tough ask to follow Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as The Joker in the previous instalment, but Tom Hardy’s Bane is an entirely different beast. Given the face and voice obscuring mask that he wears at all times, Bane is an entirely physical nemesis, and his brute force is something to behold.
Bane is unlike any villain we’ve seen before. He exudes power, and he’s terrifying. He lends the whole film a real sense of rising dread. So thick does the pervading atmosphere of anxiety and hopelessness become that TDKR becomes a more suffocating and intense experience than most entries into the horror genre ever manage. It’s rare for a Hollywood film, given our extensive experience in the heroes always finding a way, but with Bane you genuinely don’t see how he can be stopped.
The mask only adds an even more otherworldly appearance to the hulking brute of a man, and despite the worries about the distorted vocals being inaudible; they turn out to be fine.
Less successful, however, is the way that that voice is integrated into the action. Too often the levels are wrong, and the film never quite manages to convince that the voice is coming from Bane/Hardy himself, in that moment; in that scene. It’s clearly been dubbed in later, and it never feels organic. This isn’t a major issue, but it is sadly noticeable, and the only flaw with an otherwise terrific villain.
If we haven’t mentioned Batman himself much yet, it’s because to say too much about him would be to spoil the journey that Bruce Wayne travels throughout the movie. Suffice to say that Wayne’s arc is believable and true to the character’s origins, making for a fitting climax to his story.
As for theme; The Dark Knight Rises is very much a post credit-crunch movie. The script concerns itself heavily with the politics of the 1% vs the 99% debate that has raged in America over recent months. Bruce is constantly reminded of his fortunate background. Can one from such a privileged beginning truly be a fitting hero for the less fortunate?
Well, he tries his best, and the action is strong – although it never quite reaches the height of The Avengers’ climactic battle in New York – and it feels perhaps one exciting set-piece too short (although when already clocking in at 165 minutes, perhaps it was wise not to add more). The close action is brutal, with one significant punch-up occurring without music – a masterstroke that allows every punch to land with the ultimate impact. It’s a crunching spectacle to behold.
Speaking of spectacle, the big set-piece (the one teased in the trailers) is gangbusters, and becomes genuinely chilling in its scope. Indeed, the beleaguered citizens of Gotham City come under a threat the scale of which they’ve never known – and which we couldn’t possibly have suspected. It’s truly epic.
But despite the unsettling atmosphere and distressing scenes of destruction that Bane wreaks, there’s a surprising amount of humour in the film. There are plenty of knowing nods to the earlier instalments, and the Nolans’ script (by Christopher himself, along with brother Jonathan) toys with the conventions that they established with the first two films. There are even a few meta jokes thrown in for fun. Conversely, this is at once the darkest, and the funniest of the trilogy.
Shot extensively with IMAX cameras, the film looks incredible when watched on the big big screen. Nolan’s sweeping shots of Gotham are dizzying, while chase sequences with Batman’s various vehicles are exhilarating.
If there’s one major fault with the film – and fault may not be quite the right word – it’s that The Dark Knight Rises is exactly what you expect it to be. It’s a complex, weighty super-hero film, featuring great action, strong performances, beautiful cinematography and an outstanding villain. This is what Nolan has given us with the previous two films, and it’s what we get again here.
Everything in TKDR ties in beautifully with the rest of the franchise, and many things come pleasingly full-circle. As the climax to the franchise, it’s everything we want it to be.
And yet, we’ve almost come to expect more; something to truly raise it above, and that never quite materialises. That’s likely entirely down to the incredible weight of expectation placed on the film, but you can’t help but feel that just one more set-piece; one more shift up a gear; and we’d have something truly outstanding.
But when being exactly as good as we’d hoped for is our main complaint, you can tell what a triumphant climax to one of the best film series of our time The Dark Knight Rises is. If it’s not better than The Dark Knight, it’s at least as good. And that cements Nolan’s Batman series as among the finest trilogies the cinema has ever seen. Who’d have thought that after Batman & Robin?
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 20 July 2012 by Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on Monday 3 December 2012 by Warner Home Video.
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