The Dark Knight Rises
Let me be clear, I enjoy Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise. But I’m not a super fan of it, either. I thought "Batman Begins" was a little confused and suffered from a "been there, done that" quality. Dressing the story up in new clothes ultimately felt stale. The sequel - "The Dark Knight " - however, was pretty much a masterpiece of storytelling and scope. So expectations are high for the final film in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Aptly titled: "The Dark Knight Rises," this installment takes place eight years after the events in the last film in which Batman defeated Heath Ledger’s Joker and Harvey Dent was "murdered" by The Batman.
Batman’s alter ego - Bruce Wayne - is now a recluse living in his mansion. Crippled, he walks with a cane, and has hung up the Bat Suit for good, much to the chagrin of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine). But there is a new threat on the horizon: a gorilla of a man named Bane (Tom Hardy) who wears a mask that keeps him anesthetized from the tremendous pain he endures caused by a tragic event in his past. A terrorist, Bane plans to cripple Gotham City, and then destroy it. Brutal and scary, Bane is a threatening presence - sort of a real-life Darth Vader crossed with a World Wrestling Foundation champion.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is confronted with a jewelry thief: one Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Selina (aka Catwoman, although she is never referred to as such) is a confident and manipulative con artist who smirks and purrs her way into Wayne’s life and winds up as something like his accomplice. Rounding out the cast is new character John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a Gotham police officer with a secret to his past, and Miranda Tate (the woefully underused Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist who, like Wayne, wants to do some good with the money she has.
Returning favorites include Gary Oldman, back as Commissioner Gordon, and Wayne Enterprises’ CEO Lucius Fox, played again by Morgan Freeman. As Batman’s transportation devices have become characters of their own, Nolan has added a flying machine: part airplane/part helicopter called The Bat. (Other than that, there isn’t much new to his gadgetry. We don’t even get to see Batman’s Bat Wings.)
As the plot goes, it’s pretty simple, even when it gets overstuffed and complicated. Batman is forced out of retirement in order to fight the terrorist Bane from destroying Gotham (isn’t that what all the Batman villains want to do - hit them where will they live?) While the fun first hour (of the almost three hour running time) takes time to set up the central narrative; the remaining two get caught up in side-plots, machinations, and endless montages. At times it feels as though we are watching a trailer because there are so many things being introduced without much development. Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is one of the most engaging things on screen, but we get no backstory and there’s hardly an arc to her character. In fact, she disappears for a chunk of the movie. When she returns there’s a moment of "Oh right! She’s in this!"
Similarly, Bale brings such gravitas to the character of Bruce Wayne that when his alter-ego Batman shows up, it is almost as if he’s in the wrong movie, and Bale seems almost uncomfortable. It’s as if he’s obligated to appear in the suit, but inside he’s thinking "it’s not that kind of movie!" In fact, the film doesn’t seem like a superhero movie at all. This is such a "realistic" take on Batman that it’s as if the filmmakers are embarrassed by the fact it revolves around a guy who dresses up in a bat suit and kicks people around.
It’s not surprising that Warner Brothers is already planning to reboot the franchise with Ryan Reynolds. As blasphemous as some might think this is, if the studio plans on doing a Justice League of America film, (DC comics answer to "The Avengers"), Nolan’s Dark Knight would seem awfully strange next to such super-powered heroes as Wonder Woman and Superman. Nolan’s Dark Knight is too flesh and blood. Too real. While this is a cool take on Batman, it’s also an odd fit for a future group franchise.
For some reason, this modern style worked better in the last film, where you had the super-villain Joker and there were enough nods to comic book antics that it felt like a nice amalgamation. Here, it’s so dour and humorless it’s not a superhero movie at all. Even the fact that they won’t call Selina Kyle Catwoman makes it seem like they didn’t want to belittle themselves by calling her the franchise-driven name she’s always had.
Look, as I complain, I acknowledge there’s quality filmmaking on display here. There’s a lot of flash and dazzle; Nolan and his round of technical wizards are definitely skilled. Fans of his grim approach on the franchise will likely love the film. It seems epic and intense. It feels important and mature. The trouble is, if you look deeper, there really isn’t much going on. Bane is one-note and is saddled with an ADR’d voice that at once sounds cool, but is so disembodied from his actual body that you think there’s a voice-over guy off-screen. Poor Tom Hardy is so hidden by this vice-like mask, he is not even recognizable. Not until a flashback do we even get to see the face we all know. And speaking of recognizable faces, there is a dream-like cameo by an old character that reveals a huge twist so random it feels lazy.
On the flip side, prolific composer Hans Zimmer, of whom I am a big fan and love his film scores, is not lazy. Yet the music is such wall-to-wall cacophony that there is never a moment when there is silence. Even a conversation with Alfred and Bruce Wayne is almost hard to hear with the dramatically loud score going on in the background.
As for Nolan, I wonder if he needs to learn to edit himself - both in the over-stuffed plotting and drawn out storytelling. I mean, when his narrative suddenly jumps ahead three months, it unravels as if it all occurs within three hours. It left me scratching my head. Also Gotham City seems very under-populated. Aside from the orphans that play a role in the story and the police force that appear to be Bane’s target, the city dwellers are non-existent. In "The Dark Knight," there seemed to be more of a direct threat to a large number of people. We worried about the safety of the "common folk." This time we just watch as a billionaire heals himself and then dons a cumbersome suit to save a city that no one appears to be living in. It seemed a bit emotionless. "The Dark Knight Rises" is about Bruce Wayne "self-helping" himself, which is great and all, but dude - it’s not all about you.
Big blockbusters these days don’t necessarily feel like complete movies anymore. They feel like setups for sequels and even here - when we are told it is the Final Chapter - we get little bumps that hint at what could come. But if there is no more, why tease us? Why not just complete the story and make it a well-rounded epic conclusion? Sure, Bruce Wayne learns more about himself and "rises" to challenges he had chosen to leave behind, but I wanted more of a closed-ended story. I wanted more giddy fun. "The Dark Knight" has its moments - most via Hathaway - but it’s all too depressing and gray.
I give kudos for Nolan creating a vision of a familiar legend that really has a distinctive look and feel with a cast and crew that excel; but I, for one, am looking forward to Batman lightening up.