Batman’s Back, Alright!
The third film in a trilogy is by far the hardest to do right. You have to conclude the arc you’ve set up in the first two films, introduce new characters, and find some way to live up to the obsessive fanboy hype. Few franchises ever succeed at making it work perfectly (only Toy Story immediately comes to mind). And although The Dark Knight Rises comes super close, it is far from a perfect ending.
The major problem comes with our central plot – a story so convoluted from the outset, it took about an hour of intense post-show discussion to really wrap my head around what the hell was going on. There’s a ton of stuff about clean energy, and nuclear reactors, and company acquisitions, and weapons sectors, and political gain, and economic separation. And truthfully, it’s all just too much. The first half of the movie, you’re circling around wondering where to place your focus. And once the central plot starts – pardon the pun – rising to the surface, the payoff isn’t as satisfying as you’d like it to be.
It’s surprising since the story was written by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan – who between the two of them, have written excellent movies with incredibly intricate plots (see: Inception, The Prestige, and Memento). But for some reason, the duo gets caught up in the details, making it challenging for the audience to know where to place focus.
That also could be because there are 100 characters to follow. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle mysteriously traipse in and out of the picture, walking the line of friend or foe each time. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine), and newcomer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are all given substantial plotlines adding up to considerable screen-time –almost as much as much as Christian Bale’s Batman himself. Alfred (Michael Caine) has a lot to do in the film early on. Wayne Enterprise CEO Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) and newbie Philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) both are crucial pieces to the film’s sophisticated puzzle. Then there’s Dr. Leonid Pavel (Alon Abutbul), Roland Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), and his associate, played by Burn Gorman; three characters who have an awful lot to do considering they’re barely even mentioned on the film’s IMDB page.
All that and we haven’t even gotten to our main antagonist: Tom Hardy’s Bane – who, as those who saw the first 6-minutes of the film that aired before Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol will know, opens our story. Bane, like Scarecrow in Batman Begins and the Joker in The Dark Knight before him, is desperate to see chaos run amuck in Gotham City. For Bane, it’s an attempt to return Gotham to the people – a “haves vs. have-nots” battle that echoes the “we are the 99%” battle cries of today’s Occupy movement. Bruce Wayne must decide whether he steps in as Batman to save Gotham, or watch it destroy itself, just as he has always predicted it would.
I’ll let you guess what he decides.
It’s funny. Both Spider-Man 3 and Batman and Robin were considered franchise killers because of their fragmented plots and overabundance of characters. In many ways The Dark Knight Rises suffers from the same woes, but pulls out brilliant performances and a strong second/third act – both of which redeem 90% of the film’s troubles.
See, once you get past the initial plot hump and the action starts to pick up, The Dark Knight Rises becomes an incredibly fun move to watch. The action sequences are the best we’ve seen yet, and the “Bat toys” (planes, motorcycles, cars, etc) will have your inner kid jumping for joy. Christopher Nolan’s direction has never looked better, aided beautifully by cinematographer Wally Pfister. There are some shots in the film that will simply take your breath away. And Hans Zimmer has crafted a suspenseful score that keeps your heart beating out of your chest for nearly three hours.
The performances are stellar as always. Christian Bale continues his compelling portrayal of the caped crusader. His Batman-voice is still strange as all hell, but Bale makes it work by grounding Wayne in such emotional complexities. Oldman’s character takes on a particularly unexpected turn, as the troubles of the last film weigh heavily on our commissioner’s soul. It’s a change in Gordon that Oldman depicts perfectly. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt reveals wide-eyed optimism, moral humanity, and the overall enthusiasm needed to bring some light to the dark story.
The biggest surprise is Anne Hathaway, who does wonders with Selina Kyle. Hathaway is an actress who is sometimes great and other times… One Day. But here, Hathaway is smart, sultry, and fun as hell. Never campy like those who’ve played the part in the past, she’s by far the best addition to the cast, and makes Selina Kyle a representative of the 99% we can all relate to.
Oh. And then there’s Tom Hardy’s Bane. The good news is that Bane’s nowhere as terrible here as he was in Batman and Robin. The bad news? Bane’s nowhere as memorable a Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. (Then again, how could he be?). Hardy’s a compelling actor, and many of the choices he makes here are good ones. Still no matter how many post-production edits they made to his voice, he’s still often hard to understand. And the mystery surrounding his “there can be no true despair without hope” message makes him a pretty lackluster villain.
You know, both Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale have been very vocal about the fact that this will be their last Batman film together. Whether Warner Bros carries the franchise through, of course, is another thing. There are clearly places they can take the story. God knows the studio is desperate for a successful franchise. And in the candy-coded world of superhero films The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man provide, I think we need a darker hero like Batman all the same. Still, I hope The Dark Knight Rises closes the chapter on this franchise for just a little while. Although the last chapter has flaws, Nolan has crafted a beautiful trilogy. In this case, the whole is greater than its parts.