Now what's left to look forward to? Despite the soul crushing heat, the summer is over. The biggest movie of the year has come, one many have been waiting fervently for since the credits rolled on 2008's The Dark Knight -- four years that went by shockingly fast -- and now that it's here ... well, let's just say it's hard to get excited about that Total Recall remake.
And those fervent waiters? They're a touchy bunch. Death threats against critics, leveled by silly internet trolls who take any negative criticism of a property they love as a personal assault -- like Firefly fans with a far more mainstream habit. Ineffectual geeks anonymously attacking critics from the safety of their parents' basements are not new.
Mask to mask. Batman battles Bane in a scene from The Dark Knight Rises.
The fact is none of the films in Nolan's series are perfect: Batman Begins possessed a unique and exciting take on Batman's origin story only to fumble the ball in a third act loaded with clumsily executed action and an oddly unsatisfying climax. The Dark Knight -- still the best of the bunch -- would have benefitted from a more economical story, though that's not much to bitch about in what is ultimately a pretty great film, one in which its namesake character rides shotgun to Heath Ledger's iconic, for-the-ages performance as The Joker and Aaron Eckhart's truncated arc as Two-Face. Throughout, Bale's "Batvoice" is hilarious.
But one of the things that made The Dark Knight such a satisfying film was that it felt like it could have ended there: Gotham's savior is banished, his sacrifices unacknowledged by the citizenry he gave everything to protect -- yet they are finally safe from the chaotic, evil forces that sought to dismember the city (as much of a character as Batman himself) and destroy the very idea of hope. In a way it was perfect; a half-happy ending to a film that was better than its predecessor. In fact, it was unclear whether director Chris Nolan would even make a third film, despite the mad cash that The Dark Knight raked in like bales of hay.
Nolan's reticence was not surprising. The London-born film geek/auteur resists (and generally succeeds at not) being pigeonholed by Hollywood convention. After garnering unlikely mainstream success with Memento, he's followed his first two comic book films with his own unique forays into complexly clockwork and gleefully impassive, original storytelling. The Prestige (2006) was his answer to Batman Begins, a period tale of wickedly cunning, rival magicians who peel back the layers of their personal and professional deceits. Of course, The Dark Knight was followed by the wonderful mind-bender that is Inception (2010).
Those are the movies that are his brand, that ask the audience to let go and be led down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with culturally iconic DC Comics characters. His success in that realm might be an offshoot of the Batman franchise, but the fact is he's getting popcorn audiences into theaters to see narratively complex, tonally layered, deliberately paced films based on his name. Nolan's adherent cinematic talents and pure commerce, crash into an appealing whole that elevates the idea of mass audience appeal through the technical brilliance and creative integrity of his movies, while reinforcing the forgotten idea of the star director.
Happily, The Dark Knight Rises delivers on many of those levels while, ironically, being one Nolan's most unfocused films.
It is 8-years after Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has exiled himself from Gotham City and life is relatively tranquil. The passage of the Dent Act -- named for the White Knight prosecutor Harvey Dent, whom Batman is accused of murdering -- gutted violent mob crime, and it looks as if even Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) might be put out to pasture due to the overabundance of peace.
Meanwhile, Wayne Enterprises has fallen on hard times. Without a clear CEO, and no new innovations besides a money pit, abandoned cold fusion mini-reactor that could theoretically provide free power to all, the cash has been hemorrhaging. It turns out Bruce Wayne has really just been shuffling around the east wing of the Manor for eight years, a fact discovered by Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar sent to get more than jewelry. The wily thief brings Bruce out of reclusion, along with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), whose investment in the fusion reactor entices Bruce to rejoin Gotham society and complete the project, as his philanthropic father might.
But when Commissioner Gordon is critically wounded after discovering an underground (literally) terrorist network led by Bane (Tom Hardy), a respirator-faced, psychopathic badass with anarchy issues, Wayne finds that hiding from his past isn't an option. Despite Alfred's (Michael Caine) best arguments against it, and because of John Blake's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) -- a rookie cop with a personal connection to the caped-one -- Batman finds himself back in the vigilante business.
Nolan (scripting with his brother Jonathan, from a story by Nolan and David S. Goyer) has expanded the scope on almost every level. From the opening sequence where we meet Bane, a Bond-esque affair that finds a twin-engine transport plane being jacked by a giant cargo craft in midair sets a tone of spectacle -- one that is usurped by a clunky set up for the ensuing narrative. We find that Gotham is crime free due to the Dent Act, but how? What powers that didn't exist before make that possible? Was Bruce Wayne really just so bummed out that he limped around one wing of his mansion for 8 years, waiting to be relevant?
The tone is fine, but the jerky plotting and direction through the first hour were the only things that bordered on tedious. The Dark Knight Rises never really drags through its narrative complexities, thanks to being punctuated by cool-looking scenes and fine performances around every corner, and the sense that waiting for Wayne to suit up will pay off (it does). Hamfisted allegories of the contemporary 99 vs. the 1 percent state of economic inequality aside (at one point Selina Kyle quips that while Wayne is broke he still has a mansion), Nolan weaves the delta of plot threads together into a satisfying, more organic and action-packed second half.
The Dark Knight Rises looks amazing. Shot largely on IMAX and 70mm, cinematographer and Nolan regular Wally Pfister's images are coolly atmospheric and beautifully composed. They are both artists making films that are meant to be seen on a 3-story tall screen and they fill that space like few others can. And, finally, Nolan seems to have cracked the way to shoot action sequences that flow with decent spatial coherence, though seemingly at the expense of the narrative fluidity he usually excels at.
Bale is dour as Wayne and fun as Batman -- the Wayne of Rises seems to have sapped the last bit of mirth from the character; the millionaire playboy replaced by the regretful, brooding outcast. Anne Hathaway is game and sexy as Catwoman. Oldman is great, as always -- even though the script sidelines Gordon almost as much as it does Batman. It's Levitt that picks up that slack as Blake, an idealistic Boy Wonder, in a fine turn that would seem to hint at a sequel that will never happen.
But, much like The Dark Knight belonged to The Joker, Rises belongs to Bane. Tom Hardy had a tough act to follow. Bane's brutish physicality and florid speechifying -- in a voice that's what would happen if James Mason played Darth Vader -- set Bane apart and Hardy's performance is superlative considering he's doing it all with only his voice and the top third of his face. Ledger had more to work with.
Closet Space. Christan Bale ponders his wardrobe options in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight Rises' structural flaws aside, it delivers on the expectations of the series and of its director. Some amazing action bolsters a convolutedly-told story whose complexities are as enticing. Is it great? Almost. Really, time will tell.
It's certainly the last.
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