This one doesn’t stumble at the finish line: My review of The Dark Knight Rises

It has been said that Christopher Nolan got around to making the Batman trilogy after his pitch for a movie about Howard Hughes was rejected in favour of Martin Scorcese’s idea (which would turn into the tedious, seemingly never-ending The Aviator). We should all be thankful. Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment of Nolan’s series, leaves little doubt that Nolan is done with caped crusader movies, but leaves room for someone to take the torch and carry on and/or produce at least one spinoff. DKR is not the series’ best film, the story has its flaws, but overall it’s a worthy conclusion to what has been a truly great series.

The film takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, years during which Gotham City has enjoyed unprecedented peace as Batman’s plan of using Harvey Dent and his death as a symbol has worked out as anticipated. Yet, the atmosphere is all doom-and-gloom. Never had peace felt so apocalyptic. Gotham lawmakers have put together the Dent Act, which has denied parole to Gotham’s deadliest criminals. The question of whether they would even have been eligible for parole given how dangerous they are  is avoided.

The plan suits Bruce Wayne (once again played by Christian Bale) just fine, as he goes recluse mourning the death of his great love Rachel Dawes. He has retired Batman and lives as a hermit in Wayne Manor. Why he walks around with a cane is never quite explained. As class warfare tugs away at the city, Wayne is forced out of seclusion by a new villain, Bane (Inception’s Tom Hardy), whose attack on the stock market leaves Wayne Entreprises broke.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t crazy about having Bane as a villain. First off, he always struck me a second-tier Batman baddie, a lesser villain compared to  the Joker, the Penguin or the Riddler. However, Nolan manages to give Bane another dimension, as he did with the Joker in The Dark Knight. In the film, Bane is an excommunicated member of the League of Shadows which, for those who might not know or remember, is the league of assassins led by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul to destroy Gotham City in Batman Begins.

Tom Hardy is a good actor and I like what Nolan does with him, but there are limits to what the pair can do with this character. Hardy has moments when he expresses surprisingly strong emotion with his eyes alone, but that mask, which looks like a cross between that of Hannibal Lecter and the Sub-Zero/ Scorpion/ Reptile masks from Mortal Kombat, robs him of charisma. One might also wonder why bother leading the criminals of Gotham City through an insanely complex revolution when his second plan is to nuke the entire city. True, Bane says the idea is for Bruce to suffer, and I admire the single-mindedness, but there has to be a simpler way to break a man.

With Rachel Dawes gone (good riddance, in my opinion), the film establishes a James Bond-like love triangle. Indeed, Bruce finds himself attracted to both master thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) as well as uber-successful humanitarian businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, another Inception alum). Batman connaisseurs know Selina Kyle to be Catwoman, but she is not referred to by that name a single time during the film. Tate is a mysterious and attractive woman (there is one specific shot near the very end of the film where you can’t help but look at Marion Cotillard and go “oh my!”) who seems obsessed with collaborating with Wayne.

Of course, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine return as Lucius Fox and Alfred, respectively. As usual, both of them do good work. Caine has truly gone through a fine-wine kind of progression during his career and, in two specific scenes, he gives us acting of astonishing quality. In DKR, Alfred is determined to convince Bruce to give up on Batman for good and drives home his point very forcefully. Freeman plays his usual wise and caring figure, but the movie doesn’t require as much from him.

Gary Oldman returns as Commissioner Gordon, who struggles to bear the burden of the lie that protects the memory of Harvey Dent. Visions of Dent threatening to kill his son (in The Dark Knight) haunt him. He has a speech written, in which he explains everything to the people of Gotham, but decides to wait a little longer before revealing the truth. It’s disappointing to see Gordon reduced to just a few scenes after he was so prominent in the first two films. I can’t figure out why it was deemed convenient to move this important character aside until the final third of the film.

As has been the case with Nolan’s first two Batman movies, DKR is not just a superhero movie. Whereas the first two dealt with more universal philosophical questions, this one drips with references to current events. The parallels with the economic crisis as well as the Occupy movement will be lost on no one. And one of the film’s strong points is that while Bane is a strong and imposing character, Nolan returns to using Bruce Wayne as his main subject matter. The downside to that surely has to be that before the final few scenes, we see very little of Batman. I found that delving so deeply into Bruce Wayne somewhat offset this, but it’s sure to bother some people.

The purist in me also isn’t crazy about the relationships the movie builds between Bruce/ Batman and the two women of the film (Catwoman and Miranda Tate). Still, I accept them because, from a narrative standpoint, they holds up. Besides, given how many movies I’ve defended from purists because the films dared defy the lore on which they were based, it would be wrong of me to lambast this one for the editorial decisions that went behind its version of the story.

At two hours and 45 minutes, the film is on the long side, but it doesn’t feel that long. Moreover, it is worth sticking to if for nothing else than the final half-hour, which has been crafted with mind-blowing cleverness. We are starting to know Christopher Nolan better, as well as his preferred storytelling strategies, and it’s fun to spot them as he refuses not finish anything he starts (see the last time Bruce and Alfred meet in the film). And that ending is, for lack of a better word, perfect.

Besides, Nolan might be done with the saga, but the table is set for it to carry on or to take off in a different direction, thanks in large part to an honest and intrepid cop with a bright future played by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.

The inevitable recap

One thing I keep hearing about DKR is that it lacks the near-perfection of The Dark Knight. To me, the near-perfection in Nolan’s Batman trilogy is, and always was, Batman Begins. Sure, part of it was because it was a return to strength for Batman after the lamentable Joel Schumacher movies. But I liked that there was so much to explore about Batman himself beyond the villains, and that Begins tested those waters. The Dark Knight is my least favourite film in the series because it got away from that, albeit to give us Heath Ledger’s exceptional take on the Joker (though some of the postmortem hype was overblown to a degree).

But by focusing on the villain, Nolan brought us back into superhero movie convention, which is not as interesting a place as where he took us with Begins. I loved that in Begins, the villain is not so much one person, or even a handful of people, but practically the whole of a decaying city. The ending of The Dark Knight, due in equal parts to the utter implausibility of the scheme put together to preserve Harvey Dent’s memory and to the pretentious speech they force Gary Oldman to give his son (and by extension, us), undermined what was up to this point a truly terrific story. Despite DKR’s flaws, I like that it gets back to dealing with Bruce Wayne and with the complicated relationships in his life. And as always, the action is insanely well done and captivating.

There are criticisms you can throw at this film, but it manages to do something extremely hard: not to be the significantly inferior final act of a great series. To most people (excluding myself), this is the lesser instalment in the series, but no one can accuse it of being considerably inferior to the others. This is the kind of strong, fascinating finale that can only exist when the first two episodes give it every possible tool to succeed. Many final thirds from terrific trilogies fail where this one succeeds, so the impressive nature of this accomplishment should not be underestimated.

Besides, the fact that it keeps pace with the Begins and The Dark Knight means that Nolan has succeeded from beginning to end in making three superhero films that not only dazzle our eyes, but engage our minds, captivate our imagination and move our hearts. When Begins came out seven years ago, it set the bar so high for superhero movies that most people who have made such films since haven’t even tried to meet Nolan’s standards. And while it’s great to finally see someone with the wisdom to quit while he’s ahead, as Nolan is doing, I’m very sad to this saga either end or get passed on to filmmakers of lesser talent. This is the best series of superhero movies that I’ve ever seen, or expect to see.

At the very end of Batman Begins, then-lieutenant Gordon, mimicking our gratitude after two-and-a-half hours of redemption from the Joel Schumacher era, tells Batman “I never said ‘Thank you.’” To which Batman replies “And you’ll never have to.” Well, thanks anyways, Christopher.

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