Tuesday, August 07, 2012

In Theaters: The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises poster
Poster via IMPAwards.com

At this point there's no shortage of opinions about The Dark Knight Rises; even mentioning that it's the last in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman pictures is just saying what most people know already. But it's been just polarizing enough that I feel like weighing in. No, it's not as good as The Dark Knight. It's long and it does take a while to get going. But the payoff is remarkable in its scope and complexity; it's a memorable portrait of social breakdown that touches on issues of the day without feeling confined by them. And it provides the Batman story with an ending that, in a way, is as fitting as Frank Miller's legendary The Dark Knight Returns.

The story opens with Batman (Christian Bale, still growling) absent from Gotham in the wake of taking the fall for Harvey Dent's death- however, in the years he's been gone, organized crime is a thing of the past in Gotham City, and a reclusive Bruce Wayne starts to wonder if maybe his time is past already. (It doesn't help that years of fighting crime have left his bones brittle and his joints with less cartilage than is thought possible for non-pro-wrestlers.) But he can't really walk away when a masked mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) appears in Gotham, at first working for a Wayne Enterprises board member but soon implementing his own plan to plunge the city into chaos. With some assistance from Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an expert cat burglar, Batman tracks Bane down, only to be crippled and thrown into a gulag as the masked villain unleashes a wave of terror while promising to set the city free.

It's been hard to avoid talking about this movie without talking about politics. Bane sets himself up as a revolutionary leader, offering the people hope for freedom from the old structures and a reckoning for its corrupt, moneyed overclass. Some have pointed to parallels with the Occupy Wall Street movement (though the time frame involved in making this film probably means any resemblance is coincidental), or even the Tea Party, but even if the film puts the revolting masses on the side of the bad guys, it's not easy to pin down ideologically. Bane offers a false revolt against capitalist society, but there are explicit parallels between the false hope he offers Gotham and the false hope of the American ideal, the dream that anyone can claw their way to the top. And it doesn't shy away from the problems of Bruce Wayne, an individual who is "the hero Gotham needs", at least that's what he thinks, but also a child of privilege who has lost touch with the tragedy that made him a hero and whose secretive projects and poor moral decisions now backfire on him. There's a sense that he, and Gotham, have had this coming, even if order must inevitably be restored by movie's end.

There's a lot going on, and not only does the setup take a while, it feels a little formless. There's not enough of a driving force behind the movie's first act. I'm all for slow buildup when it's justified, but it definitely seems like the story could be told more efficiently, at least at the outset. Then again, this is easy to forgive once Bruce dons the cowl again and Bane begins his campaign- the pace of the rest of the film is relentless, and there's an authentic sense of the danger and the thrill of revolution, the rush of society being turned on its head. The action scenes are much improved from the first two installments, since Nolan learned with Inception how to keep the action in frame, and it helps that Tom Hardy as Bane is a legitimately intimidating physical presence (yet with an intriguingly cultured voice.)

There are a number of good performances in this film- Michael Caine's take on Alfred is wonderful as ever, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are comfortable in their old roles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent impression as a police officer who is fascinated by the Batman. Hathaway as Kyle is simply inspired casting, not just because she looks very nice in leather but because she projects confidence and a swagger that suggests she leads a very interesting life that she hasn't fully told us about. Marion Cotillard is a welcome addition to the cast, and while Bale's gravelly Batman voice has been slightly ruined by Community, his last run as Bruce Wayne is a strong one.

And the last run this is, at least for this particular incarnation of the Batman character. The trilogy represents something remarkable, a series of Hollywood blockbusters for which a director was given largely free reign to reinterpret recognized and iconic characters in a style that pushes at the edges of the PG-13 action spectacle, creating in the audience genuine discomfort and uncertainty as to what will happen. When you go into a Batman movie not even knowing if Batman will survive, something special has been accomplished. The Dark Knight Rises is a strongly crafted and thematically suited conclusion to a saga of one man standing against chaos while struggling not to lose his soul. It's possible to overpraise these films, but they absolutely should not be overlooked.

Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger
Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
DIrected by Christopher Nolan

Grade: A-

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