The Dark Knight Rises (Movie Review)

The Dark Knight Rises movie poster

The Dark Knight Rises

Though I haven’t made it to a lot of movies this year, I did see a couple during the summer months that I never got around to discussing. Since I’m in catch-up mode now, this week I’ll post some reviews that I should have written months ago. First up, The Dark Knight Rises.

Though Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have been praised for their weighty take on the character, his secret is that he simply puts a serious sheen on the old stories we are comfortable with. Pretty much any Batman story, no matter how campy, can be translated into the Nolan Style with minimal effort. For example:

Scene: The Bat-Copter flies over the ocean. A Bat-ladder drops down, and Batman begins his decent to the water. Suddenly, a shark attacks!

Robin: Holy Sardine!

Batman (To Robin): Hand me down the Shark Repellant Bat-Spray!

Becomes…

Scene: An experimental military helicopter flies over the ocean, Batman approaches the water, lowered by a rope from a remote-controlled winch. Suddenly, a shark attacks!

Robin: <Robin says nothing. Batman works alone.>

Flashback to a Waynetech R&D room. Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox are talking.

Wayne: I hear there is a shark problem in the waters where I’ll be doing my… extreme diving.

Fox: Well, we do have a way to drive them off. Too bad Waynetech could never convince those penny-pinchers at the Pentegon to fund it beyond the prototype stage.

Though I can make it sound silly, this has been incredibly successful, especially since Warner is willing to put the sort of budget and talent into these stories that would make just about any movie enjoyable. Some cracks in the serious façade began to appear in the second half of the previous movie, when The Joker suddenly transformed from a scrappy improv murderer to big-budget criminal mastermind, and Harvey Dent became a gimmicky psychopath with little more justification than “We all know this is supposed to happen, right?” The fact that that was still a masterpiece is a testament to the skills of everyone involved.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have the same quality material to build on, though. Instead of Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker interpretation, this features Bane, a stilted tough guy in a breathing mask that makes his voice more ridiculous than Batman’s. The movie has great potential, since it’s telling a single story with an ending that lets it do things to its characters that the comics could never allow. But the seven years Bruce Wayne has spent as a recluse end up meaning little more than a chance for him to go through the same sort of training he had in the first movie. And Gotham spends three months under siege in an unprecedented way, but we barely see the psychological adjustment or cultural changes within the city; Instead, it’s just a chance for people to shout about how serious this is. Meanwhile, the talents and motivations of the villains never fit the convoluted plot they come up with. Beneath the violent exterior, their logic has changed little since Adam West’s days as Batman.

Other parts work out better. Anne Hathaway’s character is perfect in every sense except that it doesn’t feel like she’s portraying the character of Catwoman. As her own ass-kicking thief, though, she is everything that Tom Hardy’s Bane fails to be. (To be fair to Hardy, the writing of Bane gave him nothing to work with. Catwoman’s success is a mix of the writing and Hathaway’s talents, though.) Also, the continuing story about Bruce Wayne’s own mental health reaches a surprisingly powerful conclusion, thanks to the movie’s ability to go places that an ongoing serial can’t allow. (This is especially important because these movies are the first Batman stories I’ve seen, in any medium, to make Bruce Wayne a real character instead of an occasional mask for Batman. While I don’t think of this as the canonical version of Batman, my mental image of Bruce Wayne now is the one Christian Bale portrays.)

The saving grace of the movie is that, like the rest of the trilogy, the Warner budget and Nolan’s drama-meets-summer-blockbuster sensibilities still make this a gripping experience. Everything, from the score to special effects to cinematography, are excellent, and while I complain about the believability of some situations, the actors never give any hint that this isn’t real to them. The movie veers wildly between fascinating and ridiculous, but always with a professionalism that makes suspension of disbelief possible.

To twist around an over-quoted line, The Dark Knight Rises is not the ending this trilogy deserved, but it is the ending it needed. It provides clear demonstrations not only of what makes “serious” superhero movies work, but of the ways they can fail when they take the wrong shortcuts. I hope the right people are taking notes. In the meantime, while this doesn’t give us the series-ender that we all hoped for, it still provides worthwhile closure and a fun action movie experience.

Grade: B-

 
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