The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


Nolan ends his Batman trilogy: glossy action, but warm characters too

Nolan’s third and final Batman epic is the big summer blockbuster of 2012. Don’t even think about overlooking it if you follow mainstream movies. It’s destined for and already receiving the double Hollywood dream whammy of equally balanced critical kudos and box office treasure. Only the most eccentric critics (like Rex Reed and Armond White) would consider dismissing or panning it. Like its predecessor The Dark Knight it’s overweaning in its ambition and almost impossible to describe, and there’s more action than there needs to be. What’s all this stuff about a remote medieval-style prison in the desert and a painstaking long climb up out of it? Haven’t we seen that before? There’s too much plot here, with the result that the movie lacks a center. Contemporary political references seem merely tacked on; too much is stuffed in. Nonetheless the stuffing is tidily done. Everything is relatively suave and lucid compared to the previous installment, The Dark Knight, incorporating no doubt lessons Nolan learned making his intricate but precise Inception. If the moral issues of good and evil are complex, the storylines need to be clear, and they are. In the precipitous final segments one particularly enjoys the interweaving of high and low elements. Solemn and epic this may be, but it’s watchable and fun, and if you don’t enjoy the boom-boom action all that much (it sounds sometimes like a Taiko drum team is on constant duty) you can enjoy the actors.

For the beauty of The Dark Knight Rises is that despite all the Bat buggies and nuclear threats, dastardly plots and grand architecture, the contemporary nods to 9/11, Wall Street graft and global warming, this is an old fashioned story about people. Nolan transcends pop art genre by producing a movie that’s smart, yet violent, visually dazzling, but human. At the heart of things are soulful personalities, mellow old folks and young charmers. Of course Heath Ledger as The Joker is gone. Bane (Tom hardy), a supermuscled anarchist with destroy-New York (AKA Gotham City) ambitions and a weird Darth Vader mask muffling his somewhat effete British accent, really can’t take the place of Ledger’s fierce, gleeful theatricality. Sundry lieutenants of Bane also fail to engage one way or the other. A bad guy should be more than just nerdy. But then there are all the charmers. Even the ghost of Liam Neeson comes back for a quick turn, and Cilllian Murphy appears briefly as a kind of grand inquisitor, meting out exile or death

Begin though, with Michael Caine as Alfred, the Wayne family butler, driver, and much more. Imagine Jeeves in a Batmobile. Only Caine could carry if off, and his performances is classic — again. As Commissioner Gordon, Gary Oldman, who has been a chilly villain or just chilly often before, is surprisingly cuddly. Then there’s Bruce Wayne’s technical and commercial right-hand man, Fox: Morgan Freeman. Mr. March of the Penguins himself: is he not the voice of reassurance? Matthew Modine, a newcomer to the series, adds presence as the overambitious policeman Foley. Well into middle age, no longer on a Vision Quest, Modine still seems eager and intense, if most of his “Weeds” smugness is gone.

When Anne Hathaway comes in as Selina, a black-masked, darkly beautiful cat burglar working for the enemy, stealing pearls and fingerprints, who becomes a key, if unreliable, ally, she and Batman fall in together like some stylish Forties detective couple, a Mr. and Mrs. North, lacking only the whit tie and martini. Hathaway may fall short of being the ultimate babe, but she has lips and skin to die for, and a lot of swagger.

But Nolan can even top that, when he brings in Marion Cotillard as Miranda, who’s been involved in a clean energy project for Wayne Enterprises. Cotillard can teach us what a sexy, soulful woman is. This actress is magic. Is there anything she can’t do?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has by now shown that he too can do just about anything. (He’ll be Bruce Willis’ younger self shortly in Looper.) A significant element in Inception, he’s even more important in The Dark Knight Rises, as Blake, a young police officer, later detective, bonded with Bruce Wayne because he’s an orphan. Even though the way Blake’s story is woven into the story is transparent, Gordon-Levitt’s cool assurance and charisma add significantly to the film’s warmth with a kind of Everyman thread.

There are some impressive looking gadgets, but this is not a display of futuristic warfare. Indeed the battles are much of the time just old fasioned hand-to hand ones. Bane and Batman don’t match wits so much as just duke it out. The ritual of a tight schedule to save Gotham City is obviously important, though at times whether it’s worth the effort or not is seriously addressed: Selina begs Bruce to run away with her, urging that he owes the city nothing. But it’s really obvious the Nolans were writing about relationships, and it’s more about how they’re all resolved, with orphans saved and an acolyte off training to replace the retired hero, than about how epic the battles are.

Nolan and his brother, who co-wrote, admittedly aren’t much for humor. None of Spider-Man’s boy in Spandex enjoying superpowers here either. It’s all too complicated even to know what Batman’s powers are, exactly. The movie’s complexly CGI-engineered wow’s and devastation are enhanced with beautiful crisp digital visuals and subtle color, as was Nolan’s Inception. Apart from the human interest, we must be content with that. As Armond White notes, this lacks the exhilaration of (the merely playful, but wonderfully so) Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Fans and fanboys may feel let down — if this is the end of a successful run. But Robin is waiting, so it probably isn’t; and the ending of The Dark Knight Rises offers the warm glow of teasing final shots. This is a slick product, and this time it has more warmth and less confusion.


Film Rating: ★★★★☆

  1. Olly Buxton says

    As you know Chris I tremendously value your opinion, so I think I must have missed something, but I watched the Dark Knight Rises last night with my boys and I thought it was TERRIBLE! Pretty much every action cliche you could ask for (could Nolan really come up with nothing better than a ticking atom bomb? Did we really need the heat-seeking missiles?), one-liners falling stone dead out of actors’ mouths, underinvested, uninteresting bad guys, and generally way, way, way too much plot and far too many characters. Having blown much of Gotham and its surrounds to smithereens, and being armed to the teeth with machineguns and tanks, they all have a punch-up? Should have been an hour shorter and with half the cast.

  2. Chris Knipp says

    Ouch! Well, I value your opinion too, Olly, and I have to admit that I may have gone a little overboard just because I was so happy to have liked this one better than its so highly touted predecessor in the series. The action bits were not its long suit. Is there any better action movie this summer?

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