Monday, July 23, 2012
Review - The Dark Knight Rises
With 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan completes his Batman trilogy, after beginning in 2005 with Batman Begins and continuing with 2008's phenomenon The Dark Knight. People are often apprehensive about the third film in a trilogy, and I'm honestly not a huge fan of Nolan's previous Batman films, in spite of being quite fond of his non-Batman films. I felt that Batman Begins was an entertaining but uneven film that suffered from some weak dialogue, and I felt that The Dark Knight was an overly long film with a few too many subplots that distracted from Heath Ledger's fantastic, haunting take on The Joker. The Hong Kong plot, Coleman Reese's plot, and Harvey Dent's transformation into full-on Two Face all felt like distractions to me. With that, I went into The Dark Knight Rises not expecting anything spectacular, and was quite surprised; I feel that this is easily the best of Nolan's Batman films.
The film begins eight years after The Dark Knight. Gotham City is largely devoid of crime due to a totalitarian crime law known as the Dent Act, a law which strips due process from the criminal justice system and perverts the message that Harvey Dent preached before his death in the previous film. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) haunts Wayne Manor without purpose, completely isolated from the outside world and from his family's businesses. He has given up his Batman persona since taking the blame for Dent's death, and now sits wasting away waiting either to die, or, as loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) says, "Waiting for things to get bad again."
Things get bad quickly, as a mercenary group led by a masked muscle man named Bane (Tom Hardy) comes to town and begins causing trouble. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) feels the same longing for the bad old days that Bruce Wayne does, and quickly pursues Bane's thugs into an underground lair where he's badly injured before being found by John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young, idealistic police officer clean from the corruption that touches every other part of the force. This new threat, along with a visit from professional cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, who is never called Catwoman during the film, but does occasionally wear cat ears), wakes Bruce Wayne up from his funk, giving him an opportunity to take up his cape and mask once again.
In addition to Blake and Bane, this film features a number of other important new characters, including John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), a corrupt businessman looking for a way to take control of Wayne Enterprises, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), an investor who has financed a clean energy product that Bruce Wayne has pumped an enormous amount of his company's funds into. Morgan Freeman also returns as gadget expert Lucius Fox, adding a lively spark to the otherwise dour Wayne Enterprises.
From here on, this review will discuss major events and themes in the film, including a discussion of its ending. Stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.
When we first meet Bruce Wayne in this film, he is limping, using a cane to get around. His bones are severely damaged from years of violence as Batman, and his spirit is at the lowest point we've yet seen. He mourns the death of Rachel, portrayed by Katie Holmes in the first film and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight, who died at the hands of The Joker during the second film. (While Rachel is mentioned several times, The Joker himself is never mentioned at all, leaving a bit of an odd narrative disconnect.) Both Alfred and Fox encourage him to get back into the world, not as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne. Neither wants to watch him rot away in his mansion.
Wayne first encounters Selina Kyle during a benefit at his mansion in honor of Harvey Dent, beginning his reawakening to the real world. Selina poses as a maid to infiltrate Wayne Manor, in a piece of extremely convincing acting by Hathaway, where she attempts to rob a safe along with taking a sample of Bruce's fingerprints for nefarious purposes. Bruce, refusing to mingle with the visitors in his own house, catches her in the act while lurking around in a private room. Hathaway's demeanor changes instantly from a demure servant who speaks quietly and avoids eye contact to a confident, mocking figure not afraid to bust up a man on a cane in order to get her prize.
Hathaway plays both personalities perfectly, and uses a similar trick later on to get out of a bad situation. I'm instantly reminded of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow in this summer's earlier blockbuster The Avengers; both characters wear black leather and use in-film acting skills to manipulate other characters. The big difference is that Hathaway's transformations are entirely convincing, while Johansson's never are for a second, and while Johansson's character feels like an awkward excuse for fanservice, Hathaway's is a legitimate, well-rounded character who is never filmed in an exploitative way (there's one moment that could be seen as fan service, but it's not even the focus of the shot and does nothing to lessen her strength as a character). I went in expecting another Black Widow, especially given the terrible design of Selina's razor-sharp high heels, but instead found the most morally interesting, and most human, character in the Nolan Batman series.
Selina Kyle/Catwoman functions as both an antagonist and an ally throughout the film. She begins the film representing herself as a Robin Hood figure, taking from the rich to give to the poor, but there's no indication that she's looking out for anyone but herself. She learns the dangers of blind idolatry and selfishness and rises up as a heroic figure by the end.
Selina, along with Officer Blake, provides the human core of the story. It's hard to relate to the desperate madness of both Bruce and Bane, but these two characters are strong, likable, and charismatic. Blake, like Bruce, is an orphan who lost his parents at an early age and became consumed with rage. Instead of taking the path of violent vigilantism that Bruce follows, Blake becomes a police officer and spends time working with troubled youths at his old orphanage. He's a purely good character, and serves as a light mirror of Batman; instead of trying to save the city through violence and fear, Blake does his best to protect it through kindness and supporting social programs, some of which were once financed by Wayne Enterprises before its portfolio began to crumble. About half way through the film, Bruce loses a fight with Bane and is sidelined for a good deal of time, and Blake becomes the film's protagonist.
While Blake is a light mirror of Batman, Bane provides a dark mirror. He is Batman taken to an extreme that Bruce Wayne could never go to; both men are trained fighters with connections to the League of Shadows, but while Bruce rejects the League's violence and nihilism in Batman Begins, Bane relishes in it. Both are raised to use darkness to their advantage, and both count their personal value more as symbols than as men. While Batman's mask covers everything but his mouth and chin, Bane's covers these areas exclusively, leaving the rest of his head fully exposed.
In Batman Begins, Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) leads the League on a mission to destroy Gotham City through a ridiculous, cartoonish scheme involving a giant microwave ray evaporating water and blowing stuff up (people who argue that these films center on realism might want to take a look at this mustache-twirling plot again). Bane takes it several steps forward, enlisting a band of deeply dedicated followers to take control of the city, cutting it off from the outside world, and threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb five months after putting the city through hell.
At first it seemed stupid to me that Bane would bother trying to rule the city for months if he was ultimately just going to nuke it, but thinking on it more, he functions like an animal that plays with its prey before killing and eating it. There's really no purpose behind letting the city live (he rants about allowing hope before casting one down to despair, but this is largely puffery from a man who loves to hear himself talk) but it's in his sadistic nature to do so anyway. He also really likes being able to thumb his nose at Bruce Wayne, or would if it wasn't covered in a breathing mask at all times. The plan gets a further layer of irony when the nuclear device Bane uses to take the city hostage is actually the core of Wayne Enterprise's clean energy project. There are lots of years of scheming here to pull this plan off, but I'm sure it would have cost billions of dollars less and taken far fewer years if Bane had just stolen a regular nuclear bomb or bought one on a black market. Still, the League loves theatricality.
After an unsuccessful attempt to stop Bane, Bruce Wayne is thrown into a well-style prison somewhere else in the world controlled by the League. Though Bane refers to it as Hell on Earth, things have definitely changed quite a bit in the time from when Bane was last there and when Bruce is dumped in, as all of the prisoners he encounters treat Bruce with friendship and encouragement or, at worst, indifference. Bruce spends most of the five months of Bane's reign of terror in this prison before eventually rising out with a new-found will to live.
Bruce isn't the only one imprisoned; Bane uses some complicated silliness involving explosive concrete to trap almost every police officer in Gotham underground for months with no way out. With no law and order, Bane and company run wild, tearing apart the economic strongholds of the city. Bane leads a faux-populist movement, giving charismatic speeches about tearing down the rich and giving back to the poor, but there's no truth behind his words; he comes to Gotham on the whims of billionaires and leads an army made up of paid mercenaries and freed prisoners. The common people of Gotham mostly hide in their homes in fear, doing their best to stay out of his way. Bane's ultimate goal is to blow up the city, so there's no reason for anyone to believe that he has any class's best interest in mind.
At first glance, Bane seems to be a heavy-hitter without a whole lot of substance. His fight scenes (choreographed in a crystal clear manner, with none of the obnoxious shakeycam and extreme close-ups that plague the last two films) are straight hand-to-hand brawls, and his appearance is that of a professional wrestler (unfortunately, he does not wear the luchador mask he bears in the comics). What makes him more interesting are the subtle touches. He is given a backstory, but we later learn that it's not his story. We know he spent time in the prison Bruce ends up in but little beyond that.
I believe, like Bruce Wayne, Bane is meant to be a child of privilege, living a high class life prior to his incarceration. His voice is a big part of this; it's high, polite, and carries a lilt, the exact opposite of what you'd expect from a battle-scarred soldier of fortune. While he struts around, he holds his lapels and suspenders in balled fists, calling to mind Washington fat cats and southern gentlemen. He appreciates the angelic voice of a child singing the National Anthem, and reenacts scenes from A Tale of Two Cities (from the storming of Gotham City's own Bastile analogue to the mock court in which enemies of the revolution are tried and executed). Bane is a cultured man with a monstrous side, not a monster attempting to appropriate culture. This is necessary to show just how close Bruce Wayne had once come to being exactly this kind of man.
Bane inspires, through fear and perversions of justice, two techniques Batman himself employs heavily in the previous two films. In Batman Begins, Bruce tries to curtail crime through a campaign of fear and intimidation. In The Dark Knight, he illegally monitors the cellphones of every citizen in Gotham in order to capture the Joker, and uses a lie (Harvey Dent's heroism) to inspire the city, leading to the world of the Dent Act, in which police power runs unchecked as legal rights fall by the wayside. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce realizes this isn't working, and instead uses courage and self sacrifice to inspire true heroes like Blake, Gordon, and Selina to fight to save the people of Gotham. He has always saved the day, but through dirty methods. He knows he can't judge Selina, since he himself has plenty of metaphorical blood on his hands, even if he refuses to kill criminals. Bruce fully embraces his Batman persona as a symbol, leading to one final act of self sacrifice that inspires a new generation of heroes to embrace truth and justice. It's no coincidence that after two and two-thirds movies with Batman punching bad guys in the dark that this film ends with a fight in broad daylight against an opponent who knows exactly who and what he is. In the end, he has risen mentally from his depression, physically from his prison, and emotionally from the remorse of his parents and Rachel's deaths.
While Bane's motivations might seem cartoonish and there's a terrible, unearned last minute revelation about someone pulling strings from behind the scenes, I really enjoyed the way this movie built its plot and characters. Unlike The Dark Knight, I wouldn't cut any subplots, though I'd reduce the length of some of the chase scenes and I'd probably dump the Pentagon Danger Room scenes that pop up during the climax. In spite of being even longer than Nolan's last two films, I feel that this one is paced decently enough for its length to not be a real issue. The core character journeys here are good.
There are a lot of little touches I liked, without going into too much depth. The score is strong and very memorable, even if, yes, the chanting throughout really does sound like people chanting "fish fish pasta." The aforementioned Tale of Two Cities references, along with Gordon reading a passage from that novel toward the film's end, adds a fun layer to dig through. The fact that a corrupt police force must literally find its way out of a sewer before it can be reborn and righteously protect its city is a little blunt but effective. Bruce going to a socialite party where everyone else is physically wearing masks, while he wears the persona of Bruce Wayne as an emotional mask, is a good touch. The city and our heroes actually feel like they're in danger, and the action scenes have weight to them, in stark contrast to the big street brawl in Avengers, which might as well have been action figures thrown at one another. There is a scene in which a few men are executed off screen and then seen dead in a very detached manner through a newscast that I found guttural and absolutely horrific. It's a strikingly disturbing image that stuck with me, in spite of being mostly silhouette seen from afar. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, I see Batman rampaging through the city trying to find a way to dispose of a bomb in part as a funny callback to Adam West's Batman film. Somedays, you just can't get rid of a bomb.
The film is heavily political, but in a muddled manner. I don't mean that the way I mean it about Avengers, where politically loaded images are thrown at the screen and then ignored. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane's revolution bears superficial similarity to the Occupy Wall Street movement, commencing in an actual attack on Wall Street. At a glance, this can seem like an anti-populist message, in spite of the fact that Bane certainly is not a Man of the People and has no actual interest in class warfare beyond the anarchy it would ignite. At the same time, there is blatant corruption in both the police force and in the wealthy, both using backhanded deals to get what they want. The Occupy-style imagery is the strongest because of the visual memorability of the movement in the real world, but this film isn't a condemnation of any one social class or movement; rather, it's an attack on blind idolatry, whether it be Bane's followers dying for him with a smile or Gotham's citizens sanctifying Harvey Dent in spite of his criminal acts. Its ultimate political message is "Do good to your fellow man, and those that have should give to those who need." Bruce Wayne's final contribution to Gotham in this film doesn't come from defeating Bane; it comes from donating his mansion as a new home for Gotham's orphans and using what's left of his money to give them a better life.
In spite of dripping with a sense of dread and nihilism during its darkest moments, The Dark Knight Rises ends more optimistically than any non-Adam West Batman film. I wasn't a big fan of the League of Shadows plot in Batman Begins, and I wish it hadn't been quite as prominent in this new film as it was, but my complaints are mostly minor. I would have liked to see Bruce sneaking back into Gotham after his escape from prison. I wish Michael Caine had more scenes. Some dialogue, especially from Gordon while he's in the hospital, was kind of hard for me to hear. It definitely could have been shorter. I don't think the second villain reveal was necessary at all. In spite of that, I think this is a stronger film than Nolan's previous Batmans, and I'm glad he has evolved past the weirdly off-putting pacing of The Dark Knight and Inception. While the film leaves a few story avenues open for potential sequels, Bruce Wayne's time in Gotham City is over, and he's finally able to move on. I say he's had a hard life; let him get some rest.