This review contains mild spoilers.
Well well, it seems Marvel’s Avengers really have beaten the Bat at his own game this summer. Kudos. But as a DC fan first and foremost, it’s no less disappointing to see a series so close to my heart end on such a dishearteningly average note. The plot of The Dark Knight Rises, the highly anticipated final entry in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, could be best summed up as “the shit hitting the fan,” and fans expecting anything more, perhaps something as deeply poetic and immensely powerful as the climax of The Dark Knight, are in for a rude awakening.
The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after its predecessor with police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struggling to continue keeping the truth about Harvey Dent’s death a secret. Meanwhile, a publically reviled Batman is no more, now merely crippled, aged recluse Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who has left his company in tatters and refuses even to see anyone outside of faithful butler Alfred(Michael Caine). But when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals one of his most precious family heirlooms, and the ruthless mercenary-with-a-mask Bane (Tom Hardy) begins to rise from the depths and expose the truth about Harvey Dent, Bruce realizes he must once again take up the mantle of the bat to defend a city rapidly plunging into anarchy, with the added help of new Wayne Enterprises CEO Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and idealistic city cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
Nolan’s third and final bat-outing prides itself on its spectacular action sequences. Finally, Batman gets to stand toe-to-toe with one of his baddies; his fistfights with Bane are some of the most brutal and well-shot fight sequences of all three films. Tom Hardy is perfectly cast as the menacing, hulking (if not towering) beast originating from 1994’s Knightfall arc, in which the villain is able to deduce Batman’s identity and systematically take him down. Anne Hathaway is also surprisingly spot-on as Catwoman, perfectly nailing the villainess’ two-sided behavior. And like its predecessors, the film contains a good deal of nuance, thoughtfully presenting themes of rising; for example, Bane and his followers literally existing beneath the city streets and within its sewers, a repressed part of the city that can no longer be contained, just like the lie Gordon’s kept all these years.
But like Gotham itself, The Dark Knight Rises has glaring problems beneath its surface. Most apparent is how the film misguidedly blows itself up to be this huge, epic conclusion to a saga of Lord of the Rings-scale importance. At its core, this story began with, and should always remain true to, a man broken by the death of his parents and sworn to protect the city at all costs. The Dark Knight Rises can’t be faulted for lack of trying to keep to those origins, but its narrative, heavily reliant on side characters, is simply too self-important, pretentious even, for its own good. It’s as if the filmmakers have been influenced by the colossal hype of the previous film in all the wrong ways.
Indeed, unlike its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises favors scale over storytelling, backgrounding many of its finest moments in favor of expensive set pieces for Bane to conquer. I’d feared as much following the similarly indulgent Inception, director Nolan’s previous film and further proof that his style is quickly descending into convoluted, overblown action movie territory. Both films are simply far too expansive, to the point where plot details, character motivations, and any sense of intimacy are all drowned out by their bloated second and third acts. Where The Dark Knight was influenced by the work of Michael Mann, The Dark Knight Rises might have very well been influenced by the work of Michael Bay.
And if The Dark Knight had its critics for not focusing enough on its title protagonist (I personally thought it balanced its characters fine), then The Dark Knight Rises is by far the guiltier of the two. Sure, Bruce Wayne’s character arc is a poignant look at a hero dragged down into deepest pits of the underworld, forced to overcome his weaknesses and rise once again to serve his destined duty. These scenes are arguably the most emotional of the film, yet they’re given a frustratingly scant amount of screentime. For a movie supposedly about Bruce Wayne’s return to the mantle of the bat, the character doesn’t receive nearly the attention he deserves. Even the iconic cape and cowl itself is too infrequently a part of the narrative, lost in a film lacking a central focus and too heavily devoted to forgettable, less interesting newcomers like Gordon-Levitt’s cop character.
Simply put, the focus should’ve been stuck squarely on the film’s returning cast members and its villains. Those are the characters that have spawned so many memorable moments that make these films so fun to watch, yet in The Dark Knight Rises, I can count to number of truly humorous, entertaining, or otherwise standout moments of character interaction on one hand. I’m reminded very vividly of Spider-Man 3, a film which also suffers from many of the same problems. Both films have far too many things they want to accomplish with their final time in the limelight that they don’t really succeed at any of them, and especially not at bringing their characters full circle meaningfully.
In a lot of ways, The Dark Knight Rises is simply a victim of studio upscaling. Similarly, writing about 1997’s abysmal Batman & Robin, Roger Ebert identified the film’s crucial misstep: “My prescription for the series remains unchanged: scale down. We don’t need to see $2 million on the screen every single minute.” It’s for that reason that Nolan’s own Batman Begins, which boasted a far lesser $150 million budget, was such a breath of fresh air. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises was given a massive $250 million budget, a grossly unnecessary amount for a film of this kind. Even the film’s opening sequence, an airplane heist sequence in mid-air, is incredibly overindulgent and not only serves little purpose, but frankly has no place being in a Batman film at all.
I was also rather disgusted with the amount of concessions Nolan seems to have made for fans this time around. Not one to pander up until now, Nolan was known for using his influence to maintain a consistent, singular vision for the previous two Batman films, a resolve made stronger in its resistance to incorporate fan requests for more characters from the comics. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan detracts from pivotal scenes to incorporate pointless cameos from villains past, other appearances from series tropes, and, perhaps most condescending, even taking time at the very end to reveal that a certain hero character is actually a classic character from the Batman mythology, which itself is nonsensical, tacked-on, and heavily deviant from the comics. It’s a new low for Nolan as it is, but to top it all off, we’re given a clumsily handled and horribly written ending so spectacularly lazy and predictable, not only will you guess it within the first fifteen minutes, but it’s so goofy that you’d swear it was written by the mindless masses of fanboys themselves. You would think a director known for shocking surprises and unexpected twists would be able to dream up something several steps ahead of what talentless Internet dwellers hammer out daily in fan fiction circles.
Even Hans Zimmer’s musical score lacks the invigorating bravado of the composer’s previous Batman-related work. With The Dark Knight Rises, he’s adopted new themes and styles for certain scenes, yet none of them really stick. Sure, Bane’s chant made popular in the film’s marketing is memorable enough, but aside from that, I don’t see why Zimmer even bothered to try to reinvent the wheel at this point in the series, when a more traditional score bringing back the themes of its predecessors would’ve been just as welcome.
It’s with a heavy heart that I call The Dark Knight Rises a bit of a disappointment. While the film does hit a lot of the right notes, ultimately it’s more concerned with ending everything in a big, bold, fan-pandering way than doing its predecessors justice and creating a more grounded, thoughtful conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.
Recently, I’ve glanced over headlines hailing Nolan’s Batman films as this generation’s Godfather trilogy. I’m inclined to agree, right down to both trilogies’ similarly anticlimactic third installments.