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Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Let me preface this review by adding my condolences for everyone involved with the appalling mass shooting that occurred in Aurora, CO during the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.  On July 20, 2012 we were reminded that indeed “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  On behalf of the cast and crew of the film, director Christopher Nolan expressed their “profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community.”  He notes how the shared experience of watching a movie unfold onscreen is “an important and joyful pastime,” and he is devastated by the idea that someone would violate the innocence and hopeful place of the movie theater in such an “unbearably savage way” (for the rest of his statement, click here).  So once again, The Modern Allegory would like to offer its thoughts and prayers for the families, friends and victims of the horrendous assault.

With so much hype surrounding the release of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, little needs to be said about how groundbreaking and incredible the first two films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), were in reinventing and establishing the gold standard for comic-book adaptations and superhero films.  Also, with Nolan proving to be a masterful, imaginative writer-director, the anticipation for this film could not be any higher, especially after his brilliant Inception (2010).  So after four years of waiting with unbelievable expectations, the film has at last arrived, and though it has disappointed many viewers, it is still a very good, sometimes great film that once again surpasses its rivals on almost all accounts (its predecessors notwithstanding).

From an engrossing plot and well-developed characters grounded in heightened reality and humanity to the virtuoso direction, pulse-pounding score, spectacular and immersive visuals and remarkable ensemble performances, The Dark Knight Rises provides audiences with an epic, inspiring and emotionally satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s Bruce Wayne/Batman story.  Furthermore, it rewards viewers on multiple viewings, as it feels greater after time and as part of the whole trilogy.  While the film certainly has its share of flaws, such as the inconsistent pace, frustrating plot conveniences/holes and clunky dialogue at times, it is a grand finale that wonderfully bookends the legendary series.  However, even Nolan seemed to overreach in his ambitious attempt to satisfy everyone here, making The Dark Knight Rises feel like a lesser work from the filmmaker’s relatively young yet storied career.  Nonetheless, it is still superior to most blockbusters, despite some spotty execution, and the trilogy should go down as one of the best of all time.

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The conclusion begins eight years after Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s murders.  As a result of a newly formed piece of striking criminal legislation, the Dent Act, the police and government swiftly cleaned up Gotham and established peace, albeit tenuously given the lie it was founded upon.  During that time, Bruce Wayne retired Batman and became a recluse in his rebuilt Wayne Manor.  Meanwhile, the brutal terrorist leader Bane quietly invaded the city with an underground army and nefarious plans for Gotham and the Caped Crusader in particular.  Despite his older age and deteriorated body, mind and soul, Bruce is drawn out after he learns about the slow failing of Wayne Enterprises.  Also, a mysterious cat burglar named Selina Kyle steals from Wayne and leads him to investigate Bane.  Wayne must overcome his haunted past, from his deep hatred for criminals (stemming from his parents’ murders) to his guilt regarding his lost love Rachel, in order to save Gotham from destruction, as he faces his toughest opposition yet in the form of Bane and company.

Similar to any Nolan film, The Dark Knight Rises contains numerous twists and turns best left unmentioned here.  Any reference to them will be vague enough to not spoil it for those who have yet to see the film but specific enough for attentive viewers/readers to identify.

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With a 2 hour, 44 minute runtime, Nolan took his time to develop the characters so that the climactic conclusion would pay off.  Yet, at the same time the film is packed with enough stories to fill a few films, but Nolan manages to unify them into one narrative and tie them to the trilogy’s overall story (though some fairly significant moments feel glossed over even at nearly three hours).  This film may not pick up where we left off in The Dark Knight, but it continues to explore Wayne’s character arc, particularly the conflicts and themes that started in Batman Begins.  We see he has regressed into a less-than-heroic state, to say the least.  By starting Wayne off as an almost pathetic shell of his former self, this heightens the tension and stakes when Bane begins to overwhelm Gotham and send it towards its destruction – how can Bruce save Gotham from seemingly insurmountable odds when he is clearly physically inferior to Bane, who is not just a physical force to be reckoned with but also a fairly smart and extremely determined villain with a clever plan to take over the city.  Add in the fact that Bruce must rebuild his body to even give himself a chance to stand toe-to-toe with the pure evil that is Bane simply gives the audience more reason/opportunity to root for him to rise and take up his rightful place as Gotham’s hero.

Of course, much of the lengthy runtime is spent introducing and establishing new sets of characters and subplots, which provides mixed results.  Taking the time to develop important new characters, such as the young idealistic cop John Blake, pays off late in the game as their roles in the grand chess game become increasingly apparent.  On the other hand, focusing on the new supporting characters for so long takes away precious screen-time from some of our favorite supporting characters like commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox, and Alfred (though each has their moment to shine).  This also negatively affects the development of the villain’s depth, as certain parts feel disjointed with plot conveniences and holes (i.e. characters conveniently showing up out of nowhere across town at the right moment and place to save the day, etc.).  In turn, the pacing feels off in the first two acts as Nolan tries to simultaneously introduce/develop new characters while advancing the terror plot, not to mention cover how Bruce has changed and tries to get back into the “game.”

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So, for a Batman film, the dark knight has somewhat limited screen-time.  For those clamoring for more Batman, one must remember Nolan’s focus is more on Bruce the man and his consequences of becoming a superhero, and not so much to just give audiences thrill-seeking action sequences.  This has been what helps separate Nolan’s trilogy from most other comic-book adaptations; he delves into the characters’ humanity and explores contemporary/relevant societal and sociological themes (i.e. fear, hope, terror, etc.), a la Charles Dickens’ timeless novel A Tale of Two Cities, which is overtly referenced/quoted in the film.  And while the topics covered in this installment (i.e. 99% vs. 1%) are maybe not as coherent or engaging as those in its predecessor, the film still benefits from a writer-director aspiring for something thoughtful, relevant and even transcendent.

But fear not, by the time Bruce dons the cape and cowl as the Batman we know and love, all the build up has been worth it; viewers are more emotionally invested.  The film certainly offers plenty of awesome moments that might send chills down fans’ spines.  Nolan’s determination to use practical effects as much as possible really pays off, with exceptional action set pieces (i.e. yes, they literally did that to a plane, and the Bat looks amazing); viewers will be hard pressed to find any cheap-looking CGI.  In the end, there is enough superhero action to satisfy comic-book fans and excite general moviegoers.

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Besides, with Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score, viewers will find it difficult not to feel moved and inspired (though one major scene has a glaring lack of music but deliberately so, which makes it so much more brutal).  The famous maestro once again delivers an epic, emotionally stirring musical composition to elevate the film.  It may not contain a whole lot of completely original pieces (at least not the first few times listening to it), but it is no less thrilling or emotional.  Even the newer pieces astound, such as the Bane-centric themes of “Gotham’s Reckoning,” “Imagine the Fire,” and “The Shadows Betray You” and Selina Kyle’s devilish motif “Mind If I Cut In.”  As for the “Deh-shay, bah-sah-rah” chant, it is used quite effectively throughout the movie, particularly in its origin.  And like the entire film, it ties together the trilogy oh so nicely, with some wonderful re-arrangements of former musical motifs.  In particular, the rousing “Why Do We Fall” song is used in a pivotal scene to exhilarating effect; if there is a definitive song for Nolan’s dark knight trilogy, that one is arguably it.  Between the spine-tingling drawn-out brass section and the invigorating drum and string sections, Zimmer’s now iconic Batman themes certainly energizes the audience throughout the movie.

As Nolan stated in interviews, this was by far the biggest film he had endeavored to create.  He did not skimp on ambition with the grand scale of the sets, extras.  Many of the action scenes were hinted at in the previews, but seeing them on the big screen and in their entirety/in context may leave viewers stunned with jaw-dropping action and fight scenes.  Nolan’s long-time director of photography Wally Pfister pulled out all the stops to create a larger-than-life visual epic akin to grand silent era films; if a REAL, 70-mm IMAX theater is near you, make sure to see it there at least once, as over an hours worth of footage was filmed in this gorgeous, immersive format.  In addition to the epic technical aspects, Nolan’s sweeping story not only has a self-containing arc but also perfectly fits into the trilogy’s themes and overall narrative.  But as other critics have pointed out, bigger is not always better.

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Even the master storyteller and entertainer Nolan stumbles here and there throughout The Dark Knight Rises.  Aside from the aforementioned shortcuts taken in plot (i.e. sudden returns and tacked on twists), some of the dialogue is seriously forced (i.e. we know Batman is there to try and stop Bane,

no need to growl it while staring at each other awkwardly).  Furthermore, for a trilogy so heavily devoted to grounding the characters motivations and behavior in reality and consequence, some of their actions are relatively bewildering in this installment; the audience must suspend their disbelief or rationalize a little more this time around to fill in plot gaps (with a emphasis on reality in this series, audiences will likely nitpick gaps in logic, unlike accepting aliens and superpowers in other superhero movies).  On a less personal level, for instance, many of Gotham’s finest seem anything but; for example, even after some of the henchmen ditch their human body-shields, police stand by idly without any attempts to stop or shoot them as they pass by.  Also, one catastrophic decision by the police later in the movie takes a lot of rationalization or bending reason to accept (even if their commanding officer is a bit inept).  As for the primary characters, Bruce’s romantic relationship(s) feels rushed (though one is deservedly forced) and do not ring entirely true without having to strain to accept them (thinking a little to fill in gaps and see a match is okay; making two characters fall in love without any foreshadowing or chemistry is another thing).

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Also, a lot of the intended humor falls flat, and some of the serious moments even turn comical for varying reasons.  With all of his movies, Nolan’s humor has kind of been hit or miss, and this time it seemed very mixed (though Thomas Lennon’s cameo as a doctor was humorous, as was Batman getting some of his own medicine from Catwoman).  Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Bane’s voice – the filmmakers must have redubbed the prologue and cleaned up his dialogue throughout, but it is still difficult to comprehend at times between the Sean Connery-like accent, muffling from the mask, and the sometimes invasive sound design.  For such a menacing villain, some viewers have had a tough time taking him totally seriously, but this is not a devastating knock on Tom Hardy’s otherwise capable and somewhat terrific performance as Bane.  For him to portray the evil and other required emotions with half of his face covered is a testament to the actor’s talents – he is no match for Heath Ledger’s phenomenal, iconic performance as the Joker, but equating him to such would be unfair given the two characters’ differences; Hardy is a solid choice to make Bane almost completely despicable and worth rooting against.

On the other hand, Anne Hathaway steals the show as Selina Kyle.  Although some of her character’s humor and dialogue is a bit cheesy on occasion, for the most part Hathaway sells the role right from her first couple scenes (i.e. changing on a dime from insecure to uttering an unapologetic, cunning “oops” or screaming like a damsel in distress).  Almost everyone who has seen the film, even the actress’ ardent skeptics and critics, have claimed she is a highlight of the film and her performance stands on its own against former interpretations, perhaps even as the best, most nuanced one.  She is a sly, funny, sexy, physically capable fox and yet remains human with clear, relatable motivations, mainly self-preservation.  As such, she is the trilogy’s best developed and performed female character; high praise for the actress very few people had faith in.  If any character could be equated to Ledger’s sensational Joker in this installment, it would be Hathaway’s Kyle/Catwoman, in the sense that she elevated the film anytime she graced the screen with her presence.

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Nonetheless, Nolan never forgets whose story he is telling: Bruce Wayne’s.  Christian Bale has now solidified himself as the preeminent incarnation of the comic-book character.  No one has captured the essence of Wayne’s tortured soul like Bale, and growl voice aside, he is a convincing Batman.  In this movie, he gives his best performance yet as the Caped Crusader.  Given that his character goes through almost every emotion possible, Bale excels by providing great range; from detached anger to tear-jerking quivering and painful sobs, he sells every bit of the role.  In fact, between the grim story and Bale’s forceful performance, Nolan pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating with some pretty dark material (i.e. hangings), severe moments of blunt violence, and intense emotional gravity; this is no lighthearted affair.

Detractors of Nolan’s other films have criticized his often-distant direction, but The Dark Knight Rises conveys some very emotional, poignant moments, and not just of the comic-book nerd sense that gets viewers “pumped up.”  Certain scenes are legitimately heartbreaking.  Again, this is largely a testament to Nolan’s amazing, perhaps best ensemble cast to date.  In particular, Michael Caine gives the film’s most outstanding performance even though he is limited to only a handful of scenes due to a somewhat questionable narrative choice.  Nevertheless, Caine really deserves Oscar consideration in this supporting role, as Alfred has always been the heart of the trilogy and Nolan/Caine really pulls the heartstrings this time around – if you are not moved by one of his last scenes, you have no heart.

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The rest of the supporting cast is likewise effective or awesome in their respective roles.  Nolan’s casting of Gary Oldman and major inclusion of commissioner Gordon into the stories has always been one of his greatest decisions; if Caine gives the movies a heart, then Oldman grounds the series.  Once again, he excels in the part, this time a bit more cynical but still upstanding.  Morgan Freeman returns as Wayne’s other surrogate father-figure/moral compass and conscience, Lucius Fox; simply put, he is dependably good and fun.  One of the biggest new additions to the trilogy was Nolan’s Inception stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the young idealistic, resourceful cop John Blake.  Like Oldman and the rest of the recurring cast, he brings the superhero story down to our level; he really shines in this surprisingly important role.  Marion Cotillard plays a philanthropic billionaire Miranda Tate, who becomes increasingly important in Wayne Enterprises and Bruce’s personal life.  She sells the underwritten part with her mesmerizing eyes.

Nolan definitely loves to bring former 80s-90s Hollywood stars in his contemporary blockbusters (i.e. Rutger Hauer, who was the villain in Nolan’s favorite film Blade Runner, for which he patterned Batman Begins after; or William Fichtner, who played in The Dark Knight’s inspiration Heat).  In this one, Nolan looks to Stanley Kubrick’s essential war movie Full Metal Jacket for Matthew Modine (who ironically played Private J.T. “Joker” Davis in Kubrick’s film) to portray Foley, one of Gotham’s higher up, albeit incompetent, police officers.  Talented Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has a surprisingly large part in the first half as the rich, powerful and corrupt businessman John Daggett, who has devious plans against Wayne Enterprises and hires Bane as his mercenary; Burn Gorman plays his sleazy partner in crime/business associate Stryver.  Nestor Carbonell reprises his minor role as Mayor Garcia, and Brett Cullen appears in a couple important early scenes as a Congressman.  Juno Temple is an afterthought in the final cut of the movie, though comic-book fans should recognize she plays Selina Kyle’s sidekick Holly Robinson.  There are a number of small cameos, some of which are from Nolan’s previous Batman films – without spoiling anything specifically, two in particular are excellent, either story-wise or simply for comedic effect.  In short, great acting is just another reason why Nolan’s Batman is the definitive series and best amongst comic-book adaptations and superhero movies.

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While the first half of the movie has its issues, what counts is the ending and Nolan did not disappoint.  First off, the final act is quite thrilling; Nolan has always had a knack for engaging audiences with breathtaking parallel editing.  Once the action starts rising towards the climax, audiences are in for quite a wild ride.  But it is not just an action-packed spectacle; he gave audiences an emotionally powerful and fulfilling conclusion to his dark knight saga.  Many people wondered how he could wrap up everything in a satisfying and suitable manner, yet he did just that.  Viewers undergo a range of emotions in the final minutes, from tear-jerking sorrow to exhilarating inspiration.  One aspect of the conclusion leaves the door open for an intriguing though somewhat divisive new direction for the franchise.  Overall, Nolan’s conclusion to his series elevates its two predecessors and makes it one of the best trilogies of all time.

Although it is difficult and even unfair to compare The Dark Knight Rises to its predecessors or this year’s other mega superhero blockbuster The Avengers (2012), here goes the obligatory section on the matter.  Where you rank this finale amongst the trilogy is really a matter of preference given the varying tones and scales of each film.  Personally, The Dark Knight seems to be the best, tightly plotted film of the bunch, not to mention the most iconic; it should and already has become a groundbreaking classic that soars above the genre, largely thanks to Heath Ledger’s incredible performance.  But again, whether you enjoy the fresh, reality-based origin story, the dread-filled Empire Strikes Back-like second act, or the epic, war-movie conclusion is a matter of preference.  As for the dark knight’s Marvel counterpart, that is an unfair comparison – they seek two wildly different tones.  Audiences can enjoy both on their own merits; The Avengers delivered perhaps the most fun and entertaining comic-book style superhero movie, whereas The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan’s entire trilogy offers a grittier, crime-drama type superhero film.  They both represent the best of their respective approaches, but if you must compare the two, that is also largely a matter of preference or simply what you are in the mood to watch at any given time.

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Despite nitpicking and a number of somewhat considerable issues, The Dark Knight Rises receives a great score.  Slight disappointment or let-down from the perfection of its predecessor blurs the balance of objectivity – the finale may not be as tight or iconic as The Dark Knight, but it is still a very good, sometimes great film.  Furthermore, taking this particular installment as a part of one three-part narrative, it is a near-perfect trilogy (especially considering Nolan and company never knew if a sequel would be in the works after each one).  Simply delivering an epic, emotionally engaging and satisfying conclusion to this now iconic trilogy takes masterful direction and is quite an accomplishment.  Nolan’s blockbuster series received what no other comic-book adaptation trilogy has before: a great ending.  It is not just a massively entertaining film and series, it should also endure as a timeless piece of cinematic art that strived for something greater, more prestigious than any other film of its kind aspired to be.  Spectacular indeed.  Perhaps the Academy will honor the final installment of the series and Nolan as a director as they waited to do for the epic, perfect The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and after all, the Academy received harsh criticism for leaving The Dark Knight out of the 5 nominees from 2008, though many believe the expansion to 10 nominees was because of that film).  Check it out in theaters at any cost, especially if you have a chance to see it in true 70-mm IMAX format.


The Dark Knight Rises – 9/10




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One Comment

  1. Love the site design, what font is used in the body of the review above?

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