Disclaimer Although I have attempted to keep this review spoiler free, I have discussed certain plot points of the movie. This review is meant for discussion purposes rather than a simple recommendation on whether or not to see the movie. Please bear this is mind when reading.
Ordinarily, when talking about things that are so close to my heart, I would give a warning about my possible bias towards the topic; opinions are to be taken with a pinch of salt. And yet, after returning from the cinema and discussing The Dark Knight Rises at length and having a night’s sleep, I find myself thinking that, in this case, there is no need for such disclaimer. The Dark Knight Rises is the ultimate fan’s movie without any shadow of doubt, but it’s also the ultimate action adventure, drama and thriller. It manages to not only outshine Christopher Nolan’s other movies in the franchise, it demonstrates just what can be done with the summer blockbuster.
The most striking thing about TDKR is how brutal and uncompromising it is. Fights are choreographed in a way that you feel the impact of every punch, kick and headbutt, but there is more menace throughout than these moments. The movie is, in essence, about a grand act of terrorism within a major American city. Just think about that for a moment. Traditionally, superhero movies have villains that you root for just as much as the hero (and come on – we were all cheering for The Joker in The Dark Knight) because the things that they do are tightly linked in with either their own ends or to simply antagonise the protagonist. TDKR is different – it shows what happens when the shackles of society are broken and things descend into chaos. For me, there were moments that didn’t feel like baddie-is-baddie-does so much as stirring up the emotions that I felt on the evening of 11th September, 2001, sat in a bar, in silence, watching the news. Yes, it’s corny and obvious to bring 9/11 into the mix, but Nolan’s take on certain events in the movie cast a vivid reminder to the helplessness of that day.
Another thing that deeply impresses is the pacing and structure. TDKR does not rush itself in getting to all out action at the expense of drama. The first act has been lambasted by some as being overdrawn or portentous, but to see this is to misunderstand the movie. We are told that 8 years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and that Batman has hung up his cape and cowl after taking the fall for the death of Harvey Dent (for the greater good, naturally). Bruce Wayne is now living as a recluse who never sees daylight and walks with a cane. And here the movie sits, painting a picture of where Gotham is at this point in time, unrushed and unfettered. Even when the action and story ramp up during the middle act, there is still a sense of deliberation, of not wanting to present all cards that are in hand. But this does not bore – it fascinates. Characters are given room to breathe and develop and audiences have time to bond with them in a way that lets them fully understand their motivations, triumphs and mistakes. And afterwards, the audience is rewarded by a bombastic final act that, without the slower paced opening, would merely be smoke and lights to satisfy the punter.
As with all of Chris Nolan’s movies, the story is complicated and demands that the audience pays attention. During the last hour there are twists and plot threads galore and those not taking notice of the smaller points may miss much of what is happening. But this is no bad thing. For too long movies have treated their audience like fools without attention spans, with every action over explained to the point of saturation. Truth is, there are times where the plot of TDKR is tough to follow. But that’s okay. It just demands that you have to concentrate. But you will. In the 8 o’clock showing on the opening night in a packed auditorium, I was amazed by how quiet the audience was during quieter moments. There was a feeling of concentration and commitment to the movie from everyone there. You and I are not stupid people, and neither are audiences of movies. TDKR rewards you for your attention.
I loved The Dark Knight, but I was aware throughout that it was not Batman’s movie, it was the Joker’s. To give Christian Bale credit, he knew this as much as anyone and, for me, downplayed the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman to compensate. There was nothing wrong with this as it suited that movie, but rest assured that TDKR is once again all about Batman. The inner conflict, strength, fallibility and morals of Batman are all laid bare en force, and the movie benefits from this. Seen as a trilogy, TDKR is more of a sequel to Batman Begins to The Dark Knight, in that it’s every bit about Batman as a concept and Gotham City as a construct. But, in spite of Bale’s absolutely stellar turn which has no real faults, the characters and performances that really take your breath away are Tom Hardy’s Bane and Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. Bane’s very presence is terrifying throughout, whith the sound design on his voice digging into your brain as something to be feared. Considering the limitations that Hardy had (Bane’s mouth is covered throughout the movie so most of the performance is in the eyes and body language) he puts in a stunning performance that conveys the character’s eloquent malevolence. Selina Kyle manages to steal the show in every scene that she is in. Her transition, near the beginning of the movie, from wide-eyed innocent girl to cool calculating criminal, instantly achieved by a lowering of her voice, a look in her eye, and a change of posture and movement, is a real treat. Particularly noteworthy is the way in which the character plays up to men’s perception of female stereotypes; in a scene early on she evades capture by crying hysterically while male cops charge past her, after which she stops and walks out the door, unhindered and unruffled. Given the state of DC comics and its attitude towards female characters at the moment, it is great that Selina Kyle is such a strong character. Even in a scene where Batman swoops in and “saves” her, it is in doubt as to whether she actually needed saving. Other performance highlights are Gary Oldman and Michael Caine, returning as Jim Gordon and Alfred and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as new character, Detective John Blake.
The direction must be applauded as well, not just for aforementioned pacing and structure, but for symbolism and drive. The concept of Batman being an Everyman is struck home beautifully by him brawling with Bane during fight sequences in the final act. The use of flashback to previous movies – to add resonance to current scenes – is powerful, especially with the Pit prison having much in common with the well at Wayne Manor that Bruce falls down as a child in Batman Begins. There are some incredibly moving and powerful dialogue and reveals, which I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say they’re there and hit hard. And the ending, with its open-to-interpretation approach, lets the audience come away with a feeling of ownership for the story told. Chris Nolan is not a master director who also makes superhero movies, he is a master director. There’s every bit as much depth and intrigue here as there is in his other greats; Inception, The Prestige and Memento. Special credit must also be given to the stunning and stark cinematography of Wally Pfister and the harrowing and unsettling score from Hans Zimmer which, together, create a sensual tour de force almost unparalleled.
The Dark Knight Rises is not a fantastic Batman movie, it’s a fantastic movie with Batman in it. Yes, it’s part of both a franchise and a trilogy, but it should be classed by the merits of the stunning piece of art that it is. Christopher Nolan has produced perhaps the most consistent trilogy in movie history, and TDKR is the perfect send off for such a quality collection. Batman fans will go and see it in droves regardless of notices. Cinema goers will do likewise. The movie does not need good reviews in order for it to be seen or turn profit. But the quality of the movie needs to be shouted about. Goodbye, Christopher Nolan’s Batman. We’ll never have it better than this.