Thursday, 26 July 2012

Bat-Extravaganza Part 3: The Dark Knight Rises Review


In 1997, Joel Schumacher's risible Batman and Robin effectively buried the Batman film franchise, and all but destroyed the superhero action film as a genre. It was only with hits in the early noughties, such as Byran Singer's X-Men, and Sam Raimi's Spiderman, that the superhero genre began to recover. And it wasn't until 2005, almost a decade after Ground Schumacher, that the industry dared to return to the caped crusader, this time with a young, talented director named Christopher Nolan. The result, Batman Begins, took superhero films to an unprecedented level of realism and seriousness, and restored the menace to Batman that had for years been sorely lacking. It's difficult to overestimate Begins' influence on the industry: as well as spawning two sequels, for better or worse it ushered in a new era of blockbusters that centred on gritty realism, with this year's The Amazing Spiderman borrowing many of its character arcs and visuals from Batman Begins' template. Its sequel, 2008's The Dark Knight, is one of the most successful films of all time and is widely regarded as the best superhero film ever made. Heath Ledger's Joker was revelatory, Aaron Eckhart as the doomed Harvey Dent was magnificent, and the film featured some of the best, most breathtaking action set pieces since Raiders of the Lost Ark. So, to 2012, and the end of the Batman legend. And make no mistake, this is the end of the Batman as we know him, despite the wishful thinking of some commentators. The Dark Knight Rises is the final chapter in Nolan's Dark Knight saga, referring to and combining elements of both its predecessors (more on that later). For now, let's get out of the way the one question everyone has. Is it better than The Dark Knight?

Well, no. 

The Dark Knight Rises does not better its predecessor, just as Return of the Jedi couldn't ever hope to beat The Empire Strikes Back (although any dip in quality is far less apparent here than with Jedi). What we have instead, is not a Dark Knight beater, but rather, arguably the most challenging and visceral Batman of the entire trilogy. Although garnering an overwhelmingly positive reception, it is no surprise that TDKR has received more mixed reviews than the other two installments. Structurally, it's a far looser film than its predecessor, and, yes, Bane is neither as compelling nor as complex a villain as the Joker. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, TDKR is by far the longest of the three films, and as such the script experiences a slow beginning and a langorous mid-section. Similarly, where the themes of the first two films were easy to hook on to: fear in Begins; chaos in Dark Knight, getting a line on the central thesis in Rises is far less straightforward. However, for all the the thematic complexity of Begins and Knight, there is no denying that both films hit their points pretty hard on the nose at times, with characters often spelling out meaning with all the subtlety of a lamborghini ramming a police van. Dark Knight Rises certainly has its share of clunky lines, but it allows its themes to develop  more naturally than the expositional dialogue of Begins and Knight. Moreover, it very successfully juggles the arcs of four main characters (Bruce, Bane, Selina Kyle and John Blake), as well as Bruce's ongoing relationships with Alfred, Lucius and newcomer Miranda Tate. But perhaps most importantly, Rises picks up and re-threads plot points laid down in its predecessors, namely, the lie that Harvey Dent died a hero, and the League of Shadows obsession with uprooting corruption, into an unexpected, compelling and believable narrative. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Rises is in weaving a narrative through all three films where before there were only two distinct stories united by a common Batman. Inevitably, this places the narrative of TDKR under a tremendous burden, and at times it struggles under its own weight. Where the through-line of the previous two films was apparent from the start, it takes until towards the end of the second act (I count four acts, and a coda, in total), for the film to snap fully into focus. But when things do line up, we get one of the best finales of the summer, and easily one of the most riveting and tense sequences in the Bat trilogy. 

What I found particularly interesting about TDKR, especially on the second viewing, is that it doesn't present a singular thematic question in the way that Begins and Knight do with fear and anarchy. Instead, it asks what happens in the aftermath of those conflicts, and in so doing answers a question that was originally posed by Batman Begins: how far are the legend and the man connected, and can one outlive the other? This is the heart of The Dark Knight Rises, and a motif that is tied inextricably to the plot that bent on fulfilling Wayne's apparent death wish. Some may baulk at the ending, but to do so is to miss the point of the film, and the answer to the conflict between myth and reality. Alfred makes it clear that for Bruce to go to his death willingly, even wantonly, would be the ultimate failure of his life. For Bruce to finally realise that is to cement the myth of the Dark Knight in a far more thoughtful and meaningful way than would be the adolescent,  petulant urge towards entropy. In this sense, The Dark Knight Rises gets to the heart of the Batman as legend more so even than The Dark Knight did.

On a technical level, everything is at the high watermark you would expect from Nolan's team. Wally Pfister's photography is sharp, crisp and often beautiful, and really deserves to be seen in IMAX. Similarly, Hans Zimmer goes all out with a heavy, industrial score, amping up the tension (and volume) with what sounds like an army of percussion, and he provides highly effective and memorable themes for both Bane and Selina Kyle. Bane's voice, a source of consternation following trailers where he was barely audible, has been clearly tweaked, with mixed results. His voice is now mainly clear, although occasional words and phrases do escape detection, and often the levels sound so out of sync that his performance has a peculiarly dubbed quality. However, this doesn't diminish Hardy's wonderful, theatrical performance, and really is a minor technical flaw rather than outright irritation. Additionally, the action editing is much better than the previous instalments, and for the first time in any Batman film, we really get to see Batman fight, with none of the shaky-cam nonsense that dogged Begins

Indeed, it is in The Dark Knight Rises that Nolan gives us some of the most brutal, visceral action we have yet endured. For all the pyrotechnic, truck-flipping mayhem of the last outing, Batman never really felt in peril. Here, Batman seems frail and vulnerable throughout, and as a result Rises gives us the trilogy's best fight, symbolically staged in a sewer, scored only by Bane's fantastic monologue as he knocks seven shades of shit out of Batman, pummelling his head until his cowl breaks. Furthermore, Rises treats us to by far the most incendiary, political, and striking imagery of the trilogy. Bodies hang from bridges, people run icy gauntlets for the pleasure of Bane's faithful, while snow silently blankets Gotham's deserted streets in a prophetic forboding of the promised nuclear winter. In one of the film's richest visual moments, an aptly-appointed judge sits atop a mountain of torn paper, passing sentence on members of Gotham's old regime in a scene that recalls the imagery of the French Revolution. There has been much debate around the politics of Nolan's film, and there is, I suspect, more to come. Some accuse Nolan of siding with the 1%, whereas others have argued that his attack on the banking system amounts to no more than surface rhetoric and a warning against political messiahs bearing false promises. While these perspectives are valid and have been well argued, I suspect there is a little more to the film's politics than this simple dichotomy, and as always with Nolan, answers are not immediately forthcoming.

So what of the legend, Batman himself? The film opens on a reclusive Wayne, hobbling around on a cane after submitting his body to years of punishment. It is a full forty five minutes before we see him re-don the cowl, and then only briefly before he is whisked off to a prison until the film's explosive final act.  On the one hand, it's fascinating to see Wayne as an emaciated, crippled man approaching middle age, but on the other there at times seem lengthy stretches where we're waiting for the film to get on with things and get Bruce back in the suit. The decision to leave take Batman out of the picture for the majority of the running time won't be for everyone. What also will leave some people cold are the differences  between this instalment and the last. Having now seen Rises, it's apparent just how optimistic much of The Dark Knight actually is: Rises gets very, very dark in places (in one screening I saw parents leaving halfway through with their children), but its pessimism occasionally tends towards gloominess, particularly in those early, problematic acts. In addition, although it has a fantastic supporting cast, Rises presents us with no characters with either the charisma of Ledger or the complexity and Shakespearean grandeur of Eckhart's Dent. Indeed, it's telling that the ghost of Harvey Dent looms over the narrative of Rises, informing it throughout and rearing its inconvenient head every time the plot needs a kickstart. That said, Hathaway, while not as revelatory as the Joker, gives us arguably the best interpretation of Selina Kyle yet. She invests her character with warmth, depth, and a sexuality that never topples into fetishism or male masturbatory gratification. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is typically brilliant as rookie cop John Blake, and while its very obvious where his character is going, it  always feels natural, with his character's arc proving to be the most satisfying in the film, and a triumph for the series overall. 

Robin Rises: JGL is wildly impressive as John Blake
Indeed, if nothing else, TDKR is the character piece of the trilogy. In terms of performance, it seems as if every player has upped their game, with Bale and Caine continuing to bounce off each other. Their scenes together are by turns funny and heartfelt, and in one stand-out exchange, Bruce and Alfred's relationship is strained to breaking point, with Caine giving one of the best performances of the year. In contrast to Hardy's obscene bulking out for his role, Bale looks visibly emaciated, not quite as skeletal as his role in The Machinist, but far diminished from the peak-level fitness when we saw him last.  Where Oldman and Freeman are reliably excellent as Gordon and Fox, Gordon-Levitt gives us yet another standout performance as Blake. Alongside Wayne, it is Blake's arc that feels the most complete, and for a series that promised never to return to the realm of the dynamic duo, Rises gives us in many ways the perfect Robin. It is surely a remarkable achievement that this film makes that concept palatable, let alone enjoyable. There are of course, weaknesses, and as always with Nolan they tend to be with his female characters, who often play more as plot devices than human beings. Brilliant as Hathaway is, I would perhaps have liked to see more of her jewel thief. Moreover, I loved the Miranda / Talia twist at the end, but felt that her meagre screen time up until then lessened the impact somewhat. In addition, Matthew Modine's police chief Foley felt superfluous, and his heroic turnabout scene in the finale was one the film's few truly bum notes. The good, however, far outweighs the bad, and it is testament to the script and direction that an ensemble cast this large is able to give as good an account of itself as it does.

The Dark Knight Rises has already drawn its detractors, and undoubtedly it is a more problematic film than either of the previous two. But with these problems come bold choices, subverted expectations and a deeply satisfying, pitch black final chapter. We may lament the lack of the Joker, or a fall as tragic as Dent's, but the ultimate success in TDKR is in not attempting to emulate the successes of its predecessor. Sure, Rises' script is a little loose, but it is also the most daring of all three Batman films. What the film loses in narrative focus it more than makes up for in scope, spectacle and emotion, ultimately providing the epic, thundering conclusion that Nolan's definitive trilogy deserves

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    I agree with you about this being an fitting end to the trilogy. Chris Nolan ended his trilogy in style. Chris Bale was at his best and Anne was great as Selina as well.

    Check out my review .