Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - The Review by Chris Roll

The Dark Knight Rises
Review by Chris Roll

As The Dark Knight Rises begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is starting to feel his age. He hasn’t ventured out as Batman in eight years, since the Harvey Dent debacle. And, thanks to Dent’s not-entirely-true legacy as a champion of the people, legislation has been passed to keep violent criminals off the streets of Gotham. Batman is no longer needed . . . and yet Batman is always needed. 

The Dark Knight Rises is the conclusion of an epic hero’s tale begun with Batman Begins. And what a beginning it was. The first film brought legitimacy back to Batman’s public image, redeeming it from the blaring, Day-Glo nightmare that was Batman and Robin, and utilized a realistic setting and highly capable actors to tell the tale. Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception), while a surprising choice to reboot Batman's messy film history, crafted an excellent storyline with a strong beginning and a very fitting ending. 

Well-cast and developed villains aided the trilogy immensely. Batman Begins had Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the cool-as-a-cucumber Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). As a father figure, Ra’s hit close to home as a nemesis later in the film. The Dark Knight took things to a new level, introducing a nemesis who was very different from Batman, but also disturbingly similar. The Dark Knight also gave us District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who was the other side of Batman’s coin (haw-haw!). He was what Bruce could have been in every respect, both good and bad (Two-Face, yo). None of these villains, not even the perennially-recurring Scarecrow (who cameos in The Dark Knight Rises, too), ever truly brought Batman down, though. Only Bane (Tom Hardy) could break the Bat.

Yes, it really does happen. Brutally. “I wondered what would break first,” Bane chortles as he manhandles the creaky, 37-ish Batman. “Your spirit . . . or your body!” At which point he heaves Batman up and breaks him over his knee. Yowch. Anybody who’s read the comics saw it coming, but even so, yowch. And the torture is only beginning . . .

The overarching theme of the film is legacy. Who will carry on the dreams and aspirations of Gotham’s major players? Batman has taken a shine to the sly cat burglar in town, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and he attempts to take her under his wing (please, stop me now before I make any more puns). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) seeks out rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) as his right-hand man, but Blake, who acts as a Robin of sorts, prefers Batman’s methods over the constraints of law despite never donning a costume. Wayne Enterprises, too, has languished in Wayne’s absence, so Bruce Wayne must choose a successor for his company’s legacy, in the form of the lovely but mysterious Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). And we meet the heir to Ra’s Al Ghul’s legacy, too. Hoo-boy. 

We also see what many have called, tongue-in-cheek, “Occupy Gotham.” Bane and his crew cut Gotham off from all outside aid and dumps the social order on its head. Basically, the inmates are running the asylum (well, technically the inmates are running the prison, because Arkham is never shown. Probably so the Joker wouldn’t have to be accounted for), there’s chaos in the streets and the rich and the police and the politicians are getting their “just rewards” at the hands of the 99%. By “just rewards,” of course, they are sentenced to either death or exile. And since exile means walking out over thin ice, exile means death. Anyway, despite the mob rule, life in Gotham really sucks with Bane in charge. So Batman leads the police in a final stand against the Occupiers. And they win. And it’s awesome. And a whooooole lot of angry young liberals watching the film got a whole lot angrier. Delicious! Frank Miller would love it.

Christian Bale’s acting in the trilogy has been a mixed bag. His Bruce Wayne is easily superior to any other live action portrayals thus far, showing us the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of the man behind the cowl. In this film, his vulnerabilities are amplified by injury, and he is forced to use a cane throughout the first half-hour of the film because of his ravaged knees. Bale’s Batman, however, is painful to watch at times, but always fun to laugh at. The voice is as silly as it ever was (the overdone voice was acceptable in the first film, as Batman was just getting started, but he’s had plenty of time to refine it. And yet he hasn’t!), and Bats gets to splutter, “WHERE ARE THEY?” once more. It’s all in good fun, but Batman is impossible to take seriously. Fortunately, we only see Batman for about ten to fifteen minutes. The rest is pure Bruce, which is preferable. 

In terms of supporting cast, Gary Oldman continues to be a good if slightly goofy Commissioner Gordon. He’s simultaneously very capable and inept, which is, I suppose, the nature of the character. Michael Caine’s Alfred remains Bruce Wayne’s greatest ally, but he departs the film very quickly (due to reasons I will not spoil here), and his absence is felt. It is no wonder that Batman’s darkest hour comes when he does not have Alfred in his corner, because Alfred is so much more than just “the help.” Alfred keeps Bruce’s mind in the game, keeps him alive, allows him some sense of normalcy and keeps him from going crazy in his isolation in the Batcave. Without Alfred, Batman starts to fall apart. Morgan Freeman is back as Lucius Fox, and he is delightful as always. And, of course, Joseph Gordon Levitt is good as Officer (later Detective) Blake. He’s a bit of a “Mary Sue,” but he’s engaging and believable, and every bit as unrelenting as Batman. Christopher Judge (Stargate: SG1) has a nice cameo as one of Bane’s goons, and Matthew Modine plays a cowardly police officer who has a shot at redemption later.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (although she is never referred to as such, nor, alas, is she shown to own a cat) is nine lives better than Halle Berry’s litter box-fodder portrayal. Hathaway is naturally catty, and moves with just the right kind of indignant grace. But she lacks the quirky charm that won Michelle Pfeiffer acclaim in Batman Returns. She goes through the motions well, and is certainly not a bad Catwoman, but she’s not particularly memorable, either. Nobody leaving the theater afterward was talking about Catwoman; they were talking about Bane. 

Tom Hardy’s Bane is surprisingly effective. Although he lacks the bizarre charisma of Heath Ledger’s Joker and the noble badassery of Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, he brings his own brand of menace to the story. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance is that he is never unmasked, save for a pre-injury flashback. Conveying expression with one’s eyes and muscles alone is typically not Oscar material, but Hardy puts forth a good effort. Of note is the 5’9”, 200 pounds soaking wet Hardy actually appearing to tower over other characters in the film. His physical presence is quite imposing thanks to the combination of serious bodybuilding and movie magic, and his first encounter is like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (the worst film in the franchise, in my opinion) mercilessly pummeling Apollo Creed to death. Perhaps Bane’s only flaw, however, is his voice. Yes, his voice would naturally be muffled through his cumbersome mask, but he sounds absolutely ridiculous. He sounds a bit too British genteel, as though he should be wearing a top hat and monocle instead of a trench coat and combat boots. Indeed, listening to his very odd voice is reminiscent of the scene in Batman Forever wherein Jim Carrey’s Riddler adopts the voice and mannerisms of a blustery Brit: “Batman? Batman, you say? Coming for you?! Ho-ho-ho, HARUMPH!! HARRRRUMPH!!” Perhaps Bane’s voice was specifically designed to distract viewers from Bale’s raspy muttering.


The single biggest “Oh, crap!” moment in the movie comes when Batman learns that despite Bane’s dangerous agenda and leadership skills, he is not the mastermind; he is the muscle.


Of course, comparisons will naturally be made to May’s The Avengers, which was the biggest comic book blockbuster of all time. Some may say the two films are impossible to compare, but it can be done objectively.
Both films were years in the making, with earlier installments building toward a specific outcome. But, while The Dark Knight Rises was the end of the tale, The Avengers marks the beginning of a much bigger story (and considering how big The Avengers was, the next few films should prove very interesting). 

Both films are absolutely excellent. Both were made with a clear love of characters and source material. Both are exhilarating, with well-placed humor, great plot twists and dynamic performances. Both prompted lively discussion afterward. But The Avengers has a certain magic about it that The Dark Knight Rises can’t match. The Avengers is a fun-filled, superheroic romp from start to finish that never stops to catch its breath. The Dark Knight Rises is slower, more introspective, and doesn’t hit on the same emotional chords. When Bruce escapes from the pit, it’s awesome, but it doesn’t have the same “HECK YEAH!!” appeal as Iron Man informing Loki, “His name is Phil” before blasting the crap out of him. Batman flying off with the bomb isn’t as heartrending a self-sacrifice moment as Iron Man flying off with the bomb because Batman has an obvious way out (he’s Batman!). Bane getting shot with a f***ing ROCKET is awesome, but not as awesome as Hulk swinging Loki’s carcass around like a ragdoll. 

In closing, I must compare the two movies with yet another Batman Forever reference (for those who don’t know, it’s still my favorite Batman film). During a jewel heist, the Riddler holds up a diamond for inspection. “Here’s a good one,” he says, and he’s quite right. The diamond is flawless, an A+, to be sure. Then Two-Face shoves a diamond the size of a baseball in his face and declares, “No, no, no! There is a good one.” The Dark Knight Rises is a perfect conclusion to its series, and very nearly a perfect film altogether. But The Avengers is on a higher plane altogether. It’s bigger, it’s bolder and it’s more accessible to general audiences. And, for die-hard fans, it has more Easter eggs than the Cadbury factory.

My score: * * * * * 

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