It is the age of the superhero. Since 2005, no less than 35 superhero movies have been released in the US. There may be more, but try to tell me there have been less. But in 2008, there was one hero film that took its place above all others as being considered (by many) to be the best of all time: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Yes, his follow-up to his 2005 reboot Batman Begins was so good, that it made many wonder, with the announcement of The Dark Knight Rises, if Nolan could repeat his success. And I can say fairly confidently that he has.
The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the foreboding ending of The Dark Knight, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) having hung up the cowl, weakened after his crippling losses at the hands of the Joker (Heath Ledger). But more importantly, he now lives in a Gotham where Batman is a disgrace, having secretly taken the fall for the crimes of Harvey Dent, AKA Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart). When a new terrorist force threatens Gotham’s destruction, Bruce must not only don the cowl of the Caped Crusader once more, but he must confront the most painful memories of his past, and prepare himself for his greatest and most brutal trials ever.
This film is terrific. I have to say that. With so much controversy over the Rotten Tomatoes verdict on it, as well as some mixed reviews among individual critics, I can confidently say that, as an avid fan of The Dark Knight, I hold Rises in the same esteem. There is far too much to appreciate here to come away unsatisfied. Whether it be the truly great acting, the breathtaking score, the best visual effects of the year, or the pulse-pounding, white-knuckle action, almost every scene has something to marvel at. But what sets this film apart from the others in the trilogy is its tone. While Batman Begins was dark and brooding, and The Dark Knight was meditative and powerful, The Dark Knight Rises holds its own as a brutal, jarring, emotionally charged epic, with a final twenty minutes that will leave you breathless.
As I said, director Christopher Nolan didn’t skimp on the acting talent at work here. Christian Bale is the best in this film that he has been in the whole trilogy, with a deep, deep anger that can pour out almost uncontrollably, revealing the very real pain inside the character of Bruce Wayne, the pain that drives his insatiable hunger for justice. As Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Anne Hathaway is stupendous, beautiful and elegant, but easily able to kick butt and take names, with whip-smart humor and amazing appeal, echoing much of the essence that made Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal so memorable.
As our lead villain, the troubled and powerful Bane, Nolan alum Tom Hardy is truly menacing. Where Ledger’s Joker was comical, Bane is blunt and threatening. Where Joker played with his prize, Bane snaps its spine and walks away, leaving no room for pleading or mercy. But what makes Bane so terrifying is Hardy’s portrayal. With every line, every breath, every menacing stare, extreme anger burns like the fires of Hell behind Bane’s eyes. And that is not embellishment. The anger is real, and it is there, burning its way into your soul. But what makes it even worse is that he knows what he is doing. Bane is not just a thug (like he was in Schumacher’s dreadful Batman and Robin). Bane is a soldier, a general, a strategist, and a revolutionary. He not only fights the battles, but he plans them, he furnishes them, and he delivers rallying speeches for them. He is a thinker and a fighter, giving Batman his toughest challenge to date; a physical brutalization as well as an all-out mental and emotional war.
As for the other performers, our regular supporting cast (Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox) does a wonderful job, Caine especially, in his portrayal of Alfred’s pleading concern for Bruce’s wellbeing. But we have some additions now, don’t we? Marion Cotillard is beautiful and engaging as Bruce Wayne’s business partner and romantic interest Miranda Tate, with a twist that will bust even the most loyal fan’s head. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a strong and likable impression as rookie cop John Blake, a loyal follower of Jim Gordon. All in all, the cast is impeccable, really holding their own.
The writing and direction here is superb, as it was in the last Batman film. Nolan and his team have carefully made sure that all the chips fall in the right places for this film to be great. With powerful themes of fear, justice, and rising above extreme adversity, The Dark Knight Rises hits home, as we see the city we have come to love blown to bits. Perhaps the most effective use of dialogue in the film is a scene that shows Bruce sitting in a prison (not going to spoil it) in a foreign country, talking to a doctor, who tells him that he believes that bruce fears death. And Bruce gives a relatively short, but powerful response: “I don’t fear death. I fear that I am going to die in here while my city burns to the ground.” In this statement, we see that Bruce is loyal not only to the idea of justice, but is loyal to his home. He loves his people, and is willing to pay the ultimate price for them. Whether he does or not… that’s too good to spoil.
There are also some strong meditations on violence, and its effect on a society that is consumed by fear. We see people who want to take back their lives and their land (much like the Occupy movement), but they are so blinded by their own hunger for justice and what they call “freedom,” that they do not realize that the man who is leading this motion, allegedly to free the people and give them back their city, is pushing for their ultimate destruction. That is Bane’s mission and calling. He is in charge of bringing a corrupt city to ruin. But he can’t simply destroy the people. That would be too difficult.
The special effects are the best this summer. Not even kidding, they are better than The Avengers. And the action is so smooth and slick, yet brutal and powerful, that its a wonder that it’s not real. And the scale of all this is some of the largest-scale destruction, action, and rebellion in the history of the screen. Thousands of extras, crumbling buildings, vehicular destruction, and it is all epic, on a totally grand scale. Nolan and his team have outdone themselves, producing what is no doubt their biggest film to date. And with a breathtaking score by none other than Hans Zimmer, the physical and visual elements are backed up with serious emotional power.
But now, what has this film done wrong? What could there possibly be that is amiss here? Well, as stupendous as the writing and acting is here, it seems like Nolan got really wrapped up in having the characters deliver meaningful pseudo-monologues in random places throughout the film. It’s like sometimes, the action stops so that someone can deliver some important anecdote or philosophy on what just happens. Calm down, Nolan. Though you are the best filmmaker going right now, you aren’t perfect, and you don’t constantly need to preach.
But here’s the thing. Look at all of the blockbusters that have come out this summer. Dark Shadows, which was okay in its own right. Snow White and the Huntsman, which, from what I heard, was an overblown Joan of Arc story with poor performance. Rock of Ages, which was good for about a half hour and then seemed to give up. The list goes on. With the exception of The Avengers, Brave, and POSSIBLY Magic Mike, it doesn’t seem like a staggering number of films have opened to outstanding critical review. But Nolan’s films have always done well, and this entry in the Batman saga is no different. How often is it that you see a summer blockbuster (and a superhero movie, nonetheless) that explores such deep topics as the Dark Knight trilogy, and on such a grand scale? Even if the argument is made that this entry is not as good or powerful as the last, The Dark Knight Rises is still miles above the bar of summer movies in this day and age.
Overall, there are some moments of true power. There’s magnificent acting. There’s stupendous writing and direction. With a couple of minor flaws in the middle, The Dark Knight Rises is exemplary summer entertainment… no, exemplary entertainment in general. It’s a truly great film, with heart, brains, and an incredibly intense finale, with an ending sequence that will most likely blow you away. Nolan delivers another masterpiece, earning a five out of five.