As I write this, more than two hours after seeing The Dark Knight Rises, my adrenaline levels are just now settling down to something close to normal. Sudden fatigue is setting in like a rush. Spending nearly three hours with my hands clamped onto armrests and my legs restless with anxiety will do that.
The culmination of director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is a tantalizing, though slightly flawed, powerhouse of drama, an epic, tragedy-strewn war film as Gotham fights for its streets and Batman for his very soul.
Rises opens eight years after the crippling of the mob, the Joker's chaotic killing spree and the madness-driven death of District Attorney Harvey Dent. Since Batman took the blame for Two-Face's crimes and his death, Gotham has been inspired by a sainted Dent and a “Patriot Act”-like crime measure enacted in the fallen hero's name. Crime is at an all time low even as the gap between the wealthy elite and the working class is widening at an alarming rate.
Devastated by the death of his beloved Rachel, Bruce Wayne has hung up his cape, lost touch with his company, Wayne Enterprises, and lives as a recluse inside a rebuilt Wayne Manor. When a cunning thief named Selina Kyle steals Wayne's fingerprints and flees, he decides to start his first investigation in years. The game is afoot.
And what a game it is when Kyle's trail leads to Wayne's snaky business rival who has hired a masked mercenary named Bane—the most physically and intellectually intimidating foe the Caped Crusader has ever faced—to surreptitiously bankrupt Wayne. But Bane is no henchman, and he has his own ruthless, revolutionary agenda for Batman and the city of Gotham. To defeat him and save his city, Batman will be tested to his physical, mental and spiritual limits.
With a sweeping and romantic, though war-torn, tone inspired by French Revolution masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities—Charles Dickens' classic is even read from in a key scene—The Dark Knight Rises achieves what many third sequels have not, and certainly what no comic book has ever done. It culminates and climaxes the beginning, middle and end of a hero's journey, thematically and stylistically connects two largely unique predecessors and, on top of that, has something new to say about the tragedies and triumphs of Bruce Wayne and his oft-suffering city.
Christian Bale gives his most masterfully colorful, wide-ranging reading of both Wayne and Batman here, adding shades of torture, humor and sheer physical and philosophical desire that were lacking in his stalwart, iron-clad turn in 2008's The Dark Knight.
As Wayne's trusted butler-turned-father-figure Alfred, Michael Caine remains the beating heart of this series and his performance here is worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all strike perfect notes in Batman's backing orchestra, while Anne Hathaway is the real scene-stealer. As Heath Ledger did with the Joker, Hathaway's performance as Selina Kyle—she's never called Catwoman in the film, only referred to as a “cat burglar”—zooms the popular character into a completely new direction, eradicating any sane comparisons between this performance and Michelle Pfeiffer's leathery turn in 1992's Batman Returns.
Masked and hulking, Tom Hardy plays Bane with a haughty, brick-solid confidence. Every moment he's on screen is chilling, and as his hostile takeover of Gotham unfolds, each scene drips with the anticipation of death and destruction by his own hand.
If all this sounds ambitious, it is. Incredibly so. And that's not even including several narrative threads I can't discuss without stepping on a dozen or so spoilers. At the story and thematic levels, the film is near perfect, but it is the execution that can't quite reach the high rungs of Nolan's ambitious vision for Batman. It comes close, and entertainingly so, but it doesn't quite pay off the way Nolan must have expected.
Even at nearly three hours, the film's pace feels breathless. Several sequences are cut together so quickly they feel like a trailer for the movie rather than the movie itself.
With Gotham crumbling from within, I didn't want to just want to see the explosions and the bridges collapse. I wanted the dread to sink in that life has forever changed in Gotham. I wanted to see millionaires in line for MREs, a dad chopping a coffee table into firewood to keep his family warm, and brave, pissed off teens chunking homemade bombs at Bane's armored vehicles.
I wanted to see hope dwindle to a single ember before Batman relights the fire. Unfortunately, with so many characters and plot threads, there was little time for this characterization of the city that was at stake.
Many fans of The Dark Knight will recall that it was originally outlined as two films by co-writer David Goyer. Nolan condensed this plan into one film. Ironically, this time around Nolan has more than enough material for two movies, but again he crammed the narrative into one, admittedly entertaining seating. Maybe Rises should have been two 2-hour movies released six months apart. It would have certainly been more warranted than the money-chasing splits done recently in the Twilight and Harry Potter series. It would certainly have improved the films pacing issues, given audiences time to reflect on rapid-fire information, and boosted the tension between Batman and Bane, and Wayne and Kyle.
Still, the film is an acting showcase that introduced a classic new villain and stands as a triumph and the most thoughtful and entertaining blockbuster of the summer. What Nolan has done to elevate his Batman series from the fleeting pulp thrills of a comic book hero to a more contemplative, society-mirroring and resonant level is a revelation at every turn.
To pay $8 and be treated to this amount of sheer spectacle and character is pure joy.
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