Expectations are perhaps any big movie’s greatest foe. When the acting, filming and editing are all over, the greatest challenge comes in the form of pleasing legions of diehard fans waiting for any reason to be massively angry or disappointed about a much hyped or anticipated feature.
2008’s The Dark Knight has such expectations. Director Christopher Nolan handled the first film extremely well, and made it a suitably dark reimagining of a superhero who had in recent years, gone goofy. When Heath Ledger’s unnerving performance as the Joker was revealed in trailers, the film looked like it was shaping up to be incredible. When it was coupled with his untimely death, it felt like it would be the stuff of legend.
And it was. Despite all the hype, The Dark Knight not only lived up to expectations, but blew them away, cementing its status as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, superhero films of all time.
The Dark Knight Rises is its sequel, and as you can tell, it’s a hard act to follow. Add on the age-old curse that third films in trilogies are usually something of a letdown, and the fact that across all media, it’s notoriously difficult to put a “hard ending” on a much beloved franchise that satisfies everyone.
Simply put, Nolan has done it again. The Dark Knight Rises is a nearly perfect concluding chapter to Batman’s saga. It shatters the third film curse, and now has ensured the Batman trilogy as one of cinema’s greatest, right alongside Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Things could have easily gone awry. As soon as characters and cast started to be announced, there was immediate skepticism. The Riddler seemed like the logical choice for Nolan’s next villain, as the man is known for the type of complex and layered plots seemingly suited to Edward Nigma. The choice of Bane seemed like a rather blunt instrument , and as the character is fed “venom” to enlarge him to proportions even grotesque and unreal for comic books, it seemed like he wouldn’t fit into Nolan’s universe smoothly at all.
But Nolan does bring a realism to Bane, and in fact, the entire film feels like the most realistic chapter of the entire saga. There are no more goofy mafia bosses talking like two-bit stereotypes. There’s no more overly schmoozing Bruce Wayne that acts like a younger, drunker Hugh Hefner at all times.
Rather, nearly every character onscreen feels real, and this is a much darker chapter than even the last one featuring a psychotic clown. New characters like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake feel grounded and authentic. Wayne himself is now older, wiser and more bitter than ever. The threats feel very real, and not cartoonish in the least, which is a problem the previous films suffered from at times, and an issue that can plague the superhero genre in general.
Normally in a review, there’d be a some plot summary, but as patrons have been (rightly) avoiding plot details like the plague, much won’t be said here. In brief, eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is still a hero, Batman a villain and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) now a reclusive shut-in. He’s pulled back into the limelight after a theft at Wayne Manor by a mysterious woman, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and must deal with a looming threat to Gotham in the form of the mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) whose motivations and background are unclear.
It should be said that the film ends up being much, much larger in scale than most were likely expecting. The Joker may have enjoyed robbing banks and kidnapping loved ones, but here, all of Gotham is at stake. The saga starts as an intriguing mystery, but snowballs into something massive by the end, and you won’t believe the degree to which things escalate.
The main test of whether or not this third film would work was almost entirely reliant on if Bane could be made into an effective villain. After all, Ledger’s Joker was the vast majority of the reason that The Dark Knight was so beloved. Here, Bane could make or break this third film, and fortunately he does the former.
Mercifully, Nolan finally agreed to let his muffled voice be cleaned-up into something audible in post-production. The enhancing effect is noticeable, and it sounds like Bane’s voice is coming from inside your own head rather than being projected out of his mask, but it’s definitely worth being able to understand him, as the entire movie very well could have been ruined otherwise with many of his best lines incomprehensible.
Tom Hardy does a fantastic job considering he only has his eyes to work with, and Bane channels the same sort of pure evil that made the Joker such an effective foil. The way he’s presented by the filmmakers does much to bolster his character and make him a formidable menace. An intense workout regimen and camera tricks make the 5’11 Hardy look absolutely massive, and the way his punches and kicks reverberate when they hit make it seem like his victims are getting shot by a cannon. His initial bout with Batman is one of the best knock-down, drag-out brawls in movie history, in the superhero genre or otherwise.
The film sports a secondary villain (and sometimes secondary hero) in the form of Catwoman who could have been employed a bit more, but she doesn’t feel like an afterthought either. Nolan has drawn out what is probably one of Hathaway’s best performances to date, and her costume is the most cleverly designed of any onscreen,. Her goggles give the proper “cat” effect without forcing her into something as Halloween costume-ish as Michelle Pfieffer or Halle Berry wore. No whip, however.
The plot, despite being Riddler-free, is sufficiently complex as anything in Nolan’s other movies, Inception and The Prestige included. Even if Bane is a brute force villain, his story is incredibly interesting, and his plans for Gotham and Batman are astonishing to watch. While The Dark Knight unfolded in a rather chaotic way due to the nature of the Joker’s tactics, Bane’s plan is far more smoothly executed, and it makes the film flow arguably better than its predecessors. The Joker may indeed be the more memorable villain, but the realistic tone, powerful themes and smartly structured plot allow for the argument to be made that The Dark Knight Rises is actually the better film. Though that’s something that’s going to be debated as much as A New Hope vs. Empire, I suspect. Strangely, I think this is the first trilogy in history where nearly everyone would agree the second two films outdid the first.
It’s not without a glitch or two. The film does suffer from some editing issues, such as when Batman saves two people in different parts of the city nearly simultaneously, or when he asks the location of a woman he literally just talked to in a scene minutes earlier. It seems like too well-polished of a film to leave scenes out of order in the final cut, and after watching the film twice in three days, these moments stood out like a sore thumb.
It also can be a bit predictable, and though a few twists and turns are presented throughout, if you were paying attention during earlier scenes, or were simply good at guessing before the film came out, you might not be as surprised as the film wants you to be when certain things are revealed.
But the fact is, even if you can picture where things are headed, that doesn’t make the ending any less satisfying. The film ends the trilogy in a way that’s both concrete, as Nolan and Bale have said they’re done with the universe, and will please fans of the comic who didn’t want anything too sacrilegious t o be done with the characters.
It’s the shortest (nearly) three hour movie you’ll ever seen, and you won’t want it to end. With how good Nolan makes these films, you want them to keep being made until every last villain shows up and has a masterful story woven around them. But it’s time to move on, and it’s a rare treat to witness a film series with as satisfying a conclusion as The Dark Knight Rises.
5 out of 5 stars