1 August 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

(Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2012)

“Why so serious?”  

The teasingly ominous words of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, which were liberally applied across the marketing elements to promote the film as well as featuring on one of the best teaser posters of recent years, are perhaps the perfect question to aim at Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films. Tim Burton’s duo of films revelled in their arch gothic nature without getting bogged down by any associated misery, whilst Joel Schumacher’s successive films lost the gothic edge, added neon and amped up the fun factor, offering the closest recent filmic incarnation to the classic 1960’s tv series. At the end of the day Batman’s a comic book character so we should expect something inherently fun, right?

Not necessarily - and don't think I'm defending the Schumacher films, aside from the genius casting of Jim Carrey as The Riddler. Christopher Nolan and his fellow writers, David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan, recognised the bleak and blackened dichotomy at the heart of Bruce Wayne / Batman. He’s not a fun character in the Adam West mould; he’s a tortured soul, and in order to make this work they made probably the best decision of the whole trilogy - to ground everything in a sense of realism. Gotham here is not the strange dark other-worldly “fantasy” city as seen in the Burton and Schumacher films, here it looks and acts just like a real city. Nothing about the world that’s created feels like it shouldn't exist. This framing helps make the character’s pain seem genuine because, billionaire status aside, it’s more relatable.

This realism creates a potential issue. Batman’s villains are typically larger than life and eccentrically insane, so how can they be effectively portrayed in this "real" world without looking ridiculous or out of place? What I liked most about Batman Begins was its decidedly leftfield villain choices. Scarecrow was creepily effective and completely underplayed by Cillian Murphy (which is a positive), whilst Ra’s Al Ghul was totally unknown but not an over the top character, so worked in the context of a world created with realism in mind. Wisely they went for perhaps the most famous villain, The Joker, in The Dark Knight, and Ledger’s portrayal was superlative, becoming the exceptionally high watermark any comic-book villain must now be judged against. But his approach, his styling, his actions; they all fit into this real world – he was foremost a destructive maniac, rather than a theatrically inclined bad guy. Two-Face suffered by virtue of appearing alongside this character, but he was still interesting and actually served the story rather than being present just for the sake of it.

When the villains for The Dark Knight Rises were announced I was dismayed to hear that Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) would play a role. Yes she’s one of the most famous villains, but with such a large pool to choose from I was hoping for more originality à la Batman Begins, rather than retreading overly worn ground. Yet I’m pleased to say that I was wrong to be so negative about this. The way the character is portrayed and integrated is really well done; she has a relevant role to play within the plot but isn’t really “Catwoman”, she is Selina Kyle. Anne Hathaway is well cast and charmingly seductive, yet strong enough to kick ass and hold her own against all these other dominant characters. In fact she is one of the best things about this film!

Which leads us to the chief villain - Bane. Excessively pumped and wearing a mask/device over his mouth and head, Tom Hardy is almost unrecognisable and at times bordering on difficult to understand, which only enhances his mystique and adds to his menace. And he is menacing. He poses a serious physical threat but despite the savagery doesn’t come across as dumb. There’s something really interesting about the character and though he may not be in the same league as the Joker, he perfectly fits the rough hewn realism being striven for.

It’s hugely satisfying that The Dark Knight Rises closes an arc and makes these three films into a neat self-contained trilogy. The story in this final instalment leads back to elements of the first film, whilst continuing with the thread of The Dark Knight and some of the Joker’s "chaos reigns" -esque ideology, alongside Ra’s Al Ghul ‘s (supposedly) righteous principle that Gotham has had its time, so, solve et coagula. Personally I liked this threat of nihilistic cataclysm over the theatrical megalomania oft exhibited by antagonists of The Bat Man. The reasons have already been clearly set out for us so this time it’s really about the how.

The set-up for this is very satisfactory and the delivery is on the whole extremely good. In terms of what it offers it’s no different from the previous two films, it’s just more of the same which in my opinion is definitely a good thing. What you also get is some of Christian Bale's best acting in the trilogy, as the events of the previous two films are now firmly weighing Bruce Wayne down, allowing us to see and feel more of the depth of his character. Likewise Michael Caine is the best he’s been in the trilogy, although admittedly by this film his character is starting to feel repetitious, but it’s the delivery that makes him stand out more here. Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are both positive additions to the cast and are enjoyable as ever to watch.

Unfortunately the film ends up written into a corner about two thirds of the way through, causing it to drag noticeably and making it all feel longer than it needs to be. Once it manages to ride this out it picks up again, and although the whole story does feel carefully constructed I'm sure they could've found a way around this. The ending also left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. On first watch I didn't like it at all, whilst on second viewing I wasn't quite as dissatisfied, but I still have issues with it. As much as I'd love to go into more detail it is the ending and I planned to avoid discussing anything too spoilerish. Nonetheless I shouldn’t be too surprised by this as the final fight in Batman Begins and the final showdown with the Joker at the end of The Dark Knight were two of the least enjoyable parts of those films. I suspect that with this being a trilogy conclusion it might be a reason why I had more issues this time. 

My thoughts on the ending and the lagging middle aside, The Dark Knight Rises is a great conclusion to what must surely be the best trilogy of superhero films to hit the screen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and importantly it stood up to a second viewing, which bodes well for future watching. At this point I know it's not the best of the three, that remains The Dark Knight, but I look forward to seeing whether my opinion shifts over time. Nolan has left an indelible mark on the character and it'll be interesting to see what Warner Bros. decide to do in the future, after all there will be more Batman films and there's now a hell of a lot to live up too. I also hope that Nolan doesn't feel the need to return to Gotham, or move onto any other known franchises for that matter, as his non-Batman films have proven he's capable of telling some intriguing stories, of which I'd like to see more. So, why so serious? He's not known as the "Dark" Knight for nothing...

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