NOTE: Before you start you have my word that this review is totally spoiler-free. At a push, some of the images might be ever-so-slightly vaguely spoilery, but the plot is barely discussed. Never underestimate my ablity to waffle on in a review about everything but the film.
I’ve come to realized in the past few weeks that, as well as being a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fanboy from the age of about eight, I’ve also recently become an unashamed Christopher Nolan fanboy – if you haven’t been keeping up to date with my Batman retrospectives, you can see that I gave both BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT a full five stars here (you can find the Burton retrospective here, and the Schumacher one here).
The thing is, I know full well that both of those films are far from perfect – THE DARK KNIGHT, in particular, I have a number of big problems with in terms of both pacing and plotting. But it is so unique in its conception and execution, Ledger’s performance is so iconic, the ideas explored are so unusual and interesting given the context, and the Joker/Batman dynamic is so thoroughly nailed that I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the most impressive and memorable cinematic experiences I’ve had in the past decade. So I gave a deeply imperfect film gets a perfect score, while BATMAN (1989), also very flawed, gets three. Why? Because , in my opinion, even in the limited field of Batman films, it’s solidly average – probably the fourth or fifth best. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to love about it though, obviously, or that it isn’t worth seeing.
This is why I hate star ratings. Particularly for films I have a deep-seated, innate bias towards.
THE DARK KNGHT RISES is another film with a bunch of problems. The opening hour is, as has been noted already by a number of critics, a bit of a muddle, and the dialogue is laughably exposition-heavy at points . Actually, this exposition problem extends throughout the film and, if we’re really being critical, the whole series – there’s a lot of moments where the characters just stand around re-capping the plot to one another.
This is also probably the most cartoonish of the trilogy, which, depending on your outlook may not necessarily be a bad thing. Although it doesn’t stoop to the level of Bat credit cards, and the Nolans can’t bring themselves to say the word ‘Catwoman’ out loud, there are more moments where you are required to suspend your disbelief than at any pont in the series so far, which might annoy people looking for more of THE DARK KNIGHT’s HEAT-in-fancy-dress aesthetic.
Another possible problem – Tom Hardy as Bane. It’s not that he’s bad – he’s not – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that putting one of our most charismatic actors behind an almost full-face mask for the entire film means we miss out on some quality work. There could be an Oscar-winning performance behind there, but as it stands I don’t think we’ll never know. This is obviously a problem inherent to the character of Bane, though, who as we all know was invented a few years ago by Christopher Nolan in a fiendish plot to antagonize future Mitt Romney.
These are all valid reasons not to like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - although quickly, here’s one I don’t agree with: many reviewers seem to think that the film is excessively gloomy and dark, with more than one review I’ve seen saying that it is the most depressing blockbuster ever made. This makes absolutely no sense to me – have these people ever seen THE DARK KNIGHT?
That film is way, way bleaker and more nihilistic than RISES, which to me seemed positively swashbuckling in places by comparison. I always think it’s patronizing or critics to suggest that a film is ‘too dark’, anyway, as I have a feeling ‘regular’ audiences will deal with the material just fine: just because real people die instead of aliens and Batman and Bane don’t sit down to have take-out post-credits doesn’t mean that the film is THE WHITE RIBBON or anything. God forbid they ever make that faithful adaptation of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ or we’ll probably be treated to the tragic sight of hundreds of sensitive film critics committing hara-kiri during press screenings.
As I was saying, there are many valid reasons not to love RISES. I can identify them clearly. They’re all up there. But I just don’t care about them. I can’t. When it comes to Nolan’s Batman, my critical faculties are away on holiday (possibly sipping a mojito and sneering at gap year students at a Full Moon party).
I love this Batman world intensely, primarily because it’s the closest it felt to the world that I imagined growing up reading the comics. It totally captures the spirit and tone of the late-period Batman comics: ‘Knightfall’, ‘The Long Halloween’, ‘Dark Victory’, ‘Arkham Asylum’, ‘Hush’, ‘Year One’, ‘Dark Knight Returns’, ‘The Killing Joke’, ‘The Man Who Laughs’, and even Scott Snyder’s recent work, whilst adding Nolan’s own particular spin on the character. BEGINS marked the moment when one of my favourite characters in pop culture – if not my very favourite – finally began to be taken seriously.
Because being taken seriously is what Batman is all about. People who complain that the Dark Knight films are portentous and too serious don’t get that this is a huge part of his appeal to a lot of people – it’s no coincidence that most people come to the character in early adolescence, because if ever you identify with a moody layabout who feels like they have the weight of the world on his shoulders, it’s then. He is the most interesting and complex superhero around because he’s the most human, both literally and figuratively – Batman’s ‘superpowers’, such as they are, are awe-inspiring loyalty, duty, and moral fortitude, borne out of overwhelming senses of fear and guilt. These are feelings that every one of us can identify with.
Batman turns those frowny feelings upside down and transforms them into something powerful and awesome, allowing those of us who feel confused and scared by the world around us –again, everyone, but goes double if you’re a moody teenager- to experience vicarious thrills through his brand of violent vengeance and vigilantism, putting the world to rights one well-placed batarang at a time.
As a result, Batman’s unique status in the superhero community has been used by comic book writers – Miller, Moore, Morrison etc- to explore social, political and psychological issues for years. It’s vaguely ridiculous, yes, but it’s in the bat-blood, this mix of po-faced social commentary and outlandish lunacy. It’s what I love about the character, yet only Nolan has fully explored this aspect of the character on screen. And if people think that’s portentous, then fuck ‘em. It’s not like you have to look far for superhero films that don’t take themselves seriously. But this is a version of Batman that, I think, needed to be told.
The real miracle of his series is that Nolan manages to pack in as many ideas as he does while still keeping things entertaining, and in the pure entertainment stakes THE DARK KNIGHT RISES may well end up being my favourite of the trilogy.
Nolan has structured the film as, essentially, one big third act, collating together all the leftover threads from BEGINS and DARK KNIGHT in a way that makes it seem as if he has always been building towards this point. Perhaps he has, although that would go against a number of statements he has made in the past.
If you’re emotionally invested in the series, then, the results are astonishing. There’s a level of emotional investment and catharsis in RISES that hasn’t been approached by any of the other films up to this point, particularly in the film’s remarkable final hour – the only film that is really comparable to in these terms of unleashing payoff after payoff is RETURN OF THE KING, although RISES cleverly avoids the false ending syndrome that plagued that film.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say RISES is the best structured of all the Nolan films. To me, BEGINS feels solidly split in half, almost jarringly so, with the film basically restarting after the ‘Nice coat’ line, and I always felt that THE DARK KNIGHT slightly runs out of steam before its final two set-pieces. While there’s a slightly slow start RISES just builds and builds to a fantastic crescendo that is intensely rewarding.
One thing that the trailers fail to giver you a real impression of is how epic this story is, with the comparisons to Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities ‘being well warranted. Obviously, by now you’ll know the film has a 2hr 45m running time, but the sheer scale of the plot, added to the now sprawling cast of characters, means that there is never a moment wasted. It occasionally feels like you’re watching an HBO drama as opposed to a film, such is the breadth of the ensemble, alongside the film-makers’ confidence in the assumption that they will be able to call upon viewers to recall information from years ago at a moment’s notice.
And for a film that has been accused of being too literal in the way it explores its themes (including me a few paragraphs ago) there are all manner of subtle visual motifs that recur throughout the whole series that you will only pick up on if you are paying close attention, or have watched all three in quick succession (guilty). I’m sure repeat viewings (of which there will be many) will yield even more of these – I found that the first two also proved richer experiences on subsequent viewings.
Let’s talk actors for a bit. Oldman, Caine and Freeman are typically fantastic – Oldman’s Gordon in particular is one of my favourite characters from the films, as I feel he captured the essence of the character from the Frank Miller books in particular perfectly.
Hardy is very good and physically incredible as Bane, despite the problems with his mask mentioned earlier. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the straight-laced good cop John Blake, and he demonstrates that he has physical presence to be an unlikely but effective action hero one day. Marion Cotillard is solid and an unbelievably beautiful screen presence, as always, and it’s great to see the likes of Aiden Gillen, Matthew Modine, and Tom Conti (!) show up in small but memorable roles.
As you may have heard, Anne Hathaway is without question the breakout star of RISES – she may not quite hit the insane highs of Ledger’s Joker, but she is still an absolute joy to watch as Selina Kyle, nailing her feline femme fatale persona in a way that will have you aching for a spin-off, casting the memory of that Halle Berry abortion into the scrap-heap where it belongs. She exudes sex appeal, charm, physical danger and a genuine sense of moral ambiguity that is totally compelling. And she looks great kicking people in leather obviously.
Which brings us to Christian Bale: like Batman himself, it seems he often gets excused from the discussion of the films in favour of the showier villains, which is a travesty because, for my money, his interpretation of Batman/Bruce Wayne is the single best on-screen interpretation of a superhero ever. It’s not even close. This isprobably the best actor of his generation take on one of the most iconic characters of all time, he has totally nailed it, right from the moment he we see him beating on Bhutanese prisoners in BEGINS.
Yes, his Batman voice is a little OTT, but I can forgive that considering what a sensitive and intelligent portrayal he gives of Bruce Wayne. He oozes playboy charm when he needs to, but he plays with role of egocentric billionaire as much theatricality as Batman – throughout his performance you can always see the damage lingering behind his eyes, the confusion and internal conflict, an as a result you never doubt he is capable of the ferocity of required by his Batman alter ego. Bale is just as much reason as Nolan as to why these films work as well as they do. Give it up for Bale. Seriously.
In truth I left the screening yesterday feeling pretty elated by the film, which totally lived up to my expectations, but also genuinely sad that I will probably never get to see another Nolan Batman film for the first time again. I spent the first few years of my life hoping that these films would one day be made, after seeing BATMAN FOREVER and loving it, then reading all of the comics listed above and realizing that Batman stories could be grown-up and interesting and intelligent, then seeing BATMAN AND ROBIN and being introduced to the concept of true disappointment for literally the first time, then going back and reading my comics and picturing the movie in my head, hoping, praying that some day someone would manage to get it right and do my favourite character justice. Then one day, they did. They took the film in my head and put it on screen, only as one giant, ten-hour epic split into three parts, populated by the world’s greatest actors. They approached the story of a man in a cape kicking burglars in his spare time like it was the most serious thing in the world. They got it right. Finally.
So yeah. Five stars.