Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises [Review]

How many trilogies do you know where all three components stack up in equal measure? Possibly the only two that come close are the original Star Wars trilogy (Ewoks pending) and The Lord of the Rings.  It’s a rare thing, namely due to the curse of the threequel – see Spider-Man 3, Rush Hour 3 et al.

And just as the release of the other of the summer’s superhero blockbusters was surrounded by one question (was it necessary?), so too is the release of Christopher Nolan’s final instalment of his Dark Knight Trilogy surrounded by a singular matter: can it live up to the unbelievably high standards the director set himself with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), or will it fall prey to the curse of the threequel?

I’d like to offer you an answer to this in a nutshell, but it isn’t that simple. Sorry, folks: you’re going to have to read the entire thing this time. (Skipping to the stars won’t cut it either, I’m afraid.) The Dark Knight Rises is a curious beast for a sequel in that it is actually its differences from its predecessors that form its main strengths.

The film opens, as did The Dark Knight, with a prologue (which will be familiar to IMAX viewers of 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) introducing its villain. Here said villain comes in the form of masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), though following the structure of the previous instalments, he’s not the only threat to Gotham, nor the only other suped-up principal character – but more on that later.

Our introduction to Bane sees him kidnapping a man from a plane by destroying the aircraft around him. Subtlety’s definitely not his forte, then. But for a man who could conceivably take on the Hulk in a fistfight with even odds, that’s perhaps to be expected. Anyway, Bane journeys to Gotham with a villainous plan that even exceeds the scale of that of Begins – and certainly that of Knight.

Meanwhile, the caped crusader himself has not been seen in the streets of Gotham for eight years, following the climactic scenes of the previous instalment that saw him take the blame for the crimes of Harvey Dent (or Two-Face, for comic fans). The streets are relatively clean, with a thousand crooks behind bars due to the Dent Act – seemingly, there’s no need for old Bats anymore.

Which is probably a good thing, considering the state Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) himself is in. A crippled recluse, the billionaire has barely been seen in eight years (surely someone should be putting two and two together here), hiding out in his mansion following the loss of childhood friend Rachel in The Dark Knight.

It takes a thieving maid in the form of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to shake him out of his stupor, and it’s no wonder: where the use of Catwoman (though her alias is never mentioned) doubted many Batfans, she’s actually one of the most surprising and interesting characters. True to the source, she’s a typically grey character – we’re never quite sure where her allegiances lie (or indeed if they lie any way other than with herself).

And when Bane arrives in the city clutching a nuclear bomb and holding Wall Street hostage, it looks as if it’s time to don the cowl one last time. When Bats finally does arrive back on screen – accompanied by a great line from one cop to another which I won’t spoil for you – he does it in appropriate style, unveiling a new flying toy from the Fox department.

With all the build-up and character introductions finally out of the way – which takes a good hour, though with a 164 minute runtime there’s plenty left to come – we get to the meat of the story. So it’s a little slow starting, and there’s perhaps a little too much exposition and unnecessary characters, but with the scale of what comes next you’ll find yourself easily forgiving that.

For the first time in the trilogy we feel a genuine sense of jeopardy and danger for Batman – previously we’ve seen him fight dozens of goons simultaneously with relative ease; his only minor undoing coming in Knight at the hands (paws?) of a few canines. But Bane’s sheer physical strength is more than a match for Batman, who is still weakened from damage to his leg and muscle tissue. The Dark Knight trilogy shows not only the repercussions of heroism and vigilantism on a citywide scale, but also on a personal scale: finally, we see just how vulnerable Bruce Wayne really is. Not to give anything away, of course.

Bane’s imposing strength aside, which makes for some of the tensest and most exciting physical encounters you’ll ever see on screen, his other main sticking point is, of course, his voice. It's a cold, robotic drawl that still somehow carries plenty of sinister charm; indeed, Bane’s dulcet tones stand in stark contrast to the brute force of the character himself. Said force is, of course, what separates him from Knight’s Joker – it was always going to be difficult to top Ledger’s iconic performance, so Bane was a very suitable choice of villain. Where Joker was all about doing a lot with a little, and using mental and emotional tactics over physical acts, Bane is the reverse, and strives to do a lot with... well, a lot.

Or so it would seem. Joker’s agenda, unveiled in his speech to Harvey Dent that gave birth to Two Face in one of Knight’s best scenes, draws some parallels with Bane’s – essentially, inciting the 99% to cause chaos against the 1% - but that of the latter is less clear cut. Does Bane really want to ignite the streets and prompt a revolution, following Nolan’s social commentary that has run through his entire trilogy, or does he simply want to destroy Gotham? When we finally found out more about the character – which, given how little backstory Joker had, is no less than welcome – and how he ties in to the running story of the entire trilogy, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.

To say more would be to spoil things a little too much, but suffice to say there are more villains in this tale than just Bane (and to an extent, Selina Kyle) – including a handful of familiar faces. Meanwhile, returning actors Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are all on top form as some of Wayne’s only allies, with Caine in particular stealing the show as butler Alfred. Though his motives and allegiance to Wayne’s cause may have altered slightly in the eight years since the billionaire last donned the Batsuit, there’s plenty reason for it, and a few teary eyed exchanges are likely to cause the audience to follow suit.

Franchise newbie Joseph Gordon-Levitt also threatens to steal the limelight from Bale, slotting naturally into Nolan’s Bat-verse. His character arc may drag slightly towards the finale and be painfully predictable, but it also provides a very interesting alternative – the likes of which have never really been seen in the trilogy until now.

But characters aside - where Knight was tightly written and cohered into a logical story, the progression of Rises is questionable. Too often we are asked to further stretch our suspension of disbelief, which doesn’t stack up against Nolan’s emphasis on grounded realism. Time passes sporadically with little indication and characters wind up in locations with little explanation of how. In this sense the scripting can often feel clunky and haphazard – perhaps in due process of the grand themes Nolan attempts to tackle, even in the course of the already bloated runtime (which luckily passes smoothly after the first hour of exposition).

Speaking of clunky scripts, there are one too many plot holes – those so inclined can read a few of them here, but beware the obvious spoilery nature of the article – in a universe that was heretofore almost exempt of them. But for all its flaws – and you will come to realise how many more of them are evident as more time passes since viewing, once you get past the initial awed reaction – The Dark Knight Rises is still a monster of a film: not quite as tight as Knight, but a fitting end to the trilogy that ramps up the scale and hammers on the intensity. 2012’s best superhero blockbuster? You bet your Batmobile it is.


Dir: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard
Warner Bros. Pictures, 164 mins, 20/07/12

Synopsis: Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and it's time for Batman to come out of retirement (don't worry, that doesn't mean George Clooney's back), as terrorist leader Bane threatens to destroy Gotham with a nuclear device, while a mysterious Cat-like woman prowls the streets, and Bruce Wayne's mansion...


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