Saturday, 21 July 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Well, this is going to be an interesting review to write. These days most movies come packaged in an excitingly huge and shiny cardboard box made of reconstituted hype and nonsense, but it’s rare for genuine expectation to find itself saddled to a blockbuster superhero flick. Everyone is usually too jaded, too flooded with media and too brutalised by box office turds to set their expectations very high even when all the signs are positive. That’s why no one was particularly surprised when the likes of Prometheus or Avatar hit home with very mixed receptions. Disappointing is the new black, and as an audience our current default setting is one of post-modern cynicism.

The Dark Knight Rises hype machine beat all that off with a nail-studded stick. I don’t know anyone who was intending to see this at the cinema that wasn’t looking forward to it with a feverish enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism. Admittedly, I know a lot of nerds. But I maintain that the general feeling was that this was going to be something special, a superhero movie that stood a chance of eclipsing its predecessors and wrapping the Nolan Batman trilogy into a neat little best-ever-cape-series package.

Well, it has done the latter. There’s no disputing that between them, these three films summarise the story of Batman into an extremely satisfying  tale with multiple distinct character arcs, loaded with subtext and imagery that make them some of the only movies capable of hitting the brain as hard as they hit the guts. In many ways The Dark Knight Rises is closer to a sequel to Batman Begins that the second film was – it carries over a lot of similar themes, as well as offering a continuation of that original narrative that I will desperately try not to spoilerise within this review.

What it has not done is step up the trilogy’s game. Now, should that be a criticism? Honestly, I don’t know. But when the second film in a series aces the first (which was already pretty firmly the best film of its genre ever made), one can’t help but feel some mild disappointment when the third film pulls back to quality of Batman Begins. Is The Dark Knight Rises good? Undoubtedly. Is it worth seeing, and worthy of being the conclusion of the Christian Bale as Batman saga? Oh yes.

But if what follows seems to have an excess of negative spin on it, now you know why.

We return to Gotham eight years after the devastating events of The Dark Knight, and immediately are thrown into an environment both familiar and alien. This is the Gotham and the characters we have seen before, but swaddled in inertia and neutered by past decisions. This inertia spills out onto the screen, to the point where the film feels like it takes a good hour to get up and running. It’s definitely a slow burn rather than an immediate cackling blaze of fury – albeit a slow burn that eventually rolls into an intensity that is as uncomfortable as it is adrenalising.

As with the previous films (and most of Nolan’s work in general), the ensemble performances are off the chart for something which is nominally a summer blockbuster. More than ever before, Bale’s Batman shines as a man broken into the shape of fear and justice by events beyond his control. Tom Hardy proves to be an inspired choice for Bane, an immediate fusion of cerebral and physical intimidation whose cold and clinical voice terrifies without ever raising itself above a barely-audible mechanical whisper. Anne Hathaway is also surprisingly effective as Selina Kyle (the name ‘Catwoman’ never actually escaping past anyone’s lips), languidly providing the manipulative not-quite-amoral slink that is required for the role. And it’s difficult to over-exaggerate just how refreshing it is to see a portrayal of the character outside the seminal 1990’s animated series who isn’t just defined by her sexual overtones. Into both , the writers have introduced a 99%-er sensibility that makes it difficult not to agree with their aims, even when decrying their methods.

The mostly unsung heroes of the trilogy have, however, always been Michael Caine’s Alfred and Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon. Both continue to turn in powerful and subtle performances, though Oldman has much less to do in Dark Knight Rises than he has previously. Alfred, on the other hand, proves to be the furiously beating emotional heart of this final third. It makes for less of the easy humour and comradely banter that marked the relationship between Wayne and his primary father figure before, but leads to some genuinely devastating emotional moments. This will be the only superhero film of the year you might shed a tear for.

Cast aside, Dark Knight Rises runs a genuine risk of losing its way on several occasions through the lengthy running time. Incorporating multiple character threads throughout (though unlike The Dark Knight, always keeping Batman front and centre), sometimes these people seem to be revolving around each other rather than genuinely connecting. That isn’t the case across the board, and it’s not enough that you fail to care about them at all. But as an example, try as I might I couldn’t build up much empathy for new guy Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s earnest cop. As the film strolled onward, this left me in an awkward half-engaged posture due to the eventual importance of the role he plays. These are good characters in bad situations but often there’s just nothing to hook me in within this part of the trilogy. That’s less important for the characters who have jumped aboard two films ago, but when Nolan puts the onus on the newbies (of which there are quite a few), the ground just doesn’t seem solid. Perhaps it’s because almost everything within the film is a gamechanger.

It really, really is.

If Batman Begins was the taut origin story and The Dark Knight was the Heat-style hero vs. villain character study, then The Dark Knight Rises is the epic disaster movie. There is awe here with a capital A. Certain setpieces will make your jaw drop and your heart race, no two ways about it. This can partly be laid at the door of the cinematography, which is superb. Every single shot has been crisply assembled to be pitched at the audience in just the right way to deliver.

But when so much sweeping change is thrown at you right off the bat, it’s hard to keep up. You have no time to become invested into a status quo before it is twisted and turned around. Said twists are never illogical Shyamalan-style cheats, but there is an over-reliance on MacGuffins and flinging the surprises/dramatic changes at you faster than a speeding bullet. How’s that for crossover DC referencing, folks?

Speaking of DC referencing – if you are a comic book geek like me, there is much here to love. In the same way that Ledger’s Joker unconsciously took elements of most of the Clown Prince Of Crime’s portrayals from the last 30 or so years and melded them together into a horrifically joyous whole, Nolan rams picture-perfect versions of Catwoman and Bane onto the screen for your enjoyment. It’s especially satisfying given they’ve been done so very, very wrong before now. And if you are familiar with the definitive Batman/Bane story arc from the latter’s first appearances, a confrontation halfway through will be extremely gratifying. That’s veering dangerously close to spoiler right there. But only if you’re a massive Batman nerd, in which case you’ve probably already seen it. So that’s ok.

This has rambled on too long already.

So, The Dark Knight Rises. Has it arrived like a swooping bat-shaped thing from the darkness to save us from the generic bilge that infests the summer blockbuster release schedule? Yes. Has it upped the ante from the superb dynamics of The Dark Knight and set the bar still higher for the trilogy’s swansong? Not really, no.

Does that actually matter? Mileage may vary. For me, no. The Batman trilogy created by Nolan & co. is best viewed as one coherent whole, and as a conclusion to that whole this film does the job – and does it very well. It is a film that makes you feel and think and want to punch bad guys all at the same time, while wrapped comfortably around themes that capture the public zeitgeist with an almost impossibly casual ease. Any disappointment I had while walking out of the cinema felt like it was essentially my fault for being a curmudgeonly overanalysing prick. When that’s internalised rather than being shouted at me by other people, it must be a sign of something. If this third part of Nolan’s Batman feels to me like a weak link in the chain when viewed in isolation, it is still one that makes the chain stronger.

1 comment:

  1. Everything about this movie is just so darn epic, that I honestly couldn’t wait to just stand up, cheer my head off, and show my love for the epic trilogy that Christopher Nolan has made for me, and made for me with total love and care. Great way to say bye-bye to everybody’s favorite Bat. Nice review.