Review – The Dark Knight Rises

“It’s a funny world we live in.”

That’s of course a quote from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. I think it’s my favorite line of his in that whole film. Not so much the line itself but the way he says it – it’s the first (and only) time we see this Joker frustrated. His sociological experiment/attempt to corrupt a whole boatload of Gotham citizens has failed. His deadline has passed, and no one has blown anyone else to smithereens out of fear. Funny world indeed.

I have to wonder if Christopher Nolan is feeling that way right now. He’s completed his trilogy of Batman movies. The three-part opera of elevating superhero movies to the level of true art is in the bag. And people aren’t quite sure how to feel about it. Was it his best film or his worst? You’ll find passionate arguments on the internet for both, and probably a few that land in between.

Or maybe he isn’t feeling that way at all. It’s been suggested that Nolan mailed this one in out of obligation. That he was done with Batman when his lightning-in-a-bottle star, Heath Ledger, passed away. That he had to make a third film because this is Hollywood, and these are comic book movies, and you don’t make just two massively successful comic book movies. You gotta do a trilogy. There’s evidence for this in the film, and lord knows I’m curious to see what he does next. But my final take on The Dark Knight Rises is that, warts and all, it’s spectacular.

This seems like a good place to give the old spoiler warning. You have to have readers to be in danger of spoiling anything, but better safe than sorry.

I think it’s human nature to compare, and comparison is all I’ve been hearing about this movie. Is it better than The Dark Knight? Yes/No (circle one).

Most are falling firmly into the “no” category on that one. They may be right. I find it difficult to rank these three Batman films against each other. Like an Olympic event, it would be a game of micro-points. But this is the problem – as most people don’t put Rises above Knight, they decide that they are disappointed. And if they are disappointed, then the film is bad. Never mind the fact that if The Dark Knight never existed, this would likely sit in its place as the world’s best superhero movie. Expectations are a dangerous thing.

I went into TDKR somewhat fearful. The drawback to being the kind of person who stays abreast of the film industry and of critical reactions is that I can’t seem to avoid it. I saw the Tomatometer score for TDKR start out at 100%, then slowly dip down into the low 90’s and plateau in the high 80’s. Still a very solid score, but it was troubling to me. Expectations. They color experiences in so many ways. There’s an interesting phenomenon with absurdly high-anticipation level films. Some people want their anticipation to pay off so badly they aren’t willing to admit right away when they are disappointed. So when those first few reviews come in, they are written while the critic is still feeling their visceral first impression of the film (the earliest reviews get the most readers, after all). Hence, the earliest responses are artificially inflated.

Even two of the most notoriously disappointing superhero films of the past decade, Spider-Man 3 and X-Men 3, both saw mainly positive reviews early in their release cycle. It was only as reality started to sink in a few days later that the Tomatometer score started to reflect the films’ actual quality. I feared this was what was happening with The Dark Knight Rises when I entered the theater. I admit, I needed this film to be good. It sounds silly to say, but when you’ve invested so much emotional and mental energy to a thing, it’s hard not to desire a good payoff.

I left the theater with a huge grin. None of the complaints I had heard (I’ll get to those soon) seriously impacted my enjoyment of the film. “Satisfying” is the best word I suppose.

Now that I’ve seen the film, and heard reactions from friends, co-workers, bloggers, critics, and journalists, I feel properly calibrated. The Dark Knight Rises is a flawed film, there’s no doubt about it. But your personal enjoyment of the film will depend on how willing you are to forgive (or ignore) some of these flaws in the service of the story. I argue that most of them are compression artifacts of a sort, from trying to fit some pretty big ideas into a film of reasonable length (you might argue two hours and forty five minutes is unreasonable, I don’t). It’s important to keep in mind that The Dark Knight itself had a fair share of flaws. These have been all but lost to history.

I fully believe many viewers focus too much on little details and use them to justify their dislike. For example, when I talk to people who were underwhelmed by TDKR, I most often get three talking points:

  1. It wasn’t as good as The Dark Knight.
  2. It was too long.
  3. Bane’s voice was silly/Bane wasn’t as good as The Joker was.

I’ve already referenced the first two points. And I’m not surprised people were put off by “the voice”. I had no problem with it, even when it was laughable (and it WAS laughable at times, especially when he seemed to be channeling Sean Connery). It all made the character more interesting to me. It certainly didn’t make him seem any less menacing. How about that first fistfight with Batman? I saw several people visibly cringing in the theater when Batman was getting the tar kicked out of him effortlessly by this monster. Of course, when all was said and done, and Bane is revealed to be essentially a secondary villain to Talia al Ghul, he doesn’t pop out of the screen so much as Ledger’s Joker. That was a once in a lifetime performance (and let’s not forget, an exceptionally well-written character), and it’s not entirely fair to compare anything else to it, even if we are talking about the same series of films.

And then there are the plot holes. I won’t let this devolve into a list of them, as a number of internet commentators would be more than happy to do that for me, but again, I’ve filed them away as “water under the bridge”. I don’t much care to find out how Bruce Wayne made his way from the Middle East to Gotham without being detected by Bane. Or how, in a martial law Gotham ruled by a man who knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, Commissioner Gordon never figured it out. Water under the bridge.

What does linger in my mind are moments like the aforementioned fistfight with Bane. Or Alfred’s emotional speech early in the film when he pleads Bruce not to let himself become Batman again. Anne Hathaway’s surprisingly good Catwoman. Batman turning the tables on Bane at the end and bringing that fury. The good and great moments outweighed the nagging flaws.

Speaking of Alfred, while the acting was roundly great, with Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman delivering as expected with their small roles, Michael Caine really knocked it out of the park as Alfred this time around. He was the emotional center that made us care about Bruce Wayne the Man, as opposed to Batman the Symbol. At the end of Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes says that the real Bruce Wayne never really came back. Alfred calls back to this, confronting Bruce with the reality that he’s never moved on from his pain – both of his parents’ death and of Rachel’s.

This perfectly scripted moment brought up an idea no other Batman film has attempted – the best way to honor the memories of your lost loved ones is to find some happiness for yourself. The vengeance and sacrifice that Batman has represented all along – maybe it’s not the way this should end after all.

That’s why the ending worked so well to me. I’ve heard people refer to it as “the Scooby Doo Mega-Happy Ending”, which gave me a good chuckle. But it didn’t feel like a cop-out. In fact, I dare say that Bruce Wayne simply sacrificing himself would have been too predictable. Not as satisfying. As an audience, we watched a man brutalize himself for a cause across three films and never stopped to consider whether that character deserved a real life.

So say what you will, but that resonated with me.

Comment (1)

  1. Brad

    The more time that passes, the less I like the film. I didn’t really like Bane. His goals didn’t fit his character, and then the twist with Talia made that even worse. Anne Hathaway was good, but I liked Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman way more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *