The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated follow-up to The Dark Knight and the purported final chapter in his Batman trilogy, has a lot to live up to: its predecessor set a new standard for comic book movies, opening to widespread acclaim (though the film does have its detractors, many of whom feel that it was too dark), breaking box office records, and even garnering Academy Awards.
So does Rises match The Dark Knight? In short: no. But it still offers a damn good ride, and seems to fly by despite a 164-minute running time. Nolan has steadily improved as a blockbuster director through the course of this series, and the action sequences here – carefully choreographed and edited – are some of his finest work yet. Story-wise, however, the previous film still stands tall.
If there’s one aspect of The Dark Knight that stands out, it’s The Joker. But in addition to the terrifying portrayal by Heath Ledger, the character was brilliantly realized at a script level; he simply exists, the embodiment of pure evil, the antithesis of Batman. Never before had the comic book hero/villain dynamic been so perfectly depicted.
For a good portion of The Dark Knight Rises, however, the realization of Tom Hardy’s Bane comes awfully close to matching that. But if there’s one fatal flaw here, it’s that Nolan (and brother/co-writer Jonathan Nolan) demystifies the character at the film’s climax, sending him to the background and losing a lot of what the rest of the film has built up.
Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up the batsuit and become a Howard Hughes-like recluse. But Gotham doesn’t need or want him – anti-parole laws passed in honor of Harvey Dent seem to have kept the majority of criminal activity off the streets.
Of course, something very big is coming: the menacing criminal mastermind Bane (Hardy) and his league of minions have developed a network of tunnels in Gotham’s sewers in advance of a massive attack on the city. As detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) realizes something is afoot, he implores Wayne to return as Batman.
Meanwhile, Wayne is trailing cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who stole his fingerprints and sold them to business rival John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn). Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) urges Wayne to continue work on a clean energy source that has been shut down due to its potential use as a nuclear weapon in the wrong hands. And Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley (Matthew Modine) vows to bring down Batman upon his re-emergence.
Old hands Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), and Michael Caine (Alfred) are also back, though each have a little less screen time this time around.
With all these new characters and subplots, it takes a little while for The Dark Knight Rises to get into a groove; once it does, however, the results are breathless: this is a big, sprawling action spectacle, and Nolan does a terrific job bringing together all the divergent story threads into something coherent. Rises also features some well-placed comic relief, making this a (slightly) lighter film than its predecessor.
With its focus on the city of Gotham and how the citizens react to the chaos imparted by Bane, the film both reflects Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities and the current political climate in the US. Key scenes were shot in New York City’s Wall Street last year amidst the Occupy protests; Gotham itself has a NYC vibe this time around, compared to the Chicago locales in the previous film.
One of Nolan’s greatest strengths is his integration of CGI into the film; everything onscreen – even the more fantastical elements, such as the Batwing – is perfectly integrated and never stands out as effects work. This fits in perfectly with the realistic approach taken towards the material, and stands out in sharp contrast to something like The Amazing Spider-Man.
Most of the new additions here work well: Hardy’s Bane is a commanding presence, with some striking sound design used for his dialogue, even if he sometimes sounds like he was dubbed by Ian McKellan.
Hathaway – never referred to on screen as Catwoman – and Gordon-Levitt also provide some excellent support. But the Cotillard character is a major distraction, particularly the way she figures in the film’s climax.
I really dug 90% of The Dark Knight Rises, but that climax muddles things up and nearly drops the ball; I’d have preferred to see the film more closely follow Bane’s Knightfall storyline from the comics, but that’s just me. Still, this is extremely well-handled, high-powered entertainment; it’s at the opposite end of the superhero spectrum as The Avengers, but works just as well in its own way. And had The Dark Knight not set the bar so high, Rises would look even better.