Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

 The Dark Knight Rises, the third and reportedly final Batman film directed by Christopher Nolan, arrives with unfathomable expectations after the success of 2008's The Dark Knight and will forever and unfairly be part of a discussion on violence and media after the murders in Aurora, Colorado. In an attempt to cut through the distraction and consider the film at hand I'll say here that while I admired the performance of Heath Ledger, I wasn't a fan of The Dark Knight. That film's idea of the Joker as a natural force of chaos wasn't enough to provide a dramatic shape, and Nolan stuffed in far too many muddled action scenes and too much heavy-handed politics for my liking. Despite Ledger's undiminishable presence, for me The Dark Knight simply wasn't good storytelling.

What, then, are we left with? It is a pleasant surprise to report that The Dark Knight Rises is almost entirely a success, a genuinely epic vision of heroism and community that goes into dark corners that most superhero films pretend don't exist. Subjects as big and complicated as aging, loyalty, responsibility and (most of all) class structure are touched upon and folded into a big-canvas story of a man and a city each making an affirmative choice to fight a common enemy. Nolan also makes this third Batman film pay off as a trilogy-capper, calling back plot details from Batman Begins and providing his fullest picture yet of Gotham City's social tapestry. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is a frail and humbled presence when we meet him here; Wayne hides out in his mansion even as Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's richest celebrate the false legacy of the late Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), in whose name Gotham has enacted a series of oppressive penal laws. Bale plays Wayne as a man coming back to life, who realizes that his choice to give up on the world was a mistaken one. After an encounter with  the burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) awakens Wayne's curiosity about Gotham's power structure, Nolan unfolds a complicated web of business dealings and financial troubles involving a nuclear reactor, a rich Wayne Industries board member (Marion Cotillard), and the fact that Gotham badly needs its own Occupy movement. The nexus of all this activity is Bane (Tom Hardy), a half-masked terrorist with an agenda of anarchy and connections to the mythology of the series that make him more than the just the villain of the moment. It's hard to evaluate Hardy's performance because his costume masks his mouth and limits his expressiveness, but he gives the character a anger and a specificity of purpose that helps drive the movie forward. (In a couple of early scenes I thought the looping of his dialogue was obvious, but I soon forgot and it's not a distraction.) The story unfolds slowly as Bane cuts a swath through those who have created him, but Hardy never overplays his hand and the revelation of his true agenda is more rewarding for how thoughtfully it's laid out.

Superhero movies that double up on villains aren’t usually the movies you remember (Spider-Man 3), so anyone nervous going in about the combination of Catwoman and the lesser-known Bane could hardly be blamed. The biggest surprise of The Dark Knight Rises is the recontextualization of Catwoman from walking sex bomb (I mean no disrespect to Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance, but Hathaway is running on a different track.) to class warrior. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, who of course looks incredible, has her place in the Gotham criminal hierarchy and is forced to steal in an effort to erase her own past. More importantly, this Catwoman is advance warning of something that Nolan has always insisted on in his vision of Gotham: the anger of the middle classes at the self-indulgence of the city’s elite. Movies like The Dark Knight Rises are too long in the cooking to have anticipated something as recent as the Occupy movement, but implicit in the film is the idea that there are many kinds of heroes. Batman is one extreme, and a streetwise beat cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who sees through Bruce Wayne is the other. The charge of the Gotham police against Bane's forces has true emotional power on a scale I haven’t felt at the movies in a long time.

The Dark Knight Rises almost justifies its 165-minute running time, only a segment involving Wayne in captivity feels like it could have been broken down into something shorter. (Tom Conti is saddled with heavy exposition as a prisoner who aids the injured Wayne.) Nolan can’t resist a couple of late twists and I wish he’d had the courage to carry things to a true ending, but I’ve never felt as much heart behind a Nolan film as I do here. The Dark Knight Rises almost certainly isn’t the Batman movie many will want, but it is the one we badly needed.

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

With a couple of surprising plot twists, and several crowd-pleasing nods to his previous Batman films, Nolan delivers a near-perfect farewell that tops off one of the best trilogies in some recent time, especially for the superhero genre. Great review Simon.