The Dark Knight Rises

I realize this comes in a little late for most folks, but it has taken me a while to get around to seeing this flick. I did catch it in IMAX–given that Nolan filmed a third of the movie in that format, I wanted to see it as intended. Visually, it did not disappoint. You cannot fault this director for his vision, be it this series or Inception, The Prestige, or Memento. A Nolan movie is always unique visually, but always identifiable as his (this is true even of Insomnia, though I try to forget that film).

So why my delay? Frankly, this series has never really captured my geek obsession nor my critical soul. I think Nolan is one of the best story-tellers and directors working today, but Batman Begins had the anchor weight of Katie Holmes that just ruined the film for me. The Dark Knight, which soared on the brilliance of Ledger, and with a better story than Begins, lagged at points and wasn’t structured perfectly. However, my real aversion was the casting of Hathaway as Catwoman. Suffice to say I needn’t have worried, though Pfieffer will always be my favorite. I’ll come back to Hathaway in a moment.

There are different ways to approach a discussion of this film: as a standalone movie, as a full trilogy, and as super hero film  (this summer) vs. The Avengers. Each of these aspects deserves a few moments, so bear with me.

As an individual movie, it is a very dark, somewhat confused, and oblique mess. Despite the attempts to fill in background to allow it to stand on its own, there is a great reliance on the lore and on actions that happened during the 8 year timeline gap between the previous film and Rises, not to mention the history laid out in the previous two films. I often felt rather at loose ends. Plot-wise, there was so much obvious and telegraphed by the film that I was somewhat annoyed by the lack of surprise. This was further exacerbated by the lack of believable motivations on the part of our criminal nemeses. None of it makes sense, even at the end… but again, perhaps that is because I don’t recall info from the previous movies. (As a side note, I have to say I am massively impressed at how much about the film I didn’t know when I went in despite seeing it 6 weeks after release. Kudos to folks for keeping silent!)

As a trilogy, this is the best of the three films. It is more focused and more complex than the other films, which tended to wander, and it takes you on a journey. There are some wonderful arcs for the main characters. Nolan’s film making improves with each installment and there is story memory between the films. Again, I think a little too much memory in that all of the action of the third film require knowing a lot about the universe that was created. I expect some of this in a series, but I shouldn’t feel stupid for not remembering or understanding a relationship, and I often did during Rises. Given the unevenness of the three films, I am not overwhelmed by its value as a trilogy, but I am now curious to see it put together to see if all the parts fit as intended. I’m betting that watching all 3 films back-t0-back would work better, though I might need a Zanax when it was done, or at least a good dose of sunshine. Batman’s world, particularly the Dark Knight incarnation, is bleak to the extreme in its view of human nature.

As a super hero film it is decidedly in its own class. Dark and disturbing, but with a moral message that you either buy into or feel good pushing against. And heroes can serve that purpose. In fact, it is the very core of the questions the second movie raises and from which the third takes its launch. However, as compared to the other mega hit of  the summer, The Avengers, which pulled together 5 films of information, I don’t think it stands up nearly as well nor was nearly as fun. While they take different approaches to the genre and certainly have different agendas, we still want to be entertained and thrilled. Frankly, The Avengers did that way better for me and stood on its own better.

Interestingly, both series took a similar approach for their wind ups: they introduced new focus characters for us to buy into to keep things fresh. For Rises it was Levitt and Hathaway, mirroring Renner and Johansson for Avengers. In both cases, through these new additions we get to re-evaluate the premise and the intents of our main cast. It is a great device, but Levitt and Hathaway walk away with this film both by talent and by design unlike the balance that was managed in Avengers. Both performances are well executed and worthy of notice. Hathaway’s versatility continues to surprise and Levitt’s maturity and range as he has grown up has been exciting to watch. He is the next generation DiCaprio (with more talent) or Schroeder (but more consistent). In fact, Levitt has 3 other major films out before the end of the year: Premium Rush, Looper, Django Unchained. But he has also turned in powerful and entertaining performances in an odd collection of films such as Elektra Luxx, 50/50500 Days of Summer, Mysterious Skin, Brick, even 10 Things I Hate About You. Like many, I discovered him in 3rd Rock from the Sun and recognized him as an actor to keep tabs on.

In addition to Levitt and Hathaway, appearances by Marion Cotillard (Midnight in Paris, ContagionLa Vie en Rose), Juno Temple (Dirty Girl), Cillian Murphy, and a couple of bit parts for folks from Dexter and Grimm stood out as wonderful brush strokes in this comic-brought-to-life world. Of all the films, this is the most balanced as an ensemble and it fares better for it.

From a purely thematic approach, there was a fascinating thread of duality. The movie begins with a tribute to Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face. Our main villian is just as often referred to as “the man in the mask” rather than by his moniker, Bane, purposefully blurring the distinction between him and Batman. There is even a ceremonial reading from A Tale of Two Cities. This is where the Nolan brothers’ writerly talents really show. At no time is any of this even mentioned, but the sense of moral right and wrong, dark and light, life and death are made clear to the audience. This aspect, more than any other, is what makes Rises stand above its two predecessors. As the trilogy came to a close, we are asked to evaluate all the decisions and choices through this prism and decide what should have happened and how.

But, to be perfectly honest, my favorite aspect of this film is that Nolan is now free to go back to making other movies. I want to see what the mind that gave us Memento, The Prestige, and Inception can produce now that he has freedom again to do so.

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