“The Dark Knight Rises” Is a Great Looking Film, but Not the Best in the Series


7.5/10

The Dark Knight Rises Poster

“The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)  marks a fitting and solid, even if not spectacular, ending to the revival of the Batman series by director Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale.

The story begins 8 years after the previous entry, “The Dark Knight” (2008). Batman has not made an appearance during that period because he took the fall for the death of Harvey Dent, who provided so much hope to the city but became the demented Two Face after being corrupted by the Joker. Gotham has experienced relative peace built on the lie that Dent died a hero, but lurking underground, quite literally, has been the evil forces of the mask-wearing Bane (Tom Hardy), who has been gathering his men to bring Gotham to his version of the reckoning.

Although Batman has been made into a villain, Bruce Wayne cannot help but re-emerge from seclusion to rescue the city. Helping Wayne in that task is Miranda (Marion Cotillard), who takes over Wayne Enterprises when Wayne becomes penniless after Bane manipulates the swap market against him. Batman, meanwhile, must deal with Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who is both too menacing to be reliable but too innocuous to be a villain.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is a beautifully crafted film. Everything from the set design to the gadgets and the costume, there is artistry in the subtlety. New York City doubles as Gotham, but the distinctiveness given to the city in the design fits the rather dark mood of the film nicely. The gadgets have a nice artistic touch as well. Batman’s plane, if it can be called that, makes an imposing presence while looking great. Batman has been flying planes since the original “Batman” (1989) but this is the first time he’s flying a plane that I would want to fly. There is in general great attention to details, even in small things like the pin in the shape of a bat that Batman uses to take out Bane’s goons.

This high level of artistic achievement, which was missing in the Batman series in the 80s and 90s, is a credit to director Christopher Nolan. Just as in “Inception” (2010), Nolan is at his best here in using dazzling CGI that never overloads the senses. This film doesn’t have any large-scale special effects that has never been seen before, but CGI is used throughout the film to make each scene a visual wonder. The sequences in which Batman is flying above Gotham particularly showed the effects of stunning, but quiet beauty. This film is a great example of how to use special effects to support the film, rather than to make it the film itself.

And the material that the CGI is supporting is solid. Nolan, who also wrote the script, continues to bring depth to the character of Batman and the man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne, that wasn’t in the original series. The film really dives into the conflicted psyche of Bruce Wayne, who, despite the mental and physical toll and the personal tragedies that he has suffered, cannot let go of being Batman. The relationship with his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Cain), who is no longer fully supportive of Wayne’s efforts to rescue Gotham, adds an interesting dynamic. This narrative is so refreshing, and the acting by Michael Cane so strong, that I thought the film could have used a little more of him.

In somewhat like manner, the film as a whole is not quite up to the level of its predecessor, “The Dark Knight,” against which all future superhero movies will be compared. Part of the reason is the acting of Christian Bale, who is spectacular as Batman but is less convincing as the tormented Bruce Wayne, and part of it is the plot, which is really uneven. Despite the lengthy running time of 165 minutes, the film could have used more scenes with Batman. There is a period far too long in which Bruce Wayne/Batman simply disappears from Gotham and for the most part, the film. The climax involving a full-scale battle looked great but made Batman the side show. And I really didn’t care for the surprise twist at the end. By pulling off an M. Night Shyamalan-like bait-and-switch, the film feels cheapened.

The weakest part of the film, though, is the supporting characters. Ann Hathaway looks great as Catwoman, but her character is neither developed nor particularly engaged. She’s already Catwoman when the film begins, and the film never decides whether she’s a villain or a hero. More problematically, she’s a completely unnecessary character. She could have been dropped completely from the film and the plot would have stayed entirely coherent. In that sense, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in “Batman Returns” (1992) was a far more central and interesting character.

The villain, though, was where it was most wanting, although here, Bane simply suffers from comparison to Heath Ledger’s Joker. The mask-wearing Bane is certainly physically imposing and his machine-like voice adds credence to his evilness. Tom Hardy plays Bane with appropriate scariness, but Bane is not psychologically terrifying in the way of demonic psychopath of the Joker. Bane’s scariness is still ultimately realistic; Joker, with his surreal evilness, was quite a few steps above in the category of unforgettable villains.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is a fitting end to the Christopher Nolan’s trilogy in the sense that the film brings the two prior films full circle. It’s a shame that this series has to end, because I want to see more of what he can do with the character. The climax to the series is not unforgettable, but perhaps that’s evidence of how good Nolan has been: he made us expect the unforgettable.

“The Dark Knight Rises” has concluded its run in the theaters in Japan and the U.S., where is would be available on DVD and Blue-Ray starting on September 25, 2012.

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