Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises [Spoilers]
When I left the theater after my showing of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, I remarked that it was a nearly perfect script in terms of length, structure, characterization, and many other screenwriting tools. Inception, I explained to my friends, had a script that would be studied by film students in years to come. Popular opinion on Inception has seemingly shifted wildly towards the negative, but I still contend that the screenplay for that film showed that Christopher Nolan was a capable and ingenious writer, someone who understood how to make a great film. I wish that I could say the same for The Dark Knight Rises.
I’d like to get a couple things out of the way first. I know that popular opinion of TDKR is going to disagree with me. I understand this, I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. I can absolutely see why fans of Nolan’s Batman trilogy love this film, but you aren’t going to sway my opinion of this movie. So, if you feel like attacking me personally because I’m about to break down why I feel TDKR isn’t a very good movie, please, just move along. The levels of hyperbolic defense surrounding this film have reached such heights that I’ve been worried about writing this review, simply for fear of backlash from readers. I get it, we’re not all going to like the same movies, but please, let’s all be civil.
Secondly, many of my problems with TDKR come directly from things that many consider spoilers. I’m going to refrain from talking about the ending in great detail (specifically some of the late movie twists), but I will be commenting on many plot elements that happen throughout the rest of the movie. As such, consider this a spoiler warning if you haven’t seen the film.
One of the largest issues with The Dark Knight Rises is the absolute bloated script. Written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan from a story by Nolan and David Goyer, The Dark Knight Rises script introduces us to dozens of characters, plot points, schemes, ideas, weapons, and threads. It begins to build layers upon layers without really paying off anything that has come before it. Senators, cops, orphans, detectives, criminals are all introduced to us before we see Bruce Wayne. And these characters often times mean so little to the actual narrative that their omission would impact little in the long run.
What this means is that The Dark Knight Rises focuses its attention on hundreds of little details throughout its two hour and forty-seven minute runtime, many things that could have been omitted to help the flow of the story or to trim the exceedingly long running time. Entire scenes could have been scrapped to either trim the time or allow the film to expand on ideas that were stunningly given the short shrift. It’s also one of the most poorly paced films in recent history, with the story just sort of shambling through expository dialogue over and over in the beginning. Now, when I say “beginning”, I really mean the first hour and a half of the film. It really does take that long to set itself up. In that time we’re shown many things that either don’t need to be seen or are forgotten quickly.
Example: we’re specifically shown that Bruce Wayne’s joints have degenerated in the years following The Dark Knight and he goes to a doctor for this information. It’s a scene. We see it. It’s also pointless since it’s never mentioned again and less than ten minutes later Bruce Wayne is kicking fucking bricks into dust. LITERALLY. Though Wayne is wearing a brace on his bad leg to enhance its strength, it’s never mentioned again (even near the end when Wayne is captured by Bane). It’s a scene that could and should have been trimmed. If it were, the film would either be smaller or have some room to allow better characterization.
For instance, early in the film Gotham police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) visits Bruce Wayne. Blake has a beef with the Wayne Foundation’s lack of funding for the local Orphanarium. But that’s not all! Blake has also deduced that Wayne is Batman (a fact that nearly everyone knows in this film for some godawful reason) and urges Wayne to take up the mantle once more. Blake just having this information doesn’t enrich his character, had we seen him learning the truth about Wayne/Batman it would have given us a greater understanding of Blake’s capabilities. Instead we’re to believe that a kid just figured out the identity of Batman and kept it hidden for years.
The first two-thirds of the film are incomprehensibly building up to Bane’s (Tom Hardy) ultimate plan. Things happen, the score pulses and pounds with excitement, but the slow build-up just. keeps. going. And the beginning of the film… well, it’s kinda boring. Yes, some exciting stuff happens, but it’s all just nonsense.
Here’s another problem: Bruce Wayne is in-costume as Batman three times. There is a painful lack of Batman in this Batman movie and it doesn’t even focus that much on Bruce Wayne. It’s like Nolan said, “screw this Batman stuff,” and decided to make a different movie.
Bane’s ultimate plot is to utilize a fusion reactor created by Wayne Enterprises as a time bomb, forcing Gotham into a sort of police-state run by criminals. It all feels a lot like Batman: Arkham City. And the idea - if not the execution – is pretty cool. There are just a couple of problems. The entire plan revolves around this fusion reactor that only Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne know the location of. If Bruce Wayne was really so concerned with the safety of this device, why did he leave it operational underneath the city? Because if he dismantled it, we wouldn’t have a movie, silly!
It also takes entirely too long for the film to reach this plot. Had the majority of the film been about Gotham under siege, while Batman fights for its freedom, the tone of this review might be a little different. Instead it happens too late into the film, Batman is removed entirely from Gotham during most of this section of the film, AND Nolan never sells the reality of this Gotham to the audience. Streets are clean, food and water don’t seem to be an issue, and despite needing to siphon gasoline out of abandoned cars, John Blake (and most of Gotham’s residents) look like they just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog.
Plus, without going into great detail, Bane is little more than someone else’s tool. It’s not quite as bad as Batman and Robin where Bane was a mindless drone of Poison Ivy’s, but it’s darn close. Not to mention the secret to beating Bane is essentially the same as a shitty video game (hit the bad guy’s secret weak point!) and given to Bruce Wayne in much the same fashion (old man in a dungeon knows all, not sure if this is Batman or a Zelda game…).
But what’s really frustrating with TDKR is the simple fact that it could not stand on its own as a film. Now, yes, I realize that this is the third film in a trilogy, but much of TDKR is incredibly dense and incomprehensible on it own merits. Without the framework provided by the previous Nolan Batman installments, TDKR would be complete nonsense. We have to infer motivations for a great number of characters, have an intimate knowledge of the previous films (despite TDK being A-Okay as a standalone film), and still ignore silly plot/continuity errors (How exactly did Gordon learn Bane’s name when they first meet when no one said it?).
Had this been unrelated to the other Nolan Batman films I suspect that much of the extreme defense would disappear. There, I said it: if this wasn’t a Batman movie (preceded by what many consider the pinnacle of superhero film), I sincerely doubt that it would engender as much rabid fanaticism.
And that’s fine.
Now, despite my complaints above, I didn’t hate the film. It’s Batman AND Nolan! Two things I love! And there are several things that I thought were done incredibly well. All the acting is superb. Aside from my personal issues with Bane’s voice (sometimes it’s incomprehensible, and when you can hear him he sounds like a guy from the ’30s who should be wearing a monocle and top hat), Tom Hardy does provide an impressive presence whenever he’s on screen. And I love the new look of Bane. The mask does mute the impact that Hardy can make as the villain, but that’s more a concern from the comic books than an issue here.
Anne Hathaway is the real surprise here as Selina Kyle. I like Hathaway alright, but I wasn’t sure that she would be able to handle the role of Catwoman (though she isn’t specifically named as such during the film), but she absolutely steals every scene she’s in. Be it playful dialogue (which, to be fair, is still kinda hammy, but at least Hathaway can sell it) or her fight sequences, Hathaway is a pure joy to behold. It’s just a shame that her character receives such a short shrift in the script to make way for various other unnecessary characters/threads. I would very much like to know more about this Catwoman.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s turn as Blake is also pretty good. Blake is a good guy, through and through, and watching him grow from a beat cop to detective to resistance leader is fantastic. If Warner Bros intent is to continue the series in some fashion with Gordon-Levitt as the lead, I wouldn’t argue against it. His character is perhaps not the most conflicted internally like say, Bruce Wayne, but he’s interesting enough and Gordon-Levitt a good enough actor that it’s not a problem.
Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Christian Bale return, though strangely their characters are underplayed this time around. Caine in particular has a strange character arc as he just leaves halfway through the narrative and only returns in the final minutes, a grave misstep in my opinion. Nevertheless, all three are consummate professionals and deliver decent enough performances with the material they are given.
My favorite part of the film is absolutely the conclusion. Despite some glaring plot holes and inconsistency with the reality of this war-zone Gotham, the climax is a loud, boisterous, spectacle. The showdown between police officers and Bane’s goons is an amazing sight to behold and one of the only moments in the film that really excited me. If there’s a damning aspect to the finale it’s that if you’re at all familiar with the Batman comics some of the twists (many of which come way too late to have much impact) are predictable. But the finale is big and emotional with some truly great special effects.
There’s a moment in the Spike Jonze film, Adaptation, where real-life creative writing instructor Robert McKee (here played by Brian Cox) lectures a screenwriter about what makes a hit film. “I’ll tell you a secret,” McKee explains. “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”
The Dark Knight Rises absolutely ascribes to this reasoning. The film is slow, plodding, bloated, full of problems and plot holes–but it absolutely has the capacity to “wow” audiences in the end. The majority of the previous 2 hours 47 minutes may not do a great job of this, but the climax and the emotionally resonant final moments of the film do. That’s why I understand the love audiences are heaping on this film. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. And while I don’t think this was the fitting ending that Nolan’s trilogy deserved, the three films still stand together as a triumph of comic adaptations. Despite my complaints about the film and its various issues, if you’re invested in any way in the Nolan-verse Batman, you owe it to yourself to at least see this final movie, warts and all.