Chris Clow is a recent Western Washington University graduate, and a comic book expert, retailer and contributor to Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his comic book reviews for various monthly titles and his participated podcasts at BOF and MMM. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.
When you’ve been looking forward to a film for so long, especially when that amount of time numbers in years, it’s very difficult to center your thoughts after you see it. When dealing with a film like The Dark Knight Rises, this difficulty increases immensely because of the fact that there is so much movie to take in. Not only is the film probably the most immense superhero cinema experience ever created, but it’s packed in with so much action, interplay and emotion that I found it very difficult to focus my thoughts the first time that I saw it.
So, I saw it again. The second time gave me a little more clarity to take the movie as it is, as opposed to what I was expecting/hoping/dreading it would or should be. I saw things perhaps a little clearer than the first time, but still, I found it difficult to find exactly what my thoughts were surrounding it. So I saw it a third time, and again noticed a bit more about the film itself, and how it affected me personally now that I’ve got a few viewings under my belt. I have to warn, if you haven’t seen the film, there may be spoilers ahead.
For those living under a rock somewhere (or those that didn’t read my Dark Knight Rises Countdown every couple of weeks), Rises picks up eight years after the conclusion of the last film, where Harvey Dent degenerated into Two-Face, taking five people’s lives and almost murdering the son of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Batman (Christian Bale) has taken the blame for Two-Face’s crimes to preserve the prosecutions he fought for as the city’s crusading district attorney against organized crime, and as a result, Batman is known for being little more than a “thug” in a cape and cowl by the time we pick up in The Dark Knight Rises.
Of course, a new threat begins its onslaught on Gotham in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy) and a legion of followers that live and die by his very whim. A skilled jewel thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) catches the attention of Bruce Wayne very early on, while Bruce’s company is in disarray after, what some call, a questionable withdrawal of investment into a new sustainable energy project with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
That’s the very, very basic version of the setup going forward. The first, best part about The Dark Knight Rises was the performances, by old and new cast members alike. Part of the reason the film felt like it had so much emotional weight to it was because of some very specific performances adding to the wide spectrum of feeling this film prompts out of viewers, especially as it relates to coming to terms with the fact that this is the end of the story. From Alfred’s heartbreaking talk with Bruce over his decision to return as Batman, to Jim Gordon’s defense of his benevolent conspiracy, there was a lot to love about the cast diving headfirst into the world of Gotham City, especially in terms of where Gotham is in this film.
Now if it wasn’t already clear, my favorite comics character, if not my favorite character in fiction, is the Dark Knight. As a result, the performance and writing I observed most closely was that surrounding Christian Bale, returning for a third time as Batman. Bale’s work in Rises definitely felt as if he was a man who’d lost his purpose. At first, I found it curious that the drive and determination I admire so much about the character seemed to be undone by the death of Rachel Dawes in the last film. However, especially after Bruce’s conversation with Jim Gordon and his first face-off with Bane, I understood that it wasn’t just Rachel’s death that allowed Batman to stop. It was victory. That made the idea of Batman’s exile far easier to bear, because the will of the Dark Knight, especially in the previous two films in this trilogy, is very apparent.
Bale’s reclusive, physically impaired Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film felt very genuine, as even his mannerisms seemed to evoke that of an eccentric shut-in. At the point where he decides to become Batman again, Bale didn’t miss a beat, stepping back into the role of Batman as if the four years between films hasn’t happened at all. His Batman still had the harshness, the quickness and the movements of the Batman I recognize across mediums and that was great to see.
Bruce Wayne in the prison, although not in costume, also represented the Dark Knight I know so well from the comics because of the indomitable will to overcome adversity. I found myself genuinely overcome with emotion when Bruce had to build himself up to make that final climb out of the pit, and that emotional investment definitely paid off for me. By the time he returns to Gotham as Batman, greeting an all-out war and new knowledge about his enemies really felt like true Batman dealing with a massive threat large enough to bring him out of the shadows and into the light. That phrase, I think can be equally applied to the arc Bruce Wayne has throughout this entire trilogy.
Michael Caine returns as trusty Alfred Pennyworth, but the Alfred here is tempered greatly by a saint’s patience exhausted. Although Alfred’s role was more limited in this film, the fatherly care and desire to see his son start to live a normal life is easy to see through taking the only possible action that might ever convince Bruce to stop: Leaving him. He doesn’t exactly want to, but he will not be party to what may be Bruce’s continued self-destructive behavior. By the time we pick up with Alfred again, apologizing profusely in front of the graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne, I doubt there was a dry eye, including mine, in the house on my first viewing.
Gary Oldman’s turn this time as Commissioner James Gordon was just as dialed in and truthful as his last two turns have been. My only criticism is that the story didn’t give him enough to do, since I like the character so much. That might sound like an odd criticism since he was definitely present in the story in practically every important place, but the second film gave such a great representation of how well he and Batman work together that I didn’t exactly feel satiated by Gordon’s involvement with Batman himself in the larger scheme of the story. The ending goes a long way in giving those rewarding moments between the two heroes, I would’ve liked to see more in the way of their powerful partnership, though. Oldman is a fantastic actor, and every time he’s on-screen he nearly steals the show.
Except, I think, when Oldman shared the screen with the enigmatic and powerful villain, Bane. I would guess that you could find many a comic fan that were scratching their heads as to why Christopher Nolan, the man who brought us The Dark Knight with some of the Batman mythos' most definitive villains, would choose Bane as the next cinematic adversary for the Batman. Bane hasn’t really made a significant splash in the comics since his early appearances immediately following his creation in 1993-94. As a result, my guess initially was that the filmmakers would eject some of the formative mythology surrounding the character in favor of a new spin on him. It turns out that I was only half right, as the creative team did in fact use a sizable amount of his backstory from the source material before they charted their own path on the villain, tying him to the elusive League of Shadows from Batman Begins.
Hardy’s performance is undoubtedly enigmatic, and the mere fact that he gets so much mileage about telling a story through his eyes alone should earn him a sizable amount of respect from both his peers and the public at large. The thing that seemed to have a lot of people worried, his voice, added a lot to his performance. There was very little surprise or flares of inflection, which seemed to make Bane that much more sinister. This is particularly true of the first scene in the sewers where Bane asks, “Why are you here?” There was such a careless attitude that was immediately deceptive in the way Bane effortlessly and easily killed that was very chilling to me. The same can be said of the Special Forces captain who had infiltrated the city later in the film. Bane leaned down on him, watching curiously as life left the man’s body, with barely any expense of energy to make sure that the killing was being accomplished.
I found Hardy’s turn as Bane very satisfying and really hypnotic in a lot of ways. Whenever he was on-screen, I was transfixed; not exactly by what he was doing, but in how he did everything. From speaking, to moving, to fighting, it seems as though Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are creating a trend of highly idiosyncratic performances from the villains. Having said that, I won’t compare Bane to the Joker because in the end they are very different characters representing two pretty significantly different films, but the fact remains that Hardy put a lot of energy into the specifics of how Bane behaves, acts and speaks. That definitely makes him the most fascinating cinematic villain of the year, hands down.
This brings us to Anne Hathaway’s interpretation of Selina Kyle, whom everybody knows as Catwoman. If there was any doubt, and if I have any authority in the determination whatsoever, I think that Hathaway’s Catwoman is the best we’ve ever seen. Instead of being a twisted dead woman revived by cats, or a departure from the material that we got in 2004, Hathaway’s version is superior because it’s very familiar to fans of the comics.
Catwoman’s not a weird quasi-psychopath. She’s a femme fatale, a tabula rasa shaped by the harshness of the streets of Gotham, who has learned the art of deception while honing her body into a form capable of the swiftness and precision of her comic book namesake. In true Catwoman fashion, you never know what side of the fence she’s on, and also in true form even if she may make him doubt it, she’s a perfect complement to Bruce Wayne. I really liked that the film subscribed to that notion of her character.
Marion Cotillard, another Inception alum, arrives in Gotham City as Miranda Tate. I hope you’ve seen the film, because this is where that spoiler tag comes into play: As many fans had deduced pretty early on in the production, Miranda Tate was not this character’s true name at all. Her real name was Talia, daughter of Ra’s al Ghul and heir of the League of Shadows. Cotillard did a very good job through most of the film appealing to the audience’s lack of awareness of Talia’s existence, even if she herself wasn’t aware that’s what she was doing. When the twist came, every time I’ve watched the film, I’ve heard at least a few gasps. Talia’s presence in this film and this trilogy is a welcome inclusion from the source material, and really does help to bring the story to an end by tying into the way it began.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as John Blake gave us the other twist to the story: While the pre-release and publicity materials touted the film as the end of the legend, we had no idea that we were also watching an origin story. While I do have a bit of a problem with the way Blake deduced the identity of Batman, once the preliminaries were out of the way he was able to excel, becoming an important ally and a friend of all the right people. I generally enjoy his performances in every movie of his that I’ve seen, and it definitely proved interesting that in his character, the legend might continue.
The revelation of John Blake's "legal name" proved to me that I can never expect what Christopher Nolan will do. I never expected the word "Robin" to be uttered in any of these three films, so the fact that you have Nolan acknowledging the importance of that character to the mythology of the Dark Knight really does help to make this a very reverent piece to the world of Batman, more than I expected. I really enjoyed that choice and that nod, since it almost feels like a validation of my enjoyment of Robin and what he means in the wide pantheon of Batman stories.
From a technical perspective, I was in serious awe of every facet of the production. From Nathan Crowley’s production design to Lindy Hemming’s costumes, and especially by Wally Pfister’s superior photography, Rises is a technical masterpiece that is the champion of the year in regards to how films are made. Even given a glimpse at the film’s construction in my set visit last summer, it’s not until you see the finished product that you can admire so many great craftsmen (and women) coming together to create such a technical wonder. Each of these departments should be given serious consideration of an Academy Award nomination, especially Crowley. His design work and the constructed sets in many ways are leaps and bounds beyond the first two films, and I really hope he gets recognized for it.
One of the coolest parts of the film, for me, was the Bat: Batman’s new airborne vehicle that sent shockwaves down my spine whenever I saw it. Even seeing set photos from people who snapped pictures of it while shooting in Pittsburgh, there were several times in the film I asked, “How did they DO that?!” I’ll be very interested to see how much work Chris Corbould and the rest of the visual effects crew worked to make the Bat fly as realistically as possible, especially considering Mr. Nolan’s distaste for CGI effects if he can help it.
As far as the story it aims to tell, Rises and its scale are probably more similar in scope to Batman Begins, but the groundwork laid in The Dark Knight also gave us some pretty important impressions on Gotham City itself. It makes it less necessary to dive as deeply into Gotham so that it can instead give the context to everything else, including the places in the world the film goes outside of the city. The threat in Rises, I think, can be equated to the threat in Batman Begins except for the small fact that it pumps a sizable amount of steroids (venom?) into it.
The film is also simply massive, not due to any one component. Its runtime, its thematic aims, its characters all contribute to make it a massive piece that, at times, borders on too much. On my first viewing, I was hypnotized by the film for the entire two hours and 45 minutes. On my two more recent viewings, though, I found the second half of act two to be kind of a drag going into the film’s conclusion. But, every time, I found myself getting significantly into what I believe to be the film’s strongest point, its ending. From the action to the conflict resolution, every time I’ve watched the film’s end I’ve been on the edge of my seat, and the emotional investment paid into Batman in all of the films, to me, culminated wonderfully in this film’s final minutes. The way that the film ended reminded me in no small way of The Dark Knight Returns, where Bruce manages to find a way out of things using similar methods.
Now, I’d be remiss to not say this is not a perfect film. There were a few points while watching it that felt off, particularly as it pertains to the setup of Bane’s occupation of Gotham. Every cop in the city? The “clean slate?” These two components particularly felt like the old deus ex machina. However, I think those quibbles are minor in the scheme of things for very specific reasons: It’s a massive film. Comparatively to everything else, they are minor things.
At this point in time, even with three viewings under my belt, I still cannot decide which film in the trilogy, this or its predecessor, I prefer. But what I do know is that this trilogy is a massive achievement for all involved: from the creative team, to the cast, to comic book films and even comic book fans, I’m confident that The Dark Knight trilogy will stand the test of time as one of the great dramatic, thought-provoking, action-adventure trilogies in cinematic history, and this is due in no small part to The Dark Knight Rises. As a final act, Rises is an achievement, bringing an end to the story in truly grand fashion, leaving no stone unturned (even if it creates one or two more).
Rises is about hope. It’s not simply a paean to the healing power of hope, it’s a look at how hope can be a double-edged sword, building some up while tearing others down. It’s about the inevitability of truth, and how lies are unsustainable against the more powerful truths of existence and living. Having said that, it is also about finding a purpose in living. The film is also about the unstoppable force of the Dark Knight, and how the legend of the Batman is one that can endure in all of us. Why? Because, “Batman could be anybody.”
To me, The Dark Knight Rises achieves a lot where many others have failed, but it’s also a film that will mean a lot of different things to any number of people. In truth though, any film that makes us talk about it this much is a film that deserves praise. It’s the films that we’re not talking about very much that we soon forget, and I don’t believe that The Dark Knight Rises will have this problem.
Christopher Nolan has managed to say a lot about Batman, and society (two of my favorite topics) across these three films. For that, I will always look upon this series fondly. Rises isn’t everything I’d hoped it would be, but in a way I think that sense of expectation feeds into the themes of hope present in the film. I liked The Dark Knight Rises a lot. Even so, I do believe it’s a film that will take a long time to place. I reacted to it stronger than some because it really did get to the core of characters I've admired for most of my life, and even if it falls short in a few places, that's far, far from killing the experience for me.
Having looked forward to this film for so long, and having visited its set, talked with its creators, and being more connected to this film more than the others, I still feel like it’s a piece that I need to absorb more to really get what it was trying to say. It appeals to my sensibilities as a film fan, a Batman fan, and a fan of the spirit of humanity all in one.
I could write another several pages on my impressions of the film, but I have to cut it off somewhere. Suffice it to say that it's a tall order for any film, let alone a Batman film, to invoke all of these themes and do so in a largely successful way. Not bad for a “comic book movie,” don’t you think?