Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Note: This review is structured in two distinct parts. The first part describes the film without revealing details of fact beyond what could be easily deduced from the trailers and other pre-release promotional materials. The second part includes full spoilers in a more complete review.

I. Non-Spoiler Review

Eight years have passed since the final moments of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent, his crimes hidden by a lie that Batman and Jim Gordon agreed to, has been remembered as a martyr. Some tough anti-crime legislation in his name has allowed the city to put most major crime away. Batman has not been seen since then, and as we all know very well, that absence must end when a new threat arises.

The first of the movie's many acts is stolen by Anne Cathaway as Selina Kyle. She's as confident and glamorous as any Catwoman you've imagined, without ever for a moment trying too hard. She may have been tacked to the plot as an add-on or even merchandising gimmick, but at times the gimmick exceeds the main story in worth.

Though whatever shortcomings the movie may hold, it's not for a lack of inspired performances. Tom Hardy's performance as Bane is brilliant, as is the character himself. One imagines many action casting decisions over the years where a powerfully-built brute is chosen and capable acting is sacrificed. Not here. With a megaphone-like voice emanating from his mask, Bane intimidates you in your seat in three ways at once, for his diabolical evil, his great power, and the quickness of his mind. Neither the script nor Hardy try to make this role bigger than the last movie's Joker, but there is nothing to apologize for in the choice of villain.

Christian Bale gets to play Bruce Wayne / Batman many ways in this one. As a scraggy shut-in, a man of uncertain will to live, and with - in comparison to the earlier films - more (and more comprehensible) time in the bat mask itself.

This is a film with many, many nods to comic books and graphic novels. Fans will challenge one another to see who can catch more sly references, though some of them are exceedingly obvious to anyone who knows anything about Batman. More front and center, fans may ask themselves which previous Batman opus is the most important inspiration for this plot. There is no one right answer.

For me, and I suspect for by far most viewers, this film will languish in comparison to The Dark Knight because it lacks, for the most part, that film's moral complexity. TDK, as I argued in my review, transcended the super hero genre entirely, and served as a workable crime movie of the second, if not the first, rank. The Dark Knight Rises is an action movie. Even in comparison to Batman Begins, this is a movie of the pre-Nolan genre of super hero movie, and no matter how well it carries off that task, it will have people second-guessing the Joker's line from TDK: "You've changed things. There's no going back." This is an epic story, in more ways than one. But all of the things that made Nolan's Batman remarkable were put back on the shelf. One wonders how, having earned the plaudits he did for the previous movies, he could be so willing to go back. This film might have served as a good third movie in the previous Batman series. If it had come then, no one would have complained. Coming after TDK, the appeal will have to be in just how well it does as an epic.

II. Spoiler Review. Very big spoilers follow. After a few blank lines, they begin. You were warned.

For eight years, Bruce Wayne has been shut in his home, reclusive and so beaten up from his days as Batman (perhaps just that last fall that killed Harvey Dent) that he cannot walk easily. Gotham has moved on and it thinks it's doing fine. It seems fine, but that's because nobody knows that Bane is coming. Like a freight train he's coming, and in a sharp distinction from the comics' Knightfall, he's not after Batman. He's simply after Gotham. Like R'as al-Ghul and the Joker before him, destruction is his goal, not profits. In fact, we will learn early on, he like Bruce was trained by the League of Shadows. As we learn while his plan is underway, he in fact wants to pick up precisely where R'as left off. Destroying Gotham so it may begin a renewal is his only aim. He is perfectly willing to overcome Batman when that proves to be necessary, but that is an afterthought.

In the first of many events shocking in terms of the Batman comics' mythology, Selina steals Martha Wayne's very pearl necklace right in front of Bruce's eyes. She's very skilled, morally gray (a thief, but not a destroyer), and she helps wake Bruce from his long sleep. In fact, she's working for Bane, although she doesn't appreciate the evil she's serving.

Bruce somehow manages, after years of hobbling on a cane, to rush out to challenge Bane's gang and end up escaping the police. The speed of his recovery is inexplicable; was he insufficiently motived to walk normally during the last eight years? The dialogue of the police officers is drawn right from Batman's reappearance in The Dark Knight Returns; moments later, when Selina disappears on him, he says, "So that's how that feels," a line Bruce says about Superman in Kingdom Come. So we see the homages are in full force. Even more so when we find out that Bane's first caper served simply to bankrupt Bruce.

As Bane's evil plan moves forward, Jim Gordon works through a Nolan favorite, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Detective Blake, who gets a curious amount of screentime. Bruce gets in bed with another Nolan regular, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate. Both of these serve very well all film long before escalating dramatically in importance during the final minutes.

Bane of course breaks the poorly-conditioned Bruce in a fight which is no fight at all. He keeps Bruce in custody, in a death trap that's almost impossible to escape from, which of course means that he escapes from it. The mood here has a touch of Batman, R.I.P. to it in that Bane wants Bruce to suffer psychologically, broken, and watch the harm he does to Gotham. The harm he does is brilliantly effective. Using a nuclear weapon to hold the whole city hostage indefinitely, Bane creates a city cut off from the United States, clearly a nod to No Man's Land, right down to the chalk bat-symbols written on walls.

Of course, Bruce gets back into shape, escapes his prison, and goes back to Gotham to stop Bane. It is in carrying out these obligatory steps where the film is by far the weakest. It is so formulaic that this all must happen, we wonder where the brilliance of The Dark Knight went. It is obligatory, and takes a long time in unfolding. The scenes of Bane's destructive three-month dictatorship over Gotham (with Jonathan Crane returning as a judge in a kangaroo court) come as a refreshing break between scenes of Bruce getting in shape which may as well have had the Rocky theme playing over them.

Bruce does return, and he does get the best of Bane in a fight. As soon as he threatens to kill Bane, the movie becomes something else entirely. Suddenly, Miranda (note, the wizard's daughter from Shakespeare's The Tempest) drives a dagger into Batman's ribs, and the comic fan may recall that in Bane's second attack on Gotham, he was allied with Talia. So here, where their backstories are intertwined in a bit of explication with scenes of a child whom we thought was Bane in flashback was actually Talia. Her knife attack seems fatal, and given the movie's promotional claims that the legend ends, we wonder if it might be. In fact, being bled by a woman is Robin Hood's death, and this simple act resonates with a vast web of comics (and meta-comics) lore: Alan Moore cited Robin Hood as the sort of legend that Batman ought to be, and Neil Gaiman gave Batman such a death (among several) in Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? That story comes back in yet another reference as Batman escapes the injury to lash the nuclear bomb to his flying "Bat" vehicle and soars off to sea, getting far enough that the detonation spares the city, but takes him with it, very like a sacrificial death Batman chooses in Gaiman's story. By this time, Bane and Talia are dead. The city is saved.

More twists await. While Bruce (whose secret was at last made known to Gordon) has gone, we see that Detective Blake, himself an orphan, is preparing to play a very Batman-like role which will begin in the near future. The kicker: We learn that his real name is Robin. And for the twist of twists, a la The Dark Knight Returns, we see a final sighting, real unless it's Alfred's wishful thinking, of Bruce and Selina romancing one another in Florence.

This is a movie full of wonderful elements, but for the reasons I've already noted, it sags terribly in the middle act, and aspires to something so much less than it could have been. This will not be remembered as the best movie of the series - more likely the worst, but the worst of a very good trio. And though it endures poorly, it ends well. And isn't that what a super hero story is supposed to do?


  1. Hello Rikdad. Its great to see a post from you after so long. Saw DKR today and I must confess that I am disappointed. Even while the film was on, my mind was wondering how much better the whole thing could have been. Some initial thoughts:

    1. IMHO I think the film really suffers because it tries to tie back to the previous two films specifically 2 plot points (one from each of the prior films) which I always found hard to accept. First, the fact that Batman lets Ra's Al Ghul die by inaction in the first movie. Second, the fact that Batman gives up his entire career for 8 years in order to paint a false picture of Harvey Dent (clearly a deranged psychopath at the time of his death).

    2. The comics version of Dark Knight Returns works because Bruce has aged and is battle weary and broken down after a lifetime of fighting crime (the last straw being Jason Todd's death). In the movies, Batman has fought the scarecrow, the joker and two face, period. And Christian Bale doesn't look particularly older either. I know the trilogy has to end, but a coda seems premature considering how little we have seen of CB as Batman and how little time he has had to build "the legend" of the Batman


  2. 3. The movie has to wrap up so many character arcs. Nevertheless it introduces so many new characters (at least 4). The character of Bane (so imposing at first) is diminished by the 'surprise character' towards the close of the film.

    That is all for now. Will go over your other two reviews now. They are a treat to read esp after such a long break.

    Thank you

  3. DS:

    (1) It is interesting to consider the morality of various hero stories, and we can talk about Batman, super heroes in general, literature in general, or life: By and large, the narrative owes more to what standard we judge by. 1940's Hawkman killed someone in almost every story. Was he an anti-hero? No; the morality of his actions were never questioned. We may say the same of Odysseus. We may say the same in DKR when Detective Blake shoots the two truck drivers: He regrets it because he has no one to question, but there is no anguish over their deaths. And yet in the same film, we hold Batman to a higher standard.

    Is the upshot that a hero must never kill? Fundamentally, Batman does kill Harvey at the end of TDK.

    The issue is how and why the story questions a hero's actions. Selina questions Bruce's decision not to use guns. Batman tells the Joker (and R'as) that he has a rule not to kill, but there are no tears shed over his role in Harvey's death. And overall, I see a problem here: The movies neither address the issue nor leave it alone. They pick at it like a scab, seemingly at random.

  4. (2) Clearly, the scope of movie Batman's career is extremely short, less than one year for his main career plus the very brief returns in DKR. And yet, that can be enough for a legend. The 1940 Zorro movie shows Zorro in action for an exceedingly short time: He spends, it seems, less than 10 total MINUTES (!) in action, with no hint that he had any off-camera action we missed. At the end of DKR, the public sees that Batman certainly saved Gotham from destruction at least once; they may or may not appreciate the other two. This is far from the career of the comics' Batman, but then, the latter strains credulity in the opposite direction. (How often does the Joker escape from jail, weekly?)

    3) All movie long, I puzzled over the sheer screen time enjoyed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Sure, he's a Nolan acolyte, but so much commitment on that character, and then I had to slap myself for not seeing the significance that he is an orphan. In a film, it's difficult to spring a surprise reveal of identity that has meaning because there are only so many characters who are developed. DKR has to rush the development of Blake and Miranda to set up the final reveals. It's a long set-up, but a heck of a punchline. For me, those reveals were essential to the success of the film. It does, however, strain the viewer's patience getting there.

    1. Rikdad: Thanks for your prompt reply. I wonder if the character of Blake will exist beyond this trilogy. If so, isn't this too much of an investment on a single character for a symbolic round-off of a legend?

      Another thought that occurred to me was that the character reveal at the end was mirroring the reveal of Ducard actually being Ra's Al Ghul in the first film.

      (P.S. On a side-note I really enjoyed your Mad Men reviews. Any plans to review Season 5?)

    2. I could see a comic referring to Blake at some point, but he fundamentally is this universe's Dick Grayson, so he can't really grow into the role the movie is implying. He also "is" the Bat sidekicks at the end of Dark Knight Returns and in Kingdom Come. On a side note, I was reminded quite a bit by him of the "Robin" surrogate who worked with Batman in Return of Bruce Wayne #1.

      Thanks on the Mad Men. I worked to get those out for Season 4 on the night of each new episode. For Season 5, I just couldn't invest the effort, and now the payoff wouldn't be there. By chance, I think I chose the right season. I enjoyed Season 4 much more than Season 5.

      Serendipity: Last night I had a celeb-sighting of one of the Mad Men cast (not one of the most illustrious few, but a major player). That's all I'll say about that.

  5. Again, very glad to see that you're still writing on Batman. Any Batman, Inc. writing planned?

    I'm bummed the Nolan movies didn't portray the "ready for everything" Batman, or the master detective Batman, but I think that leaves very fertile ground for a reboot/JLA version.

    Enjoying Action Comics?

  6. Unknown, thanks. I found the rebooted (renumbered) Batman Inc #1 to be a cornucopia of interesting material and speculation. #2 was a lot of backstory. It's an odd feeling at this point to have Talia known as the villain, which feels like a decision that removed a lot of interesting tension at an early point. When we see Leviathan's methods, we might wonder just how wicked and evil this unknown character is, and to know already that it's Talia takes a lot off the table, seemingly.

    That said, I've thought about blogging back over the Argentina story in particular, and I might have more yet to say.

    The "ready for everything" angle is certainly absent from Nolan's Batman. He would get his clock cleaned by the Bat God of Miller or Morrison. But that extreme competency has not always been part of Batman. I am fond of the 1986 Secret Origins #6 which gave an origin of the "Golden Age" Batman, who is in many ways a character with the same biography that Morrison (and perhaps Englehart) envision, but he is by no means as omni-capable. I found that origin to be a compelling Batman, formidable, but not quite the same strain on credulity. Nolan's Batman feels a lot like that one.

    I certainly feel as though The Avengers film maxi-franchise shows that DC could be doing this with the JLA, but they have to be "all in" and it seems like the Man of Steel movie might forego that possibility. But who knows, maybe that's a surprise for the final moments. Note that previous DC films have hinted at the larger DC Universe, such as a Gotham City reference in Superman Returns, and a Superman reference in one of the Schumaker films, but those have gone nowhere.

    In the DCnU, I'm enjoying Action, JLA, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, plus GL (which isn't so new). The Court of Owls story feels painfully unoriginal. Black Glove + The Cult... anything new there at all? I have thought about an Action review, which might make sense when one more issue comes out, making it a round year. I'll single out one magic moment from Action: When the tiny citizens of Metropolis see Superman's huge emblem from inside their bottle, to the call, "Look, up in the sky!" That was inspired and inspiring.

  7. Hey Rikdad, Thrilled to see that you're expanding this wonderful catalogue once more! It would be neat to see some more pieces from you since Morrison is wrapping up his DC work for the near future... I hope Rags Morales will redo the pages that Brad Walker had to draw. I'm otherwise riveted by this Superman run. In regards to Scott Snyder, I can sum up his entire output in one word: "Verbose."

    Always happy to read what you write.

  8. I would second a look at Azzarello's Wonder Woman (about to reach a year). A lot to pull apart there, and a very interesting take on the character, diametrically opposite from William Moulton Marston.

  9. William,

    Batman Inc #3, besides its controversial aspects, contains an image which is a "map" of Morrison's Batman run, showing many of the supporting characters (mainly villains). What's interesting there is that it suggests there may be a single unifying factor behind the entire run, including both long Doctor Hurt super-plots and the current Leviathan / Talia story. That suggests some pretty bold possibilties. But given only that map, the meaning is open, and it could be more thematic than, say, conjuring up a super-mastermind behind everything. Suffice to say, Inc is heating up, and there's more to say about it.

  10. Like everyone else said, it's great to see you writing about Batman, I always enjoyed your analytic views and all of the old Batman R.I.P. message board debates and insights got me back to comic books as an adult, and looking at them as more than just fluff, but as viable art and fiction. In fact, I've started a blog where I review books and movies and sometimes comic books when I feel like it, mostly because I miss the back and forth with like-minded "geeks".
    Here's my review of TDKR:

    I had similar feelings of disappointment, but some have said I viewed it too politically, and they're probably IS an election year after all.

  11. I couldn't help but think of Morrison's "Batman and Robin will never die!" line by the end of the film. I think you can interpret where the story goes next in several ways. Bruce did survive in my opinion as they noted the pearls being missing and Selina is wearing them at the cafe at the end. Whether or not Bruce is taking a break or has passed the mantle on to Robin is up to discussion. Robin certainly can become the next Batman, or he can start his training, awaiting for Bruce's return to the cowl. I like how he blended several aspects of previous Robins-a cop like Dick, criminal father like Jason, figured out Bruce's identity as a child like Tim. Who among us before this movie actually imagined we would see Talia on sceen ever?