Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan and
David S. Goyer. Batman was created by Bob Kane in DC Comics.
And so it ends, eh? When Christopher Nolan was handed the reins to the pointy-eared vigilante franchise and Batman Begins came out in 2005, the character could only go in one direction, up, given the silliness of the last movie, Batman and Robin. Batman has been rising ever since, especially in the first sequel, which, like many people, I loved.
When I did my best-20-movies-of-the-first-10-years-of-the-century list and shared it on a social network (a list that predates this blog, but I should post it one of these days), The Dark Knight was #11. (Batman Begins didn’t even make my top 100, but that’s not because I didn’t like it, it just didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as its sequel.) This is what I wrote then:
The Dark Knight (2008)
The first time I saw The Dark Knight I marveled at Chris Nolan’s Michael-Mann-esque vision of an urban streetscape, and his epic-yet-deft direction. The second time I saw it I was amazed at the smarts and emotional heft of the character drama. The third time I realized it wasn’t only the Batman movie I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid, it was the best superhero movie ever made.
Rockin’ the hyperbole, I know.
So it would be very hard to top that, for me. With his third Batman movie Nolan hasn’t, for sure, but his ambition, his worldview for his character and Gotham City is still huge and compelling, even if some of the finer details get squashed under the plot’s massive wheels.
Since Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) died at the end of The Dark Knight and Batman took the blame for his murder, so Gotham would have its martyred hero, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been playing Howard Hughes in his rebuilt mansion. Loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) continues to try and light a fire under Bruce’s ass, to find something new in his life, trying to set him up with another wealthy financier, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Meanwhile, Wayne Enterprises isn’t as robust as it once was as its namesake has ignored it, even while Lucius Fox has managed things the best he can, collaborating with Tate on a fusion reactor but letting the project languish. Then there’s John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a headstrong police officer, and Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar on assignment for another force of chaos, Bane (Tom Hardy), a dude who sounds like Auric Goldfinger through a grillwork mask that makes him look like a Mack Truck. He’s about as big as one.
The threat to Gotham does get Wayne back in the cowl, though it takes awhile. For a movie about the costumed hero, we see very little of him. Oh, there’s a fair amount of Wayne, who spends half the movie out of costume or out of action, part of an ensemble thriller that juggles a lot of different storylines, themes and characters, but I missed the guy in the suit.
Also, for a movie that clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, a lot of scenes feel rushed. Chris Nolan and his editor Lee Smith have a habit of getting in and out very quickly, assuring the film never flags—if I had a beef with The Dark Knight, it was that there was an emotional conclusion way before the actual movie ended, with a bit of a lag in the mix. But the close cropping also means some character relationships get a short shrift. Maybe there’s just no chemistry there, but it seemed to me that the Wayne/Tate sizzle was really undercooked. The first act, before we see Batman back in the fray, is all over the place, with too much talk: Alfred lectures Wayne, Gordon lectures Wayne, and Selena Kyle lectures Wayne. It really felt like a case where plot-forwarding, theme-explaining exposition was driving the story forward, rather than serving it.
The good thing is Nolan and his collaborators have such a strong worldview—Gotham City, an amalgam of Chicago, New York and Philadephia, is a character unto itself—the audience is welcomed into this world and get to live in it for almost three hours. It’s all convincing, the tech, the costumes, the motivations of all involved, and deadly serious, which is exactly how Batman needs to be presented. The scale is larger than its ever been, and following his two previous movies, you get the sense Nolan is enjoying playing in his giant sandbox, now well-established. He’s great at weaving thematic threads into his movie from the previous two. Familiar faces cameo, and it all feels unified, as it should. And there’s a sweet reversal at one point I didn’t see coming, but it’s a great tip of the hat to longtime comic fans. I loved that.
The best thing Nolan brings to The Dark Knight Rises, aside from the cohesive universe, is a natural sense of action beats. The action stuff is coherent, loud (especially in IMAX) and intense, and even when there are crowds of people fighting, you have a pretty good idea of where everyone is and what’s going on.
I’m not sure that the political themes in it really hit home for me. There are moments when it feels like the movie is very pro-capitalist, with Bane’s particular anarchy a stand-in for the Occupy Movement. But it’s not clear cut. If there is an intent here, it seems to suggest the system is fixable, but only from within.
Those plot issues are pretty damn glaring, though. How does one particular character get in and out of a huge hole-in-the-ground prison? How does another character get into Gotham when all the bridges and tunnels are blocked? How did that same person escape a fairly large explosion late in the running? These are the most obvious, and there are plenty of other, subtle issues. They don’t capsize TDKR, but they make it wobble alarmingly.
Keeping things grounded are the excellent cast: Bale is typically driven, a great role for the method guy. And big ups to the costume department; the suit on him looks better than it ever has. Michael Caine has more emotional moments in the film than anyone, which he handles with typical aplomb. Hardy is seriously menacing, but has it tough; how do you follow up what Heath Ledger brought with The Joker? (I understand Nolan made sure to not mention The Joker at all in this sequel, which I get for the sake of honour, though I thought the film might have benefited by some kind of nod, even a slight one. Lots of talk about Dent, but nothing about Clown Prince of Crime? Seems a shame.)
Anne Hathaway has the right moves and attitude for Selena Kyle, also bringing a refreshing vulnerability to the character. She knows when she’s in over her head. And while her catsuit is impressive, the long hair, cat-ear goggles and high heels don’t quite cut it. A little more practicality would have suited her better, like what Darwyn Cooke brought to her look a few years back, or the hair Hathaway is now sporting for her role in Les Miserables. (I hope this is the last time on this blog I ever link to a photo to better express a detail about someone’s hair… but I think it’s relevant in this case.) I also gotta mention, she rides that friggin’ batpod like she was born on it.
There’s more to say, I think, but I’m going to stop here. No doubt, I’ll see The Dark Knight Rises again, all 165 minutes of it. The two predecessors improved with multiple viewings, I suspect this one will too.
I just want to applaud what Nolan has done with Batman, and for comic book movies as a whole. They’ll never been the same, and now we have a high water mark for what can be achieved. Sure, I have some pretty substantial gripes about the third part of the story, but overall, I give him and his creative partners full credit.
Now, will someone please let him do a James Bond movie?