By Mr. T
Perfection – it’s a lot to ask for, even from Batman, and the man who reinvented him. But that’s what we all expected the instant that first teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises hit the web a year ago.
I say “we” in all honesty, because at 11:59 PM on Thursday, July 19th, I was sitting in the third row of a sold out theater in Newburgh, NY, impatiently waiting for the start of an epic, flawless summer blockbuster. Just under three hours later, I exited the theater fully understanding that what I had just witnessed was indeed epic… but nowhere close to perfect.
When Christopher Nolan released The Dark Knight in 2008, he didn’t just reinvigorate a fledgling franchise, he revolutionized an entire genre. He somehow made a movie about a superhero without making a “superhero movie.” Nolan stripped away the comic book camp and stylized unreality that have become status quo for comic book adaptations and replaced them with the grittiness and despair of life in contemporary urban America.
The end result was a tense, taught, psychological thriller centered on arguably the most recognizable and relatable hero in comic book history. It was as close to perfect as a film can get. It also created a trio of incredibly difficult tasks for a director: improve upon near-perfection, satisfy a notoriously nit-picky fan base and match, if not surpass, one of the most iconic performances in recent film history (Heath Ledger’s brilliant depiction of The Joker.) Luckily, the director in question happens to be Christopher Nolan, and in this film he does what he does best: he captivates.
Visually, The Dark Knight Rises is stunning. Nolan and his trusted cinematographer Wally Pfister (the director of photography on seven of Nolan’s eight directorial efforts) create a Gotham City that is both beautiful and bleak. From the estates and hotels where its socialites commiserate and cavort, to the slums of Oldtown where the downtrodden scrape out livings, the film’s setting is a stark and sobering mirror image of a contemporary America wrestling itself out of the claws of debilitating recession. Nolan’s Gotham could be any major American city, which is not the lone nor the least obvious piece of social commentary weaved into the complex web that is TDKR.
As it was with The Dark Knight, it is the characters that really shine in the grand finale. The characters are fleshed out so carefully amidst the developing drama of the story that not one single member of the ensemble feels static or one dimensional – a stark contrast to a film like The Avengers, where one or two characters got the lion’s share of depth and substance while other’s faded into the scenery as little more than an afterthought.
Christian Bale, who is as close to a sure-fire lock as a leading man as there is in Hollywood today, shows us a Bruce Wayne we have yet to see: one in a state of declining mental and physical health, unsure of his place in a world where Batman is not needed. He plays the part to a tee, driving home the anguish of a man conflicted – unwilling to do what he knows he should, and unable to do what he knows he must. What is most impressive about Bale’s performance is the level of restraint he displays.
The Dark Knight was essentially a two-man waltz between Bale and Ledger. In this film, there are so many characters with critical roles, that Bale is content to play out his role within the parameters of the character while the story unfolds around him. Bruce Wayne gets way more screen time than Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, and there are lengthy stints where neither one is on camera at all.
Screen veterans Michael Caine and Gary Oldman perform a great deal of emotional heavy lifting as Alfred J. Pennyworth and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, two men burdened with secrets that are not only destroying them, but threatening to destroy the people they care about. Caine particularly resonates as we watch the relationship between Alfred and Wayne become more and more strained.
Joseph Gordon Levitt does a nice job as Detective John Blake, a hot-headed young police officer who still believes in what Batman stands for. Levitt takes a character that could easily have been nothing more than an empty moral compass and gives him teeth – there’s a bit of a dark side to Blake. Morgan Freeman reprises his role as Lucius Fox, and Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies, Inception) joins in as Miranda Tate, a member of Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors and potential suitorette for Wayne.
The real scene stealers in this film are the villains. Anne Hathaway seamlessly balances sex appeal, dry wit and super villain sarcasm as master thief Selina Kyle (thankfully never once referred to as “Cat Woman” on screen.) Hathaway plays the friend/foe to perfection, while making us understand and even sympathize with her plight.
Tom Hardy’s presence as Bane pervades this entire film. His physical presence is imposing, his calculated detachment terrifying. Bane is a different sort of villain than the Joker, demanding a different sort of performance. Hardy’s face is covered by a mask and he conveys the intricacies of Bane’s character mostly through his eyes and body language. There is a subtlety to Bane’s character that Hardy captures masterfully – a shred of humanity so faint that it could easily go undetected. Through the stoicism of a prolonged stare, or the slight tilt of a head, Hardy humanizes Bane, making him accessible, if not sympathetic. His performance won’t be called iconic, and it won’t win him an Academy Award, but it will stick in your memory after you’ve left the theater.
There are plot holes in The Dark Knight Rises. There are a few campy moments, and instances that feel more like a superhero movie than anything that happened in The Dark Knight. There are plot twists which feel predictable and trite. The film is as imperfect as the characters it portrays, and imperfection, as we all know, is reality.