EDITORíS NOTE: Since THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has been out in theaters a week there are SPOILERS in this review. Those wishing to remain unspoiled are advised to save this for later.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is an immense, ambitious and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying wrap up to Christopher Nolanís Batman trilogy. Alfred remarks in the movie that Bane has the power of belief backing him. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has the power of Christopher Nolanís belief in Batman and his own cinematic prowess backing him. Perhaps the belief leads Nolan into attempting more than he can pull off, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is not a perfect film, but the number of risks that pay off is very impressive.
One of the gambles that pays off is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle. Anne Hathaway invests Selina Kyle with wit, sparkle, agency, and sexiness. Sheís not a character defined by the men in her life in any way. Selina Kyle is easily the best female character that Nolan has ever directed and the whole movie shines when sheís on screen. In the briefest of scenes she establishes more palpable chemistry with Christian Bale than Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marion Cotillard have managed, combined, in the course of the trilogy. That has the minor, unfortunate side effect of undercutting the romance between Bruce Wayne and Miranda Tate and also undercuts Bruceís reasons for being a recluse when the movie begins. No matter how much the character may proclaim it, the evidence of our eyes tells us that Rachel Dawes was obviously not a great love. None of that is on Hathaway, whoís not responsible for anyoneís performance but her own.
Likewise, when it was announced that Bane was going to be the primary villain, eyebrows were raised. For the most part, it pays off big time. Tom Hardy is a convincingly huge physical presence. More than that, Hardy understands how to perform even with a mask covering a good portion of his face. Bane is nimble and saunters around confidently. Heís practically a big cat in human form. Heís memorable and heís formidable. He doesnít particularly cut deep though. Even though Alfred exposits that Bane has conviction, the political gestures he carry out are totally hollow for the sake of theatricality and a revenge plot for a character Bane doesnít owe a real debt. Bane may believe in the plan and the cult of personality, but he doesnít have the impact of The Joker or Raís al Ghul whoís actions more directly reflected a core philosophical belief.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the script is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake. John Blake clearly and explicitly embodies the spirit of Robin and itís perhaps Christopher Nolanís master stroke. Batmanís been spoken of as a symbol for Gotham in the previous two films, and Blake is the payoff to that talk. Gordon-Levitt has a ton of charisma and sells the goodness of the character without ever being a cardboard cutout. Heís so good that he renders some of the expository dialogue about him redundant. It probably would have been better if other characters werenít describing him as a hothead rather than letting us perceive it, but thatís minor quibbling. Blake is also the glue to much of the plot, keeping things moving when both Gordon and Batman are sidelined for significant portions of the film.
Unfortunately, the weakest of the new additions is undoubtedly Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate. Itís perhaps not Cotillardís fault, but I consider Miranda Tate a bust as a character. Even if you never read a comic and had no idea who Talia was, I donít see how you could miss that there was going to be a big ďtwistĒ reveal regarding her character. I think itís completely obvious once Bane tells Daggett that everything is proceeding according to plan. Miranda Tate does nothing except speak in double meanings and hint at her past without revealing anything specific. Cotillard and Bale donít have any natural chemistry either, which completely short circuits any love triangle complications and undercuts the big reveal as any kind of grand betrayal. Nolan tries to pull the rug out from under the audience, but I donít think he fools anyone and I think he hamstrings Marion Cotillard in the process, leaving one long speech to try to create a character. The twist simply doesnít work if thereís no investment in Miranda Tate and Nolan plays his cards so close to his vest with her that thereís really no chance for the audience to feel close to her.
The returning supporting characters perhaps have the least to do in the series, although theyíre all old pros. Michael Caine as Alfred gets to lay all the emotional cards on the table early on, although his absence afterwards for much of the runtime was felt by this viewer. Morgan Freeman has moments of wit and charm early, but mostly he just gives exposition about the Wayne fusion project. Gary Oldmanís Gordon has the most to do, although heís confined to a hospital bed for much of the first half of the film and only truly gets involved in the plot towards the latter portions of the film. At least as much as John Blake leaves room.
Last, but certainly not least, Christian Bale is the rock that the franchise rests on and without him providing the emotional center the film wouldnít work as anything more than spectacle. Iíve mixed feelings about Bruce Wayne as recluse, instead of as a watchful silent guardian, after the first two films, but Bale does his best to sell it looking suitably gaunt and haunted. I could have done without the business with the limp and leg brace as that bit of business is dropped midway through the film and although I appreciated the visual references to The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, the time could have been better spent elsewhere. Bale sparks with Hathaway, finds time to be genuinely funny when the occasion allows, seems to have his Batman voice under firmer control, and sellís Bruceís courage and determination. Itís as strong a performance from Bale as any in the trilogy.
With all these characters and a plot thatís inspired by Knightfall, No Manís Land, and The Dark Knight Returns, not to mention Dickenís A Tale of Two Cities, a need to balance plot with well conceived action scenes, showing off several vehicles including the terrific flying Bat, a bit of political commentary, a desire to pull the rug out from the audience, and deliver the right end to the trilogy, it would almost take a miracle to balance it all without any seams showing. Thereís no filmmaking miracle here, alas. Much of the setup of the film is built on some blatant exposition, heck in one scene Nolan resorts to a ghost/hallucination delivering important plot points, which doesnít get the movie off to a smooth start. If you were a fan of the nuanced political subtext of THE DARK KNIGHT, the 99% vs. 1% politics of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES wonít satisfy you.
Likewise, Nolan attempts an audacious cut forward in time to a changed Gotham midway through the movie thatís only partly successful. The lack of the average Gothamite in this movie is sorely felt at times. The plot is also the most predictable of the series with there being very little question about Bruce being able to climb out of the pit he finds himself in and be able to find the wherewithal to defeat Bane.
The movie ends on a bit of a twist. To me, the twist doesnít work on an intellectual level. Bruce misleads people for no real reason, just so that he can reveal the truth to them later in the closing montage. The film never really grapples with the notion that Bruce Wayne can never be happy as ďBruce WayneĒ and that lack of grappling undercuts the twist. However, if the reasoning behind the twist is questionable, I find the dual endings that the twist allows to be very emotionally satisfying. Batman gets to say his last goodbyes to those he cares about and he gets his happy ending. Ultimately, the lie and some cinematic cheating by Nolan only makes sense in service of the audience, but the emotional payoff makes it a forgivable sin.
Thatís the primary conclusion I draw. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has issues which donít have to be overlooked, but theyíre forgivable as Christopher Nolan has done right by Batman and all the writers and artists who have contributed to Batman over the years. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES may not be a nearly perfect masterpiece, but itís still a genre classic and a fitting close to a terrific trilogy. - Robert Reineke
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES -- starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard -- hits theaters on JULY 20, 2012!