As a finale to writer-director Christopher Nolan’s three-part reinvention of the Batman movie mythos, and the superhero movie genre as a whole, The Dark Knight Rises fits right in. It brings back not only the kinds of action sequences and fight scenes that we’ve come to expect, but also the cynical social commentary and themes of bleak, urban tragedy as well. Set eight years after the previous film’s conclusion (only four years for us in the real world), where Batman disappeared and took the blame for the psycho killing spree of Gotham’s “white knight”, DA Harvey Dent, the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is also in seclusion, wallowing in depression and lost hope until a new criminal monster threatens Gotham and Batman is needed again. I supposed this third movie is meant to wrap things up from the previous films, reminding us what came before with quick flashbacks to characters such as mentor/nemesis Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson from the first movie) and dearly-departed love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal from the second movie). Unfortunately, all this baggage drags down the story of this movie quite a bit, making the plot pretty choppy. It doesn’t help that while we are being introduced to new big-bad brute Bane and his criminal cohorts, we are also getting to know Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), played by Anne Hathaway. Even after about 45 minutes of the 2:45 long film, it is really fuzzy what the overall story is going to be about. Things gradually crystallize as we find out that Bane (played by Tom Hardy) is somehow connected to Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Shadows, and that similar to his predecessor, Bane wants to destroy Gotham. Unfortunately, the movie never quite gets beyond the fragmented plotting and throughout its length we are switching from one story thread to another. I kept hoping that it would all come together, but it never quite does.
Bane is one of the newer villains in Batman’s canon and I never really quite bought him as much of an enemy. He’s menacing enough with his massive frame and his creepy mask and voice (he sounds like Sean Connery playing Darth Vader, but with more reverb and less asthma). However, we have seen so many ruthless brutes before on the big screen that I don’t find him very interesting. Supposedly he’s a smart guy as well (don’t let the biceps fool you), but tragically he even reduces Batman (one of the smarter superheroes out there) to a battle of fists. I never quite understood why Batman didn’t just take Bane out with a good neurotoxin. Why just take him on hand-to-hand (where Bane clearly has the advantage)? In contrast, Catwoman’s emergence was surprisingly more interesting than I expected. While no one can hold a candle in my books to Michelle Pfeiffer’s classic turn in Batman Returns, Hathaway wasn’t bad at playing (the relatively cat-free) Selina Kyle as more of a friendly/flirty rogue. Her Catwoman is clearly in the more-recent vein: more ally to Batman than antagonist. Unfortunately, fun as her scenes were, she didn’t really fit into this relatively humourless movie. Her scenes could probably have been written-out. She’s basically more of a love interest, except that spot is already taken by Marion Cotillard as Wayne board member Miranda Tate. Cotillard is not the only Nolan alum (from his brain-twister Inception). Along with Hardy and Cillian Murphy (yes, he’s back in a great cameo), Joseph Gordon-Levitt also has a role as a heart-of-gold cop named Blake. While they’re all good actors, sadly they (even Bane) don’t really do a lot in this film. Sure, it’s a long enough movie so they can each get a number of scenes, but their roles are not as meaty or as interesting as any of the previous side characters (maybe with the exception of poor, dull Rachel Dawes). I think you’re probably starting to see how there are a lot of story-lines going on, right? (I didn’t even bring up the return of Morgan Freemen, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Nestor Carbonell, or Gary Oldman, nor the addition of minor roles for Burn Gorman, Brett Cullen, Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, or Will Estes.)
Going back to Bane, though his actual screen time was mostly reserved for growling and punching, his backstory was pretty interesting (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything here). In fact, I am really intrigued with how Nolan has been playing with the idea of backstory throughout the trilogy. In the first movie, we got Batman’s own backstory, but surprisingly little of main villain Ra’s Al Ghul’s story (which does come back up in this film). In the second movie, the Joker was constantly altering his backstory and we never actually knew the truth about him. Finally, in this movie, Bane’s story is presented as something mythic, told and retold by various people as a larger-than-life legend. Backstory is a very big part of comic-book storytelling and it seems like Nolan is actually saying that it’s a powerful tool that can have different effects on the lives of whoever the stories are about.
Another interesting thread I’ve noticed in the three films (yes, I just watched the other two last weekend in order to prepare myself for the conclusion) is that while there’s obvious commentary on the life and soul of a city/society. Whether it’s corruption through crime and apathy, or through economic imbalance and decadence, both the heroes and the villains seem interested in fixing the problem. The heroes want to fix society by reforming it, while the villains (like the good zealots that they are) want to cleanse society by destroying it. It’s classic “Order vs. Chaos”. Anyway, enough philosophizing … It’s great that Nolan has brought movies about super-heroes to a new level of realism and relevance. They seem to live almost in the same world where we live (though I am super-glad I don’t live in Gotham — or do I? I recognized a number of Canadian actors in the smaller roles… Hmmm. Did they film any of this movie in T.O.? But I digress …). As a conclusion to a great trilogy, this movie is exciting and well-made, but I don’t feel that it stands so well on its own, and it’s definitely the weakest of the three. The climactic ending left a lot to be desired, but I did really enjoy the epilogue. It gave me some hope for a continuation of the franchise (Hey, they’re doing it with Bourne!). Though Nolan has announced that he has no intentions for another instalment, I hope WB finds a new auteur with just as much intelligence and flair willing to take up the mantle. (4 out of 5)