Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 28, 2017)
When did I last look forward to a movie as eagerly as I anticipated 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises? “Never” may be the answer.
Like many others, I couldn’t wait to see 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but its many negative advance reviews affected how I felt when I finally viewed it. I still saw it on opening day, but some of the excitement waned due to the warnings of the critics.
No such concerns affected Rises, and not just because it earned largely positive appraisals. I went out of my way to avoid any information about Rises before I saw it opening night, and that meant I remained unaware of its advance word. Entering the theater, I knew a couple of elements – like what villains would appear – but I came pretty close to blank slate territory.
I also felt strongly that it would be next to impossible for Rises to equal or better its predecessor, 2008’s Dark Knight. That one remains my favorite comic book film of all-time, so while I really wanted to see Rises, it seemed unimaginable that I’d like it more than the 2008 hit.
And I was right: Rises doesn’t live up to the heights achieved by Dark Knight. However, it comes closer than I might’ve expected and offers an excellent conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”.
Set eight years after Dark Knight, Rises finds a Gotham free from organized crime, as the death of Harvey Dent was used to put into place severe punishments that leaves the city devoid of major underworld elements. Batman (Christian Bale) went into retirement, and alter ego Bruce Wayne became a virtual recluse.
A few events draw Bruce out of hiding. He meets an intriguing cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and while she always seems to cause trouble, sparks fly and he tries to bring out the best in her.
In addition, a muscle-bound super-villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) sets up the potential destruction of Gotham. A former member of the anarchist League of Shadows, Bane wants to bring down Gotham from within.
While he threatens the detonation of a nuclear device, Bane doesn’t simply want to blow up the town - he also wants to show the depths to which humanity will sink. Batman continues to believe in his hometown, so he works through a mix of complications/challenges to thwart Bane’s plans.
As I watched Rises on opening night, I found myself unable to avoid comparisons to Dark Knight - and these were almost always in favor of the earlier film. I wanted to turn off the “which is better?” part of my brain but couldn’t, as my love for Dark Knight seemed so ingrained that I couldn’t avoid it.
Subsequent viewings left me more open-minded. I’ve now watched Rises six times – three on the IMAX screen, three at home – and find that it remains strong even after all those screenings. Indeed, the movie actually seems to gain power with additional examination.
It probably makes more sense to compare Rises to 2005’s Batman Begins, as they seem more similar than Dark Knight/Rises. The most obvious commonalities relate to plot and characters, as Rises hearkens back to Begins in an active manner.
Indeed, it connects enough to the 2005 film’s plot that some have referred to Rises as the Return of the Jedi of the Batman series – and they don’t mean that as a compliment.
Though I can’t blame them, as I experienced similar thoughts. Both Jedi and Rises occasionally feel like semi-remakes of the original films in their respective trilogies, just done up bigger.
To some degree, this disappoints me in terms of Rises, as I might’ve liked something that didn’t seem like a bit of a rehash of the first flick’s plot.
That said, Rises lacks the softness and lack of seriousness that marred Jedi. After the popcorn fun of the original Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back offered substantial growth in terms of character and thematic complexity – which Jedi then almost totally negated.
Don’t get me wrong – I think Jedi is a good film and a fun finish for that trilogy. Nonetheless, it still feels like a bit of a letdown, as I wish George Lucas had managed to try harder to balance the excitement of Star Wars with the complexity of Empire.
I don’t find similar flaws with Rises. While it does link back to Begins, it never threatens to become a true semi-remake, and it develops its own themes and issues well. It certainly maintains the series’ overall level of darkness, as this remains a cruel, difficult world in which Batman operates.
Though occasionally one might view Rises as the Batman film that forgot Batman. Sure, we don’t see the character until well into the running time of Begins, but it’s an origin story, so that’s expected and acceptable. Granted, I was never wild about the “how he came to be” parts of Begins, but I understood their necessity.
And I get why Rises spends so much time without Batman as well, but I must admit this choice can frustrate. I really did start to wonder if anyone told Nolan that Rises was supposed to be a Batman movie.
While we get a lot of the character in the third act, he’s largely absent from the first two, and with a flick as long as this one, that’s a lot of Bat-free real estate. Of course, this also means that when we do see Batman, we’re even more excited – especially given the difficulties he needed to overcome to get back into action.
All of this ensures that the film’s third act works better than the first two – or at least it did during my initial viewing of Rises. The opening acts fared better upon additional screenings, mostly because I could concentrate on the story/character development without obsessing over where it’ll all go. When I knew what Batman would – or wouldn’t – do, it became easier to drop expectations and immerse in the material.
But that third act remains the king here, as it delivers a resounding emotional finish to the series. Even after multiple viewings, I still get a lump in my throat when the finish comes.
Some of that comes from my overall love of the series – I enjoy the Nolan flicks so much that I feel depressed they’re done – but it’s mainly because Rises manages to end things with a real punch.
The third act also gives us most of the film’s action. While a smattering of set pieces occur during the first two acts, the fecal matter really hits the fan during act three. It becomes a nearly constant action assault and delivers tremendous power.
Not that those more character-based/expository first two acts slouch, and Bale remains a nearly perfect choice for Wayne and Batman. He doesn’t get to show as much of Wayne’s fake frivolity here as in the first two movies, but he adds a great deal of heart to the character, and he’s still tough and memorable as Batman.
Among our new lead actors, both do well. Hathaway gets the more dynamic role, and she completely delivers.
Apparently fans frowned on her casting as Catwoman, but I don’t know why. She has the acting chops to handle the part, and she’s more than sexy enough to accomplish that side of the situation.
Fans will always debate who played the best Catwoman, but I definitely think Hathaway deserves consideration. She delivers an excellent mix of coldness, menace, sexiness, toughness and slipperiness, so she takes control of the screen every time we see her.
As Bane, Hardy finds himself with the more dominant character – he gets more screentime than Hathaway – but also more thankless part. With a mask over much of his face, Hardy can’t rely on expressions for his performance.
Nonetheless, Hardy manages to do more with the part than he probably should. I suspect Bane should just be a muscle-bound lunk but Hardy turns him into a tough, challenging personality who we accept as a threat to Batman. He’s not as much fun as Hathaway, but he gives the movie’s main villain bite.
In terms of production values, Rises seems excellent, and I appreciate Nolan’s desire to embrace practical effects as much as possible. Sure, the film uses CG, but Nolan keeps those elements to a minimum, and this brings a sense of verisimilitude that too many CG-fests lack. There’s a basic reality we feel that goes absent too often these days, and that allows the film to seem more impactful.
By the way, I want to defend Nolan against one criticism he often receives: a lack of humor. Some detractors accuse the “Dark Knight Trilogy” films of too much self-seriousness/grimness and an utter lack of lightness.
While no one will confuse these movies with laughfests, they’re not nearly as morose as some claim. Nolan builds plenty of humor into Rises, so while these moments remain subtle, they’re there.
And I think that’s appropriate, as I have no desire to see a comedic Batman movie. The 1960s TV series and the mid-1990s Joel Schumacher went the light ‘n’ campy path, and it didn’t work.
No one says that Batman has to be utterly devoid of humor, but the series should remain pretty grim and serious. I think Nolan gets this side of things right, as there’s just enough humor to leaven the proceedings but not enough to mar the gravity.
Make no mistake: I love the sense of scope and depth Nolan brings to the series. Rises and its predecessors don’t feel like “comic book movies”.
Instead, they’re rich, powerful explorations of characters and themes that just happen to have some excellent action along the way. They bring a truly epic feel that no other series of this sort even vaguely threatens to achieve.
Ultimately, I feel at least 95 percent satisfied with The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a drop from the 99 percent I got with Dark Knight, but it’s a much higher rate than anyone could’ve expected. It acts as a strong, compelling finish to arguably the greatest film trilogy ever created.