First things first, The Dark Knight Rises is not The Dark Knight. Check those expectations at the door. Heath Ledger is gone, and nobody will ever replace his iconic Joker. The Dark Knight is a modern masterpiece and was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar (to say nothing of a nomination even). Christopher Nolan set the bar so high with that film that it would be nearly impossible to top it. The Dark Knight Rises may not best the second installment of this now-classic trilogy, but it does something equally impressive in its own right: it completes the series in stunning, spectacular fashion. Character arcs are neatly tied up, thematic symmetry is expertly woven throughout, and the scope and ambition that Nolan displays here is nothing short of jaw-dropping. If anything, Rises confirms one thing: Nolan's three Batman films are the pinnacle of comic book/superhero movies. I doubt we'll ever see anything else like them for quite some time to come.
As a bit of background, I saw Rises at last week's midnight show, after having just sat through the other two movies: 2005's Batman Begins and 2008's The Dark Knight. Those two movies were each my favorite movie of the year for their respective years. I hold this series in high esteem. I've always loved Batman, but the strong grasp of storytelling and grounded realism that Nolan gave the property has always impressed me. I'll admit that at that midnight show, I was a tad underwhelmed upon leaving the theater. Yes, the last 45 minutes are unbelievably exciting, and the resolution is wholly satisfying, but the movie is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, and my patience often grew thin at times. I resented certain leaps in logic the audience had to make, the clunky introduction of characters and subplots, and an extended jail sequence in the middle that just seemed to slow everything down. Having seen the movie a second time since then, however, I am happy to report that all of my issues quickly resolved themselves. Like most Nolan movies, Rises gets better the more you see it. And what struck me as significant problem areas at first just seems like nitpicking now.
There is so much going on in the film (again, as there is in almost all Nolan films) that it's hard to process everything with just one viewing. Nolan tackles themes of terrorism, fear, identity, crime, economy, corporate society, pain, and chaos seemingly all at once. But give credit where it's due: The Dark Knight Rises has brawn and brains, which separates it from the pack of other run-of-the-mill summer blockbusters. In many ways, the film itself is not unlike it's main villain, Bane, who infamously broke Batman's back in the comics. Bane is played here by Tom Hardy with great style and conviction, communicating so much with just his voice, body language, and his eyes that you almost don't mind the fact that almost all of his face is covered with a mask.
Those who saw Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in IMAX last December got a preview of the first 5 minutes of Rises, and in that early cut, Bane was almost unintelligible. The audio guys have done a lot of tinkering since then, and I really like what they've come up with. Bane's voice cuts through every other sound and dominates the aural landscape. It's a little disconcerting at first, but I think it works for the character. And that voice - I could listen to Hardy say anything in that lilting Scottish accent (which seems so at odds with his hulking body). Bane was a good choice for a main villain this time out. He's unique, and finally gives Batman a formidable physical foe. Their hand-to-hand fights are visceral and violent, and the viewer should honestly fear for Batman's life every time he steps into the same frame as Bane.
And what about Batman? Christian Bale is back, and I think he gets to do a lot more here than he did in The Dark Knight. His Bruce is a crippled shadow of his former self. The events of Rises take place 8 years after The Dark Knight. Thanks to the lie about Harvey Dent that Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Bruce Wayne have been keeping, Gotham is a safer place. But is it? That lie has been festering in Gotham's underbelly - almost literally so, as Bane and his army are biding their time in the sewers waiting to rise - and it is tearing both Wayne and Gordon apart. Bale has some nice early scenes with Alfred ( Michael Caine), even if they are a bit exposition-heavy and repetitive. Even better though are Bale's scenes with his new co-stars: Anne Hathaway (as Selina Kyle) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as John Blake).
Hathaway was the big question mark for me with this movie. I didn't like her casting as Catwoman (though the movie never refers to her as such), and she seemed too young for Bale, if they were going to explore a romantic relationship between Bruce and Selina. I have to hand it to her though - she nails it. Part of that has to do with the character as written. Nolan and his brother Jonathan share writing duties, and they invest Selina with a lot of levity and choice moments that prove to be real crowd pleasers. Gordon-Levitt also shines as the young, determined cop who realizes Batman's true identity early on and is seemingly groomed by Bruce to follow in his footsteps as the movie goes on.
What really impressed me about Rises though is Nolan's attention and detail to key themes raised in Batman Begins that are dealt with again here, and seen through to their conclusion. It makes these three films seem like a complete whole. You can't have one without the other, and taken as a whole, I just think there is no way you come out of the theater feeling less than impressed at what Nolan has accomplished. If I originally thought that Rises was easily the weakest of the three, I take back that statement after seeing it a second time.
The action is massive. The inclusion of a flying vehicle called the "Bat" makes this the most comic book-y of the three, but I can't deny that the vehicle is put to good use, both as visual eye candy and an integral plot device. The scale is huge - Nolan is working on a giant canvas and has every tool a filmmaker could possibly want at his disposal. He does not abuse that power, and does not disappoint in terms of sheer spectacle. I saw this a second time in IMAX (true IMAX - like Navy Pier) and if you have the option, that's the best way to see it. Nolan shot nearly 70 minutes of the movie on IMAX cameras, and nearly all of the action sequences take up the entire IMAX screen. It's overpowering and a sensory overload in the absolute best possible way.
Nolan's previous collaborators also contribute to the success of Rises. Longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister does an amazing job - yet again - of capturing picture perfect images and making the Gotham cityscape look beautiful and foreboding all in the same frame. Hans Zimmer's score is a dominating force, and seems to be used in every scene. It really amps up the tension and the thrilling moments. Some have claimed that it's too overbearing, but I didn't feel that way. I liked the music, and am actually listening to the soundtrack now as I write this.
I could probably go on, but I'm going to end the review here. I guess I could bring up a number of small details that kind of bothered me or took me out of the movie, but those are so tiny in the grand scheme of the film that to discuss them now is just to indulge in nitpicking. There are enough lists out there on the Internet where others have detailed the "top 20 mistakes" or "top 5 things Nolan got wrong". I guess you can engage in that kind of analysis if you want, but why not do that with every movie? People's expectations for this film are so high and they want so much out of it. Hard to blame them. Everyone wants The Dark Knight Rises to be a masterpiece. It isn't now, but who knows? Maybe in 4 years time, we'll be calling it just that. I already went from 3.5 stars to 4.5 stars in a matter of days. I'm seeing it a third time on Friday, and - no lie - I'm really looking forward to it again.
The Batman in these films is a symbol. A social construct, created by more than just Bruce Wayne. It takes several people to make the Batman happen. Batman could be anybody. But nobody is going to be able to top this trilogy anytime soon. The Dark Knight Rises is strong stuff, indeed. One of the best of the year. ****1/2 stars.