No, it’s not as good as “The Dark Knight.”
The first thing that must be done when considering “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is to detach it from the perpetual motion hype machine that’s been running ever since “TDK” opened in 2008. Nolan’s second Batfilm made an indelible impression on the pop culture landscape, even more than the Marvel film franchise and certainly more than the latest Batman movie will make, largely because it managed to live up to the incredible amount of anticipation that preceded it. To meet the feat again would be virtually impossible, largely because “The Dark Knight” may be the best possible movie you could make about Batman – or arguably any other superhero.
So, hype aside, how was “TDKR”?
A word that applies well to the movie is “closure.” It feels much more like sequel to its previous two films than “The Dark Knight” felt like a follow-up to “Batman Begins.” With the exception of Heath Ledger’s Joker, who Nolan purposefully did not reference in the film, all of the main characters throughout the trilogy get fitting send-offs.
“TDKR” at first glance appears to be about the return of Batman after eight years to fight a new terror to Gotham City: the intelligent, super-strong international terrorist known as Bane. Bane (Tom Hardy, who looks not much like his comics counterpart while retaining some key characterization) has an apparent master plan to isolate, undermine and possibly destroy Gotham, though as the film rolls on, his motivations become more complicated. Batman/Bruce Wayne must also contend with accomplished burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, playing a never explicitly stated Catwoman), whose motivations are complicated from the beginning.
Bane appears too much for Batman to handle, and all seems lost when the gas-masked villain raises the specter of nuclear annihilation. Can a Batman not at 100 percent stop his most resourceful foe yet?
First, the good. Moving the action forward several years was a good choice. It allows for a new status quo, it lets the events of “The Dark Knight” build up to a mythological level in Gotham, and it permits us to skip over most of the otherwise obligatory scenes of police officers chasing Batman (believed to have killed attorney Harvey Dent in the previous film) until they finally figure out that he’s the good guy.
The villains – or “villains,” as the case may be – are good. I was pleasantly surprised by Catwoman, who ended up being more sultry and fun than I thought possible of Hathaway before this film. Bane is appropriately intimidating as well, with a few fight scenes signaling him as the most physically formidable of Batman’s foes.
The good guys have some good turns, too. Returning characters Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and especially Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) do well in limited roles, and newcomer Joseph Gordon Levitt is enjoyable in his own sort of mini-movie as a good cop who still believes in Batman’s goodness (newbie Marion Cotillard is also fine as Miranda Tate, though she made only a slightly greater impression on me than Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal did as Bruce’s previous love interests). Christian Bale is good as always in the lead role, making up for a slight drop in formidability by imbuing Bruce with more humor and nuance.
There are a few nice nods to comics fans, too.
That being said, the film does suffer from a few flaws – including some that are surprisingly pedestrian, given the typical quality of Nolan’s films. I’m all for slow builds, but the film’s middle does feel rather bloated, full of exposition and angst.
The film also doesn’t feel as viscerally immediate as the other two, or as tightly plotted. While “Begins” raised a frightening specter for the city and “The Dark Knight” leant an intensely personal flair to Batman’s crimefighting proceedings, “TDKR” makes the stakes so big – countless explosions, a police state, and the possibility of a literal annihilation of the city by a man who appears at first glance to be a violent 99 Percenter – that they become almost incalculable, and thus less relatable. There are also a few lazy plot points (Bruce at one point figures something out via a vision), and most of the action sequences aren’t as impactful or cool as in previous installments – there’s no spiritual equivalent to “The Dark Knight’s” famous bridge sequence, for example.
However, the film makes up for its various shortcomings in the third act, when Bruce attempts to rise – metaphorically and physically – from the situation in which Bane has trapped him. Nolan’s last several movies have aspired to be epics, and the explicit hero’s journey is appropriately inspiring, a story of a man who realizes that living life in the past and alone makes it hard to do good. From a seemingly impossible climb to an all-out battle between the Gotham police and a cadre of criminals to a final, fateful ride in the Batplane (not what it’s called in the movie), Nolan makes his final moments in the Batman universe grand and memorable, tying it off with an epilogue montage that’s the best ending of the three films.
In the end, the Batman trilogy is a story of perseverance, of faith in each other and faith in the ability to make a difference, even when everyone is telling you it can’t be done. It’s also a story about how Batman is pretty dang awesome and how skilled filmmakers can manipulate all sorts of chaos, crime, and the fighting thereof into something highly entertaining.
“The Dark Knight Rises” may not be the best part of that story, but it’s a part worth telling – and seeing – nonetheless.