At the time of writing this The Dark Knight Rises review, it is impossible to view the finale to the story of Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego, Batman, as just a movie. The film arrives on a wave of massive hype, yet it is still trying to outrun the long shadow of its predecessor, The Dark Knight - a film that not only set a new bar for what a comic book movie could be, but also blew away critics, snagged two Oscars, and excited fans to the tune of a $1 billion worldwide box office. TDK also changed the course of the industry by launching the “full IMAX” trend in filmmaking, and even coerced the Oscars to expand its Best Picture category to include more nominees (after Nolan’s film was snubbed).
In that sense, it’s almost impossible for The Dark Knight Rises to meet the level of expectation facing it – but has Chris Nolan managed to end his Batman legend on a note that will at once please fans and critics, tie off the story in proper fashion, and still deliver the biggest and best blockbuster movie experience of the year?
The answer to those looming questions is…sort of. The Dark Knight Rises does bring Nolan’s trilogy full-circle to a well-earned conclusion, and features a number of big blockbuster moments and will likely please many fans (and critics) – but it also stumbles in its execution of said conclusion, never really captures the sheer spectacle of films like The Dark Knight or Inception, and will ultimately leave some fans (and critics) cold with its very unique take on the Batman mythos.
Combining elements of Batman comic book storylines like “Knightfall,” “Knight Quest,” “No Man’s Land,” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” we pick up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and are re-introduced to a Gotham City where organized crime has been effectively curtailed – thanks to the strict mandates of the “Harvey Dent Act.” Of course, that progress has been made based on a lie about how Harvey Dent died – a lie that has nearly crushed the spirits of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the latter of whom has all but vanished into reclusion, as his “true” face, The Batman, is no longer needed (or wanted) on the streets.
However, the sudden appearance of a costumed thief (Anne Hathaway) heralds the rise of a great evil from deep within the bowels of Gotham: Bane (Tom Hardy), a ruthless and cunning terrorist who has come to the city to enact a plan that will take everything both Bruce Wayne and Batman have been fighting for, and twist it into a weapon used to destroy Gotham and the souls of its people. Bruce tries to don the cape and cowl again, but his time away has made both his spirit and body soft, while Bane is as hardened a villain as they come.
With foes at every turn, and his city under siege, Bruce Wayne must rediscover the strength within that made him Batman in the first place – and this time, he’ll need help from friends like Gordon, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the unscrupulous Selina Kyle (Hathaway) and rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), if he hopes to win the war against an army of criminals and mercenaries that Bane sets loose on the streets of Gotham.
Director Chris Nolan has crafted his most visually sophisticated Batman movie yet, and from a directorial standpoint, The Dark Knight Rises is a pretty stunning achievement. From the set pieces, to the brilliant visual iconography, to the action sequences that seem to never stop and almost always thrill (at least somewhat), the film is just visually impressive. With a significant chunk of the footage having been shot using IMAX cameras, TDKR isn’t just visually impressive; it’s visually impressive on a massive scale. No question about it: pay for the IMAX upgrade, because without it, you’re only getting half of the experience this film offers.
Batman Begins was a standard superhero origin tale (as uniquely constructed by Chris Nolan); The Dark Knight was more of an intricate crime drama than a superhero flick. In terms of story, The Dark Knight Rises is very much a war drama – a fact that may be off-putting to some viewers looking for “the comic book movie experience.” Those who still (stubbornly) cling to the notion that the Nolan Bat-films should be more pulpy fun and less gritty drama will find that this finale delivers even more of what they disliked about TDK - the dark and gritty tone, the lengthy and convoluted story – this time without the balance of a villain (and performance) as stunningly charismatic and fun as Heath Ledger’s Joker.
As for the villain we do get: Tom Hardy’s Bane isn’t as lively as The Joker – and some fanboys will say not as complex or engaging as his comic book counterpart – but he does serve his purpose here, which is to function not as a unique character so much as an exaggerated vision of our worst fears about terrorism, embodied in a man. Hardy manages to bring the villain a bit of depth using just his eyes and body language as tools of expression – an impressive performance that may get largely overlooked due to the (sure to be pervasive) sentiment that Bane isn’t as “cool” a villain as someone like The Joker.
Anne Hathaway offers the biggest surprise performance, shedding her own doe-eyed persona to fully inhabit the character of Selina Kyle, a master thief who plays by her own set of often ambiguous morals. Selina (better known, but never referred to in the film as “Catwoman”) steals virtually every scene she’s in, thanks to a mix of sultry allure, sharp wit, and impressive physicality. Hathaway definitely leaves her own stamp on the character, delivering in both the action and dramatic moments required of her.
To his credit, Nolan’s “Catwoman” is easily his best-written and casted female character to date – an area where the acclaimed director has been continuously criticized. By comparison, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate is pretty much a standard Nolan one-note female character (despite some effort to develop her), and doesn’t prove to be as interesting as she could’ve been.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt steps up to offer a compelling performance as John Blake, an obscure Batman comic book character refashioned here as a young cop who struggles with the idea of working within the system of law and order, leading him to ally with Batman and Commissioner Gordon. Levitt has the tendency to seem boyish in a lot of his roles - Inception, (500) Days of Summer - but in this film he broadens his range as a mature tough-as-nails cop with a big heart and sharp mind. In the middle act of the film – where screenwriters Chris Nolan, Johnathan Nolan and David S. Goyer threaten to let things meander too far – Gordon-Levitt (with a helping hand from Hathaway) manages to carry the film, despite the fact that he’s wearing a simple police uniform, rather than some elaborate superhero costume.
The returning cast members are split down the middle in terms of what they’re given to do in this final chapter. Christian Bale gets to exercise much more acting muscle outside of the mask this time – and in many ways, Dark Knight Rises is a Bruce Wayne story, rather than a Batman story. Bale brings his character to a close with a nuanced and carefully-layered performance, and if there are any who still doubt that he is the best Bruce Wayne/Batman we’ve seen, it’ll be hard for them to prove that point once they’ve had a look at Dark Knight Rises.
Michael Caine trades his usual comic relief schtick for a surprisingly earnest and emotional turn as Bruce Wayne’s butler/confidant/surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth. Here we find an Alfred worn down by his own failure to spare Bruce the life of darkness and pain he’s fashioned for himself – and in that sense, Nolan and Caine delve deeper into the character than any other depiction – on the comic book page or screen – ever has. It’s a rewarding venture.
Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) are given far less to do in this film, as their functions in the narrative – moral support and guidance for Bruce Wayne/Batman – are largely delegated to some of the new players (Levitt). Other character actors make appearances in some minor roles, but by and large, the ensemble works very well. Hans Zimmer’s music for this film only captures a fraction (albeit, a large one) of the greatness found in his Dark Knight score, while conversely, the photography and cinematography of longtime Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister are better than ever.
The Nolan Brothers and David S. Goyer’s script for Dark Knight Rises will probably be the biggest point of contention amongst fans. As stated, this is a war drama (with obvious shades of A Tale of Two Cities influence) but the story is able to incorporate real-world socio-political subtext into its narrative, without leaning on it too heavily. This is both a good and bad thing, since that timely subtext provides substance to go along with this pulpy world of superhero fantasy – but ultimately, the filmmakers decide to elevate the pulp over other food for thought, negating much of what that rich subtext tries to introduce.
Of the three lengthy acts in the film, Act 1 is something of a rushed affair (handled with the usual Nolan break-neck-speed editing techniques), while Act 2 is a montage of events that push the new characters center stage, while the established primary characters are relegated to the background (a transition that, again, will leave some fans cold). Act 3 of The Dark Knight Rises brings things to an end in spectacular fashion, with big blockbuster set pieces and a poignant, rousing, conclusion that will leave fans celebrating the character so many of them have loved or been inspired by.
While Nolan’s Batman finale isn’t perfect, and may not be the greatest installment of the trilogy, it does manage to solidify this three-part tale of the Batman legend as one of the best ever told – in any medium – while also delivering (one of) the best blockbuster movie experiences of the summer.
The Dark Knight Rises is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Dark Knight Rises episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Please Do Not discuss Dark Knight Rises SPOILERS here! For discussion of the film, head over to our Dark Knight Rises SPOILER DISCUSSION page. For the “True IMAX” Experience, check out this list of 70mm IMAX Theaters.