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#8: The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard

With the 2005 release of Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan, in his first major studio film, redefined what we come to expect from a superhero movie.  The Schumacher spectacle of the 90s left the Caped Crusader as nothing more than a punch line with nipples.  But Nolan’s freshman turn revitalized DC’s brooding hero, and in turn, an entire genre.

The Dark Knight took the ball even further, proving that not only can you make a serious film about a man dressed as a bat, you can make one that is worthy of Oscar-caliber praise.  It set the bar for what is expected both in action scenes and in acting.  The turn by Heath Ledger as the Joker is a legendary performance across all cinema and rightfully won the late actor a posthumous Oscar.

The Dark Knight Rises has the unfortunate task of not only following The Dark Knight, but also being the concluding chapter in a series most would rather see not end.  One could say that the lofty expectations put upon this film merely set it up for certain failure, and while it’s true that the third installment pales in comparison with its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is still an epic, superb superhero film and a satisfying end to one of the greatest trilogies in film history.

Picking up eight years after the events of its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises brings us to a Gotham without Batman.  In fact, the Caped Crusader is now Public Enemy #1, as Harvey Dent prophesized, whose death is still credited to Batman.  As Batman has disappeared, so has Bruce Wayne, crippled and living a life of solitude at Wayne Manor.  But when Commissioner Gordon is expelled from Gotham’s sewers barely clinging to life and with evidence of a new evil, Bruce once again dons the cowl to try and prevent a complete takeover of the city by terrorist Bane.

To say that Tom Hardy had big shoes to fill when it came to playing the next Batman villain is a supreme understatement.  Obviously, it is only natural to compare his performance to that of Heath Ledger.  It is a battle he really cannot help but lose, but that is not to say that his performance isn’t great in its own right.  Bane is pretty no-nonsense, unlike the Joker, but somehow they both see anarchy as the ultimate goal.  Bane’s ideals are a little grander than the Joker’s however, who merely wanted chaos to reign.  Bane is interested in his own brand of pseudo-justice, where the greed of the ruling class is punished by those Bane’s New World Order places in charge.  Hardy’s Bane is a grandstanding showboat, equal parts genius, brawler, and showman.  It’s a great performance, and while some complained about the inability to comprehend Bane, if anything, I found his voice almost too clear in parts.

Bale’s final turn as Bruce Wayne solidifies him as possibly the best to ever play him.  He’s able to play both sides of Bruce Wayne convincingly, which really comes into play in this installment.  The film runs approximately 165 minutes, but Bale spends very little time as Batman.  Instead, he plays the broken Bruce Wayne, still mourning the death of Rachel Dawes.  It’s as tortured a performance as anyone has ever played the Caped Crusader, and his physical and mental pain is felt throughout.  I do not think Bale gets the right amount of credit for what he was able to do with Batman.  It’s a brooding portrayal, as well it should be.  Yet, until Bale, no one ever approached it that way at all.

As for Catwoman, I enjoyed Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Selina Kyle.  I like the idea of her becoming a cat burglar out of necessity, rather than enjoyment.  I think it gives her a layer of complication that is not usually seen in any other portrayals.  Even with Michelle Pfeiffer’s fantastic turn, there was not a moral ambiguity to her character the way there is with Hathaway’s.  Pfeiffer’s Selina did it almost for fun; she soaked up every morsel of joy she could get while in the cat suit.  Hathaway plays it as crafty, but only within the artificial boundaries of necessity.  She steals what she can get by on and not much more.

As with all of Nolan’s Batman films, the action scenes are wonderful.  Between the Stock Exchange heist, the football stadium scene, and basically the last hour, the film carries some wonderfully enormous set pieces that truly play to the epicness of the film.  The final fight scene between Bane and Batman is also a tremendous scene.  Nolan lets the fight play out in full view, rather than the slash-cut fight scenes of the previous two films.  It works better not only for the viewing experience, but it makes the fight feel like a heavyweight bout, where both combatants are giving it their all to smash the other’s face in.  It speaks to the brutality of Bane and the determination of Batman.

The last act, when Bane’s plan is in full effect, is amazingly bleak.  It’s interesting to see Gotham under complete lockdown as their internal clock winds down.  These are some of the most emotionally powerful moments of the series.  An entire city on the brink with their hero thousands of miles away… it’s surprisingly raw for a super hero movie and the willingness to go to such dark places is what makes this film series different from any other in the genre.

The biggest gripe I can say about this film is that it takes a long time to get interesting.  The most engaging parts occur when Bane’s plan starts to go into action.  The movie goes into some of the darkest places in terms of theme that any action film has actually ever gone.  Unfortunately, you have to wait nearly an hour for any sort of action to take place.

By contrast, in The Dark Knight, the Joker’s presence is felt nearly immediately.  I know it is unfair to compare and contrast movies, but the film lends itself to comparison in the first scene alone.  The Dark Knight starts off with the wonderfully crafted bank heist scene where we first lay our eyes on Ledger’s Joker and learn so much about him in that single scene.  The Dark Knight Rises tries to mimic that scene with it’s own scene of an elaborate evil scheme that introduces the main villain.  While the set piece is wonderful and the scene is impressive, it doesn’t do as much for Bane as the Joker’s scene, mostly because the plan is much more ambiguous and ultimately, just plain convoluted.

In a vacuum, The Dark Knight Rises is a brilliant film.  It is everything we deserve from a Batman film and probably more.  However, we got a better film four years prior and that cannot be discounted.  Still, this movie is exceedingly entertaining and is a brilliant way to end one of the greatest trilogies in film history.

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