Review: “The Dark Knight Rises”

When you go to see The Dark Knight Rises in theaters (and you really, really should see it in an IMAX theater if you can) and you happen to spot members of the audience around you sporting Batman shirts, hats, or even a full-on Batman cowl, keep your eye on them and look for them once the movie’s over. Watch for the conflicted look that should be on their faces, for on the one hand, this film is a masterwork. It’s not perfect, but it is everything that fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films thus far (2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight) could have hoped for in terms of drama, action, storytelling, and resolution.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt by the end of the film that this really IS the end for this vision of Batman and Gotham City. Thus, while fans of the character can certainly savor this latest cinematic triumph for the Caped Crusader, once the buzz fades sooner or later they’ll have to come down from the high and start wondering what’s next, because Nolan’s work will be very, very difficult to top.

In The Dark Knight Rises, we see a hobbled, vulnerable Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) driven back into the Batsuit after a long, self-imposed exile by the arrival of two new adversaries, a clever and talented cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and a masked terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy), who commands an underground army and whose motivations for tormenting Gotham and Bruce lie in Bruce’s past ties to the League of Shadows, the antagonists from Batman Begins. There’s just one problem: after living like a recluse following the deaths of his love, Rachel Dawes, and District Attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Bruce simply no longer is what he was, emotionally or physically. Against the advice of ever-faithful Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce nevertheless ventures out with his armor and his wonderful toys, hoping it will all be enough to protect Gotham once more from the forces threatening it.

It isn’t. That’s not a spoiler, because it’s been clear even in the advertising for the film, which features the hulking Bane walking away from a broken Bat mask. More importantly, you’ll know sitting in the audience from the first moment Bruce suits up again that it will end badly. It’s then that Bruce’s final journey truly begins, and the movie really kicks into high gear.

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Like most of Nolan’s recent films, The Dark Knight Rises runs long, clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, and you do feel that length, particularly in the first half. But rest assured that there are plenty of large scale action set-pieces shot with IMAX 70mm cameras to kick up the tempo just when things start to drag, and the second half of the film leads to a conclusion for which the word “spectacular” seems woefully inadequate, to me at least.

But as always in Nolan’s work, it’s the attention and emphasis on character, and the quality performances that such emphasis demands, that makes you care at all for the plot twists and endure the long running time. The returning members of the ensemble — Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman — all are solid here, as they have been throughout the series. Anne Hathaway, whose casting as Selina Kyle drew some of the most persistent doubts about this production, more than holds her own and gets to be one of the precious few who smile and bring some levity to the proceedings.

And Tom Hardy, who practically stole the show from Leonardo DiCaprio in Nolan’s Inception, gives a chilling performance as Bane mainly through his eyes, since he’s masked throughout the whole film. When the Oscar nominations come down early next year, watch for one to come for Hardy, who dominates almost every frame he appears in with either with his massive physique or the intensity of his gaze. If that Oscar nod doesn’t come, it will be a terrible disservice to a brilliant piece of acting work.

As for Christian Bale, this is perhaps the most nuanced of his outings as Bruce Wayne, and perhaps it will be the most memorable, as well. What he conveys through his eyes and his body language is that somewhere deep down Bruce Wayne knows that he’s not up to this anymore, that he’s a shadow of his former self. However, it’s not pride or stubbornness that drives him to risk the life he insists he’s not afraid to lose. It’s simply the belief that there’s nothing else left for him to do. This despair is thus Batman’s greatest foe in this film, and Bale’s performance makes that despair and Wayne’s struggle with it believable and relatable.

I said at the outset that the movie’s not perfect, but I’ll save those minor quibbles for discussions with the fanboys. Overall, The Dark Knight Rises is an extraordinary film and a satisfying, if bittersweet, end to this latest telling of the Batman saga.

Score: 5 out of 5

The Dark Knight Rises
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Running Time: 165 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.