Jul 18 2012 11:00am

Gotham’s Reckoning: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Gotham’s Reckoning: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Let’s get the obvious first question out of the way: Yes, The Dark Knight Rises is awesome, mostly in the colloquial sense but at times in the formal sense of inspiring legitimate awe. Christopher Nolan sticks the landing of the trilogy, the follow-up to the enormously successful Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, with considerable style. The Dark Knight Rises is a big, bold movie featuring an array of compelling characters, several jaw-dropping action set pieces, a handful of genuine surprises, and, of course, Batman.

It’s eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is regarded by the people of Gotham City as a hero, thanks to Comissioner Gordon and Batman covering up Dent’s de-evolution into Two-Faced madness. The anniversary of his death is celebrated as a holiday and an occasion for the mayor to give speeches demonizing Batman. Gordon struggles with the urge to confess, to ease the guilt of his moral compromise, and Bruce Wayne shuns the public eye, limping around in the shadows with a cane.

Gotham’s Reckoning: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Another shadow-dweller, a cat burglar named Selina Kyle with a political streak and a well-developed sense of panache, infiltrates the domestic staff at Wayne Manor during the Harvey Dent Day gala. The vivid first impression she leaves on the reclusive Wayne is equaled (and not in a good way) by the arrival in town of a huge, masked mercenary named Bane (whose mid-air escape from CIA custody, teased in the trailer, really must be seen to be believed). The forces who conspired to bring Bane to Gotham soon find that he cannot be controlled, and he slips his leash, with potentially apocalyptic consequences for Gotham.

The Dark Knight Rises unfolds in a less episodic manner than Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, which both (especially the former) occasionally felt more like several consecutive issues of comic books structurally than the proverbial three-act movie structure. It’s a long movie, to be sure, but damned if I can find anything to cut. The characters drive the story to a much greater degree than in most blockbusters of this scale, many brought to life by very strong performances. This is Christian Bale’s best turn as both Bruce Wayne and Batman; neither of the prior turns were weak, this is one is simply stronger, as every bit of the strain of the dual identity and the toll it takes is reflected on Bale’s face and in his eyes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does superb work as the young, idealistic cop John Blake, managing to blend toughness and purity seamlessly. Tom Hardy’s Bane is occasionally unintelligible, per those complaints dating back to the first trailer, but Hardy compensates for the obscuring of his voice and almost his entire face with some vividly expressive physical acting.

The most intriguing character, though, and perhaps best performance is Anne Hathaway’s as Selina Kyle. Christopher Nolan’s track record with women characters is, while not the worst, not the best either. They’ve tended to be passive and reactive, like Ellen Page in Inception, or Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige, or Katie Holmes’ and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes in the first two Batman movies. Selina Kyle is a marked improvement over all of those, with incredibly complex personal motivations, agency over her actions, and one moment I can’t spoil that is, quite simply, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. I’m just going to say “Han Solo” and walk away with an inscrutable look on my face.

Gotham’s Reckoning: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Dark Knight Rises

She’s not the only good female character here, either. Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate is quite compelling, and has a terrific arc. Like Selina Kyle, she takes action, rather than simply going along with it. The pair of them represent a definite improvement for Mr. Nolan, and a welcome continuation of his tendency to add at least one new skill in each movie he directs.

Getting back to the “Selina Kyle = Han Solo” business, there are more than a few moments in The Dark Knight Rises that inspire those kinds of hyperbolic analogies. Nolan’s direction of action scenes (and in general) has been gradually improving for his whole career, and while there are still better directors of action out there, there are moments of great flair here, with excellent use of the IMAX format. (I highly recommend seeing the movie in that format, if possible.) For all Nolan’s famous preference for practical effects over CGI, there is some pretty nifty CG, mainly in service of Batman’s vehicles.

Not everything in The Dark Knight Rises—or in the rest of the trilogy, for that matter—holds up to logical, naturalistic scrutiny. Perversely, these are some of my favorite things about all these movies; the fact that Batman barely even has a secret identity, whether by he himself dropping Batmobile-weight hints, or by any variety of people adding two and two and getting four, reads more as an acknowledgment of the inherent flimsiness of the deception than oversight, and it’s pretty funny, even if one wonders why the legion of people who know don’t simply go right to the media. The other things, mostly “why doesn’t x work that way?” or “why doesn’t y person act this way?” are all things that, at the risk of seeming like apologia, usually make comic-book sense, even if they don’t make real world sense. And, again, these are comic book movies. Comic book logic is perfectly fine under those circumstances.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to let things like that slide in the context of a story with the all-consuming sweep of The Dark Knight Rises. The entire trilogy has shared it, to degrees, though this one is particularly, almost ferociously compelling, on par with The Dark Knight. And oh man is it intense. Subsequent viewings (to which I’m already looking forward) may lessen that intensity, but the first time around? I laughed. I cried. I was on the edge of my seat. I whooped. I said, “Oh hell yeah.” It’s everything it’s supposed to be.

And considering that what it was supposed to be was the conclusion, with complete closure, to the most acclaimed series of comic book movies ever made, “everything it’s supposed to be” is high praise. Christopher Nolan, take your bow. You done good.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

Shawn Cooke
1. Shawn Cooke
I've seen other reviews that specifically mentioned how gloomy and depressing the film was. Although a fan of comic book movies, I'm very much not a fan of gloomy and depressing movies. What is your take on The Dark Knight Rises in those terms?

For context: I found The Dark Knight gloomy and depressing.
Shawn Cooke
3. Filmi Girl
Am glad to hear about Anne Hathaway's Catwoman! I like her a lot and she would be the draw for me here.

I found the episodic nature of the previous film extremely tedious - and thought it ruined any dramatic tension that had been building. Hearing that this is more of a unified story may just be enough to get me to see the film - if not in the theater, maybe on DVD.
rob mcCathy
4. roblewmac
I don't think I care about a Batman who goes staight from baffled by Joker in the last movie to fighting a villian who exists to break Batman's back. I may see it but i've no great love for the series.
Michelle Simpson
5. MSimpsonPhotos
Can't wait! Your review has me more excited than ever!
Shawn Cooke
6. JasonD
I have read a few reviews so far, and none of them answer my one and only question: Does Christian Bale's Bat-voice still sound like he has throat cancer?
Shawn Cooke
7. Hawki
Yeah, Bale still rasps. Go figure.

I'll spare spoilers, but having seen the movie just a few hours a word, I found it "okay." Not bad, but easily the weakest installment in the trilogy IMO. Poor pacing in the first act and a loose plot is the reason. Still, I think Nolan's done a good job overall.
Shawn Cooke
8. gregcox
And dare I mention that there's a novelization by a certain Tor editor?
lake sidey
9. lakesidey
"The knight is dark and full of terrors" - Melisandre

Can't wait!!

Paige Vest
10. paigevest
Now I REALLY can't wait for the marathon tonight!!
Dash Cooray
11. dashdidntdoit
Generally Batman is gloomy and depressing... I remember vividly a melting man in a Saturday morning cartoon when I was around 6. Scared me senseless... I still shudder when I hear Ledger's "Why so serious?" manic laugh.. But that is Batman right? :D
Shawn Cooke
12. John C. Bunnell
Saw the movie last night and was...underwhelmed.

The performances are excellent (save that Bane's dialogue is sometimes impossible to understand, but that's an artifact of the costume and character design). But the plot is hopelessly muddled -- and it relies on a premise that I, at least, find impossible to reconcile with the basic nature of Batman.

Essentially, the trouble is that virtually every choice Bruce makes in the film is wrong -- and yet one of Batman's defining characteristics in every incarnation, in every media (save for Nolan's) is that Batman is invariably the smartest person in the room. Even the Adam West Batman is clearly understood to be the world's greatest detective and strategic mind in the context of the Adam West Batverse.

Unfortunately, in The Dark Knight Rises, the script paints Bruce Wayne as a world-class idiot. And not even Anne Hathaway can steal enough suspension of disbelief to save the film from that terminal problem. (Heck, I don't think even Carmen Sandiego could pull off that theft.)
Shawn Cooke
13. ein
@ john c. bunnell

saw the movie friday but i still don't see how batman is even remotely close to a world class idiot. sure he doesn't have all the answers like other batmen, but I'd say that is a flaw with the other batmen rather than nolan's batman.
Brent Longstaff
14. Brentus
I agree with the review; the movie was awesome.
Shawn Cooke
15. John C. Bunnell

Given that this article is billed as a spoiler-free review, I'm reluctant to go too deeply into specific plot points. But consider a couple of things:

When Batman Begins opens, Bruce has been absent from Gotham for several years; when The Dark Knight Rises opens, he's been a recluse for a similar period. Both these absences affect the profitability of Wayne Enterprises -- but not in the same way. This is inconsistent, and I submit that the nature of the inconsistency is (a) out of character for Bruce, and (b) essentially manufactured in order to drive parts of the latter film's plot.

Consider how the Evil Mastermind in this film gains control of the McGuffin, and whether it's believable for that event to have occurred in light of Batman's generally recognized detective skills. I saw this one coming well before the relevant shoe dropped; if one has either sufficient knowledge of Bat-universe (as opposed to Nolan-universe) characters or a good general background in action-movie plot cliches, it's an easy prediction to make. This is emphatically not a case where the audience should be smarter than Batman; note also that getting to the ultimate crisis situation involves multiple indefensibly bad errors of Bat-judgment.
Mike Conley
16. NomadUK
Well, that was fun. Dark fun, but fun.

I thought it was excellent. So, a few minor weaknesses here and there, but nothing I care about. It offered exactly what it said on the tin, and then some. (Though I will say that I thought the second film was even better, thanks to Heath Ledger's inimitable Joker.)

And all the whingers who thought Anne Hathaway wasn't going to be able to do Catwoman -- well, all I can say is, Julie Newmar finally has competition.

And it would be nice to think that some billionaires and bankers might see it and think a little bit about how the world they're creating might just wind them up in front of exactly that kind of court.

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