Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

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

Written by: Christopher and Jonathon Nolan

And so we finally reach the end of probably the most popular and influential series of comic book films ever. A series so wildly successful that some reviewers giving less than positive comments have received death threats, in fact.

In the same way that the Bond franchise had to dramatically change itself in the wake of the superior Bourne series, it is probably fair to say that Nolan’s trilogy has changed the way comic book films are going to be made, or at least judged. Warner Brother’s take on Superman, ‘Man of Steel’, which debuted its teaser trailer with screenings of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (and which Nolan is producing) already looks to be a more serious affair than previous takes on the character, with a more muted costume, a monologue devoted to weighty issues of manhood and responsibility, and little of the technicolour spectacle than we might expect. The same could also be said of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, which injected a healthy dose of teenage moping and abandonment issues into a character more often known for his skill with jokes.

You may or may not appreciate this more realistic and serious approach to the genre; I favour a mixed appreciation personally. 'The Dark Knight' is a genuine classic of cinema, while 'Batman Begins' falls more squarely into the comic book movie genre - not as good, but more in tune with the source material, and a film that occasionally dares to be light-hearted. I was hoping, as I walked into the cinema, that ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ would be a perfect mix of the two; a thoroughly outstanding film that managed to successfully embrace the comic book mythos.

Well… ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is not an outstanding film. And while its plot is more obviously ‘comic book’ than ‘The Dark Knight’, it also has a much clumsier grasp on the relationship with the source material.

The film does not start well. Actually, that’s not strictly true. The opening section, a thrilling and brilliantly shot plane heist, is probably the best set piece of the film, and possibly the best of the series. After that though, we get to Gotham and everything gets bogged down under the weight of detail that Nolan wants to cram in. There are call backs, references and cameos from more or less every surviving character in the series (and even a few dead ones, via flashbacks, although the Joker is an obvious exception), and on top of that there are new characters to introduce. As a result, loose ends and emotional arcs from previous films are hurried through to get to the main business, new points are casually tossed out in unsatisfying ways, and one of the big ideas – Wayne as a retired Batman, forced to walk with a cane – is mostly forgotten about after about half an hour. There’s so much going on that none of it really gets time to breathe, leaving the first act of the film feeling stilted, forced.

Next to this, there are a few moments where the film gets bogged down in some token attempts at political commentary, specifically relating to things like the Occupy movement – the general thread being that the rich and powerful are corrupt, evil, and revolution is the answer. I say token because half the cast espousing these views are psychotic terrorists, while the citizens of Gotham who do take it to heart simply come across as desperate. In addition, the plot is very similar in some aspects to ‘The Dark Knight’, and while such echoing is always a risk, doing it with such a highly regarded film is bordering on lunacy.

The second and third acts, more leisurely and with much of the plot now laid out, simply waiting for the dominos to fall, are much more successful. Characters are given room to develop, there are several stonking set-pieces, and an extremely satisfying personal journey builds to a resolution that tugs at the heartstrings while at the same time sending you away with a smile on your face. The film is never less than beautifully shot, the script recovers magnificently from a shaky start, and the cast is uniformly good, with a few standouts.

Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is one of the best things in the film. By turns vicious, sultry, sarcastic and surprisingly moral, she rather appropriately steals almost every scene she is in, and is far more than just a sex object – although the lingering shots of her straddling the Bat-Pod (taken from the rear, naturally) aren’t strictly speaking artistically justifiable.

Tom Hardy, as Bane, is an excellent villain. He doesn’t sear himself into the mind the way Heath Ledger did, but he dominates the screen physically. It is easy to believe that Bane could tear Batman apart, even without the super drugs that enhance him in the comics. Pleasingly, Nolan also imbues him with smarts, more than can be said for the character’s last appearance (in the infamous ‘Batman and Robin’). His voice, much ridiculed from the early teasers, is perfectly intelligible, although arguably dissonant with his character – he rarely sounds anything other than affable, almost grandfatherly, and while I thought that added an extra sinister quality to the character, I know others who thought it was stupid.

Hardy and Hathaway aside, it is newcomer Joseph Gordon Levitt who makes the most impression, as idealistic young cop John Blake. It is a splendid performance in a potentially tricky role; there is a tricky moment early on when it seems that he will be too good to be true, but by the end of the film he has been tempered, nuanced, and is a welcome addition to the series.

The issues with the Batman comics are perhaps separate, at least for the bulk of the film. Nolan has shown time and time again that he has no problem messing with established lore in the interests of making a good story and film, and nowhere is this more true than in ‘…Rises’ – it’s hardly the first version where Bruce has retired, but it is I think the first version where he has done so pre-middle age, and without being significantly physically disabled (I know he walks with a cane, but he gets back in the game far too quickly for it to be genuinely crippling). I have a lot of respect for him for that, and I do think it a strength of the series.

That said, this is the first entry where he has explicitly taken more elements than merely the characters and setting from the comics. ‘…Rises’ blends elements from three major arcs of the comics: ‘Knightfall’ (the series that introduced Bane, and broke Batman’s back), ‘No Man’s Land’ (in which an earthquake devastates Gotham), and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (in which an aged Bruce returns to the crusade). Again, nothing wrong with that, and for the most part it is handled well, but it contributes to the bloated feeling early in the plot. The eleventh hour twist mentioned earlier is absolutely faithful to the comics, but in reality the film would have been better served by Nolan having the courage to jettison that particular bit, undermining Bane as it does. Furthermore, where Nolan does make changes there is at least one that fails to ring true to both the comics and, more importantly, the previous two films.

So, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is without doubt a flawed film – its biggest flaw being the main criticism of ‘The Dark Knight’, as it happens – and casual viewers may be turned off by the unforgiving and shaky opening. Stick with it though, and it improves dramatically. As outstanding as ‘The Dark Knight’? No, and not as purely entertaining as ‘Batman Begins’. However, it is a more than satisfying conclusion to the saga, rising to almost mythic heights by the time the credits roll.

Quite apt, when you think about it.

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