The Dark Knight Rises Review
Byon Jul 16, 2012
NOTE: It's likely that most viewers wouldn't characterize The Dark Knight trilogy as a "horror" franchise, but it's visual presentation and themes of anarchy and revolution -- not to mention it's all-around awesomeness -- place it square in the realm of the dark, heady stuff that horror fans enjoy.
There’s an enveloping, inescapable momentum to The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s the key to not just this film but the entire series’ success: no matter how many big things seem to be resolved in the course of one film, they always lead to something bigger in the next. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more sweeping and epic hybrid of escapism and cultural exploration than Nolan’s third Batman movie, because the groundwork building to it was so deft and ambitious -- and effective – that the It All Comes Down To This feeling the audience experiences is as inevitable as it is overwhelming. And at the same time, Nolan manages to pack one surprise after another into its dense, layered story, which is why The Dark Knight Rises’ inexorable race towards its conclusion makes not only for a satisfying finale to the trilogy, but offers a mic-dropping exclamation point for the first decade of comic book adaptations.
Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives in self-appointed exile in the recesses of Wayne Manor as his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) plays intermediary with the public, his proxy CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) struggles to keep his company afloat, and perhaps most significantly, his alter ego Batman languishes in infamy for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Although Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has effectively rid Gotham City’s streets of thousands of violent criminals, the crime-fighter encounters an adversary far tougher than he can handle: Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked, musclebound sociopath who is assembling an army beneath the streets of the city. Meanwhile, a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) desperately attempts to erase her criminal record – even if it means striking a bargain with folks much worse than herself, even as a beat cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) struggles to come to terms with the self-aggrandizing bureaucracy that seems to have replaced integrity and honor in his superiors on the force.
With a swift combination of physical and technological force, Bane attempts to wipe out Bruce Wayne’s monetary reserves, forcing Batman to re-enter the fray. But after Bane pits Gothamites against one another, bests the cops and hatches a plan to annihilate all of Gotham City, Batman is forced to collaborate with both the authorities and a few criminals in order to try and stop this new foe from unleashing a wave of death and destruction that will undoubtedly ruin the city’s progress – permanently.
Given reports during production that Christopher Nolan allegedly filmed sequences at locations where Occupy protesters mobilized, it comes as little surprise that the story focuses heavily on class warfare, fear-mongering and an ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots – of whom Bruce Wayne is indisputably the former. But the filmmaker’s intellectual gifts have only appreciated with each of his films, and he manages to make intellectual concept visceral, and visceral ones metaphorical: Bane is an embodiment of both invincible, force-of-nature terrorism, and the kind of political manipulation that conspiracy theorists hypothesize that politicians use in order to get themselves into positions of power -- a physical threat to Batman, and an institutional one to Gotham. Where Heath Ledger’s Joker was a primal force wreaking havoc from some dark and terrifying place within the deepest reaches of the human soul, Bane is a formidable specimen of both strength and intelligence, understanding not only how to destroy the city, but the sociological and cultural implications of that destruction.
Mind you, it’s difficult to characterize the kind of horror that helps form the machinery of The Dark Knight Rises’ story, because its psychological impact preys upon different fears: the deterioration of society, mistrust of authority, the physical destruction of the body by an unstoppable force. But it’s precisely because Bane is a threat in so many ways that he ultimately becomes a sophisticated version of the “embodiment of evil” characters that typically decimate their victims with sharp objects – there’s a primal quality to his presence that attracts and repels, fascinates and terrifies, but ultimately represents the underlying sorts of fears in virtually of mankind, not simply those who are scared of getting chopped up with a machete after taking their girlfriend to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend orgy.
Although the film owes a significant debt to several iconic Batman comic book storylines, Nolan admirably stitches them together in a way that seldom if ever pays off in obvious or expected ways. The confrontation between Batman and Bane, for example, is among the most famous battles in the character’s history, but it’s inserted into the filmmaker’s interest in what each character represents culturally, and more impressively, makes their actual showdown a metaphor for each’s ambitions and insecurities. The end result is an amazingly gritty, brutal fight that in one case defines and another shatters the core identity of the character, and it becomes more than just a physical confrontation in a movie whose presumed raison d’etre is to make audiences think violence is, like, totally cool and exciting and stuff.
Similarly, John Blake’s importance in the comic books is well-known enough by fans that they will undoubtedly assume that they can anticipate what will happen with him, but Nolan makes him into an important character who reflects the core idea behind Batman -- at least to Batman himself -- which is that anyone could be behind that mask, and simultaneously observes that it doesn’t take a mask to be a hero. And rather than simply fulfilling the expectations of an audience, or say, setting up some future series, the character’s journey reflects a transformation within the world of the movies, from failure, corruption and chaos to hope and idealism.
Batman Begins was released in 2005, just after George W. Bush’s second term began, and American was gripped in despair and fear. Seven years later, even amidst some of the greatest national and international turmoil that the world has ever seen, hitting bottom in the series – seeing the destruction of Gotham as Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul prophesied – also signifies a rebirth, and a new optimistic view of the ideals upon which our country was founded, including (most empoweringly) the impact of the individual.
Whether the film eventually becomes an embodiment of the time period in which it was released, or achieves classic, timeless status remains to be seen. (Hell, multiple viewings may decide that before its initial theatrical run is over.) And its ambition may in some ways outweigh its success rate, functioning as a thematic exploration and emotional journey more aggressively than a purely logical, methodically-executed narrative. But if comic book movies were first legitimized with Spider-Man and X-Men, operating on conspicuous if universal metaphors, and Batman Begins introduced specific cultural and political signposts, then The Dark Knight Rises is a nexus for the two approaches – uniqueness and universality -- and a cathartic finale for the first ten or 12 years of superhero movies. Oddly, it seems as if Joss Whedon might have already created the first example of their next phase – if nothing else, The Avengers represents a sense of optimism, and, duh, unity – but as an era of relentless, status-quo introspection comes to a close and one of pitch-in, direct action begins, The Dark Knight Rises is a perfect meeting point between where the comic book movie – and our culture as a whole – not only has been, but where it’s going.