As the final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises" does an admirable job of bringing the director's more realistic take on the superhero to a close. For comic purists, the story is more of a departure from the canon than the previous two, but within the confines of Nolan's universe, it all dovetails nicely into a satisfying conclusion.
Picking up eight years after the end of "The Dark Knight," "The Dark Knight Rises" envisions a Gotham without Batman, who willingly took the blame for Harvey Dent's crimes. The city holds up Dent as a hero and has enacted new laws in his name that cut down on organized crime, but at the expense of civil liberties. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, never getting over his inability to prevent Rachel's death. In short, the city is safe, but stagnant.
The stagnation and status quo hasn't just affected the city; it's also impacted Wayne Enterprises, which is seeing declining profits. The sharks are circling Wayne both professionally and personally. Nothing can push Wayne out of his depression until master thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals his mother's pearl necklace. This personal connection is enough to put a crack in Wayne's emotional armor, though it is hard-charging rookie detective, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who convinces Wayne of Gotham's need for Batman.
With "Batman Begins," audiences were privy to the forces of nature that drove an ordinary man to make an extraordinary difference in the world. In "The Dark Knight," the story focused on the hero in his prime. Here, the focus is on idealism lost. Nolan doesn't disappoint when it comes to the action, but the strength of "The Dark Knight Rises" is in Wayne's journey to overcome his personal demons. We not only see Wayne at his worst, but we also see the impact his decisions have had on other people.
Alfred (Michael Caine) is torn between his desire to protect Wayne from pain, while at the same time wanting what's best for the man he essentially raised as his own. Caine puts in an excellent performance as the refined butler, repressing his personal pain on the remote chance that things will work out, even if he doesn't see how they possibly could.
Gary Oldman's third turn as Commissioner Gordon places him in an odd parallel to Wayne. Like Wayne, he's also lost his loved ones and has been living a lie since the death of Dent. Though he tries to do what is right, the forces of idealism and pragmatism are constantly at war within his character. Gordon is inspired by Blake's enthusiasm, but it is Bane's actions that provide the catalyst for Gordon's redemption.
Interestingly enough, it is Gordon-Levitt's performance as new character Blake that stands out the most among the supporting cast. A stark contrast to the current state of both Wayne and Gordon, Blake is both a reminder of what the older men once were and the ideals that they have since suppressed. Blake lacks the cynicism of the other characters, instead possessing an unshakable hope for a better future — the exact same thing that drove Batman in the first film. Because of this character dynamic, the scenes in which Wayne and Blake interact are some of the best in the film.
Morgan Freeman also returns as Lucius Fox in a memorable, but limited, role.
Among the main characters, both Bale and Hathaway nail their roles. Hathaway presents Kyle as more of a fallen heroine, rather than a criminal who chooses to repent for her actions. Rather than steal out of desire or greed, Kyle was driven into her situation by circumstance. As a result, she only steals from the rich and only does what is necessary. In Nolan's reality, Kyle and Wayne are both very similar in character, with both striving to protect the less fortunate. The key difference between the two is that Kyle puts herself first, while Wayne always puts himself last. Interestingly enough, even though she dons the familiar costume, the name Catwoman is never once uttered in the film. With that said, Hathaway certainly looks good in the form-fitting outfit.
As both Wayne and Batman, Bale continues the role that will likely be the defining one of his career. He shows us a man who really has lost everything. For him, donning the cape and cowl wasn't just putting on an act; being Batman was a core component of Wayne's personality, and giving it up was like losing a part of himself. When he gets back into the saddle, the enthusiasm Wayne shows is genuine, as are his physical issues. Bale does a fine job of presenting a flawed, but very real, character. What we see is a man, past his prime, wanting to relive his glory days. Ultimately, his limitations aren't physical, but mental, and it is that inner anguish that Bale brings to the surface.
Oddly, it is the character of Bane (Tom Hardy) that is the most disappointing aspect of the film. Audiences can likely overlook the fact that this isn't the same Bane from the comics (his mask dispenses a pain-killing gas rather than the Venom steroid of the original), but what you can't overlook is the one-dimensional nature of the character. As presented by Nolan, Bane is merely a physical force to be reckoned with. He's not a criminal mastermind, and very little is shown in the way of motivation. Instead of a villain to be feared, he's simply a pawn in a larger game. If it weren't for the iconic image of Bane breaking Batman's back, the character could have been any generic thug-of-the-week.
Character development was also overlooked for Wayne's girlfriend, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Unlike others who seem to have a dramatic purpose within the story, Tate's character appears when convenient and disappears when she's no longer needed. There's no depth, which is disappointing because the character has a tremendous amount of untapped potential. There is a throwaway line at one point that attempts to give meaning to Tate's actions, but without anything to back it up, the words ring hollow.
Thankfully, the strength of "The Dark Knight Rises" doesn't rest on the shoulders of its main villain. From a story perspective, the final chapter depends wholly on the ultimate sacrifice and redemption of its main character. It is in those moments when it truly shines. The adventure isn't as focused as the previous installments, though it does do an excellent job of bringing a number of story threads full circle.
Compared solely to "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," "The Dark Knight Rises" is easily the weakest of the three. Compared to superhero films as a genre, though, it's very near the front of the pack. While Nolan may not have been able to surpass his high-water mark, he managed to get pretty darn close. As the concluding installment in the definitive Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises" is recommended viewing.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes. It is showing in 2-D and IMAX.
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