THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP
This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed anything on this site and it may be the last, but this series of films has been one of my favourites so I thought I’d get my thoughts on the finale down in some kind of official manner.
My perception of this film is informed by having watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight immediately before going to see it. In this way, I’m seeing it more as the third act in a much greater whole, which informs my final judgment of it significantly. The structure of this review is rather stream-of-consciousness, because these things occurred to me while I was watching the film but took a great amount of time and discussion thereafter to fully clarify. Thanks to Brandon Stroud for the format and my friends for the discussion, which itself was an impressive shifting landscape of prosecution and defence. Without further ado, here is a pretty exhaustive list of my thoughts and reactions.
Worst- Wayne as Howard Hughes
In the first act, Bruce Wayne as Howard Hughes felt like a big mis-step. It served to massively undercut the amazing ending speech of TDK and didn’t do much for me in its own right. “So we’ll chase him, because he can take it” became, “because he’ll disappear completely and not be the hero we needed”. It felt almost cringy.
Had Bruce continued for five years and been beaten down into his cartelege-lacking current incarnation, and taken three years off now the worst is over, it would still have been ample to get the point across without being so jarring and at odds with the previous film. The nature of all those sudden debilitating injuries would also have been better explained, though how they then disappeared ultimately wouldn’t.
Worst- Dialogue Dump Foreshadowing
The first thirty minutes was peppered with relentless amounts of this. Bane’s coup in Africa, Alfred’s summer holidays, the fusion reactor and its flooding mechanism, and perhaps the worst offender, “your father created 14 defence subsidiaries”. It was said in Batman Begins that weapons manufacture was against Thomas Wayne’s ethics, and if there were fourteen companies that had Tumblers, why didn’t any one of them speak up when the black tumbler showed up on the evening news, as Coleman Reese so rightly pointed out about Wayne Enterprises itself. Furthermore, Fox in Batman Begins explains that these are “prototypes, not in production on any level whatsoever”. The reverse-engineering in that one simple statement was at its most jarring, but all those mentioned were offenders. Typically, this kind of exposition should take place through character actions as part of the plot, so simply informing- telling not showing, breaking that golden rule- didn’t feel like it was at the standard the trilogy had set itself.
Pass- The Fusion Reactor
A lot of complaints seem to be about the nature of the fusion reactor as a neutron bomb. I am not a scientist, but I have seen several sources claiming the point of neutron bombs is that they are absent of nuclear fallout radiation. The fact that they went to the trouble of mentioning that this was a neutron bomb, not a traditional nuke, was enough for me to let any thoughts about fallout pass, and as this hugely affects your opinion of the ending as a whole, for me, it wasn’t an issue.
Pass- The Trigger
Having a bomb that has a tension building ticking clock AND a remote detonator only just barely worked for me because I understood the thematic significance. The only thing that struck me as crazy was that Talia was so fixated upon detonating the nuke five minutes early. She’s waited for five months- she can wait five minutes. Thankfully this loop is soon closed when the bomb in hijacked, and you will see why I give this a pass as I get deeper into what I loved about the film.
Best- Hathaway’s Catwoman
She was tremendous, and I love that she can rub that in the faces of the doubters, as Ledger did with his performance. Her split-second transformation from quiet, curious waitress to cavalier, malicious cat-burglar was achieved with about a minute of screen time leading into it, a single second of fantastic acting. To me it represented a triumph of character writing for an established property. We know catwoman, she’s in pop culture, and the film spared us any origins and let her get straight down to being amazing in all the ways she works best. The Nolans sure know how to have a character make an impact in their opening scene.
Mini Best- The Kiss
Catwoman kissing Batman with both in full costume as Bats is about to go and commit nuclear-seppuku was a shamelessly gratuitous and triumphal moment that shouldn’t have worked, and may not have done for the cynics, but I personally loved it.
Best- Everything Bane Said And Did
He had tremendously melodramatic dialogue, as well as wit-cracking quips and philosophically impactful speeches, and none of it seemed out of place. I didn’t have a problem understanding him (I think I missed one line) and I thought the voice was on a knife edge between laughably hyper-camp and chilling genius- I felt it had elements of O’Toole’s of Lawrence of Arabia to it. It was the voice of a man who didn’t care if he sounded silly, because HE WILL BREAK YOU. His accent also seemed unique, because he didn’t come from anywhere we knew- he came from The Pit. The film’s most quotable lines came from him, and again it was a subtle moment that made him stand out- his caressing, near homo-erotic embrace of the man ostensibly employing him (in fact a pawn of a greater scheme) was emasculating in the extreme for the poor fellow on the receiving end. It again sold his unique perspective, for me. He was also a far more developed and explored villain (even despite the smoke and mirrors about his true story) than we get in most cases, and his obsession with Innocence in The Pit really gives crushing weight to his “you can’t have despair without hope” speech, which itself was tremendous.
Best- THAT fight
Schadenfreude is crystallised when Batman is ‘mortalised’ by Bane in an awkward, uncomfortable to watch, absent-of-score fight scene. The achievement here was juxtaposing it with one of the most comic-book friendly sequences from any of the films, with Catwoman and Batman seamlessly tag-teaming their way through cronies in the darkness in a montage of distilled badassery to remind us just exactly what Batman is capable of being.
The whole house of cards falls down when he attacks Bane and is completely ineffective. It reminded me of Indiana Jones fighting the hulking bald Nazi in Raiders of The Lost Ark, only with the nightmarish twist that without his epic backing track swelling to give him his comic book powers, he was reduced from the fear-inducing legend of Batman Begins to a weaker, older man in a costume. Bane’s inability to feel pain and his physical superiority make it impossible for us to root for Batman, and yet it’s still a chilling spectacle when Bane shatters the cowl with visceral rapid-fire blows to the temple.
Of course, for comic book fans, the inclusion of “I will break you” and the back-breaker itself was another unabashedly gratuitous, triumphal moment, and probably the highlight of the film for many. What was best about this scene however was its significance in the thematics, which I feel I can now begin to approach.
Best- The Dark Knight Trilogy Is A Thematic Closed Loop
In short, everything that mattered in both the preceding films was enriched and fulfilled in this film. The long version is much of the rest of this review:
The Legend Of Bane- this could have been a film in itself, and that contributed to some of Rises’ problems. However, the short story format, full of twists and turns and each mounting the tension, was the Nolans working at their best. The Pit (based on The Lazarus Pit from the comics, a place where people can be healed or even come back to life, and the reason Ra’s Al Ghul in the comics claims immortality) was a mythical setting and they put a legend into it, and due to its heavy use of psychological haymakers, I loved every second of it.
Ra’s Al Ghul’s return in Bruce’s dream was a stand-out to me, because it emphasised the fantastical element of The Pit for one and it gave us more Liam Neeson for two.
We find out that the mercenary who fell in love with the Warlord’s daughter was Ra’s himself, not Bane as it was initially teased. Then we’re given to believe Bane is Ra’s’ son. Then we discover he in fact had a daughter, and Bane was that daughter’s protector. It’s an amazing story but it’s just so crammed in for lack of time to explore it that it feels as if the ultimate twist- that the daughter is Talia and that she rescued Bane, was thrown in just to have Another Twist. It wasn’t, however- it was the lynchpin upon which a lot of the thematic gratification rests.
You have Bruce Wayne thinking that Bane climbed out of The Pit as a child, where Bruce was helped out of his pit as a child by his loving father. A few barbs about privilege later, and Bruce knows that to beat Bane he has to match him, by climbing out of The Pit. For comic book fans, Batman’s need to escape a place only one person has escaped before takes the place of the Lazarus Pit- he has to become more than a man in a suit, the man himself has to do something truly legendary.
That involves not overcoming fear, as Ra’s first taught him, but embracing it, and the whole point of doing the climb without a rope was symbolic of so many people and situations I can think of in real life, not least a maxim my friend Jeff uses about “burning your boats”, that it just resonated with me. This probably sounds cheesy and whatever to the more cynical, but that’s what Nolan’s films are the best at capturing for me- life lessons, psychological growth and development, put on steroids and crack cocaine, turned up to 11 and done in the most spectacular way he can think of.
When Talia is revealed as the one who really climbed out of the pit, Bane implodes into insignificance. Bane was a true foil to Batman, and it’s revealed in the midst of that epic fight. He quotes Ra’s’ insight about “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents”, and that is everything Bane is.
Bane is legend and lies, in the same way that Batman was “a symbol”, and we see that unfold in the final confrontation: an over the top fist fight where Bane starts desperately fiddling with his broken mask and ends up immobile and unable to speak while Batman pummels him into next week.
That beatdown is a perfect reversal of what we saw happen to Batman at Bane’s hands. Batman was a man in a suit who couldn’t hack it, but now without his pain-killers making him numb, Bane is revealed to be vulnerable and broken. Batman is now genuinely extraordinary again. He thinks Bane is extraordinary too, but he isn’t- Talia is. It’s a superb descent into irrelevance that is drawn from themes from Batman Begins, and that to me felt terrific.
Best- Catwoman killing Bane
This is a controversial one, because people feel Bane deserved to be killed more epicly. But that’s the thing- Bane didn’t exist anymore. Bane was a legend like Batman is, and every facet of that legend had been robbed from him by the time we see him die. Even his loyalty to Talia breaks when he moves to execute Batman point blank with a shotgun- there is no Bane left by the time Catwoman blows him away.
This in turn allows us to have more thematic payoffs! Throughout the film she’s proved herself his equal- taking out goons with aplomb, outwitting him, and crucially giving us the “So that’s what that feels like” moment. If Bane is Batman’s foil, Selena is Bruce’s, and it’s especially interesting in that light that she’s never referred to as Catwoman.
In Batman’s closing speech in TDK, he talks about how “sometimes the truth isn’t enough, sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded”. This is exactly what happens with Catwoman. The truth is promised to be erased by a “Clean Slate” macguffin (which again proves thematic in the closing shots). Bruce puts faith in her all through the film, she lets him down, but he keeps believing in her, and it pays off when he needs it most. It’s an Aesop’s Fable in an action film with a superb payoff that was bigger than this film on its own.
Worst- Talia’s Death And Irrelevance To The Plot
Unfortunately, after we find out that The Legend of Bane is actually Talia, Progeny Of Ra’s Al Ghul, she proceeds to drive a truck, crash it, and die in a pathetic and sadly laughable (at least to our cinematic audience) way. Considering we know what Bruce did in The Pit was truly extraordinary and she had done it too, she really needed to be seen doing more than being a fake-nice person, having sex with Bruce and waiting patiently. This was a moment where those resilient weaknesses pierced the layer of big thematic wins for me, and it unfortunately made me confront the fact that-
Worst- The Cup Is Overflowing
Because of the sheer density of themes in this film, unfortunately some of the more ‘practical’ elements weren’t explored as gratifyingly as they could have been, and in other cases have left it vulnerable to some pretty dark interpretations. The Robin angle, which I’m aware I haven’t addressed yet, was one of these. A lot of the Gotham Citizenry/decent to anarchy comes under this bracket of being ultimately under-developed.
Someone over at Cracked.com pointed out that the scar that is seemingly never brought up again was actually a brand, the same shape as the one Ra’s Watanabe was wielding that led to the destruction of Ra’s’ temple. If that’s true, it’s a superb example of them trying to cover every base and really make this about the trilogy as much as the film itself.
Worst- “Screw The 99%”
This is the biggest one of those interpretations I’ve seen- that the film openly makes environmentalists seeking clean energy and those eager to create social change and overthrow oligarchs into the villains. An example of such a thought process can be seen here: http://exiledonline.com/the-dark-knight-rises-vs-the-99/
In response to that, I deconstructed it this way:
I definitely picked up those vibes but I wasn’t as militant about it as that individual at the time and upon reflection I disagree pretty completely. The way I saw it, Miranda Tate was lying about being interested in energy efficiency all along and was using that as a premise to blind Wayne into selling her access to a neutron bomb which, prior to Wayne inviting her in, she didn’t know the location of.
Then Bane was clearly co-opting the popular sentiment of the time to maximise chaos within the city and ensure the corrupt bureaucracy of Gotham and it’s rich and powerful (those most likely to resist, and arguably most capable of resisting, Bane’s powergrab) would be overthrown. The League of Shadows had tried to use economics in an earlier attack on Gotham, and then they tried to attack as an external force. Both failed. So instead they wove themselves into Gotham (literally and figuratively with underground caves and social manipulation) to turn Gotham against itself and destroy itself from within. And not a quick destruction either, but a slow, horrible death where people realised how wrong they’d been in their revolution. “You can’t have despair without hope” was Bane’s mission statement for the third act, and the 99% ideology he was pedalling was the hope needed to create the despair he and Talia were building toward. The bomb was, as far as I could tell, meant to be a mercy killing of a place that by that time would be despairing. But of course, Batman and Gotham showed their character, like they did in Dark Knight, and didn’t lose hope, instead fighting back.
Bane also mocks the stock brokers with the, “there’s no money you can steal!” “Then why are you here?!” line, and they’re the first people he attacks openly in Gotham.
She also made a pretty large error claiming the final confrontation was cops vs protestors. It was cops vs mercenaries and it seemed clear that when citizens got caught up in that they were resisted without lethal force. The mercenaries were seen as the bad guys, not the citizens. The citizens’ hope for change was weaponised, just like fear was in Batman Begins. It made for a much darker and more twisted scheme, fitting with a trilogy finale.
In summary then, the League of Shadows use the strengths of their enemies against them, like Batman said he wanted to do in Begins, which led to his being trained by the League and then led to his ultimately turning against them. Pretty straight forward villainry, just with contemporary undertones, like the terrorism themes in TDK.
Mini-Worst: The Reichenbach Fall
I really didn’t like the way this was executed, in several ways. Perhaps it’s that I’ve seen it twice in different incarnations of Sherlock Holmes from the BBC and Guy Ritchie, but it didn’t ring true for me, though I ultimately accepted it. Showing us Batman in the cockpit seconds before detonation was blatantly misleading, and if they were going to do this, I would have been happy for it to end on the shot of Alfred’s recognition and smile, ala Inception. Cutting to No Longer In Character Christian Bale felt like too much, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a studio decision. However, I ultimately accepted it because of the amount of “clean slate” foreshadowing that had gone into the film thus far, and the fact that Selena Kyle was with him. They did enough with parallelism with their stories that I was happy they were together, and I suppose to get that it does necessitate the shot.
Plot holes around him being recognised I don’t care about because again, it’s a thematic payoff, but thematically, I don’t see Bruce Wayne giving up Batman. He thought about giving up on Batman after Rachel died and Alfred told us and him, “She believed in what you stood for, what you stand for”. I didn’t feel that her moving on was reason enough for him to do the same- ultimately was he just being Batman for Rachel? Earlier in this film they furthered the problem, with Alfred saying that for eight years he had been “sitting around waiting for things to go bad”. In the early stages, it seemed almost as if Bruce was eager to don the cowl again, and after the absolute heroism he showed in The Pit, which made him truly extraordinary (and by the final shots of the film, the ONLY person left alive to do what he’d done), it didn’t feel right to me that he would move on. So I’m conflicted about it, has to be my conclusion.
I’m a big fan of Joseph Gordon Levitt and I hope the planned ‘reboot’ of the Batman franchise to tie in with DC’s planned Justice League movie will see him take up the position, giving DC at least some continuity and tie-in with Nolan’s universe. That said, it just didn’t do much for me. As is typical with Nolan, he foreshadowed everything blatantly all the way through the film so you could feel smug and say “I guessed it!” when he revealed he was called Robin. I also like that Robin is his actual name, so that you get the way the character works while at the same time leaving him free to become the new Batman instead. I suppose ultimately I was ok with the execution of the all the elements that made him a rightful successor, save one.
Worst- “I Knew You Were Batman Because I Am Also Batman”
The biggest misstep of the film was Blake’s ability to deduce Wayne was Batman because he forced a smile at an Orphanage meet and greet, and Blake also forces smiles because he’s so angry inside. There’s not much to analyse here, it was just bad.
Silver-Lining Best- The New Batman Is Actually A Detective
Blake’s ability to figure out Bane’s scheme and that something was up, and that he did some actual detective training, means we’ll get a Batman who doesn’t only have one line of questioning.
In the whole trilogy, Batman has one type of question, and it’s “where”. That’s why in the cinema I saw it in “WHERE’S THE TRIGGER?” got a laugh. I’m open to corrections on this, but all the questions batman asks while interrogating in the suit are:
“Where were the other drugs going?”
“Where’s The Joker?”
“Where are they?”
“Where’s the Trigger?”
And big props to my friend Dave Webb who pointed out that after Batman Begins, he always interrogated the exact wrong person. Sal Maroni explains that “they’re wise to your act, they’ll never cross him for you,”, Joker explains, “You have nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength,” and then Bane can’t even talk by the time Bats has finished raging out at him and beating his painkiller-administering gas mask to smithereens. Of all the things in Nolan’s universe, the detective element was the one that never really came through, though Wayne at least managed to identify Selena Kyle in this film.
MetaBest- Three Generations Of Awesome British Actors Beings Awesome In A Huge Hollywood Film
Bale once again got the shortest shrift of actor’s meat to get his teeth into, and it’s often been said (most recently by Half In The Bag) that Batman is always the least interesting thing in Batman. Despite that, Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth got some fantastic emotionally affecting moments throughout the film, and Gary Oldman’s mini-breakdown about being elbows deep in filth showed he still has that same fire that was so incendiary in Leon and his earlier performances, the absence of which made him nearly unrecognisable as Commissioner Gordon. It’s also great that Nolan has found Tom Hardy and is pushing so hard for him to play James Bond. Across Inception and TDKR, we see him demonstrate a surplus of everything Bond would need to do, as well as being two great performances in their own right. It might be biased and naive to cheer for this, but I’m doing it anyway.
Best- The Conclusion
The Dark Knight Rises was a massive film, in terms of the scale of its themes, the ambition of tying up two huge and largely unconnected preceding films while enriching what they brought to the table, the density of different elements in play and the choices they made to try and pull all that off. As a result of being a massive film, the seams do barely hold together in places from everything it’s trying to contain, and we don’t see as much as we’d want to of what is in there while simultaneously having bitten off almost more than we can chew. A film that is both too short and too long can be dismissed as “overcrowded”, but ultimately everything in there was necessary for the epic, trilogy-making payoffs that hit one after the other throughout. I’ve always been a fan of Nolan’s work, and of this series, and it’s chiefly because he makes them about Bigger Things than the practicalities of a man in a batsuit, or in a dream, or in a Tesla Industries Cloning Machine. And that to me is what this film is about- the Bigger Things.
As a result of that, now my initial disappointment at it not being as tightly wound a thriller as The Dark Knight has worn off, and I’ve come to terms with the several gripes that pulled me out of the film as a first time viewer, I’m off to see again, in IMAX, to just soak up that thematic goodness.
There are a hundred more tiny gripes and victories but I’m coming close to four thousand words here, so I feel this is likely enough.