Ten years ago, I stood in line at my local theater for roughly two hours with my wife, brother, and several of his friends. A throng of people hunkered around the side entrance that led to Auditorium 6, where we would finally, after four long years of waiting, watch the finale to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy — The Dark Knight Rises. Anticipation was high. The Dark Knight, released in 2008, was still very fresh in the realm of pop culture in a time before the onslaught of Marvel films that currently dominate the cineplex. How would Nolan top that? Had Batman reached his apex? Was a third film foolhardy at best?
In the interim between Batman films, Nolan delivered Inception, perhaps the best (and most ambitious) blockbuster to hit screens in the last 15 years. That mind-bending, action-packed extravaganza only heightened our anticipation for Rises, which would undoubtedly change cinema in the same way its predecessor and Inception had a few years earlier. Right?
Well, yes and no.
On first viewing, Rises was awesome. A spectacular tour de force of entertainment, stunts, spectacle, character, and violence. I was riveted by its muscular action and strong emphasis on the Bruce Wayne character. Bane was ferocious. I’ll never forget the moment I finally saw the famous Knightfall sequence play out — “I was wondering what would break first, your spirit … or your body!” — something I never thought I’d see on the big screen. Everyone in the theater gasped. My brother and I cheered. It was awesome.
The performances were great. Christian Bale will likely always be my Batman of choice. Tom Hardy killed it as Bane, as did supporting players Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Robin?), Marion Cotillard, and scene-stealer Anne Hathaway (as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, though her alter ego is never mentioned). The film was appropriately long but never boring, and just so happens to feature some of my all-time favorite Batman scenes.
The stock exchange scene (featuring Hangman), for example, is the best sequence out of the entire Dark Knight trilogy when it comes to tension and excitement. The sight of Batman on the Batpod being chased by a thousand cop cars never gets old.
It takes over an hour to get to this sequence, but the buildup makes the payoff even better. I love how Batman and Bane essentially dance around each other before going toe-to-toe a few scenes later. Indeed, Nolan’s greatest strength is his ability to create rising action, and the first two thirds of Rises lean on this strength before the third act crumbles under its own crushing weight — we’ll get to that.
No, I’m not going to nitpick Rises to death. I don’t care how Bruce got back to Gotham City, nor do I care about some of the more convoluted plot devices such as the entire police force pouring into the sewers to find Bane. Nolan is painting on a massive canvas and telling a sprawling story. He’s allowed a lot of leeway, even if you have to make some gigantic leaps in logic to fill in the gaps. Such is the nature of blockbuster filmmaking. So long as the payoff delivers, then such details are easy to gloss over (as was the case with The Dark Knight, which also required viewers to suspend disbelief at times).
The opening action sequence that introduces Bane is relatively dumb when you really stop and think about it, but so awesome in execution that I just go with the flow:
Even the aforementioned Knightfall bit is a tad clunky in design (no one’s fists come close to contact), but still thrilling in and of itself. And Bane’s dialogue (delivered via Hardy’s wild, garbled voice) is the stuff of nightmares: “The shadows betray you, because they belong to me!”
Bane’s diabolical plan to cut off Gotham from the rest of the world under the threat of a nuclear bomb is hokey, but leads to scenes like this:
Again, we could discuss the nuances of these moments — how did Bane sneak explosives onto every bridge in Gotham? Why is there only one man in the entire world who can defuse this nuclear bomb? Why did Bane set the timer for three months? — or you can just roll with the punches and enjoy the spectacle.
Because really, there’s a lot brewing under the surface of The Dark Knight Rises, which is really the tale of a broken man trying to heal a fractured city. Hence, the brilliant cracked ice motif (and the Tale of Two Cities references). Batman started out as Gotham’s savior but realized he needed to be more. It wasn’t enough to rid the city of criminals, he needed to teach the residents of Gotham to fend for themselves and fight back against oppression. By the film’s end, Batman has died, but his spirit is quite literally chiseled into the heart of Gotham City (via a statue). Bruce has shown Gotham that it doesn’t need to fear its enemies, thus allowing the city to fend for itself; an action that subsequently frees him from the burden of Batman so he can finally live his life (with Selina in tow).
That’s why the pit sequence is so satisfying both visually and thematically — it’s Bruce climbing out of a literal and figurative prison, replete with a swarm of bats. I love it. (Hans Zimmer’s music kicks it up an extra gear.)
That said, there are two things that drop Rises down a notch for me. The first is more of a personal beef that has more to do with my own expectations than Nolan’s execution. At the end of The Dark Knight, I took Gordon’s big speech — “He’s a watchful guardian, a silent protector, a Dark Knight” — to signify Bruce had fully accepted his responsibility as Batman. Early in that film, we see a tired and weary Bruce eager to pass the mantle of Gotham’s savior to Harvey Dent, mostly so he could spend the rest of his life with Rachel. Bruce was done with the Batman gig and already battered to a pulp as a result of his superhero exploits. After his battle with the Joker, however, Bruce does the heroic thing and accepts the blame for Harvey’s actions, thereby preventing Gotham from crumbling.
In my mind, I figured he would return as Batman, albeit in a manner similar to his position in the comics where he operated mostly in secret alongside Gordon. (I pictured scenes of Batman standing outside Gordon’s office, eavesdropping on conversations, and evading elaborate traps set up by the GCPD to capture him.) Instead, we learn in Rises that Bruce hopped on his Batpod and … retired. (So, why did he rebuild the Batcave?)
Bruce’s actions mirror those he took when his parents died. After that traumatic event, he went into seclusion and struggled to reenter society. Batman came along and gave him the means to channel his anger/grief, but the “Dent Act” more or less negated the need for the Dark Knight and left Bruce once again without a purpose. Rachel’s death obviously took its toll and pushed him further into his pit of despair before Bane’s appearance drew out Batman once more. Except, once again, Bruce sets aside his own personal battle to lock horns with an enemy, likely in the hopes the battle will bring upon a swift (and heroic) death. As stated above, when Bruce climbs out of the pit he has found peace; and finally comes to terms with his inner demons. I would even argue that Bruce overtakes the Batman at this moment … so, we’re not seeing Batman in the third act, but, rather, Bruce Wayne.
It’s heady stuff that meshes with the journey Nolan established in Batman Begins. But it’s also disappointing that we never got to see Batman in his purest form — battling criminals on a nightly basis, going toe-to-toe with the likes of Joker, Penguin, and Riddler. Honestly, all I needed was a throwaway line from Alfred explaining how Bruce had completely lost himself in the Batman persona over the last seven or so years. He could still be a Howard Hughes type who rarely leaves his house unless hidden under the cape and cowl. That would have paved the way for future adventures, or, at the very least, given us a glimpse of Nolan’s take on Batman’s famous rogue’s gallery. Oh, the possibilities.
The other issue I have is in the third act. After two hours of meticulous buildup, Nolan hits the final 30 or so minutes in a full-on sprint. Here is where Rises starts to feel really clunky. It’s not bad, mind you, just unnecessarily rushed as if everyone involved were eager to get the job done as quickly as possible. I’ve always agreed with those who suggest Rises should have been broken up into two movies — split right at the moment Batman gets his back snapped in two — which would have allowed more screen time for newer characters like Selina and, perhaps, shown more of the carnage taking place in Gotham following Bane’s takeover.
Again, the third act isn’t bad, just clunky. We bounce from one scene to the next without much rhyme or reason, and the final battle, while glorious in its symbolism, never feels as grand as it should. There are also crucial elements missing that keep the climactic battle from truly registering. For instance, we never see a turning point where the police take control of Bane’s men. One second they look positively overwhelmed and the next they’re celebrating an unseen victory. A long-winded bit of exposition delivered by Marion Cotillard (as Talia al Ghul) sucks the air from the third act (and simultaneously transforms Bane from foreboding monster to pathetic yuppie) at a time we should be rocking and rolling. The ensuing chase scene between Batman and Talia never reaches the same level of exhilaration as, say, the tunnel chase in The Dark Knight, or the aforementioned police chase earlier in Rises. Indeed, it’s weird that the final act of Nolan’s intelligently written Dark Knight trilogy centers around a generic fist fight and a ticking bomb, all of which feels like a letdown compared to everything that came before.
Speaking of that fistfight, I always thought Nolan missed out on an incredible opportunity to replicate Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which Rises clearly draws plenty of inspiration from) in Batman’s final confrontation with Bane. Early in the film, Bruce tells Alfred that he’ll fight Bane real hard, only to discover he’s far outmatched, leading to his shattered spine. After months in a pit, Bruce discovers the fear of death once more and returns to fight Bane … in exactly the same manner as before. Except this time, he gets a lucky shot at the villain’s mask and somehow wins.
Batman should have followed the steps of his comic book counterpart and lured Bane to a location where he could even the odds, and take down the masked villain in front of his followers. Like this:
The Batman vs Bane fight looks great. I love the shot of Bats running up the steps as Bane approaches, and I will full-heartedly admit that I geeked out when I saw Bane go full-on berserker mode — he breaks a cement pillar with his fists! But there’s also something relatively routine about the entire third act that keeps Rises from truly reaching greatness.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker told Batman, following their violent confrontation: “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you?” The clown prince of crime had darker plans that truly set him apart from other villains. So it was a little weird to see Bane and Talia essentially conform to such a plot that feels more in line with a James Bond film than Batman. I mean, it works in that the whole bomb threat moves the story from point A to point B and adds a ticking clock to the final act, but it all feels so half-hearted and business-like.
Yes, it was cool to see Talia al Ghul on the big screen, but Nolan gives her absolutely nothing to do. There’s a scene where Bruce allows himself to get captured in order to find Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and comes face to face with Talia-pretending-to-be-Miranda Tate. For whatever reason, she doesn’t turn Bruce into Bane ,who is presumably in the next room monitoring Scarecrow’s court hearings. In fact, I don’t think she even told Bane that Bruce had returned, because in a later scene we see the masked man eyeballing a burning bat symbol in utter confusion. “Impossible,” he says.
I guess you could shrug this off and say that Talia was curious to see how things would play out. Maybe she was even excited to see Bruce after breaking him far too easily. Again, you have to take some steps to make a lot of this make sense. It’s possible. but requires some work and imagination.
That said, the final five or so minutes of Rises are terrific and end the flick on a triumphant note.
All in all, Rises is an amazing motion picture that far exceeds a majority of blockbusters in terms of quality and ambition. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is legendary, Zimmer’s bombastic score is thrilling, and Nolan occasionally reaches the glorious heights found in his best work. He’s never made a bad film, or maybe I’m just spoiled by his greatness at this point — I can’t stomach anything less than perfection from the man! Nolan is a master filmmaker, and The Dark Knight trilogy is a masterclass in blockbuster cinema.
Honestly, any qualms I have about Rises stem mostly from my love of The Dark Knight. That film was a once-in-a-decade game changer, which is probably why Nolan waited so long to make it. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a great movie. A beautiful, glorious, and often spellbinding motion picture — it just isn’t The Dark Knight. But really, what film is?