At the risk of infuriating fanboys the world over, The Dark Knight Rises is not the greatest film ever made. It’s definitely a good, well-made film, but whether it’s truly a “Batman film” is arguable.
What it is, in the end, is a better than average action film with some good character moments that are not in line with, not just the comic and other media adaptations of Gotham’s heroes, but the previous films of Nolan’s trilogy.
There will be some heavy spoilers for Dark Knight and some very light spoilers for other Bat-media (like Rises) included herein, so consider this your warning.
When last we left stately Wayne Manor, Bruce had taken Batman to the next level and started really cleaning up the streets while Commissioner Gordon was managing to slowly clean up the police force when the Joker killed Bruce’s childhood sweetheart and drove Harvey Dent into madness as the villain Two-Face. Batman took the fall for Dent’s “murder” and went into hiding.
Eight years later, Wayne is hidden away as a recluse in the rebuilt Manor, limping along with a cane as a metaphor for his broken spirit after Rachel Dawes’ killing. And right away we see our first issue with the film.
There are examples of Batman hanging up his cowl in various alternate stories, certainly. In Batman Beyond, Bruce quits after suffering a heart attack in his sixties while performing a rescue and having to use a gun to defend himself. (The Bat’s pathological hatred of firearms is well-established since at least the 70s, which always made me confused when his Bat-vehicles contain so much firepower, especially in the Nolan films.) There’s Dark Knight Returns in which Frank Miller had Batman coming out of a retirement based on a mysterious and convenient plot maguffin. But in the past, it has been indicated as a simple fact of the character that Bats would never stop his vigilantism until he’s physically unable to do so. Seemingly, this was present in the first two films as well.
If we ignore that issue, there are still some very strange turns for Bruce, Bane, Alfred and a few of the other characters. Looking at the film singly under its own logic, the choices mostly work. Looking at it as part of a trilogy, it gets less so. This would not be as big a problem if there weren’t so many allusions and continuations of plot threads from the first two films. Admittedly, while watching the film I was caught up in the narrative and it wasn’t until later that the issues presented themselves. The story takes its time, which is not a bad thing. It may seem just a tad clunky towards the beginning, but by the halfway mark things settle in and start getting more and more dense. When the film ends, it is amid a flurry of revelations and big action, most of which works well.
If you’re looking for political commentary, you certainly can. Granted, that’s true for just about every film if you really dig hard enough (or are crazy enough), but Dark Knight Rises, absolutely lays claim to more than most. The smart thing Nolan did was make it ambiguous and based enough on the stylized fantasy aspects of Gotham, a fictional city that is often seemingly a mix of Dicken’s London, 1930’s Chicago and a goth kid’s imagination, that it can be interpreted in a variety of different ways and it doesn’t seem like some Law & Order “ripped from the headlines” episode. Not any more than The Joker’s reign of terror in Dark Knight could be seen as a direct commentary on Al Queda. It may be there, but it’s well-written enough that it is folded into the narrative and used as an undercurrent for existing material.
The film introduces a couple of major foes from the Bat-universe; Selena Kyle, popularly known as the sometimes anti-hero Catwoman but never referred to as such in the film, is largely responsible for the fall that requires the “Rise” of the title. Fortunately, Anne Hathaway’s natural likability is enough to keep the audience from turning on her. Her part in the film is that of the disenfranchised from Gotham. Seemingly borrowing some elements from the excellent Ed Brubaker run on the character, she deals with Gotham’s criminal underclass. She slips in and out of high and low society with ease, slipping into her various roles with a slinky confidence which always carries an undercurrent of confidence and self-preservation under any circumstances. Bane finally gets his due in the film as he gets to show off the kind of thinking that set him up as Batman’s Doomsday in the 90s. He was used to decent effect in the animated series for sure, but like Ras Al-Ghul before him, he had never been adapted halfway properly in live-action. His only appearance? As a lackey in Joel Schumaker’s franchise-murdering Batman and Robin. While he is certainly not a direct translation from the books in Rises, he is absolutely taken seriously as an adversary. As far as new characters go, there’s Officer John Blake, a surface-level point of view that is supposed to show what the average Gothamite thinks. He takes up a good chunk of the movie, so it’s a good thing Joseph Gordon-Levitt is able to keep him just interesting enough to not be sleep-inducing.
Let’s be honest; if you have seen the first two Batman films, you know what you’re walking into. While Rises is the weakest of the trilogy, it does not end with a whimper. There’s plenty here to inspire desire for yet another film. There are explosions, fights, car chases and everything else you’ve been waiting for and it’s all better done than a hundred Transformers films.
(Three and a half out of five stars)