THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Such a clumsy title, and such an implicit promise. Unfortunately, the movie lives up to the clumsy and fails in the promise. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is no stinker – it’s not SUPERMAN RETURNS or GHOST RIDER or CONSTANTINE or BATMAN FOREVER or HULK bad. Its a well made film, to be sure; very technically proficient and visually satisfying. It offers a rich, layered story and some outstanding performances from the cast. There are gasp moments and wow moments and some really great stuff that ties this movie to Christopher Nolan’s other two Batman films (BATMAN BEGINS & THE DARK KNIGHT, in case you just escaped from a North Korean gulag). But at the end of the movie, I left the theatre feeling that yet another comic-book movie franchise has fallen at the hurdle of the second sequel, after the first sequel kicked arse.

There’s some spoilers below, you have been warned.

Before I go any further, let me clarify my personal position on the Nolan-Bale Batman films. They are comic-book adaptations, but they are not ‘superhero’ films in the traditional sense. You don’t wanna be taking your eight your old nephew to see this the way you took him to THE AVENGERS or SPIDER-MAN. This Batman is a fully realised human being, with deep psychological issues. This Gotham is in the real world. The bad guys are not freaky super-powered individuals in garish capes with melodramatic soliloquies; they are damaged, deranged and dangerous reflections of our inner demons. In BATMAN BEGINS, the Scarecrow reminds us what it is to fear; in THE DARK KNIGHT, the Joker shows us why we value control even as we secretly crave the freedom of anarchy; in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Bane draws us a picture of how thinly the veneer of civilisation is brushed upon us. These are crime dramas, edge of your seat thrillers and studies of the darker places of the mind; they are not ‘superhero’ films. I think THE DARK KNIGHT may just be the greatest crime movie ever made, and I think this version of Batman is easily the most plausible, the most gripping and the ‘defining’ one. So, keep all that in mind as I tell you why I was disappointed with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and also what was great about it.

First, to the story, which is based in part on three classic Batman storylines from the comics – “Knightfall”, in which Batman battles and is defeated by Bane; “No Man’s Land”, in which Gotham finds itself cut off from civilisation; and “The Dark Knight Returns”, which features a mostly retired, older Batman resuming his career in his city’s hour of need. The movie draws as much as it needs to from these disparate sources without relying too heavily on them, and it would be silly to focus on the differences between the comics and the movies, because a) the latter are not the former and b) no disservice is done by the adaptation. In a nutshell, eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, Batman has hung up his cowl and Bruce Wayne is living as a recluse, with a limp and no real connection to the outside world. Bruce is still grieving the death of Rachel, while Gotham has gone onward and upward in honour of its lost ‘hero’ Harvey Dent. Commisioner Gordon is conflicted between satisfaction with the fact that Gotham is virtually crime free, and loathing of the fact that this success has come at the cost of the truth about Dent & Batman. Wayne Industries is on the brink of financial collapse, due to a failed investment in hi-tech nuclear fusion energy. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the masked terrorist Bane fakes the death of a scientist. PROBLEM – Bane’s mask. Its unnecessary, impractical looking and even with the excellent sound editing done in post-production, his dialogue is sometimes unclear. Once the decision was made to vary the appearance of Bane from his pictorial roots, no mask was necessary at all – although thematically it connects him with the other protagonists in the series – Batman, R’as al Ghul, Scarecrow, Joker & Two-Face are all hidden behind some kind of facade, one way or another.  The point is, while the mask makes Bane look like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Humungous of the Wasteland from MAD MAX II, its not done as well as it could have been. Late in the film we learn that due to earlier injuries, Bane uses the mask to provide a steady stream of anaesthestics, but this is neither plausible nor consistent with the depiction of Bane throughout the film as an uncompromising, hardened figure who believes that the only worthwhile advancement comes through suffering.
We are introduced to Selina, a professional thief who infiltrates Wayne Manor in order to steal copies of Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, and gets away with it because Bruce is a long way from the top of his game these days.  We meet Miranda Tate, socialite and social crusader, a willing ally of Wayne should he just turn to her. And on the streets of Gotham we find honest working cop John Blake, who is aghast when he learns that the orphanage he grew up in has lost its funding due to the downturn in the Wayne fortunes. He’s investigating mysterious deaths occuring in the sewers of Gotham, and not getting on with Assistant Commissioner Foley. These threads set up the rest of the story – investigating Selina brings Bruce out if his shell; the deaths in the sewers lead the cops to Bane’s hidden lair; the stolen fingerprints are used to steal control of Wayne Industries from Bruce and place them in the hands of Daggett, a shady member of the board who we soon learn has links to Bane, who wants to control the aforementioned abandoned energy project because it can be made into a bomb. PROBLEM – even on his worst day, with Bruce totally disinterested in running Wayne Industries, he would not leave himself vulnerable to Daggett. We saw what happened to Mr Earle in BATMAN BEGINS, and we saw the very sharp Lucius Fox placed back in control as Wayne’s watchdog. We saw how Fox and Wayne deal with dodgy associates in THE DARK KNIGHT, when they kick the Chinese embezzler Lau to the curb. Daggett would never be on the Wayne board in the first place, let alone be in a position to win control. Luckily, after he does somehow use Wayne’s fallen cred to do just that, the lovely Miranda Tate comes to the rescue, by means unclear but which somehow revolve around her being let in on the secret energy project but not being allowed to tell anyone. She becomes the new CEO of Wayne Industries. PROBLEM – the secret energy project that could become a bomb is still viable and still vulnerable, and nobody knows about it except Fox, Wayne … and somehow Bane, who grew up in a brutal prison and presumably has never been to America before.
Anyway, long story short, we learn that Bruce hasn’t been to see a doctor in eight years. He visits one on the pretext that he wants a clearance to indulge in exterme sports, and we learn that his body is in very poor repair, literally from head to toe. Of course Bruce has no interest in extreme sports and this is just a very hamfisted way of letting us know how far the road Bruce needs to travel really is. So, he gets home, straps on a knee brace and after about 6 seconds he no longer has any medical issues at all. Did I say clumsy earlier? This is one example of what I meant.
About now, Alfred really comes to the fore. Alfred, the trusty retainer who raised the orphaned Bruce as a surrogate father. Alfred, the loyal servant who safe guarded Bruce’s interests whil he went missing for seven years. Alfred, the acerbic confidante who helped design and outfit Batman. Alfred, the truest friend and only constant in Bruce’s life. Alfred, the guy who has watched Bruce withering away in mourning for eight years without complaint, but now up and quits as soon as Bruce starts to show an interest in the world again. Really? Not only is this a totally implausible turnabout for the character, it doesn’t even add story value. It means nothing. It achieves nothing. If removed, this subplot would have made no difference. It sets up a mirror scene at the end of the film, as Alfred talks about how his fondest wish would be for Bruce to run away from the world. find a girl and settle down in anonymity, but even that could have been managed without this mawkish and uncharacteristic insertion.
Bruce, for some reason, feels the only person he can really trust is Selina the thief, based on a careful study of her nose at a costume ball and not much else. Again, this is totally out of character for not only the Bruce Wayne we have seen in the last two movies, but the Bruce Wayne we’ve now seen as a hermit, cut off from all human contact and grieving his lost love for eight years, the Bruce Wayne who’s just seen his surrogate father and only real friend turn and walk away in his hour of need. Clumsy storytelling, and only done to get us to the scene where Bane and Batman confront each other for the first time. We learn a little of Bane’s history, and that he sees himself as the heir of R’as al Ghul from BATMAN BEGINS, the man who wanted to burn that decadent old whore of a city Gotham to the ground. Bane kicks the crappers out of Bruce, and ships him off with a broken back to that same prison in a far distant third world country where Bane himself was born and raised. Bane explains that Bruce will live there and watch the news reports of Gotham destroying itself. Bane goes back, blows up half of Gotham and traps the police force underground (instead of killing them outright) – all except for Gordon (who’s currently in hospital), Blake (who’s savvy enough to stay out of traps) and Foley (who just goes AWOL). Bane takes over the city, and tells the world that any attempt to interfere will trigger the energy bomb and kill the entire population.
Back at the prison, Bruce decides he’s gonna get better and get out. The two oldest prisoners in the joint, the ones who’ve been in this hell-on-earth longer than anyone, the ones who are most intimately familiar with the cruel and brutal Bane who now apparently owns the place, decide to help him, first by curing his broken back and then by inspiring him to train even harder to become only the second person to escape the place – the implication being that Bane did it, and only by matching this feat will Bruce show himself worthy of taking on Bane again.
In Gotham, weeks and months pass and winter sets in. The city lives in a state analogous to the terror of the French Revolution, with citizen courts declaring arbitrary sentences on ‘enemies of the people’. Bane has revealed the truth about Harvey Dent and exposed all of Gotham’s peace and prosperity as being built on a lie. The dumb people are happy, the rich people are scared, the key people – Selina, Miranda, Lucius, Blake & Gordon are able to stay out of harm’s way and even represent some sort of feeble resistance movement. We learn that that energy bomb is gonna go off no matter what happens. Happily, the 3000 police officers trapped underground are well fed and in great shape, apparently with Bane’s blessing. PROBLEM – why would he allow this? If he really wanted to terrorise the people of Gotham, he’d either kill the cops outright, or starve them into cannibalism and then turn them loose on the citizenry. Let me tell you, the Joker this guy ain’t.
Time marches on, and there’s about 24 hours left til the bomb goes off. Bruce finally escapes the prison, and as you’d expect when you find yourself friendless, broke and on the run in a distant foreign land controlled by terrorists, he has no problem getting back to Gotham, into costume and fully equipped with about twelve hours to spare before the bomb times out. He hooks up with Selina again, still willing to trust her and not at all curious why she is now running around desolate Gotham wearing a domino mask, when she used to run around robbing prosperous Gotham without one. He gives her the Batbike, which is carrying enough armament to blow away several tanks as well as bring down a wall of rubble and wrecked cars while he takes to the air in the Batcopter, which was conveniently left on the roof under a camo net for five months and is still there in perfect working order. Lucius tries to disarm the bomb one way, Gordon tries another way, Blake rallies the resistance and Batman frees the trapped cops, who are in perfect fighting trim. Even Foley comes back to the fray, leading the police against Bane’s troops in a climactic battle. Bane and Batman fight, and in a turnaround of Rockyesque moment, the Dark Knight overcomes his adversary… only to be betrayed at the last minute by Miranda, who it turns out is really Talia, R’as al Ghul’s daughter. SHE was the one who escaped from the prison, not Bane. He is and always has been her loyal servant and pawn, and together they are sworn to finish the work started by R’as. While she skips off to set the bomb off (we’re down to about 10 minutes now), Bane is left to finally kill Batman … until Selina comes good on that trust Bruce showed her, and saves his life. Everyone works like crazy to disarm the bomb, but the only way to be rid of it is for Batman to fly it out to sea, sacrificing his own life to save the city he loves. Before he goes, Gordon learns that Batman is really Bruce, joining Miranda, Bane, Blake, Alfred & Lucius as co-sharer of the worst kept secret identity in recent memory. Cut to funeral, where the only people who care enough to turn up are Alfred, Fox, Gordon and Blake. Cut to will-reading, where we learn that Alfred inherits everything, except the house and land (as Bruce went broke early in the movie, and even says “Well, at least they left me the house”, Alfred really doesn’t get much out of the deal). The house is turned into an orphanage, atoning for the negligence caused by Bruce’s selfish withdrawal in the early parts of the film, and Blake is left with cryptic instructions which lead him to the Batcave, implying that he is going to take up Bruce’s mission. Then we learn his real name is Robin, not John. Corny stuff, but not as corny as the final scene of a distraught Alfred sitting in a cafe in Italy, and looking up to see Bruce and Selina happily chatting away, the mission complete, the final masks donned and everyone lived happliy ever after.

Now, I tell you again. This is not a bad film. I’ve probably exaggerated the negatives in that summary; the plot holes are there but they’re not all as very big as I might have made them sound. In any other film, especially any other fantasy film about a bloke who wears a mask and carries small explosives on his belt, you wouldn’t even notice them. There were bigger deus ex machina in STAR WARS, there were cornier scenes in IRON MAN and far more hamfistedness in GREEN LANTERN. But this movie must necessarily suffer by comparison with its nearly flawless predecessor, and Nolan’s usually immaculate story-telling. We have grown accustomed to a Batman who does not trust, not a Batman who trusts arbitrarily. We have been blessed with carefully nuanced plots which end in “Ahh NOW I get it!” credit rolls, not stories which require us to make leaps over their gaps. The bar was set high, and the old record still stands.

I’ve told you all about the story, and where I see its shortcomings. The actors, on the other hand, are generally without fault. Christian Bale inhabits the role so well, I fear for whoever next takes it on (for this reason among others I don’t think we’ll see Batman on screen again for at least 10 years). Tom Hardy is utterly convincing and totally terrifying as the ruthless Bane, silly mask not withstanding. He struts like a pro-wrestler and dominates any space he shares with the rest of the cast. Bane has always been drawn as a big man and written as a big personality, and Hardy pulls it off perfectly. He reminds you of nothing less than a force of nature, come to wreak havoc and quite unstoppable. Anne Hathaway is an adequate Selina Kyle, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an adequate John Blake. Any of a hundred others could have done equally well in those roles. Morgan Freeman coasts but does not disappoint as Lucius Fox & Michael Caine over-emotes as an apparently pre-menstrual Alfred. Marion Cotillard is slightly wooden and unappealling as Miranda Tate; for obvious reasons this is a character we should be urging on and worrying over; she’s ostensibly the weakest of the bunch and the most good hearted, from her opening scene, but I just found myself unsympathetic and only intellectually concerned about what was happening to her. The real standout is Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, who (as in BATMAN BEGINS & THE DARK KNIGHT) is the real hero of the story. It’s Jim Gordon in his trenchcoat and glasses that we feel is really in danger, not Batman in his kevlar and mask. It’s Jim Gordon who goes down into the sewers or jumps into the moving truck with only with a snub revolver and his own courage. It’s Jim Gordon who travels the hero’s journey through self-loathing & inadequacy to  the growing realisation that there is no faith to be had in the instituitions of man, but simply in a man’s integrity. Heath Ledger won a nag of posthumous awards for the Joker’s anarchic insanity; Gary Oldman deserves no less for Gordon’s humble humanity.

Back at the top of this very long review I said that Nolan’s Batman films aren’t traditional superhero films. However, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the most superhero-ish of the three, with its corny moments, its ‘from-the-ashes’ pivot, and its unnecessary costumery. Its not gonna knock the Avengers off its eleventy-jintillion dollar pedestal. It probaly won’t even match THE DARK KNIGHT for box office. But its a damn fine piece of work and as an element of the large trilogy, its quite effective in tying itself to the other two films both in terms of dtory and theme. Its just a shame that the third part in these things always seems to represent the weakest link. Think SUPERMAN III, BATMAN FOREVER, SPIDER-MAN III, X-MEN: LAST STAND, even THE GODFATHER PART 3. Someone explain that to me one day.

Cheers,
Darryn

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