The Dark Knight Rises is probably the biggest film of the year. At least in terms of the discussion taking place around it. As such I’ve waited a little bit before even beginning to put my own thoughts on the matter down. With so much media being devoted to ancillary issues surrounding the film, be it the midnight premiere shooting, the insane arguments about the political aspects of the movie, etc. It’s definitely a beast of a film with so much going on that touching on everything would be an impossibility. I know The Avengers brought together plot threads of multiple movies but thematically speaking The Dark Knight rises has just as many irons in the fire. Nolan and company work off of plot threads left dangling from Batman Begins and weave them into something that leads to a very satisfying conclusion. I can’t think of any film trilogy that pulls this sort of cohesion off and doesn’t fumble everything at the last minute. This review should try to examine exactly why that is.
I think the first thing I need to bring up is that there is the constant influence of Christopher Nolan. When a series swaps out the creative forces behind them, the franchise loses focus. How different might things have turned out if Richard Donner had remained onboard for another Superman film after number two? Or if James Cameron had been in charge of the third Terminator film? A steady hand at the till goes a long way. That is why the previous Batman franchise faltered. There isn’t any consistency to them from film to film. Even from the ’89 film to Returns, you can see a shift in the way the people writing the damned thing feel about the character. Thematically, those films seem to fight against each other for validity. With Nolan’s trilogy, there is a logical escalation and cyclical nature to the writing and the overall story. By returning to the League of Shadows in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan effectively reminds us that Batman Begins was more than just a simple setup film. One of the things I had said before The Dark Knight Rises hit screens was that The Dark Knight felt almost entirely removed from Batman Begins. As a standalone film, it works quite well. You can watch it without having seen Batman Begins and there isn’t enough of a thematic connection that you feel like you have missed anything. The Dark Knight Rises is equal parts a continuation of the themes developed in Batman Begins AND The Dark Knight. The rise and fall of Harvey Dent sets the stage for the action but it is Bruce Wayne’s personal journey that he undertook in Begins that drives his conflict with Bane in this installment. By going back to the beginning in this way, The Dark Knight Rises is a film that focuses on the idea of enduring legacy. Bane is attempting to foster Ra’s Al Ghul’s legacy of destroying Gotham. Bruce Wayne is trying to ensure that Harvey Dent’s legacy as a hero isn’t tarnished. Bane does so through calculated action. Bruce Wayne does so through a calculated lack of action. Both of them received the same tutelage from Ra’s but they implement it differently.
In The Dark Knight Rises Nolan puts the focus on the idea of deception and the cloudy morality surrounding bending the truth. Obviously the biggest example is Batman and Gordon’s lie surrounding the death of Harvey Dent, but there are several other deceptions that drive the film. Bane’s entire plan is centered around deception. Whereas Joker in The Dark Knight was as straightforward in his implementation of chaos, Bane has a separate plan for multiple people and they often contradict each other. He tears apart Gotham as part of his attempt to break Batman, but his plan is only allowed to take root because he lies to the population of Gotham and maneuvers them into playing along with his game. Bane turns the people of Gotham into villains the way Joker wished he could have in the third act of The Dark Knight. In many ways, Nolan is showing how much more effective Bane is as a villain than the Joker was. The Joker was unable to turn the people of Gotham against each other. Bane pulled it off. Nolan shows how powerful a lie can be. Lies have power. That is the crux of the film. Everybody in the film is lying. A major lie from The Dark Knight comes back around to drive a wedge between Bruce and Alfred. Selina Kyle’s actions are guided by a promise that turns out to be a lie. In a film about a man that wears a mask, this is a powerful theme to work through.
Essentially, The Dark Knight Rises is a great bit of filmmaking. It does stumble in some respects. But the parts of the film that make up the whole really pop. Anne Hathaway is an amazing Catwoman. She’s the finest movie version of the character since 1966 and really manages to pull off the dichotomy of wounded, confident, and sexy that the character requires. Joseph Gordon Levitt puts in his usual good work as a character who could have sunk the movie if they had played it differently. If we are going to talk about what works in the film, the character work is definitely tops. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman put in their best work of the series, without a doubt. And since we’re talking about character work, let’s take a moment to discuss Tom Hardy’s Bane. Heath Ledger put in a memorable turn as the Joker, that’s true, but Tom Hardy does something wholly original with the character. The Bane in this film takes elements of the character in the books and evolves him into something else entirely. The Bane in the comics is a cold and calculating man with the same level of intelligence on display here, and he does have the ties to Ra’s, though not identical in nature. But in the animated world as well as that abomination in Batman & Robin, his strength has always been the primary focus. Here, Tom Hardy gives us a man of belief and conviction, one trying to leave a lasting legacy. He plays him with bombast and intensity. I think over time his Bane will be regarded as one of the most interesting comic film villains in history.
So those are my thoughts on the matter. I could probably spend another couple paragraphs on the film but I think I’ve hit the major points. I figure everyone has seen the film by now, but if you haven’t you should check it out, in IMAX if you can. The film is very well shot and plays well on a bigger screen. The Dark Knight Rises is one of the finest cappers to a trilogy you could ever hope to find. I certainly can’t think of a better one off the top of my head. That’s one of the finest compliments I can pay the film.
I didn’t rush out to get this particular book because after the hooplah surrounding the Superman Earth One graphic novel I didn’t want to find myself let down. I was seeing more than a few positive and glowing reviews and figured that a little distance would do me some good. I have been anticipating the book a little bit, as the announcement for the title was made back when I still had a bit more regard for Geoff Johns as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe he is a great talent and one of the best guys working in the mainstream today but his more recent work does seem to lack the sort of focus he had back when he relaunched the Green Lantern franchise.
With Batman Earth One there is at least something to be said for Geoff Johns getting the tone of Batman. JMS’s work on Superman Earth One was passable but I don’t think he get the tone of what the book should have been. It was far too, as much as I hate the phrase, “street level” in its execution. Batman has that same feel but it goes with the character. JMS would have been smart to study Morrison’s work on All-Star Superman for the sort of tone that really works for big blue. Johns seems to want to play in the Nolan sandbox and that is appropriate. Johns also realizes that because there is no continuity to follow he can throw everything up in the air and be a little dangerous. Some of the changes to established lore might upset a number of Batman fanatics, but that’s okay. Again I point to the sort of people whose heads exploded over Ultimate Spider-Man. Johns’ idea of Harvey Bullock coming from Hollywood as a reality tv cop trying to regain his former glory is something that comes wildly out of left field. Alfred being a grumpy old army colleague of Bruce’s father is also somewhat odd. But within the confines of the book Johns is able to make it work.
More than JMS’s Earth One book, Johns really swings for the fences here and while not everyone will be pleased, I can say that I feel like I got my money’s worth this time around. Nothing here felt particularly rehashed the way that it did in Superman Earth One. The parallels to Superman Birthright in that OGN are almost unmistakeable. Even the death of Bruce’s parents has a different spin. It’s not entirely original. It’s just a retelling. But it feels different in the way that The Magnificent Seven was different from Seven Samurai. The flavor is refreshing.
I hope the inevitable second volume is as willing to play with conventions as this is. Johns teases a personal favorite villain of mine as the centerpiece and for not immediately jumping to the Joker he has scored major brownie points with me.
I could have gone with a Batman “Dead parents” joke but we’re classier than that around here. You’re welcome.