Review: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)

Fair warning here. This review contains some spoilers.

As an event in history, director Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is almost impossible to consider apart from two tragedies—the Aurora shooting and the death of Heath Ledger that forever colored “Batman: The Dark Knight.” In turn, both of those events have forever colored how people discuss “The Dark Knight Rises” and how Nolan’s trilogy will be remembered.

“The Dark Knight Rises” deserves to be considered as a single film and as Nolan’s final word on the title character, though, and those are the two perspectives I brought to my final evaluation of a Batman film that failed to articulate Batman’s meaning and nature as gracefully as its predecessors, yet ultimately shut the door assertively on Nolan’s Gotham City universe, leaving a memorable history and culture behind with a few successful, pleasant surprises.

In the scheme of the trilogy, I see the underlying premises of Nolan’s Batman films thusly:

1. “Batman Begins” (2005) — Who is Batman?

2. “The Dark Knight” (2008) — Who isn’t Batman?

3. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) — What is the absence of Batman?

The franchise’s first two installments worked so well because Nolan was working with a blank slate and almost incessantly hammered away at what Batman means as a symbol, how that makes him more than just a man and why that struggle against competing ideologies is what defines him. In the cultural backdrop of this discussion were the 9/11 attacks and the real-life urban terror that the actions of villains such as Ra’s al Ghul, The Joker and Bane now resemble in the public eye.

My esteemed colleagues Rick Marshall and Laura Hudson (as well as many others) have already identified the odd plot holes and technical oddities that populate “The Dark Knight Rises.” Before moving on into my broader critique, I would just state for the record that the bomb’s blast radius, Bruce Wayne’s climbing apparatus and Bane’s stabbing are all noticeable hiccups for the film. I accept the necessity of the suspension of disbelief for sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films as genres, but these errors all seem like problems that could have easily been addressed through tiny script tweaks or camera angle swaps.

Meanwhile, the underlying problem I kept returning to as I watched this story dealt with Bane’s nature as a character. Heath Ledger’s Joker made for a compelling contrast against Christian Bale’s Batman because the two were so clearly linked by their disregard for the letter of the law but separated by their choices to channel their anger into distinct livelihoods. The Joker chose anarchy and rampant, amoral destruction, while Batman chose the preservation of life. Ra’s al Ghul believed in wiping out un-correctable civilizations in favor for rebuilding better societies in their places. In both of those cases, Batman had overlapping experiences but was defined by a clear difference of opinion or tactics.

That understood, Bane’s story came packaged in potential. “The Dark Knight Rises” seemed like it could be the ultimate post-financial-collapse Batman story with a heavy dose of “Knightfall”-inspired beats. Ultimately, however, Bane’s nature, motivation and backstory changed considerably from the comics. He became a kind of Ra’s al Ghul lite who was built up as a mastermind, only to be demoted by a plot twist (one which I didn’t see coming and did appreciate for its shock value, by the way). Bane could have been the ultimately dirty-tactics Robin Hood, but instead he became diluted by camp and bravado that limited the scope of his character. We were left with something much more digestible as a perceivable character than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, but much lower on the totem poles of gravitas and genius than Liam Neeson’s Ra’s and Ledger’s Joker.

The Russian-doll-style twists toward the end compounded the problem left by Bane’s motivational vacuum and put a lot more pressure on the film to succeed as the third chapter of a trilogy, especially since it began bending over backwards to slip in quick story recaps and cameos in the final act. “Dark Knight Rises,” didn’t succeed in illuminating anything new about Nolan’s Batman for me, but land the franchise in an unexpected way that felt like it made sense. DC films have a weird tradition (and by tradition I mean “Superman Returns” and “TDKR”) of turning their heroes into family men now. That’s another issue altogether, but—corny, forced Robin reference aside—Nolan’s trilogy has been put to bed in a way that settled lingering plot threads and provided surprises.

“TDKR” is always going to be my third-favorite Nolan Batman film, but it’s still a Nolan Batman film, and it lived up to my baseline expectations of camera-trickery, and jolting plot revelations. In the tradition of great trilogy-enders such as “Return of the Jedi” and “Return of the King,” this one isn’t likely to be remembered on equal footing. It performed its duty honorably, though, and for that, we can be thankful.

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