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It would be impossible to write a review of The Dark Knight Rises without admitting that the series has fundamentally changed the way we watch, anticipate, and market films. If you doubt this, notice the change at your local IMAX theatre, or consider that the Oscar Nominating Committee expanded its lineup of Best Picture candidates after The Dark Knight got snubbed. The effect of TDK is pronounced, but its shadow might be even greater. Perhaps no follow-up could match the performance of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker; but, Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) has bravely re-entered with a follow-up, almost challenging us to hate on it or at least sneer loudly. So, does the film live up to expectations, tying off any loose ends, while at the same break every record established by the Übermensch Avengers?
The answer is....yes and no. The Dark Knight Rises does end the series in a fitting manner, while at the same time providing suitable spectacle to impress most fans. Yet, the story is long, leaves several plot holes unresolved, and fails to include a performance equal to Ledger's. It's been 8 years since the events of The Dark Knight, and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, The Prestige) is out of the superhero game, confined to a crutch and sporting a goatee. It's not that recent injures have sidelined Bats: he literally hasn't donned the cowl since the death of Harvey Dent/Two Face. Instead, Wayne broods in his home like a comic book Howard Hughes, while his company is mismanaged to the edge of bankruptcy. Yet, the streets of Gotham are safer than they've ever been, thanks to the passage of The Harvey Dent Act, a Patriot Act-like legislation that has effectively curtailed all gang activity. This law is based on the public's inaccurate knowledge of Dent's death and Batman's role in it, but Wayne is somehow content to hang up his alter-ego for a safer Gotham. However, the appearance of the cunning thief Catwoman/Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada) ushers in a far more lethal opponent living deep under Gotham's streets: Bane (Tom Hardy, Inception), a ruthless and powerful terrorist who plans on using Wayne Enterprises tech to undo everything Batman has stood for. This stirs the emotions of Wayne's butler Alfred (Michael Cane, The Cider House Rules), who worries that Batman's re-emergence to tackle both enemies will not end in success. How right could he have been: Batman's meeting with Bane is a disaster, leaving The Dark Knight defeated, unmasked, and his back literally broken by the Spanish brute. It's a tough scene to watch, but like Balboa in Rocky 3, Wayne must re-invent himself before Gotham literally burns in fire. It's Bane's plan to destroy Gotham using a nuclear weapon, fulfilling the mission of The League of Shadows (the terrorist group Wayne belonged to before becoming Batman); to do that, he'll stage an elaborate ruse in which all of Gotham's criminals locked up under the Dent Act will be set free to terrorize and 'judge' Gotham's elite in a kind of kangaroo court. While Wayne recuperates in a water well-like Spanish prison and learns more about his enemy, Bane cuts off all contact between Gotham and the outside world, destroying bridges and using Wayne Enterprises tech to terrorize the streets. Together with Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption), the thief Kyle, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element), and the rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception), Batman must defeat Bane by any means necessary, including the ultimate sacrifice if necessary.
You have to give Nolan credit not only for directing a good-looking, gritty, superhero epic, but for shooting most of it in IMAX. The big screen feel is certainly there, and at our IMAX screening, the clarity and depth of field were extraordinary. If there's one film to see this year in this format, it's definitelyRises. Moreover, spend the extra cash to see it in a true IMAX theatre, and not in a diet version (those screens which are half the size of a real IMAX). If Nolan's visuals are stunning, other pieces are simply not as strong. While Christian Bale is consistently good as the dark hero (and in my mind represents the best of the movie versions), and performances by Freeman and Oldman are enjoyable, it's the lack of a bad guy on the order of the maniacal, diabolical, and eminently more enjoyable Joker that ultimately reduces the product. True, Bane could have snapped Joker in two had they appeared together, but Hardy's mask is simply a hindrance to any abilities Hardy could have expressed. His sometimes incoherent ramblings, as well as the lack of explanation as to the source of his strength, become more maddening as the film progresses. His defeat is also not as rewarding as I would have liked. Trust me, it's pretty fun but not on par with other deaths Nolan has dreamed up. Marion Cottliard (La Vie en Rose) is only serviceable as Bruce Wayne's love interest Miranda Tate, although fans might appreciate a surprising change that she undergoes late in the film. Wayne's 8-year vacation is never explained, leading some to wonder why Nolan chose such a random time to re-enter the storyline. Caine, who literally disappears after Act I, only coming up for air late in the third act, creates a plot hole so large you could drive Bats' Tumbler through it. Hans Zimmer's dark and brooding soundtrack matches up well with Nolan's visceral vision of a city gone mad, but (like the overall feel of the film) there's nothing better about it than previous Batman soundtracks he's composed. Frankly, his epic POTC, MI:II, and Batman Begins soundtracks are far better.
Thankfully, other parts of TDKR, such as the performances of Hathaway and Levitt, help rescue it from the abyss. For Hathaway, it's the tight-fitting outfit and stiletto boots that will bring in the guys, but it's her wit and physicality that will win them over. Hathaway plays the toughest role in Rises, a character who operates under a shifting moral ladder of lies and deceptions but doesn't realize Bane's ultimate plan until it's almost too late. She's in way over her head, and it's this internal struggle that's more satisfying than any other element of the film, allowing us to enjoy Hathway's growth from her Princess Diaries days. Her ability to at once manipulate Batman then turn on the charm allows her to steal most scenes in which she appears, ending any concerns about her look or performance in the trailers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's tough hero cop/compassionate protector is a welcomed dichotomy to Hathaway as he takes on the somewhat obscure comic role of Blake with a simple and strong performance. His appearance provides needed breaks for our central characters and actually helps to prop things up in Act II. I hope audiences will like Blake's resolution at film's end, but it's Levitt's young looks and smart, tough attitude that helps save Rises from getting hopelessly lost.
It's suggested that you refrain from buttery popcorn and soda, as Rises's mammoth 164-minute runtime would dare even Bane's bladder to behave. However, if the pull of sugary heaven is cause to break away, there are some slow moments in Act 2 which allow you some respite. It's not that Rises is too long, but...yeah...it's too long.
Fans will no doubt compare the spectacle of The Dark Knight Rises with that of The Avengers; and while that's fair, I would also throw in all the superhero movies that have been released since Hulk. In taking this approach, TDKR scores far below Avengers, lodging itself between its Batman brethren and The Incredible Hulk (with IM, Thor, Cap above them). Whether it will ever grow to supersede TDK is highly doubtful; and while that's not a powerful endorsement for the film, it doesn't mean you ought to skip it. For all its faults, The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to the trilogy, proving that a gritty, urban Batman can reach a mass audience, even if its final installment is a letdown.