Darkest Before Dawn: A Review of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’Essays, Film — By Dylan Lemert on August 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm
You’ve got to wonder the sort of pressure Christopher Nolan felt upon being handed the job of directing Batman Begins. Until then, Nolan’s only notable productions were the tricky, murky noir Memento, and Insomnia, a remake of the Norwegian film. Memento was made on a budget of $9 million, child’s play in today’s blockbuster market, and although Insomnia had a much larger fund and the backing of a major studio, it’s tended to stay under the radar over the years.
When Warner Bros. hired Nolan to direct Batman Begins in 2003 upon the promise of bringing an “origin story” to the Dark Knight franchise, surely they didn’t realize the full repercussions of their decision. DC Comics after all needed some footing to compete with Sam Raimi’s recently released Spiderman film. Instead of matching the high-flying flamboyancy of Spiderman, Nolan opted for a realistic portrayal of his hero: deeply conflicted at heart and fully human in spirit. Batman Begins was a critical and financial success when it hit theaters in the summer of 2005, instantly tearing everything film buffs knew about superhero movies to shreds.
A sequel was inevitable, and in 2008 The Dark Knight was released, forever redefining notions of heroes and villains in the process. The hype surrounding the Joker was met, with the late Heath Ledger turning in one of the most chill-inducing representations of villainy the medium has ever seen. Rather than stopping there, at the pinnacle of critical and record-breaking triumph, Nolan and his team began planning a third movie, a completion of the story arc set in motion by two of the greatest comic-to-book translations in history.
So finally, more than two years after its official announcement, The Dark Knight Rises is finally in theaters. And it absolutely soars.
I suppose the most pressing aspect of the movie, as with the past two films, is the nature of the villain. English-born Tom Hardy (Warrior) plays Bane, the hulk of a man with a morphine mask strapped to his face. Bane comes across as more of a presence than a character—the chaos he creates is nearly an extension of his own personality—and he’s the first truly physical match to Batman we’ve yet seen.
Bane serves to reminds us just how important an actor’s visage is when conveying sensation. Take the Joker, the way he licks his lips, his deathly laugh; a crucial performance point for the character. Props to Hardy then—face half-hidden by glorified inhaler—who is able to use his eyes with exceptional emotional gravity. When asked what his intentions regarding getting caught aboard an FBI aircraft are, look at the way Bane’s eyes light up with childlike wonderment when he answers, “Crashing this plane!” The only qualm one might have with the villain, as I did for a time, is that his voice is a bit tough to understand at points. You’ll get more of it with repeated viewings for sure, but be prepared to listen a bit dutifully.
The rest of the ensemble cast deliver performances above and beyond past portrayals; Gary Oldman and Michael Caine give their most emotionally-driven performances of the series, and Morgan Freeman gets more material this time around. Newly added characters consist of Miranda Tate, a clean-energy entrepreneur played by the lovely Marion Cotillard, and John Blake, a Gotham City rookie cop played by incredibly talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who effectively tackles the huge portion of screen time given to his character.
Christian Bale does Batman better than ever before, patented gruff voice and all, simultaneously portraying Bruce Wayne to an aged and weary perfection. However, the standout performance in the film unquestionably goes to Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, an exquisitely subtle representation of the character that’s thankfully a far cry from depictions past (for instance, the word “Catwoman” is never even spoken in the movie. Well played).
The stakes have certainly never been higher for Gotham City, nor the scale grander. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight focused on the criminal underbelly of Gotham, but The Dark Knight Rises favors military might and broader economic themes. During a scene set in a football stadium, a supporting cast of 11,000 was used during filming instead of CGI trickery, and the human element onscreen is both seen and felt. Likewise, a full-on skirmish between Gotham’s finest and set-loose convicts—the total number of bodies on camera also in the thousands—feels more akin to Braveheart than The Departed.
Visually, the film carries a distinct brand of tones and colors. Whereas Batman Begins was steeped in blacks and oranges and The Dark Knight in blues and metals, The Dark Knight Rises displays much starker browns and whites, highlighting both desert landscapes and a wintry urban backdrop. Also of note is that a good chunk of the film takes place in the daytime, allowing the audience to witness the Batsuit, the vehicles, and the combat in a (quite literally) different light than before. When trying to place a finger on what makes the atmosphere of Rises so gleefully unique while retaining Nolan’s patented gritty feel, the choices in lighting and Wally Pfister’s razor-sharp cinematography are undeniably to thank.
Aside from the grand set pieces, fully competent dialogue and script, and virtually flawless acting, what may prove most engaging in the long run is the film’s treatment of themes. As much as fear played a pivotal role in the first movie, and chaos and duality in the second, the series is brought full circle to the tune of despair, hope, and sacrifice. Fear is, once again, cleverly touched upon during the middle act, serving as a catalyst for the major turning point of the film (and be sure to notice a perfectly-placed cameo from some bats).
When the tale is told and the credits roll, it’s tough to predict the sort of impact a film like this will have on an audience. Unashamedly brooding and serious (though I’d argue not nearly as menacing as the previous film), I can see The Dark Knight Rises being a tough pill to swallow for a segment of modern cinema. Its content is much too relevant and its form too precise to be an easy-going summer frolic. It treads that extremely fine line between superhero escapism and the stuff of today’s headlines, which is why it succeeds profoundly as both art and entertainment.
Surely the brunt of the credit can be attributed to Christopher Nolan, whose genuine love for the cinema and old-school filmmaking principles help to stop the bleeding inflicted by overindulgent Hollywood. A pinpoint description on what makes Nolan so successful could be chalked up to his insistence on never underestimating the filmgoer, an ideal that’s proved effective throughout the filmmaker’s lustrous career (take a long, detailed note, Michael Bay).
Only time will tell how a film like The Dark Knight Rises stands amidst the compendium of superhero movies, or even where it falls into place inside its own trilogy. What’s important is that Nolan and company have created the most brilliantly competent and thorough film trilogy in recent memory, effectively taking its ranks alongside The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as one of the best cinematic experiences ever to grace the big screen. Let’s hope that—like Batman himself, a cadence to things immortal and symbolic—filmmaking of this caliber will continue to make waves throughout the future of the medium.