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What Worked & What Didn’t In ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

What Worked & What Didn't In 'The Dark Knight Rises'

Over an unexpected and sad weekend, “The Dark Knight Rises,” a film anticipated by millions for several years at this point, finally came to theaters. And judging by the film’s opening weekend, thought to be around $160 million and the biggest ever for a 2D film, most of you caught it this weekend, unbowed by the sad events of early Friday morning in Colorado.

The Playlist team have now caught up with it and, very unusually, it’s loved across the board (at least for the most part). But all that is not to say the film is without fault. Now that the film’s in theaters, and that many if not most of you have seen it, we wanted to dig in a little deeper than our spoiler-free review and examine what worked what didn’t in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Check our thoughts, and let us know how you feel about the film in the comments section. And as you might imagine, **major spoilers are ahead**.   

What Worked
It’s thematically rich.
The real innovation that Christopher Nolan brought to the superhero movie was making films that reflect some of the major concerns of our day, and it’s a tradition that’s firmly upheld in “The Dark Knight Rises.” The Occupy Wall Street link was perhaps over-exagerrated in the lead up to its release, but the feel of discontent in the air over economic iniquity is a demonstration of the extent to which Nolan can capture the zeitgeist so well (particularly as the film was in production before OWS was in production). And while the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it (surely proving fraud is easy when a masked man brings guns into the stock exchange?), using the stock market to ruin Bruce Wayne is a sophisticated and modern way of getting to Batman and bringing down a billionaire playboy. But it’s really a slightly more distant event that lingers over the film — 9/11. Whereas the Joker felt like a little boy wanting someone to play with, Bane and Talia are simply fanatics, pure evil wanting to tear everything apart, and their attacks on symbolic landmarks (bridges, football stadiums) feels like a dagger right to the heart of not just Gotham, but of America itself. And then there’s the concept of a French Revolution-style coup in an American city, which is then left to fend for itself; Bane tears up the basic fundamentals of the Constitution — liberty, justice, and yes, even capitalism. And while parallels are never explicitly drawn, it’s clear that like most mass murderers in history, he’s a man hijacking a populist cause for his own means. More interesting still is the way the film’s politics serve almost as a Rorschach test; you can absolutely make the case for Nolan advocating an authoritarian approach, but you can equally argue for Nolan showing the importance of the collective rather than individuals (Batman can’t save the day on his own), and the responsibility of the wealthy to look after the less fortunate (Bruce is only freed when he gives up his company and wealth, donating his house for use as an orphanage).

It’s got real stakes and real ambition.
Even those who don’t like the work have to admire the scope of Christopher Nolan‘s films, and “The Dark Knight Rises” is certainly his most ambitious film to date (he wasn’t kidding when he said “A Tale of Two Cities” was his inspiration). It’s positively novelistic in its approach, taking place over a six-month span (at least), with at least five major characters and dozens of other speaking roles. And all that while melding a genuinely kick-ass blockbuster to something with a little more thematic substance and shooting it on a giant scale — multiple locations, thousands upon thousands of extras. It’ll be a long time before anyone else attempts something on this grand scale in the super hero genre — except perhaps for Nolan himself. And all the way through, the stakes are sky high. Perhaps because you know that it’s the last installment, nothing is guaranteed, and as things get worse and worse, it becomes almost unfathomable that Batman and his allies will be able to turn things around. As the finale comes around, Nolan keeps ratcheting up the tension, adding more and more elements, with the death of millions on the line. The nuclear bomb might be a familiar device, but there’s a good reason for that, and the victory, when earned, feels hard-fought.

The discussion of the nature of legends and symbols is fascinating.
“If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely…a legend,” Ra’s al-Ghul says in “Batman Begins,” and it has become the defining thematic throughline of the Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. But as we see in “The Dark Knight Rises,” legends and ideals — and the movements that follow them — are more about what they stand for than what the truth of them actually is. When ‘Rises’ opens, Harvey Dent has been immortalized as one of the great crimefighters of his day, his Two-Face legacy hidden by James Gordon, with the Harvey Dent Act (essentially the Patriot Act) hailed as helping to clean up the streets. It’s a manipulation sustained for the greater good…but on the opposite end of the spectrum is Bane. While some have pointed out the parallels of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the themes of the film, and though Bane himself uses that language to present his takeover of the city, he couldn’t care less. Essentially co-opting the simmering resentment of the 99% to build an army of followers, Bane twists a growing movement for his own nefarious ends — income equality is hardly on his agenda. Symbology is at the core of the Nolan’s Batman films as Bruce Wayne’s Batman has always been a catalyst for change and one to inspire such courage in others be it Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent or, in this film, John Blake. “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne,” Bruce tells Alfred on the plane back to Gotham at the beginning of “Batman Begins.” “As a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting. ” And everlasting Batman becomes with his sacrifice inspiring the city and specifically John Blake. And as the film ends with Batman’s supposed death, he is immortalized, with his symbol as an enduring force of good living on after him (it’s particularly impressive that a hallucination of Ra’s al-Ghul gives the League of Shadows — and their destruction of Gotham — a “never forget” reminder of their twisted existence). And the symbols and themes go on and on, from the ‘Rise’ mantra which ties into it the classic line, “Why do we fall, so we can pick ourselves up,” to another key exchange in “The Dark Knight“: “People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?” Bruce asks. To which Alfred responds, “Endure.” In Nolan’s world, legends and ideals are only as powerful and potent — whether for good or evil — as what they represent. Truth is a detail. And this is the kind of intelligent, deeply thought, challenging thematic material that we don’t see in comic book movies very often…or really, movies in general.

It’s Christian Bale’s finest hour in the series.
For all its virtues, “The Dark Knight” suffered a little from what every Batman film before Nolan had been plagued with — the title character being overshadowed by a more colorful villain (or villains). In contrast, “Batman Begins” gave a real look at the character of Bruce Wayne, and Batman, but the bad guys are a touch undercooked as a result. “The Dark Knight Rises” gets the balance right, and as a result, Christian Bale might give his best performance of the trilogy. Although his disappearance mid-film (see below) stymies things somewhat, he’s simply given more to get his teeth into than the previous film; from the broken, grieving recluse to the superhero trying to find his feet again to the prisoner watching his beloved city be torn apart before his eyes to the returning hero knowing he might have to make the ultimate sacrifice, the arc gives Bale many notes to play, and helps to really re-emphasize the heroism of the character in a series that’s not been afraid to lay on a little ambiguity about the role of the vigilante. He can pull the heartstrings too; as good as Michael Caine is in their farewell scene, Bale, wrenched to say goodbye to the man who raised him, yet unable to forgive him, is more than his match. And yet he’s never simply dour: Bale has some of his lighter moments in the series too, and even gets to have a roll in the hay. See, being Batman isn’t all that bad…

Bane’s a great villain, and Tom Hardy is fantastic.
Following up Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker — the mass murdering, psychopathic criminal in “The Dark Knight” — is a nearly impossible task. But somehow, Nolan and company almost pull it off with Bane. (After our screening, the girlfriend of one of the Playlisters said, “Bane makes the Joker look like a fucking pussy!”) Bane (played, exquisitely, by Tom Hardy) is a hulking brute, a brilliant ideologue and a perfect foil, both mentally and physically, for Batman. As introduced in the Bond-esque prologue, Bane is a mercenary who makes his powerful employers nervous, part of a secret organization that might have cast him out of their ranks for being “too extreme.” What makes Bane truly terrifying in that sense is that he is a fanatical zealot, a terrorist who’s unstoppable because he believes in his ideological agenda to the death (chilling comparisons to any kind of fundmentalist terrorist definitely make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up). He looks amazing too – he’s wears a mask that is supposed to help him breathe but it seems ripped out of an H.R. Giger sketchbook (it also resembles a muzzle, which works thematically later on). And Hardy brings a raw physicality to the role in the way he walks (never runs), his thumbs hitched into the inside of his jacket, with a kind of princely grandeur. This adds a chilling dimension to the character – he’s in no rush to end the world and totally confident that his plans will be carried through. As the movie’s real centerpiece, his fight with Batman underneath Gotham is truly amazing – while he is talking throughout the entire sequence, it’s more about what his punches say than anything else – as with each thunderous hit he is knocking Batman off his perch as Gotham’s defender. By the end, Batman’s mask is cracked, his back broken, and his spirit in deep disrepair. Powerful stuff. As terrifying as he is, when the big twist comes, Hardy brings real pathos, those eyes (which are often doing quite different things to the voice) weeping for his (seemingly) unrequited love, the memory of his injuries, and rejection from the League of Shadows. Oh – and how can we not talk about Hardy’s voice for Bane? Initially a bold, almost giggle-inducing choice, it fast becomes hypnotic, scary and velveteen, and nothing like you’ve ever really heard before.

The newcomers are pretty much terrific across the board.
We’ve gone on about Bane and Tom Hardy at length at this point, but the actor’s not even the best new addition in the film. The truth about Joseph Gordon-Levitts character remained a secret right up until opening, including the fact that he’s virtually the film’s protagonist, at least alongside Bruce, with the clearest and best-achieved arc in the film. John Blake’s an orphan with a troubled past, who, inspired by Batman, grew up to a be a good, honest cop, and is able to recognize in Wayne (who he’s correctly guessed is Batman) the same anger in himself. He’s a nice mirror of the ideals of the character, and Gordon-Levitt makes the character a man of courage and integrity without ever being simply a bland, heroic do-gooder. Even better is Anne Hathaway. Her casting drew a lot of raised eyebrows in some circles, but she more than proves her place here. Her Selina Kyle shows all the hallmarks of Catwoman — moral flexibility, smarts, sex appeal, being able to kick ass. But Hathaway really grounds the character too, and without a ton of screen time, neatly suggests where she’s come from and how she came to be the way she is (trying to survive above all else), without a heap of exposition and backstory. And the way she gradually falls for Bruce, their playful back and forth, and the effect that he has on her, through his faith in her, makes her heroic return near the end feel genuinely earned. We suspect that the spin-off that’s been vaguely brought-up will never happen, but it should at least see Hathaway’s stature grow even further.

Alfred’s break-up scene with Bruce Wayne is one of Michael Caine’s best-ever bits of acting.
Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most important father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on the path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him — and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman — it’s a crushing scene. Alfred fears hurting Bruce even more than he has already suffered, but he’s even more scared of what the end result will be when he returns to the streets of Gotham. His teary resignation might be the most emotional scene of the entire series to date, breaking apart the one constant in Bruce’s life that seemed unshakeable. Bruce Wayne has always been a loner — a man on the outside — but without Alfred, he faces Gotham one last time utterly alone, and without his must trusted friend and ally. It’s disappointing that Caine isn’t in the film more, but his absence truly hammers home what Bruce is up against.

The action is Nolan’s best yet, and looks great in IMAX.
Nolan was not a great action director when the series started. Which is fair enough, given that “Batman Begins” was only his fourth film, and on a far bigger scale than anything he’d done before. But he’s improved each time at bat, with his chases and fights becoming increasingly less choppy as time goes on, and “The Dark Knight Rises” certainly features his finest action work to date. Clearly “Inception” has given him the confidence to simply let the fights play out in longer wide shots, and that gives the confrontations between Bane and Batman (especially the final one) a really bruising quality. And there’s a clarity and handle on geography to the chases, particularly in the early motorbike sequence. Even the Bat dodging missiles feels genuinely exciting, when the risk was it might have felt too CGI heavy (it helps that much of it was achieved the craft being dangled from a helicopter, for real). Not to mention the staggering opening scene, possibly the best sequence in the film. And of course, the IMAX lensing makes everything feel absolutely enormous, whether you see it in that format or not.

There are genuinely awe-inspiring moments
It’s not just the action that looks great on the big format, but Nolan can also do what many directors fail at these days, and inspire real awe in the audience. For instance, his final attempt at escaping the well prison is a terrific sequence and his emergence out in the light is a real punch-the-air moment of triumph. It’s an instantly iconic moment (aided by Hans Zimmer‘s score), and clambering out into a desert landscape, complete with fortress town behind him, is an indelible scene. And he marks his return to Gotham City in an equally memorable way. While we question the logistics a little (see below…), there’s no better way for him to announce his arrival back to Gotham, and instill fear even in a man who’s beaten him once already than by torching a giant Bat-symbol into one of the broken bridges over Gotham. It’s a powerful, awe-inspiring moment, and one that feels all the more potent by being lit by Jim Gordon; the first sign that if Bruce is going to take back the city, he’s going to need the help of friends old and new to do so. 

It’s unexpectedly funny.
By the accounts of many who’ve worked with him, Christopher Nolan is much funnier than his reputation suggests (Anne Hathaway told in interviews of how he would quote “MacGruber” on set — somewhat appropriate for a film with a ticking nuclear bomb…), but there’s always been a vein of humor in his films. And as bleak as “The Dark Knight Rises” can be, it’s also arguably the most effectively comic of the trilogy. There’s a deceptively light touch to the opening scenes (Hathaway’s break in at Wayne Manor could almost be out of 1960s caper flick), many of the supporting characters get some nice little lines, and perhaps best of all are Bane’s asides; he’s got a disarming sense of humor for such a menacing guy, and while things like commenting on the “lovely voice” of the boy at the football stadium aren’t quite laugh-out-loud funny, they help to truly make the film memorable. It’s not “The Avengers” or anything in terms of gags, but a little lightness helps to modulate the tone nicely.

Hans Zimmer’s work might be his best in the trilogy.
For the first time ever Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s go-to manufacturer of oversized musical dread, worked solo on a Batman movie (on the previous two he was assisted by James Newton Howard) and the results couldn’t have been more amazing. From the Bane theme stuff, introduced in that aerial prologue, which combine funereal organs, thunderous drum lines, and a kind of cultish chant, you can tell that this will be a much different beast – away from the more straightforward superhero theatrics of “Batman Begins” or the electronic dissonance of “The Dark Knight.” Everything about “The Dark Knight Rises” ‘ score glitters and surprises – from the slinky Catwoman theme that made us want to watch an entire “Thomas Crown Affair”-esque romantic spy movie with her as the main character, to the more subtle, mournful electronic stuff (with accompanying strings) that helps define the mood of a wintery Gotham City cut off from the rest of the world — it’s all gold. And of course when it comes to percussive action pieces, meant to get your blood pumping and make the sequences on screen become even more unbearably tense, Zimmer knocks it out of the park. It never quite reaches the baroque majesty of his score to “Inception,” but as the culmination and elaboration of three movies worth of villainous plots and heroic deeds, it borders on outright perfection – emotionally resonant, unobtrusive, and totally gorgeous.

What Didn’t Work

The structure and character motivations are somewhat messy.
For much of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bane is a compulsively compelling villain – he is driven by a desire to see the world go topsy-turvy (to borrow a phrase from a fellow Playlister, if Joker wanted to watch the world burn, Bane wants to light the match). Part of his plan is to turn the economic status upside down, unleashing prisoners ruthlessly detained on the 1%-ers who are so proud of their new Dent Act. Other parts involve nuclear bombs, kangaroo courts and mass murder. He is so driven, in fact, that we’re told he’s been cast out of the League of Shadows, the sinister organization introduced in Christopher Nolan‘s initial bat-go-around, “Batman Begins.” You think Bane has it going on until his entire character is undermined by the fact that he has no real motivation besides finishing the job that some dead guy started a couple of movies ago. There are a lot of motivational problems in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this might be the most glaring – it threatens to take the teeth out of Bane, which would be a real shame, even if they are hidden behind that hideous mask. Another huge problem is the movie’s structure – it’s probably Nolan’s most linear movie, and this isn’t a good thing. The mid-section of the movie is plodding and soggy and largely Batman free (see below), and the climax feels rushed and oddly unpopulated. People might have complained about the worlds-within-worlds in “Inception,” but it was certainly more riveting than moments of this.

There are a few glaring problems with suspension of disbelief.
There may be fewer plot holes or moments where the suspension of disbelief starts to crumble, and certainly fewer than in some of Nolan’s other films (Batman dives out the window to save Rachel at the fundraiser in “The Dark Knight,” but we never find out what the Joker does after that? Does he just leave? And why doesn’t Leonardo DiCaprio just get Michael Caine to fly his kids to him in “Inception?”). But that doesn’t mean that they’re entirely lacking from “The Dark Knight Rises.” For instance, Bruce Wayne needs a robot leg brace to walk properly at the beginning of the film, but manages to escape from an inescapable prison well without it. Not to mention the glossing over exactly how he gets home from the Middle East in a couple of days. Or how he’s able to walk on an icy river (and lay a fairly impressive trail of petrol) which everyone else falls through. And it’s handy that Bane appears to have provided the trapped cops not only with food and water, but also with showers, shaving cream and razors. Also useful: the decision by Lucius Fox and the Wayne tech boys to build a countdown clock into a nuclear reactor.

Did Bruce Wayne really need to be a recluse for eight years?
We liked the idea of moving the story on eight years and picking up with an older, bruised Bruce Wayne, and aspects of it work — Gotham having gotten safe and complacent, in particular. But it doesn’t all work in execution. For instance, having Bruce a near-cripple at the start of the film somewhat lessens the impact of his back being broken by Bane later on. If he’s already recovered from having no cartilage in his knees, then it seems less of a big deal. Furthermore, how did he get like that exactly? When last we saw him in “The Dark Knight,” he was running away from police dogs — injured from his fall, sure, but clearly pretty active. And despite Batman having not been seen since, he’s suddenly walking around with a cane and requiring a knee support to go back into action. And it also feels like maybe Nolan was working out some of the ideas he had for his never-getting-made Howard Hughes film, rather than it organically coming out of the ending of the last film. Not a dealbreaker by any means, but a little more info on what exactly he’s been doing for the last few years would be helpful.

The romance with Miranda Tate is disappointingly thin.
If there’s one key characterization that falters in “The Dark Knight Rises” it’s probably Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate. Yes, when she and Bruce Wayne have their tryst together, Bruce and Alfred have essentially broken up, he’s lost his fortune, he’s been reminded of the death of Rachel Dawes and he’s essentially in a very raw and vulnerable place. Hence sleeping with Tate, who seems like she wants to take care of him. But what could have made this much more believable? How about some inkling that there was a spark between Tate and Wayne sometime along the lines of the eight years he’s been gone, rather than meeting for the first time a couple of days before. What if they had some history together that makes their hook-up slightly more believable? Even one more scene that shows some sort of spark or affections between them may have helped. Otherwise, as it is, Bruce kind of goes from 0 to 60 with Tate and it feels a little rushed and forced. Also, since we are to believe that the League of Shadows have been infiltrating Gotham for the last eight years or so with a nefarious longtail game, shouldn’t Miranda (who is actually Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia) just have killed Bruce Wayne while they were making love when his guard was truly down? Sure, her plan hadn’t gone into full effect yet, but with Batman gone, she probably still could have gotten her hands on the energy thingy that eventually becomes a nuclear bomb. Perhaps Nolan keeps Tate’s character in the shadows so as not to tip his hand at her true identity. One missed opportunity (though it would have run in contrast to the Batman/Catwoman burgeoning romance): an actual, genuine love story that would have made her move at the end a gigantic emotional betrayal and much more powerful. Though that does change the story in a Jenga-like way that would be hard to reconcile with the rest of the picture, but overall, her arc from ally to foe isn’t quite as realized as we hoped.

Bane’s death is disappointing.
Bane’s death isn’t so bad in itself — it had to happen at some point, obviously — other than the fact it happens right before possibly the longest expository-reveal-while-there’s-a-knife-in-your-side sequence in the history of cinema. The biggest issue is his death is a deus ex machina, a rather cheap device that Nolan feels above. Batman is essentially doomed, the League of Shadows have got the man in their devious and well-planned trap. One stroke and he’s dead, the bomb goes off and the League wins. But as chatty villains are wont to excessively chat right before a hero’s death, she and Bane go on long enough that Selina Kyle arrives in the one-woman cavalry Bat-cycle and fires a few rockets right into Bane before he kills Batman. Yes, it’s a necessary part of her arc, her redemption — one of the great things about Catwoman and Batman is that they are both so alike and both morally grey — we just wish it it was structured a bit better. And for such a memorable bad guy, we’d perfer a grander finale than simply being shot up without final words. And goddammit, we wanted to see him with the mask off…


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