Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ – (spoiler-free) review.

Posted by Max Lalanne on July 21, 2012

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It’s always difficult to figure out how to clearly categorize or define one of Chris Nolan’s films in his Batman trifecta, and none more than “The Dark Knight Rises.” Nolan has always brought his auteur-ish artistry to his projects, even when we’re talking huge mega-blockbusters that basically everyone has been waiting for. But when you boil down and strip everything else away, who is left fighting the eternal battle of good-vs.-evil in “The Dark Knight Rises” that Nolan has molded into something deeper and more philosophical, smarter and more noir-ish than anything else in recent years? Superheroes. Even if Nolan’s superheroes aren’t gifted with fantastical superhuman abilities, and are mortal, damaged, hurt humans like you and me, there’s no denying the roots of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The pure childish escapism of the source material – comic books – cannot be fully supressed, and no matter how well Nolan transforms it and crafts it into something that is artistically superior, something that doesn’t look or sound or feel like something coming from a comic book – it still does.

So what can and what does Nolan do with this movie? He doesn’t cast away the fanboy origins, because he can’t without rejecting the entire story of Batman himself, and instead completely displaces this comic book movie by dumping it into our dirty, noisy modern world. He makes a superhero movie that attempts and succeeds in tackling the instability, the insecurity, the chaos of our current post-9/11, Occupy Wall Street state of affairs with the 99% forever pitted against the 1%. There are still somewhat cheesy one-liners here and there, plenty of geeky technology to drool over, and thrilling action sequences that involve a lot of thugs being flipped over by a guy in a batsuit. But Nolan infuses a terrifyingly now sensibility into the clean and prefabricated world of superheroes, even more than he did with the casually violent anarchy of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” The result might be an imperfect movie, yes, that struggles with structure and pacing. But there’s no hiding the potent power “The Dark Knight Rises” casually carries within itself, and no denying that the entire audience feels the full extent of it, at least one time or another during the nearly three hours of complete runtime.

Down to the basics. “The Dark Knight Rises” takes place eight long years after the conclusion of “The Dark Knight,” after Batman was wrongly accused of killing Harvey Dent and disappeared into the night. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a sad limping recluse, living alone in his huge mansion with his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) after having hung up his Batman suit for apparent good. Gotham’s police force has done a massively successful crackdown on crime thanks to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) – who alone knows the truth, and the blind deception is starting to wear on him – carrying out the Dent Act, which also makes Batman a wanted fugitive on the run. It is a purposely gloomy and foreshadowing start to the film, and Nolan assuredly takes his ample time re-introducing us to Gotham and its citizens, both old (Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox) and new (Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, a Wayne Industries chairman).

The antagonist of “The Dark Knight Rises” is a muscular hulking brute named Bane (Tom Hardy), who speaks behind an ugly breathing device and swings his fists around like a mixed martial-arts fighter on über-steroids. For a follow-up to Heath Ledger’s Joker – who cannot, ever be surpassed, but not my fault if we keep comparing the two – Bane is less layered and certainly less complicated, if a little more focused and even smarter. No time to wage elaborately unhinged mind trickery and devilish scenarios, as the Joker gleefully did to our morbid entertainment. That makes his personal psychological war against Batman less of a fixture in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and instead, the conflict is something quite larger and as Bane shifts his focus to the city of Gotham itself, which he manages to bring to its knees quite efficiently. (That larger picture of ambition may be due to the fact that he whups Batman’s ass in their first serious encounter, and throws him aside like a rag doll. You never know.)

If you can imagine an anarchy-bent, frenzied version of the Occupy protests – which I’m sure you can, and that’s exactly what makes it all the more terrifying – merging with a modern-day French Revolution – the barricades! – that’s what unrolled in front of our eyes and those of the citizens of Gotham, the uncontrollable floodgates of human anger unleashed by Bane. The rich thrown out onto the streets and their homes looted by rioters, street criminals, and prison escapees; a mercenary paramilitary ruling the city and the streets, resistant police (such as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s good cop, who’s much more important than you probably realize) “hunted down like dogs.” Or, as Bane puts it, it’s Gotham’s “liberation,” merely power to the people (complete with eerie makeshift juries where the public mass “vote” whether they want exile or death for a so-called criminal). But the most relevant thing is while the common people, those led under sway by Bane and his small army, believe that this is a newfound democracy, they are of course being used, manipulated, and basically lied to. Heady and bold stuff for a comic book movie, indeed.

Anne Hathaway – she gave out the best performance in the entire film, and that’s saying a lot given the woefully short, if well-utilized, screentime that she was allotted in the grand scheme of things in Nolan’s really big finale . She spends most of that time as the sultry and sexy Catwoman, who deals with purred honeyed words and quick, fluid violence dispensed with help from her dagger-like heels. But Hathaway’s role becomes a fully-fleshed character, not a caricature and mere eye-candy addition to the cast, when she plays the vulnerable woman under the mask, the small-time thief Selina Kyle. Why is Selina morally ambiguous, which translates to Catwoman not having any set allegiance to neither Batman nor Bane? Simple answer. She is merely afraid, afraid of Bane and everything that he brings with him on his terrible conquest to bring Gotham to its knees. Alone, she is powerless to do anything to stop him and also maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t want to either. Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is just a little scared girl lost in a big, bad world, confused like everyone else and pretending not to be. She’s absolutely not glorified or objectified by Nolan, which is refreshing to say the least.

“The Dark Knight Rises” isn’t as structurally sleek and the story as polished as “The Dark Knight,” and I hate comparing the two but there’s no way around it – Nolan raised the bar so immensely high four years ago, it would’ve taken a miracle to outdo his masterpiece. Superheroes don’t belong in our world, they belong in their own world where they are always around to save the day, to save the innocent people from the baddies. A superhero will always save the day, that’s a fact, no matter what threatening terror appears out of nowhere. Yes, that happens in “The Dark Knight Rises” also. And it’s a more pronounced and better victory now that the world of superheroes, and the costumed vigilantes themselves, have moved to our present – at least in Nolan’s movies.

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