The Dark Knight Rises is not the conclusion to the Dark Knight Trilogy that we deserve, but it is the one that we need right now. By that I guess I mean that we were starving for a new Batman entry from Christopher Nolan, no matter how good or well-conceived it was. His previous entry, The Dark Knight, encapsulated everything about Batman that we wanted to see on film. This was a Batman that we found crouching on the side of a building in Hong Kong, no mask, no cape, bazooka in hand. He shot a few timed sticky charges, put on his mask / helmet, and glided into the building before stealing the white-collar criminal within it and blasting the windows out to make a quick getaway. It was Batman meets Solid Snake; a billionaire philanthropist’s black-ops alter ego. In Nolan’s world, “The Batman” was a code word for elite private espionage missions, an idea both fresh and unique but also a logical extension of the comic book character.
And who was he fighting? The greatest villain ever committed to celluloid. I remember seeing the TDK midnight show and laughing with glee at every one of the Joker’s lines. Not because they were funny necessarily, but because they were delivered so well, because actor Heath Ledger went so far above and beyond what anyone had expected, that he was doing the best work with the Joker that anyone had seen since Alan Moore and Brian Bolland made The Killing Joke. His Tom Waits voice and Kurt Cobain damage rattled audiences to the bone and dismantled everything we thought we knew about comic book films. That guy won a damn posthumous Academy Award for playing a super-villain in clown makeup. Heroic doesn’t even begin to describe Ledger’s work in this film.
After the mind-altering, ever-escalating battle of Spy vs. Spy between Bale’s black-ops Batman and Ledger’s psycho-terrorist Joker, I could only imagine what Nolan was going to do for a sequel. Unfortunately, Ledger wasn’t going to make it to the show, an immense tragedy for fans and creators alike, effectively putting the kabosh on a final showdown between the two lifelong rivals. The Joker’s final words of “I think we’re destined to do this forever” were destined to both go unfulfilled and to eerily reverberate throughout eternity. I could only imagine the Gotham villainscape that would arise after such a chaotic mastermind had his time in the city. Joker was the escalation in crime that arose in response to “The Batman,” he was the world’s first super-criminal. Whereas Batman’s first efforts were against the Gotham mafia, by the final movie, his city would have to be overrun by numerous crazed costumed crooks.
Well, not quite. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) The Dark Knight Rises certainly had more super-villains that had been seen in the previous Nolan films, but they all seemed to arise at about the same time and disappear just as quickly. First we’re introduced to Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway, who totally nailed her performance. If there was anyone in this movie who sank their teeth into their character as much as Ledger did in TDK, I’d say it was Hathaway here. Which is great, because she was honestly the part of the movie I was the most uncertain about going into it, and she wound up being the part that I enjoyed the most. And yet, she never has the screen time to really shine like Ledger did. Clearly she’s putting in the work, but we only get maybe two really good scenes with her, both in the very beginning, before the movie hurries along to the next phase and she becomes a plot device. She didn’t even get a chance to whip anything in this film. (I guess her spiked heels served as her signature weapon in this film, a gimmick that only paid off in one quick scene.) I would have loved to see a movie with just her and Batman matching wits and libidos across the rooftops of Gotham, but that can’t happen now. We get a massively surprising breakout performance that totally redeems this character for a new generation and only a few precious minutes to spend with her.
Then we have Bane. Actor Tom Hardy definitely put in the time and work to make the character his own, but he also had precious little to do, which works even more against him than it does for Hathaway because he was being touted as this movie’s supreme villain, and what we actually saw didn’t live up to those expectations. Bane was certainly ferocious in those few scenes where he got to shine, but too much of his menace was spoken of in those long, dry expository scenes crammed into the first hour rather than shown to us. We hear that Bane was a cunning, brutal monster that climbed his way out of some fearsome pit-prison in a far-off desert land only to be rejected by the League of Shadows and become a powerful mercenary in West Africa before crippling Gotham and running it as the oppressive, militant dictator of a failed state. But we see virtually none of that. We get a few explosions, a few juicy one-liners, and a ton of unbearable exposition.
Bane is essentially Batman’s Darth Vader, the badass Darth Vader from the original trilogy, and we get him for one damn movie. It’s almost not even worth telling that story. The film’s prologue tried to establish him as a badass militant leader from another part of the world, but it wound up just coming off like a scene from an entirely different movie. And later, when Gotham is under his control for the better part of 5 months, we barely even register that he has risen to power as, essentially, the King of New York. He just feels like yet another masked guy for Batman to contend with, a status that is largely confirmed when he is revealed to be the lapdog of Talia al Ghul in a scene that doesn’t carry enough weight to make anyone take notice beyond the fanboys in the audience, who, like me, were hoping that the reveal would happen before the movie’s end because they saw the spoilers on io9 every morning.
The one place where this movie succeeds as a conclusion to the Batman story is with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Detective John Blake. I remember tweeting during the midnight showing of The Amazing Spider-Man, after seeing the IMAX preview for TDKR, that if Nolan’s secret weapon for this film is that he’d found a clever way to end the franchise on Robin, then he would’ve won the game and could proudly retire his cape and cowl. Nolan, however, spent the last several years swearing up and down that Robin has no place in his vision of the Batman universe and that we would never see his vision of the Boy Wonder.
It was immensely gratifying for me, as a lifelong fan of Robin (since I was, like, 4 years old), to see him reverse that decision and basically say, “Nope, Robin is killer, and here’s how I would do him for my universe.” The idea of compositing all the prior Robins into an orphaned cop with a troubled upbringing who discerns Batman’s alter ego and later gives up on the police force and inherits the Bat-cave from Bruce is a stroke of utter genius. Nolan never had to show a single pixie boot or red tunic to get across the idea that baby-faced JGL was Batman’s sidekick, his right-hand man, his apprentice, and a worthy successor to the Bat-mantle. I realized during the scene where Batman tells Blake to wear a mask if he plans to fight crime that the whole reason I paid for the ticket was to see if the rumors were true that JGL was in fact playing Robin. The second Gordon-Levitt recited the line at the end that Bruce might’ve left behind something for him under his “legal name,” I completely let out an “oh, SHIT!” to myself in the theater. When the woman sitting across from him confirmed that his name was “Robin,” that was it. Nolan had killed it. That was the climax I was hoping for.
Unfortunately, everything else largely felt rushed, which leads me to think that, even after four years, we just didn’t give Nolan enough time to really crack this story. We got bits and pieces and hints of a phenomenal new lineup of Bat-villains and an expansion of the Bat-family but not enough to live up to the monumental expectations brought on by the nigh-perfection of the previous film. And a lot of it was just silly. The Bane-blowing-up-the-bomb-reactor thing was just as dumb as the Lizard’s plot to detonate a Lizard-making bomb over Manhattan in The Amazing Spider-Man and only slightly less dumb than Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to vaporize water in Batman Begins.
This rule that all super-hero films need to include a moustache-twirling-evil-villain scheme in the third act is something I really thought we had moved past by now, especially in Nolan’s world, and the comparison to the “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” scene from the Adam West Batman film is completely justified. The friend I saw it with said that he was struggling to hold in uproarious laughter when Batman flew off with the thing and supposedly perished in its detonation. It was a lame move and cheapened the overall plot. Just as the final fight with the Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man would’ve worked more convincingly as a low-key brawl in the city’s back alleys and sewers (as “Totally Rad Show” host Jeff Cannata suggested), Batman’s death, or supposed death, would’ve felt much more organic and less silly if he had just dropped to his knees and collapsed after delivering the final, killing blow to Bane, perhaps as a result of blood loss from the wound that Talia inflicted upon him that never actually results in anything in the film.
Altogether, I feel that if I were to put all of the three big summer 2012 super-hero movies against each other, I’d say that The Avengers won on a cinematic level. As I’ve said before on Twitter, I’m much more interested in the idea of taking a trip into the super-heroes’ world than I am in bringing them into ours. At the end of the day, these are still super-heroes, and they’re a goofy, adolescent concept that we should not have to take too seriously. The Dark Knight Rises was ashamed of the super-heroes in its film, whereas The Avengers flaunted the fuck out of them.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, I feel that The Amazing Spider-Man was the movie that succeeded the most this summer. It wasn’t the non-stop herogasm (which is oddly not a word that my spell check is underlining right now… any idea why?) that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was, but it resonated more with my tastes and my memories of adolescence and moved me more than any cheap shot of Batman flying off into the sunset and then blowing up. Amazing had heart; it had good, honest characters in a beautiful city trying to fall in love in a time of hopelessness, and I prefer that to the dry exposition and mechanical characterizations that Nolan resorted to. I’m not saying TDKR was a bad film, I just think it needed a few more minutes in the Lazarus Pit before it was ready to rise.