The Dark Knight Rises

On Thursday into Friday, I took in a marathon of all three of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. This presentation has put me into a more reflective mood than I would have if I'd only seen the latest installment, The Dark Knight Rises, so there's going to be a fair amount of wandering discussion to start the post. The short, spoiler-free news here is that The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy successor to The Dark Knight, though it doesn't quite approach the latter's true greatness. To a certain degree, this film does suffer a bit from sequelitis, but much less so than any other comic book franchise to reach a third installment. I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you want to avoid them, I'd stop reading and come back once you've seen the film.

The modern comic book franchise has an interesting pattern that is unlike most movie series. The first film tells the origin story, and is generally competent and commercially successful. Rarely do these first installments achieve greatness, as origin stories are difficult to pull off. The origin itself is usually the most interesting part, but it also crowds out the villain or inciting conflict a bit, making the conclusion of the movie seem rushed or awkward. Still, by that time, the movie has probably ingratiated itself to the audience to such a degree that imperfection is tolerated if not celebrated. For his part, Nolan did an excellent job with Batman Begins, which is one of the better origin stories in modern comic book movies.

But the interesting thing about comic book movies is that the second film often eclipses the first. There are, of course, exceptions to this. The Burton/Schumacher Batman series certainly fell prey to the challenges inherent with sequels. Iron Man 2 suffered less from being a sequel than from being a building block in a larger scheme, though the problems are similar. However, most comic book sequels in the oughts were surprisingly good (perhaps because they learned from Burton's mistakes). The origin and world-building was out of the way, and the filmmakers were free to tell a straightforward story arc. This made for sequels that were tighter and more assured than their predecessors. Think X2 or Spider-Man 2. And, of course, The Dark Knight (which is my personal favorite).

This leads into the third film, which, for numerous reasons, tends to be the last film. One of the interesting things about comic book movies is that they often tend to retain the creative team from film to film. This becomes a commercial challenge, as the productions then get more and more expensive, and with expense comes other limitations. Plus, the actors have aged and the director wants to move on. Knowing that this is their last chance with the material, the third film often becomes crammed with the comic's famous remaining story arcs. Multiple villains, additional characters, and at least two major story arcs get smushed into a single narrative, muddying the waters quite a bit. As such, series with a good second installment end up faltering under the weight of expectation (because the second film was so good), expediency, commercial considerations, and overstuffed narratives. We end up with Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. Neither series has fully recovered, though both have had spinoffs or reboots, with varying degrees of success.

So, does The Dark Knight Rises succumb to the same pressures? Perhaps, but it's as good as I could have ever expected. It's certainly miles ahead of the aforementioned third films, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor. It's worth taking a look at why The Dark Knight was so successful. To my mind, it's because that movie transcended its origins. It felt less like a comic book adaptation, and much more like its own entity. This isn't to hate on comic books. I'm not someone who looks down on the medium or anything, but one commonality to most comic book movies is that they feel like an adaptation. And what do we know about adaptations? The book is usually considered to be better than the movie (with a few rare but notable exceptions), and while I haven't read a lot of comic books, I suspect this is the case for the grand majority of film adaptations. But I don't get that feeling from The Dark Knight. There are some who will complain about how grounded the movie is, almost like it's ashamed of its comic book origins, and that's certainly a discussion worth having, but to me, that's just the film trying to be its own thing. It's a realistic take on the concept of a vigilante, and it acknowledges the problems with such a stance (something few superhero movies do). There's a devil in the details vibe to the film that just works so well - Batman is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. The Dark Knight isn't good for a comic book movie, it's a good movie, period. Again, it transcends its roots, and that's why I love it.

Now, it is not a perfect film. There are some plot machinations that didn't fit well and Nolan is not known for direction action sequences (to my mind, he's much more notable as a writer and storyteller than as a visual stylist, though he can certainly hold his own), but to me, all of that is overlooked because of the narrative and emotional arcs that were weaved through the film.

The Dark Knight Rises has similar imperfections, but it never gells together quite as well as its predecessor, and indeed, it feels like an adaptation again. Like a lot of third installments, there are more villains, more side characters, more story arcs smushed together here, but Nolan somehow manages to make it work. I was very worried about all the new characters - Catwoman, Bane, Blake, and several others - and while I'm not sure all of that was necessary, they did a good enough job with it all. It helps that they cast talented and charismatic actors in those roles. Anne Hathaway is wonderful, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy series (but, uh, stuffy in a good way). It's unfair to compare her to Heath Ledger's joker for a number of reasons, but from a charisma and charm perspective, she did remind me of that performance. Unfortunately, while she has a hefty side role, she doesn't really have a ton of screentime (one of the problems with having so many characters). Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an admirable job as rookie cop Blake, but I couldn't help but think that his character felt a little tacked-on. I wouldn't change it, because I ultimately like where its going, but it does add to the feeling that the film is a bit stuffed.

So we come to Bane. I have mixed feelings on this matter. In truth, I think Nolan exceeded my expectations. Bane is a worthy villain, even if his byzantine plans are a bit of a retread for the series (we find out why later in the movie). He also shares some of the villainy duties with other characters, though Bane is clearly the big bad here. Tom Hardy does his best, but for a character that is so expressive, it's frustrating that we can't ever see his face (the various costumes and disembodied voice are a little strange too, but I went with it). At one point in the film, there's a bit of a flashback, and we do get to see him sans mask. It's such a weird feeling, because Hardy really is a magnetic presence in any film, and he displays that more in a split second of the flashback than we get whenever he has the mask on. He works as a villain, but he's got big shoes to fill, and it's tough to beat Ledger's Joker. It's a bit of a conundrum, one of those things that makes the movie feel like an adaptation, rather than its own thing. Again, I've not read a lot of Batman comics or anything, but I'm guessing that Bane works better on the page than he does on screen. The being said, he gets the job done.

Christian Bale is dependable as always, and he's given some heft to chew on in this film. Nolan has taken the character in an interesting direction. As the film opens, Batman hasn't been seen for years and Bruce Wayne is something of a recluse. Selina Kyle piques his interest, and he eventually figures out a way to don his costume again. It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm glad to see that they've acknowledged the wear and tear of the superhero lifestyle (even if it's handwaved away a bit later).

I won't go into too much detail about the plot. It goes places I didn't expect, which is nice, but it also feels comic-booky. Again, I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, except insofar as it makes this movie feel like an adaptation. I suppose you could argue with that distinction, but that's what I get out of it. As previously mentioned, Bane's plan is audacious and complex, and thematically, the film tackles relevant economic themes, particularly the occupy movement, and it does so in ways I didn't really expect. Does the plot hold together well?

Alfred Hitchcock might help here:
Dear boy, quite obviously you've never heard of the icebox syndrome... I leave holes in my films deliberately, so that the following scenario can take place in countless homes. The man of the house gets out of bed in the middle of the night, and goes down stairs and takes a chicken leg out of the icebox. His wife follows him down and asks what he's doing. 'You know,' he says, 'there's a hole in that film we saw tonight.’ 'No there isn't,' she says and they fall to arguing. As a result of which they go to see it again.
Hitchcock referred to this as "the icebox trade" or "refrigerator talk", neatly encapsulating the notion that a movie works well while you're watching it (because of a fast pace or tense atmosphere), but that falls apart while standing in front of the refrigerator for a post-movie snack. This is something that impacts both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, though I think it impacts that latter far more. For me, it ultimately worked, the same as how Hitchcock's films worked, but I've seen other folks complain about this aspect of the film.

As an action director, I feel like Nolan has made some strides in the right direction. I did get a weird vibe from the two big fights between Batman and Bane, mostly because it made me think of Rocky III, with Bane in the role of hungry up-and-comer Clubber Lang, and Batman as the complacent champion, Rocky. Again, it's weird to be thinking of that movie during this one, but that's what happened. Indeed, I got another weird movie connection with Alfred's Affleckian speech about seeing Wayne in Italy or somesuch. These aren't really complaints though. The fights were clearly choreographed and well shot, and the ending of the film is satisfying. Nolan managed to kill off Batman without killing off Batman, which worked for me (though this hint of optimism may strike others as being too convenient, I kinda loved it).

In the end, what we've got here is a good film. It's not as transcendent as its immediate predecessor, but it stands up favorably to the first film, and indeed most of the comic book canon. There are a lot of things about this movie that will mold to fit your preconceptions. If you're inclined to go with it, as I was, it will come out ok. If you're not, if you're looking for reasons to dislike it, you'll come out with your suspicions confirmed. That being said, it's a fitting end to Nolan's trilogy, even if I'm certain the series will continue. The series as a whole has raised the bar for comic book movies, and few have even approached its high points.