The new Batman movie is an entertaining superhero saga and is certainly worthy of the excitement it has generated after the absolute masterpiece that was 2008’s The Dark Knight. However, where that movie derived breathtaking drama and genuine emotional weight from its comic book heroes and villains, the new Batman often falls short when it tries to reach those heights.
The film wisely begins with a high-altitude action sequence in which the film’s central villain “Bane” is introduced but it lacks the clarifying details and impact of The Dark Knight’s riveting opening. On a positive note, Tom Hardy as Bain does a commendable job filling the role of Batman’s arch nemesis. Like Heath Ledger’s “Joker” in The Dark Knight, Bane is a grotesque figure born of pain and motivated not by financial gain but by the desire to inflict his inner anguish on the world at large. In The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan and Ledger stripped down the comic book villain of the Joker to his tormented core. He was not slick and perversely charming like Nicholson’s Joker but a mad dog with tattered clothes, greasy hair and grossly smeared lipstick, haunted by demons that seemed all too real. In many ways Bane is cut from that same gritty cloth with his grubby leather garb and sinister metal mask that looks like it could have been pulled from a museum of medical oddities. The voice given to Bane by Hardy is truly that of a comic book villain but it communicates a palpable malevolence and coldness that gives his villainy some real weight. He is never as fascinating a creation as the Joker but how could he be? With only his sinister vocal inflections, hulking frame and sharp eyes to work with behind his mask, Hardy’s Bain is more interesting than half a dozen other super-villains swathed in colorful costumes, brandishing magical powers and elaborate weaponry. Bain is not opposed to employing a few modern-age weapons now and again but mostly he relies on his superhuman strength to crush his foes like bugs underfoot. The official DC comic book explanation for his concrete-shattering strength is a mysterious steroidal drug constantly inhaled through his mask but the film touches on this explanation so briefly that you are apt to miss it the first time around.
The other new masked arrival in Nolan’s Batman universe is Catwoman (referred to in the film only as ”Selina Kyle”) who is played with great wit and sex-appeal by Anne Hathaway. I have never been a huge Hathaway fan as she so often plays obnoxious characters in obnoxious movies but she won me over as a master-thief in deadly high-heels. Also, it’s hard to imagine anyone looking much better in the shiny black body-suit she dons once the action heats up, particularly when she carefully mounts the bat bike- an image I won’t soon expel from my dirty mind. Christian Bale too is as good as ever as the brooding defender of Gotham but he doesn’t have quite as much to work with as he did the last time around. We first see him gimp onto the screen with a cane and rumpled robe to confront Hathaway at a Wayne Manor soiree from which he keeps a Gatsby-like distance. Despite being a recluse who has apparently lost the will to shave or dress himself and requires a walking-stick to get around, he still looks like he works out eight hours a day but I won’t fault the film for that. After all, it’s not long before he’s stepping back into the Bat-suit (with the help of a new robo-knee) and it’s not a moment too soon.
Bane with his band of loyal thugs and sleazy business associates are getting the ball rolling on a brand new scheme to destroy Gotham. His plan involves detonating a nuclear device that Wayne had intended to use to create clean energy for Gotham. Things start to get a bit convoluted there but the point is made that Wayne wants to save Gotham while Bane wants to blow it up. Also, the film uses this opportunity to take a jab or two at greedy business interests that mock any real efforts to improve the world. Obviously when you introduce the idea of clean energy in this day and age along with references to economic disparity and terrorist tactics you are heading into political waters. Unfortunately however, the film doesn’t always succeed in its attempts at political or social relevance. Certainly that is not a requirement of an entertaining superhero movie but The Dark Knight was so strong and cohesive in the area of socio-political commentary that Rises sometimes seems a bit muddled by comparison. Having said that, I commend Nolan and the other filmmakers for wading into those waters even if they get a little too murky at times.
More detrimental to the impact of the film are the numerous scenes which either try to plug back into the emotional resonance of Begins and Dark Knight and unsuccessfully strive to give dramatic weight to the comic book characters and struggles inhabiting Nolan’s grand stage. The more the film tries to provoke shudders of emotion from the audience with scenes of Alfred beseeching “Master Wayne” to “come back to the world” or not put on the Bat-suit again (you know the drill) the more the film sags with bloated melodrama. In the first two Nolan-directed Batman installments, Michael Caine as the loving and lovable Alfred got laughs and stirred emotions with his dry wit and deep caring for Wayne but here he just gets laughs and they are not always intentional. Too often he comes across not as the sharp-witted and big-hearted character he is known as but as a blubbering pest who wants to turn everything into a three-hanky soap opera. One actor that does get plenty to sink his teeth into and makes the most of it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is rarely less than excellent in his film performances and does not disappoint here. He previously worked with Nolan on Inception and under his direction again here delivers a highly effective portrayal of a ”hot-head” rookie cop driven by the same anger and burning desire for justice that motivates Batman.
Despite its many strengths and the exceptional pool of talent involved, The Dark Knight Rises spends a bit too much time trying to create weighty drama while the bubble of excitement deflates and the tension uncoils. It relies heavily on a powerfully ominous soundtrack by Hans Zimmer to create its dramatic impact but the thundering score is not always matched by the drama on the screen. For a three hour movie about Batman there just don’t seem to be enough ‘Bifs’, ‘Bams’ and ‘Pows’ and his time spent hovering around in his new Bat-copter doesn’t make up for it. I appreciate the poignancy of Batman as a Rocky-like underdog rising up against the odds but it seems to me he spends too much time having his ass handed to him. Then, just when he gets into the swing of things he is sidelined again. On the bright side, there are plenty of scenes for you ladies of a shirtless Bale performing push-ups and sit-ups as he puts himself back together. Again, there is poignancy in his struggle to Rise yet again and foil the evil scheming of his foes, it’s just that somethimes the clock stretches out a bit too long.
The Dark Knight Rises is every bit as ambitious as its predecessor (for which I salute it) but it does not always live up to its lofty ambitions. It is however a highly entertaining action/drama and is certainly a respectable final chapter to Nolan’s trilogy. That said, if you want to see the superhero genre raised to the level of cinematic art I recommend The Dark Knight.