The Dark Knight Rises **** (out of five)
Viewed on IMAX
Interestingly, The Dark Knight Rises circles around an unbelievably advanced, powerful and efficient new energy source that is stolen by a master villain and turned into a nuclear bomb. A band of heroes must find and defuse the bomb before it blows up the pre-eminent, most populated city on the US East Coast, which is called Gotham City but is resolutely and plainly New York, and Manhattan, to be precise.
Sound familiar? That’s the exact same one paragraph synopsis as The Avengers, the other major superhero movie of the north American summer (we can forget The Amazing Spider-Man, which is in another, much lower, league.) It seems unlikely that the projects were not at least vaguely aware that they were telling the same essential story. No matter how “cloaked in secrecy” you keep your project, these are films employing thousands of people. “Ours deals with a stolen energy source that gets turned into a bomb.” “Really? So does ours.” Hollywood is a small town, and these movies employ many, many hundreds of people casually. There would have been crossover. That conversation had to happen.
Luckily, this rather uncanny similarity is where similarity ends. Tonally, as you would expect, The Dark Knight Rises is light years away from The Avengers, avoiding that movie’s colourful joie de vivre to wallow in the dark. The Dark Knight Rises is serious. Loki, the British via outer-space villain in The Avengers, was trying to be a conquerer. Bane, the British via The-Worst-Prison-on-Earth villain in Knight, is a terrorist, and his target is Manhattan.
Christopher Nolan, again directing a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Johnathan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige), makes no attempt at pretence: Gotham city is Manhattan in this picture, absolutely identifiably so, and to see it at the mercy of a highly-co-ordinated terrorist attack is quite shocking. Indeed, the most shocking moment in the film shows massive explosions causing havoc around One World Trade Center (formerly known as Freedom Tower), the two-thirds completed building rising where the World Trade Center once stood. The allusion is not just obvious, it’s hugely deliberate and packs a powerful punch: Look, it could all happen again. I’ve no doubt that Nolan toyed with the idea of actually showing One World Trade Center being blown up (there’s no reason Bane would not blow it up) but I’m glad he didn’t: I think that would have gotten this superhero movie into waters too deep, and have edged into bad taste.
As is, Nolan is skirting brave ground applying Batman to what is essentially a 9/11 story, re-framed as an act of domestic terrorism, but he stays on the audience’s side by never treating the terror as sensationalistic. I think we were all meant to be kind of awed when Roland Emerich blew up the White House in Independence Day (1996) but when Bane starts blowing up Manhattan it’s not exciting, it’s sickening. There is a cold, grey, grim dread to the acts of villainy in Dark Knight Rises that follow on directly from the style of The Dark Knight: it is very in touch with that picture in all respects, and eons away from what’s going on in the rival Marvel Universe.
Bane (Tom Hardy) is a commanding presence, a huge hulk of a man – but just a man, all the same – who wears a grim metal mouthpiece that is somehow essential to him (it does get explained in the film). Bald, he bears a huge resemblance to The Humungus in The Road Warrior, and, given that Bain was created by Batman comic scribes Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and artist Graham Nolan (no relation to the filmmakers) in 1993, while The Road Warrior and The Humungusdate back to 1982, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was inspired by that huge, bald, metal-masked villain. If so, more power to him: pop (culture) must eat itself.
The metal mask is cool-looking, but I wish that Nolan and Hardy had contrived a way for him to not require it all the time. Bane speaks a lot, including two set-piece, public orations to the city he has sublimated, and it would have been great to see Hardy at work. As it is, to be brutally honest, Bane could have been played by a bodybuilder and voiced by a separate actor, as you never see his mouth at all, and his eyes, separated from each other by a strip on the device and with no recourse to a nose, prove less than a window to his soul. Nevertheless, it is to Nolan’s credit that he cast such a terrific actor as Hardy in such a role (The Humungus was played by Kjell Nilsson, a Swedish Olympic-class weight lifter who has three other credits). It means that Bane’s physicality is in touch with his thought processes and impulses, and the character, despite the mask, works. Hardy, no doubt in league with Nolan and sound designer Richard King, has come up with an enticing voice for Bane that is very reminiscent of Sean Connery without being a blatant (and therefore completely out-of-step humorous) imitation.
Anne Hathaway joins the party as Selina Kyle, who becomes Catwoman. As always, Hathaway is very good. Somehow she can make pretty unlikely characters extremely believable (in this case, a stunning cat burglar who also has serious hand-to-hand combat skills, can drive any crazy bat-vehicle with no practice, and has balls of titanium). She looks absolutely incredible in her catsuit, and she gets, I think, all of the film’s laugh lines, not that there are many. Actually, thinking back on it, Michael Caine, returning as Bruce Wayne’s adorable butler Alfred, gets a couple, which he works like a pro, of course, and Thomas Lennon, who has played so many “Funny Doctors” that I’ve lost count, turns up as a “Funny Doctor”, gets one laugh line, and is never seen again (nor credited on IMDB, at least as of this writing).
Christian Bale, as Bruce Wayne and his batty alter-ego, doesn’t trade in witty quips. There’s a lot going on in Bruce’s brain at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises, and it’s not funny. Thankfully, Nolan doesn’t indulge in too much psycho-drama. The Dark Knight’s Joker was the time and place for that. Here, it doesn’t take too much for Bruce, eight years out of The Suit, to revisit the Bat Cave and get it back on. What’s interesting is how little it stays on. There’s not a whole lot of The Caped Crusader in this (final) instalment of the franchise. There is a whole lot of Bruce Wayne, but The Batman himself has limited screen time, and, it has to be said, limited heroics.
Which is not to say the film has limited action. It’s full of action, because The Batman isn’t the only one throwing the punches. Nolan works on a big canvas here, utilising Gotham City’s police department and giving Bane a growing army. There are fights, chases, killings, a load of destruction, and the whole thing begins with a spectacular ariel sequence that looks amazing on the IMAX screen (I saw the film on Sydney’s main IMAX, which is the largest in the world). What there isn’t, is blood. Nolan has delivered what feels like an R-rated story but with PG-13 violence, and it works just fine.
A lot of interesting actors return, and some interesting new ones show up. There’s Ben Mendelsohn! There’s Tom Conti! The story is clearer than The Dark Knight, and for me it was more satisfying, even if it lacked that movie’s concentration of brilliant individual moments and scenes. Nolan promised an epic for the final chapter, and he’s certainly delivered that. The Batman comics, as I grew up reading and understanding them, were always very civic affairs, all about the interplay between Batman, the police force, and the actual city of Gotham itself. That ethos is absolutely the guiding force here. Using Manhattan as his massive canvas (and incorporating other cities, by the way, as occasional stand-ins: the beady-eyed can spot the scenes shot in Chicago), Nolan has crafted a massive, and massively entertaining, film, that is as bleak, grim, and filling as The Avengers was light, sprightly and fun. It is an extremely satisfying conclusion to a major franchise, which will now go down in film history as one of the greatest of trilogies.
One note: the film I saw was very dark – and I’m not talking tonally but visually – at times maddeningly so. At times I couldn’t make out what was going on. In its early scenes I could barely make out Batman’s cool new aero-vehicle and in one scene I thought Catwoman was tied up in a subway tunnel when she was actually just hanging out. I will attempt to find out whether the bulb was low or the lens was wrong at the screening I saw, but if so, that should not be happening at IMAX; if not, I’m amazed that Nolan has deliberately delivered a film as dark and muddy as this (it does brighten up about an hour in, when the action shifts more to the daytime).
NEW: I contacted IMAX about my concerns about the sheer muddy darkness of the print. Here’s the reply from the CEO of IMAX Australia, Mark Bretherton: