The prison pit leap challenge (performed on a stunning set built near Cardington, England with city exteriors from Jodhpur, India) in “Dark Knight Rises” ended up being an odd analogy for Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy. His effort came so very close to being something for the ages, but ultimately missed the final jump. As such, only “The Dark Knight” seems destined to be remembered as an all-time classic.
Batman Begins (2005)
I enjoyed “Batman Begins,” but it didn’t stick with me like some films. I applauded the effort to try to ground Batman in more of ‘our reality,’ but I didn’t like a few of the design choices, such as the new version of the Bat-mobile. Yes, it made practical sense, but it didn’t strike me as particularly engaging. Also, Batman’s body armor made practical sense, but his hand-to-hand combat scenes always tended to look somewhat stiff.
The Scarecrow was a questionable B-list villain to have as a part of a Batman re-introduction film. However, the use of Ra’s al Ghul as the film’s main mastermind was perfect. Given how Ra’s al Ghul has long been a part of the Batman comic book mythology, it was surprising that the prior Batman films had not used him. Liam Neeson, as always, delivered in that role.
Even if it wasn’t remarkable, “Batman Begins” certainly had moments, with Christian Bale effortlessly coming into the lead role. I never cared for Bale’s gravelly ‘Batman voice,’ but he did a great job as Bruce Wayne. Mr. Bale could play both the expected role of flamboyant playboy and calculating detective well.
The Dark Knight (2008)
As crazy as it might sound, I came into “The Dark Knight” with rather low expectations. Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker seemed like such a radical departure from how I perceived the character. I was more familiar with Jack Nicholson’s take on the joker and did not immediately give Mr. Ledger much of a chance after seeing his work in previews or on-set stills.
Talk about a case where my judgment failed me.
“The Dark Knight” ended up being the best film of 2008 and of the entire early 2000s. It announced the arrival of Christopher Nolan as one of the top filmmakers in the world. And Mr. Ledger completely stole the film. By making the Joker into a guy who was seemingly insane and lacked any clear rules, the character was elevated into a chillingly believable and terrifying villain.
The different ‘choice’ games that the Joker played were my favorite parts of the film, as they had such weighty implications and no easy solution. The tragedy involving the character of Rachel was haunting. The later standoff between the two ferries and their inhabitants was edge-of-your-seat brilliant.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
When looking back upon a trilogy though, one could argue that the most important film ends up being the final one. When Peter Jackson made his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Hollywood waited until he succeeded with “The Return of the King” to shower him with awards. As good as “The Matrix” was, its perception by many was tarnished when its sequels didn’t live up to expectations.
So, did Christopher Nolan ‘stick the landing?’
“Dark Knight Rises” was not an awful film, but I couldn’t understand how it got such rave initial reviews. Even more bizarre was the nasty backlash that fans unleashed on those who dared to give the film a negative review. Individual elements were either very hot or very cold and the cumulative result was an odd, but underwhelming film.
As I’d feared since seeing its first publicity image, Bane’s mask was awful. Every time Bane monologued, the voice came across as a horrible dub that was distracting. Near the end of the film, I realized that perhaps its entire purpose was to seed a ‘weak point’ with Bane that Batman would eventually exploit to defeat him. That did prove to be the case, although Bane’s ultimate demise didn’t directly involve the mask.
As good as Michael Caine was as Alfred, Alfred’s ‘resignation’ scene was strangely abrupt. What could have been an epic scene, felt very rushed and unsatisfying.
One major plot hole was Bane’s decision to not kill Batman when he had the chance. If Talia Al Ghul was really running the show and she planned on killing Batman later, why didn’t she just have Bane do it at the first opportunity? The bit about sending Batman around the world to die in a gimmicky prison was simply bizarre and sloppy.
The other major plot problem was that the ‘master plan,’ besides crippling any sense of urgency in the film, didn’t seem credible when stretched across five months. Civilians appeared to still be living ‘normal’ lives in their homes and much of the police force lived in tunnels during that time, but no explanation was given as to how a certain level of sustained civility was possible.
Where was gas coming from for cars? Where was food coming from and how was it managed? Why had the island of Gotham City – i.e. Manhattan – not deteriorated into some “Escape from New York” level of crime-led chaos?
Both of those plot problems occurred in the middle of the film, which ended up feeling oddly long. If the movie ever felt boring, it was during that midpoint where it lost momentum.
One odd element of the “Escape from New York” sequence was how the writers seemed to contradict the good will between rich and downtrodden that had been established in “The Dark Knight.” What had been a reassuring and uplifting resolution in the prior film was seemingly forgotten in this sequel, done for reasons that never seemed thematically clear.
In light of the Aurora, Colorado shooting during the “Dark Knight Rises” screening, the most awkward line in the entire film had to be Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) saying: “About that whole no guns thing… Turns out I’m not as committed to it as you are.”
On a few positive notes, there were some fantastic action scenes. The open sequence, the citywide explosions, and various chases were all very exciting.
Even if the ‘retired Batman’ setup felt a bit like a poor man’s take on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” the first reappearance of Batman was also great. The police all seemed amusingly in awe and that sequence brought a smile to my face.
The unfortunate gun line aside, Anne Hathaway stole the film as Selina Kyle. I wanted to see a film with her starring in it, as her never-explicitly-named Catwoman character always seemed to be up to some sort of witty plan. She always knew how to get out of any situation, even when the stakes were raised and re-raised. Her scenes tended to be the film’s sharpest writing moments.
The ending was mostly pitch-perfect. Yes, the auto-pilot bit was mentioned three or four times during the film, so it wasn’t a surprise that it saved Batman in the end. Yes, the atom bomb would probably have some long-term side effects that were white-washed, but for a blockbuster film, it wrapped things up very nicely. And, while part of me wouldn’t have minded seeing Batman die a heroic death, I don’t think that audiences would have bought such an ending. Everyone knew that Batman always got out of a jam and it would have required a massive amount of effort to convince people otherwise. With the resulting emotional payoff being questionable, it didn’t seem worthwhile to defy convention in that case.
Joseph G. Levitt taking over the mantle of Batman was choreographed pretty blatantly for most of the film, but I liked his character. It was a shame that we’ll likely never get to see the dynamic of him in the main role, with Bruce Wayne bankrolling him and Selina Kyle somehow in the mix. The mention of the character’s real name being ‘Robin’ was a nice nod to fans, but was not necessary and too randomly forced into the film.
The twist involving Talia Al Ghul was unexpected and did a nice job of bringing the first and third films together. Talia’s death scene was pretty weak, but I liked the jist of the character and her back story. The misdirection of her escape from the prison pit was well done. Had Talia and Bane been revealed sooner as a sort of Bonnie and Clyde duo, it could have been even more effective when Bane died.
The two main plot holes that I previously mentioned were easily my biggest problems with the final “Dark Knight” trilogy film. How those plot holes were never fixed in a film with such a high profile was confounding. Such things could have been corrected if the main creative talent had simply had one more script review meeting.
I sincerely hope that “Dark Knight Rises” doesn’t end up being the film that moviegoers look back upon as the instance when Christopher Nolan had ‘jumped the shark’ and, like George Lucas, become too powerful to have mistakes pointed out to him.
As a result, “Dark Knight Rises” was only a three out of four star movie when it could have easily been a solid four out of four star film. It could have been worse, but it was not the ideal way to wrap up Mr. Nolan’s trilogy of films. At least the last few minutes did manage to stick the final landing of the overall trilogy in a satisfactory manner.