Monday, July 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

What do we want from a Superhero movie? The huge success of Marvels recent films seems to indicate that flat-out, wall-to-wall fun times is the order of business, with none of this brooding in the shadows nonsense cluttering up the mood. On the other hand, the success of the current Batman films seems to indicate that we want our superheroes bound to the real world, with none of this ridiculous over-the-top, punching giant space worm fantasy. And it's an interesting serendipity that the culmination of both of these visions are hitting cinema screens within a couple of months of each other, first with Joss Whedon's no-holds-barred quip-and-action-fest Avengers Assemble, and now Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy rounds off with The Dark Knight Rises. These are two films so different in outlook that their common words and pictures heritage is hard to fathom.

First off, I get why people have been left cold by this film. It doesn't surprise me. I know people who've never been turned on by Nolan's take on Batman and his world, and I know people who've liked them up to this point but just sort of bounced off this final installment. It is, in many ways, an odd sort of film - more interested at times in actors rather action, in conversations about "stuff" rather driving a plot forward, and then trying to mix that with action, and plot and superheroic, comic-book logic, is not always a comfortable fit. In The Dark Knight, I think it worked to create an unsettled, dis-quietening air that added to the power of the film, but in The Dark Knight Rises, as with Batman Begins,  the more straightforward themes and plotting run up against it at times, and I can see how that can bounce you out of the mood of the film. Mood is important to all of Nolans films and this no exception.

So, we pick up the story 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight and Bruce has hung up his cape and retired to Wayne Manner to grow dubious facial hair, work on his limp, and generally mope about the place. In the meantime, the Gotham Police Department have completed their transformation from "part of the problem" to true guardians of Law and Order (sort of) under a guilt-wracked James Gordon. Things are better for Gotham, but underneath both the literal and figurative surface all hell is about to break loose, lead by Bane - another example of Nolan not always going for the obvious choices in terms of his big villains.

Bane - like a lot of the characters - isn't quite the character the comics, close in spirit but remoulded and reimagined in service of a plot that ties both previous films together and makes this a true trilogy. There are some unexpected cameos and plot points all the way through the call back to both films and more than anything else shows what you can if you keep a creative team together over the long term and largely leave them to do their work. There are a couple of good twists (and a couple of telegraphed ones) but by and large the plot works not because it is supremely twisty but because it is surprisingly clean; most of the screen time is devoted to character arcs, which given the huge cast is probably a good thing.

The big revelation for me was Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle; who seems to have been kept our of the advertising build up and as such I wasn't expecting how central she would be in much of the film. And she's really rather good - playing Selina as the consummate actress; flipping between personas as the situation demands, the dynamic wild-card of the movie in killer heels and a good line in snappy dialogue in between the portentous mutterings of everyone else. Which is good, because there is a lot of heavy dialogue in this film.

And it all comes together pretty satisfyingly for the big finish. For all the slow start of the film (which I like, but it's not summer blockbuster pacing, thats for sure!) and the occasional dip into stating the bleeding obvious, the final stretch of the film is a long pay-off sequence that showcases the Nolan is the sort of director as happy with big action set-pieces as he is with intense character development, and the final pay-offs for all the characters are by and large pretty good.

In the end I'm left with two big thoughts.

Firstly, there is a sense of relief that finally, after many attempts, a superhero franchise has made the full trilogy without dropping the ball at the last minute. You wouldn't think it was hard, but history seems to indicate that it is. Not only has Nolan made three good movies, he's made what feels like a complete Trilogy, connecting through and finishing off, and for that reason if no other I'm glad everyone involved seems to be walking away saying "job done".

Finally, there is almost certainly going to be a reboot of the Batman Franchise and I would really like it if they went for a different view. This is very much a view of Batman, not the view of Batman, and there is a lot of room for other, equally valid interpretations of these characters. This version has worked, no question, but to answer the thought we started with, I want the same diversity in my superhero movies that I expect find in superhero comics. This story of Batman is complete, time to find another.