Holy Great Expectations, Batman!

For the second time in four years, Christopher Nolan has given us a Batman film without much reverence for its main character. 2008’s “The Dark Knight” refuted the notion that Batman is the obvious crux of any Batman film, but it was able to coast on a brilliantly frenzied performance by the late Heath Ledger. “The Dark Knight Rises,” a mostly humorless and dour sociopolitical parable, has no such crutch, and the film absurdly shelves the Caped Crusader for over half of its running time. The supporting characters pop in and out of the movie at the screenplay’s convenience and the snappy dialogue and wildly creative visual cues of its predecessors are often missing in action.

Nothing here compares to the spastic, crackling electricity of the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Yet, despite its numerous flaws (including countless gaps in logic), it largely overcomes its weaknesses thanks to its sheer dynamism (including a serious Dickensian streak) and a strong connection to the first film in the series, “Batman Begins.”

Act I is the film’s best, and the introduction of Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle is graceful and charming. Instead of pigeonholing her as Batman-lite, she’s established as a cat burglar, or something of a kleptomaniac. Selina is a tremendous foil to Bruce, and Hathaway’s performance within a performance (she slyly alternates between personas) is an impressive highwire act and her character’s arc is subtle but incredibly effective. Also, the presence of a rebuilt Wayne Manor is a welcome respite from the monotony of penthouses and washed out warehouses, and Michael Caine’s warm presence is as strong as ever – at least until his character ducks out of the story for what seems like an eternity.

Tom Hardy’s Bane is a suitably menacing villain in the movie’s opening minutes, but the more we come to know of his character, the more his impact is minimized. In both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” the villains make compelling arguments that human beings “always fear what [they] don’t know” and that fear is never the result of things going “according to plan,” but just the opposite.

So what do Nolan and his screenwriting partner (and brother), Jonathan Nolan, do with Bane? They let him explain away all of his plans to the citizens of Gotham, in a silly, stereotypical arch-villain accent, a la Hanna Barbera’s “Wacky Races.” You’d swear he was twirling a mustache if not for his breathing apparatus. Then, Bane is given an entirely unnecessary backstory, removing any of the character’s remaining intrigue. When the mystery is stripped away, he’s reduced to a bodybuilder with a funny accent. His plan of crippling Gotham through economics (and, eventually, terror) is a direct descendant of Ra’s al Ghul’s scheme in “Begins,” but this time around there’s nothing colorful about it. Its execution is choppy and willfully dry, and has little bearing on the rest of the characters – except when they come into physical contact with Bane, often by coincidence.

Unlike The Joker, we never see Bane do anything particularly scary or disturbing. Most of his onscreen movement is dedicated to punching and… walking very slowly. It doesn’t help that he’s framed so deliberately to make him appear taller than he is – Hardy is 5’ 9”. However, none of Bane’s shortcomings as a dynamic villain are as unfortunate as wasting an actor of Tom Hardy’s caliber. Most of the time, it’s impossible to tell Hardy is underneath the mask.

Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard are relegated to the background except when the story decides it’s time for a dose of expository dialogue or to give the audience a particularly unearned reveal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s presence is a welcome one, and once we get past the creaky and cliched introduction of his character (he has super orphan powers!), he’s allowed to shine, parcticularly in the last hour of the film. 

Aside from a couple of nonsensical character revelations, the story provides very few twists and turns – just the occasional slight right or slight left. Christian Bale growls and grimaces his way through another Batman film, but at least his performance isn’t upstaged by that of the villain this time around. As Bruce Wayne, he’s more engaged than the rest of the cast and it’s clear that he’s lost no love for the character. It’s just unfortunate that the Nolan brothers have so little regard for his alter ego and keep him caged up for most of acts I and II. None of the film’s performances are terribly off-key (i.e. Katie Holmes in “Batman Begins”), but they vary from inspired (Hathaway, Gordon-Levitt) to just plain sleepy (Oldman, Cotillard).

Perhaps most infuriating is Nolan’s insistence that Gotham City look entirely different in each of his Batman films. “Batman Begins,” shot partially in Chicago, had a stylized film noir look that expertly straddled the real and the illustrated world. “The Dark Knight” was also shot in Chicago, but jettisoned many of the aforementioned fantasy elements in favor of a clean, natural look, complete with an inexplicably new Wayne Tower. “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed on location in Pittsburgh and New York City and the difference is jarring. Even the way the light reflects off the buildings seems wrong.

The lack of visual continuity within the series undermines the references to past characters and occurrences. “Rises” looks rather drab, and there’s nothing akin to Scarecrow’s fear toxin or the Joker’s striking color palette to liven up the proceedings. The IMAX shots are striking, but they’re so frequent that the constant transitions (often within the same scene) become tiresome. The non-IMAX material looks dull and washed out by comparison.

Some of the strengths of the previous films (levity, visual style, narrative clarity) are absent in “The Dark Knight Rises” and their flaws (spatial confusion, over-exposition) are compounded. No longer is Batman a symbol that criminals fear (as depicted in his astounding and terrifying takeout of Carmine Falcone’s thugs in “Begins”), but an occasional instigator and distraction for various quirky villains and their hackneyed schemes. Christopher Nolan has proven his considerable worth outside of the Batman franchise (“Memento,” “The Prestige”), but his struggles within the constraints of this comic book world are on the rise.

The intense, primal rhythm of “Begins” and the escalating “hold onto your seat” tension of “The Dark Knight” aren’t fully realized here, but the series is allowed to come full circle, which greatly enhances its emotional resonance. Despite promises that this is Nolan’s last Batman picture, the door is left open for more (or at least spin-offs). This entry into the series is only disappointing because it’s Chris Nolan, and he’s capable of more.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is enjoyable, thought-provoking, and deeply flawed. The logical problems might be the result of its sweeping ambition, but it’s that same ambition and sense of sweeping grandeur that carries the film past most of its shortcomings.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language)