Story: Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives in recluse. Mentally and physically broken by his years as Batman he sees Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) clean up the streets of Gotham. However, the arrivals of the gymnastic burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and of the cruel mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) force Batman out of retirement. The question is if he is able to rise up again and confront his present foes as well as the demons of his past.
If The Dark Knight Rises is quite a disappointment, then it is so because of the enormous expectations of fans, and the high bar set by its predecessors, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). In fact, to call ‘TDKR’ a bad film is unjustified. It is a good summer blockbuster; by far the best of this summer. It grabs such fodder as The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-man in their necks and scoulingly sends them back to kindergarten. And yet it disappoints.
The biggest let down for me was that director Christopher Nolan does not chart new territories and themes in TDKR. Rather, he returns to the issues already covered in quite some extent in Batman Begins. And although Bruce Wayne / Batman does grow as a character, I miss the expansion to Batman’s universe and psychology that made The Dark Knight so very special. From a storytelling point of view it makes sense to make the circle complete, and Nolan does not hesitate to emphasize this, using quite a big number of flashbacks to Batman Begins. But I think he is mistaken to pressume that his audience is not already overly familiar with the previous films.
Valuable time is lost with these flashbacks, and although I do not think that The Dark Knight Rises is too long, I do think it could have spent some of its running time (a whopping 164 minutes) in a more effective manner. On many an occasion, especially in the climactic final hour, Nolan falls back on cheap short-cuts in his staging of the battle over Gotham’s fate. On first viewing these moments may be mistaken for plot holes, but on second viewing they appear to be the result of cramped storytelling and shoddy editing. Unnecessary mistakes that could easily have been solved had Nolan allowed himself more time to stage these scenes properly and less time reinvoking worn down, and this trilogy unworthy, generic stereotypes.
Nolan likes to work with the same people over and over again: Story writer David Goyer, producer Emma Thomas, writer Jonathan Nolan (yes, the brother), composer Hans Zimmer, editor Lee smith and cinematographer Wally Pfister. If I would recommend Nolan to look for another editor if he continues in action films, I must also praise Wally Pfister. Pfister was nominated for an Oscar for The Dark Knight, and he won one for Inception, and in The Dark Knight Rises he delivers again. The vistas of a Gotham under siege are stunning. In cooperation with the special effects team Pfister does something extraordinary: the stunts and effects that in other films seem weightless and immaterial digital constructions have heft and weight and, consequently, realism in TDKR.
Nolan also prefers to work with actors he already knows. Of course he brings back Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman (as Lucius Fox) and Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), but he also calls in the services of his Inception veterans Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard (as business woman and love interest Miranda Tate) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Gotham city cop John Blake). And there are surprising cameos by some old characters as well. The only major new face is Anne Hathaway. And it must be said that, in such an enormous ensemble, it is Hathaway who stands out, next to Bale and Gorden-Levitt. The other actors suffer from the fact that their roles are perhaps slightly too marginal and underwritten. Tom Hardy is imposing, threatening and scary as Bane, but he can not rival Heath Ledger’s Joker. He should not want to either, and we should not expect it from him.
As an action spectacle, this film is stunning. Big set-pieces involve a chase scene with multiple motorcycles, a street battle between cops and thugs and, perhaps most memorable, a mid-air abduction in the opening sequence. We should not underestimate the contribution of composer Hans Zimmer to these scenes. The master of the genre almost overplays his hand with a thunderous score that drowns out bits of the dialogue, but the crucial word in this sentence is ‘almost’. Empire compared Zimmer’s soundtrack with an earthquake, and that is an appropriate metaphor. The music defies further description.
By not offering us something fundamentally new, apart from some interesting characters, Nolan deprives his film from the depth and the political commentary that The Dark Knight had. Complaints that TDKR is politically reactionary or conservative miss the point that there is actually a shocking lack of politics in this film. If there is any, it only serves as a masquerade of or a detraction from the actual plot, which then is too light to justify the epic ambitions of the film.
But Nolan does deliver emotionally. The fans who have made his films the huge successes that they are have invested in this world and in these characters. And although this individual film may not be able to match the quality of its predecessors, it does succeed in satisfyingly finishing this particular story of Bruce Wayne. Actually, it might be its strongest point (and this is the only small spoiler! I put into this review) that it finishes the story of Bruce Wayne, but not necessarily that of Batman. A relief for the studio and for the fans.
Final verdict: The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting and satisfying conclusion to what we can now call the best superheroe franchise to date. However, it is also demonstrably the weakest link in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and so it is with appropriate heartache that fans have to say goodbye to their holiday fling of three summers.