Monday, July 23, 2012

When Gotham is Ashes, The Dark Knight Rises

    In the seven years since Batman Begins was released, it's been clear that director Christopher Nolan's take on Bruce Wayne's story has been something a little different, a little scarier, a little closer to America's real-life situations than all of the other super-hero films (Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc.) that are supposed to be as funny as they are whimsical. By the time The Dark Knight was released, just the second film in Nolan's trilogy, the director and cast had already refined the apocalyptic vision of Gotham City and Batman into a film as close to perfection as a superhero movie can reach (helped tremendously by Heath Ledger's otherworldly performance). So it's no surprise, then, that The Dark Knight Rises is one of most anticipated cinematic experiences in years.
     Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, when Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent so Gotham could have a hero that they needed to become a better city. Bruce Wayne, secluded in a massive manor while Gotham became a city with less crime and more opportunity, once again has to come forward due to a new, incredibly powerful villain that is threatening not just Batman and Gotham's citizens, but its class and financial systems as well. The film is filled to burst with thoughts on terrorism and class warfare--I'm hesitant to mention 9/11 or the recent shooting at the Colorado theater, but when watching the film, it's hard not to react to a plot that feeds off of America's collective consciousness and our anxiety in a post-9/11 era, where fear (instead of hope) is pumped through every news station on television, fear as gross as raw sewage.
     The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan's last film about the caped crusader, and it comes with the same finality as a period at the end of a sentence. It helps having a brilliant core of actors at your disposal, willing to go to great lengths to make this a potent third and final installment (something rare in trilogies). Particularly great are three actors: Christian Bale has always been a great choice for Batman (even if you hate his over-the-top deep growl when donning the bat costume), but in The Dark Knight Rises his portrayal reaches a point of melancholy and sadness that was never reached in the previous two installments. His scenes with the great Michael Caine (as Alfred) boast a specific impressiveness, as the tears well up in his eyes when he finally says "Goodbye". Caine has always filled Alfred with humor and common-sense intelligence, and a little of that is here too, but his regret in this final film is what will gain him award nominations at the end of this year. Then we have the newcomer to this series, Tom Hardy, a brilliant actor who plays the muscly, brawling Bane, a man-beast of a villain who unfortunately had the job of living up to one of the greatest bad-guy performances in all of cinema. Though his motivations are a bit murky, his performance is admirable and full of force.
     Bane enters the city of Gotham intent causing Armageddon with his fists and a nuclear reactor core. He provides most of the action in the film, specifically in two key scenes that are exciting but didn't especially reach the greatness of The Dark Knight. In the first one, he takes over the city's stock exchange, then he and his crew make their getaway on some high-speed motorcycles with hostages strapped to the rear-end. It was good, but nothing that was better than most other summer blockbusters. At least we got out first look at Batman's new vehicle (aptly named "The Bat"), a flying well-armed machine that maybe seemed a bit out of place in this realistic superhero universe. If you've seen any of the trailer's for The Dark Knight Rises, then you've seen the second epic set piece: the destruction of Gotham's football stadium at the opening kickoff of a game. Unfortunately, this entire sequence was spoiled if you had seen the advertisement (some of the football players were from the real-life Pittsburgh Steelers, so also unfortunately, Hines Ward didn't fall in the massive hole on the field).
     But Bane isn't the only new character that provides a spark to this final installment: two new women provide a foil and love interest for Bruce Wayne and Batman. One is Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). It's fair to say many were skeptical to how Cat would fit into Nolan's universe, but Hathaway puts enough sass, sarcasm and sexiness into the pick-pocketing character to make it her own. The other is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a mysterious millionaire with interesting motivations that may save (or be the downfall of) Bruce Wayne's company. Like every woman who plays a major part in these three films, they quickly realize that getting close to Bruce (or Batman) may be far too dangerous to handle. And let us not forget about Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young cop on the Gotham force who realizes how powerful the hope that Batman's actions can bring to a folding community. He may play the most important role of all in the end to this trilogy.
     No, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't reach the heights of its predecessor, The Dark Knight. That would have been nearly impossible, an achievement that was almost completely unreachable. It suffers from too many new characters and a few predictable plot points near the end of its run time. It also isn't some grand statement on American culture (as some fan boys would lead you to believe), a prediction of what will happen when the rich keep getting richer and "leave so little for the rest of us," as Selina Kyle states. It's actually something much simpler: the final, entertaining, satisfying, sad, and--ultimately--hopeful end to one of the best big-budget trilogies in American cinema, a story of tortured souls in a treacherous environment who realize that the notion of hope is much more important than one specific costumed superhero.     (B+)

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