The Dark Knight Rises
I'm sure my readers are quite tired of hearing excuses for my tardiness by now. I had watched The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday the 21st (of July), just two days before it officially opened in cinemas, hoping I'd get my review up early for once. After that viewing, I decided I needed to see it again; I found the picture at GSC 1Utama to be somewhat distractingly dim, and thought it the fault of a run-down projector. It was over a week before I got the chance to watch it again, this time at GSC Tropicana Mall, and it was the same. Seems it's due to the overly-bright Malay subtitles on the Digital 2D print that washes out the rest of the picture. Feh and fiddlesticks, but I couldn't watch the new Batman movie on anything other than Digital 2D. I think I may have become spoiled by the extra crispness and sharpness of the format now; I shudder to think what a normal analog-projected movie would look like to me now.
Oh, and the movie? The movie... is not as good as its 5-star immediate predecessor. But it is still very good.
Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, crime in Gotham City has almost been eradicated. But the Batman has not been seen since, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a virtual shut-in. A burglary on Wayne Manor by a professional thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) gets Bruce intrigued enough to start investigating, causing concern for Alfred (Michael Caine) who fears his latent death wish may lead him to suit up as Batman again. But Bruce may not have a choice. A shadowy figure known as Bane (Tom Hardy) is gathering an army of fanatics in the sewers of Gotham, and Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) barely survives an encounter with them. A young police officer named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) - who has already sussed out Bruce's secret alter ego on his own - seeks his help. Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) tries his best to hold the family fortune together in the wake of a disastrous clean energy reactor that Bruce invested billions into - a passion project of board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) who is trying to get close to Bruce. And all the while, Bane's apocalyptic plans for Gotham City continue unabated - and the aged and weakened Batman may not be his match.
There are two main things I want to say in this review. The first goes something like this: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as The Dark Knight. It is noticeably flawed in more ways, and the flaws more noticeable, than that film, which is itself not entirely flawless. But that does not make it a bad film. What with the online chatter consisting of comments like "It really annoyed me when etc. etc.", "I couldn't believe Nolan decided to etc. etc.", or "That mind-bogglingly stupid part where etc. etc. etc.", you'd think this movie is a total bust. And if you honestly disliked it, I can't really argue. But there's so much Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer did right that the detractors are completely overlooking in their fervour to nitpick the little things they did wrong. This is not Prometheus in which the plot holes are reflective of lazy filmmaking that undermines the entire film. This is a highly ambitious endeavour (in many ways, more so than even Prometheus), and its flaws are those of overreaching its grasp rather than ineptness.
It is not as unrelentingly gripping as The Dark Knight; there are distinct dips and troughs in its pacing, and it feels slow at times. It is not as tightly-written; it attempts to juggle too many characters and subplots and does not do justice to all of them, e.g. the part Blake plays in the climax. As good as Anne Hathaway is as Catwoman - and she is good enough to put paid to her many detractors, even before the movie came out - the character is also largely peripheral. Certain parts strain disbelief, e.g. the infamously hellish prison in an unnamed country that operates under no apparent governing authority, and does not seem all that unpleasant to boot. In fact, I felt that that entire prison sequence is the weakest part of the film, and not just because the resolution of it is even more disbelief-straining. It's largely because, in telling a story of how Batman suffers a terrible defeat and then painfully recovers from it (adapted from the Knightfall comicbook storyline), the plot tries to accomplish too much within a traditional three-act screenplay structure that isn't quite suited to that kind of story.
But once again, that's just how daring and ambitious this film is. And more often than not, it succeeds at what it dares for. Where The Dark Knight evoked the post-911 fear of terrorism, The Dark Knight Rises uncannily mirrors the class resentments and wealth inequalities that gave rise to the Occupy movement. (Uncanny, because the Nolans and Goyer had been writing their story since before the movement even began.) And yet, the uprising of the common people against the wealthy and powerful is led by the villains, their revolutionary rhetoric clearly stated as Bane's ruse to destroy the very Gothamites he pretends to lead. Once again, Nolan straddles that fine line of appropriating social and political issues without taking sides, creating a story that is thrillingly relevant. But it's by no means short of traditional thrills either. The two Batman/Bane face-offs, Tom Hardy's fearsome performance, the all-action finale, the new Bat flying vehicle, getting to see more of the Batpod's oh so cool double-axis wheels... there's plenty here that's just straight up comicbook superhero action, and it's terrifically well done.
A lot of people also dislike the film for being not entirely faithful with the comicbook Batman. Which brings me to the second point I want to make: no, it isn't entirely faithful. Anyone familiar with the character will likely find something slightly bothersome about his portrayal here (for me, it's the fact that Batman has been retired all this while, which means his career lasted all of two years). But Nolan isn't out to slavishly adapt the comicbooks. He's as good as reinventing the character wholesale, in the same way as DC might reboot Batman and retell his origin in a limited series. That hadn't really become clear till this third instalment of his trilogy - in which Bruce Wayne's story ends, definitively. Comicbook superheroes can never end. Certainly not one as timelessly popular - and timelessly profit-making - as Batman. There will always be another issue next month, even if it's a new storyline and new direction with a new writer-artist team. But what Nolan has done here is bring a final, unequivocal conclusion to the story he started in Batman Begins. The Bruce Wayne in the comics may go on forever. This one, in these movies, won't.
And why can't he? Why, in fact, can't Nolan reinvent and reinterpret Batman the way he sees fit? Dozens of comic creators, from Frank Miller with Batman: Year One to Geoff Johns and Gary Frank with the recent Batman: Earth One, have put their own spin on the origins of the character; why can't Nolan? So Batman never teams up with Robin. So Bruce Wayne was Batman for only two years before an eight-year hiatus that ends with one last adventure. So there's no Dick Grayson or Jason Todd or Tim Drake. (Or Riddler, or Penguin.) I've decried Hollywood's lack of faith in the comic properties they try to adapt before, but who could possibly accuse these three films of not respecting Batman? I think what Nolan has accomplished here - created a mature, intelligent, tremendously well-realized cinematic portrayal of Batman that's as good as the absolute best comic stories - qualifies him to take the liberties he took.
And it behooves us to give him his dues for it. Yes, it's not as good as The Dark Knight, and by a fair margin. But it is a fine film on its own, and even better as a conclusion to what will now be known as Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. The execs at Warner Brothers have a truly unenviable task ahead in deciding where to take the franchise next, but the trilogy ends in as wonderfully open-ended a manner as anyone could expect. A Batman fan could walk out of the cinema dreaming of how to continue this story, in this Gotham City and with these surviving characters who are bound to have adventures yet ahead of them. (And I can still dream of my casting of Natalie Portman as Harley Quinn.) Which is what the finest stories always do: leave us wanting more, and stimulate our imagination to satisfy that desire - awakening in us the delicious possibilities of story. The Dark Knight Trilogy has ended, we shall never see its like again, and the future is uncertain for Batman and any other DC superhero movie. But for now, I'll be content to simply appreciate what Nolan has left us - the highs, the lows, and the dreams.
NEXT REVIEW: Total Recall (2012)
Expectations: the trailers looked good, but the reviews...