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August 2, 2012

This review contains mild spoilers. The spoiler-free review is it’s flawed but great and go see it.

When INCEPTION came out, I referred to Christopher Nolan as the “king of the flawed masterpiece.” The dialogue can be clunky and on the nose, melodrama can run high, fridge logic occasionally runs amok, and yet it’s delivered with such a level of craft, finesse, and excitement, he somehow gets away with it. I know the problems are there. I’m staring right at them. I could make a numbered list. But I just find myself caught up in enjoying the experience too much to care.

This is as much the case with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as any of his other work. It has its issues, undeniably — mostly in the story/plotting but a few of them technical — but it’s so fun to watch, I’m willing to just roll my eyes indulgently and move on.

A movie like this is only as good as its villain, and while Tom Hardy’s Bane is not as breathtaking as Ledger’s inspired performance, taken on his own he’s a fascinating character. His unusual, almost foppish manner of speech contrasts with his fierce physical strength and presence in a way that commands my attention every time he’s onscreen.

There’s a moment, when he’s speaking to a corrupt businessman who has been helping him, when the businessman shouts “I’m still in charge here!” Bane gently places his hand — palm up, not gripping — on the businessman’s shoulder and asks, equally gently, “Do you feel in charge?” It’s a moment as revealing and terrifying as Joker’s pencil trick, cementing Bane, for me, as a worthy successor to that iconic villain. And as with Ledger’s turn, at no point do I recognize the actor behind the mask. I see only the character, fully realized as though he’s always been there.

I wasn’t really on board with the idea of Anne Hathaway as “Catwoman” (never directly referred to as such in the film), but while she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she’s well-written and I actually really like Hathaway’s performance.

Michael Caine is fantastic as always, although this time around he doesn’t get a lot of screen time and most of it is spent choking back tears. Likewise, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon isn’t in itself a performance to write home about, but knowing how capable Oldman is of chewing the scenery given the opportunity, the restraint he shows in playing one of the only sane men in a city gone mad is really something. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer/Detective John “[Spoiler]” Blake may well have the most screen time of anyone in the film. I like JGL, and clearly Nolan does too, but I couldn’t help feeling perhaps the film could have find better uses of that time.

Any long-term “plan” the filmmakers may have had for the franchise was, I expect, scuttled when Heath Ledger’s death prevented the Joker’s return in future installments. But they seem to have done something few franchise filmmakers bother to do — they actually seem to have gone back and studied the previous films, reminding themselves of plot and story elements and available loose ends from which they could draw. Most franchise sequels — including this film’s predecessor THE DARK KNIGHT — rely on previous installments only in the use of the established “rules” of the story universe, and broad character relationships. But the events of TDKR — both on the macro scale of what happens to Gotham, and the micro scale of what happens to and between the characters — follow as direct consequences of the events of the previous two films.

This sense of tying up of loose ends succeeds in making the story feel as though it has come full circle, and as though the three films are indeed telling a single story — as the marketing calls it, the Dark Knight Legend. It is, also, a definitive conclusion to this version of Batman’s adventures — another rare occurrence in tentpole franchises (ones not based on a story with an existing ending, anyway), and strangely refreshing as a result.

But it’s a double-edged sword. That the film draws so heavily in theme and story from the previous films is a feature, but it’s also a bug in the sense that it renders the film incapable of standing on its own. In their quest to wrap up loose ends, the film races from plot point to plot point, leaving little breathing room for the audience or character moments, making the movie feel rushed despite its length and, at times, almost monotonous. It’s like a roller coaster that simply plunges downward, with hardly any twists or turns to disrupt the linear motion of the plot. It’s exhilarating in its way, but I can see how it left some people feeling strangely empty and unsatisfied with the experience.

It also doesn’t trust the audience very much — the mechanics of Bane’s plan are explained on two or three separate occasions, as is a “Clean Slate” MacGuffin driving Catwoman’s participation in the plot, and a character’s realization, despite being well expressed by the juxtaposition of images, apparently needs to be spoken aloud to be certain we get it. (Perhaps Nolan is overcompensating for the people who loudly proclaimed INCEPTION “confusing.”)

Having now seen the entirety of Nolan’s take on the Batman mythos, I do wish in hindsight we’d seen more of Gotham’s corruption, and more of what Bruce Wayne saw that, in his view, made it worth saving. Sure, BEGINS shows that the police force is bought and paid for by organized crime, but Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows were obsessed with the decadence of Gotham — its social corruption — as much as its institutional corruption. Gotham, in his view, had to be punished for the failure of its people to meet some standard of honor. Gotham was Gomorrah, and the League of Shadows was God’s wrath to be poured out upon it. They never put it in those terms, of course, but that’s the archetype.

Bane’s goal in TDKR is to pick up where Ra’s left off, to destroy Gotham once and for all. But I still don’t really know why. What’s wrong with Gotham? What’s this “decadence” we keep hearing about? Even Catwoman references it, in justifying her lifestyle of theft. When Bane’s plan gets into motion and the people of Gotham storm the Bastille — sorry, Blackgate — and throw the bourgeoisie into the streets — I mean, I get it intellectually because of the above-referenced historical corollaries, but it makes me wish I’d seen it.

I wish I’d seen the oppression of the underclass in Gotham more explicitly, seen it rather than heard it spoken of, seen that the League has a point, and felt Batman’s helpless horror as the seething anger of the oppressed — and, perhaps, even of the righteous — became another weapon to fall into the wrong hands. As it is, it just passes in a “things are bad” montage and we have to move on to the next stage of the plot.

Such a change, though, would require reworking not just TDKR but all three films, which would have required the long-term plan I’ve already said I don’t believe they had. For basically making it up as they went along (they had decades of comic books to go from, but I’m inclined to think such a wealth of possibilities made things harder), I think they did a wonderful job. It’s an imperfect film, but I’ve seen it twice now and each time found myself on the edge of my seat during Batman’s climactic, desperate race to save Gotham from its ultimate destruction. In a time when you can’t swing a cat without hitting a movie trilogy, very few manage to keep up such a consistent level of enjoyment and quality, tell a solid story and generally stick the landing the way Nolan does here.

So many people are perfectly willing to advocate “turning off your brain and just having a good time” when it comes to repugnant trash like the TRANSFORMERS films, yet hone in hard on every little issue in a film like this. As I’ve said of INCEPTION, if this kind of movie were the low-bar “turn your brain off and have fun” summer fare… my god, wouldn’t that be beautiful?

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