It's one of the most anticipated films of the year, but will Batman be able to rise one last time to meet box-office expectations?
Batman is gone. It’s eight years since Bruce Wayne hung up the cowl and let the people of Gotham think he was the man who had murdered Harvey Dent, rather than saved them from him. Only Commissioner Gordon knows the truth but he’s also aware that his own days may be numbered in a department that wants to move on and can already genuinely boast low crime-figures. So Gordon keeps to his silence and Wayne to his gothic manor, available to the city as a name but not a physical presence.
But elsewhere there are plans to shake the people of Gotham out of their apathy. Someone has noticed the rich getting richer at the expense of the average Gothamite and is more interested in what happens when you show the average citizen the power they have. A masked gang-lord, known only as Bane, arrives within the city limits, immediately making his presence known. Will the attacks give Bruce Wayne the impetus to get back into the bat-suit once more – and even if he does so, is he any match for an opponent with superior strength and a far more intricate plan than anyone is giving him credit for? Our hero is helped and hindered by an infamous cat-burglar, Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and the stage is set for an epic tale of revenge and the crushing of spirit, one from which both Batman and Bruce Wayne may not be able to walk away unscathed…
With very few people apparently allowed to see the film ahead of release - Warners only showing the film to the press this week and even then, seemingly reluctantly - there have been both very positive and very negative reviews coming out of the elite’s keyboards. Clearly this was going to be a film that was a must-see, whichever view you ultimately took on the result. The truth is… that finished result is something in between. As expected, there is much to be applauded and Nolan remains a firmly A-List film-maker, tilting to the creatively-satisfying rather than being the puppet of executive whimsy. Unfortunately, when it flies, it soars majestically… when it walks, which it does for extended portions of its over-long 164 minute running-time, it tends to stagger under the weight on its own earnest shoulders.
One must applaud the fact that Nolan has approached the material and subject-matter as ‘real’, refusing to populate his landscape with the bizarre and merely giving the ‘unlikely’ a streamlined, steely grace. Moving on from the more stylised city view of ‘Batman Begins’ which evolved into more recognisable city-streets in The Dark Knight we are now firmly in a Gotham which is that world’s New York City and has given up pretending to be anything different. And though the Dark Knight is in the title and huge sections of the film feel like Wayne being given a half-time pep-talk by a sports psychologist, this is firmly a story about Gotham as it is about any of its characters. One thing Nolan can do is backdrops.
The character balance in the foreground is handled less well. While fight-scenes are fun and the 'Bat' aircraft soars well, Nolan over-packs his final chapter until there's far too many elements to juggle without letting some elements fall. Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and even a suited-up Batman himself are missing from long stretches and some supporting characters, who feel they will have something to offer, vanish with no real explantion (Juno Temple, so good in Killer Joe is utterly wasted here). Yet there somehow still seems time for cameos (from previous Bat-chapters as well as something for fans of Stargate and Torchwood) and flashbacks which feel self-indulgent when there's so much else going on. Positively, Nolan has gone out of his way to eschew the obligatory reliance on CGI and though there are signature scenes that require it, usually to good effect, a majority of the film is street-level angst and hands-on combat. However, when Nolan pulls out all the stops, the canvas expands to fit and we’re treated to some breath-taking, audacious set-pieces which go towards the price of admission.
What’s missing is any sign of real humour to counter the darkness. Whedon’s Avengers were fun – they had as many punch-lines as punches, but Nolan’s latest Dark Knight has a permanent furrowed-brow. Bale is convincingly moody and troubled receiving the usual quality of councel from faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Hathaway’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman is enjoyable and she has the better share of the sardonic one-liners, but there’s no real joy or colour amongst the muted blues and greys on show throughout the film. All our characters are either angry, sad, emotionally-damaged or compromised, all the cityscapes are steel, stone and rubble. Plenty of muscle, not so much heart. It's all angst written large.
Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises is a sprawling epic is both senses of the phrase. In the vein of an abstract painting, it’s a superbly detailed mess or broad-stroked canvas in which people will see and take away from it what they want and judge it accordingly. There’s no doubting there are some political analogies (though Rush Limbaugh’s recent tirade that naming the villain Bane was a plan by Barack Obama to take advantage of Mitt Romney’s controversial ‘Bain Capital’ links remains bizarrely paranoid and stupid) but any specific message is unclear – on one hand the rich are seen to be corrupt, complacent and opportunistic, but on the other the poorer and disenfranchised are seen to be easily led and stupid. When the final confrontation between Batman and his enemies finally moves centre-stage once more, the a climactic battle between the police and those who have cowtow’d to Bane forms the back-drop. It’s anarchy -just who are we supposed to root for? Nolan presents the human condition as a war-story, but is less clear with the moral high-ground.
Ambitious throughout, Nolan’s trilogy is still to be appreciated for the things it DOES get right and showing that superheroes don’t need to be simplistic. While the flawed ‘Rises’ may never reach the set-the-benchmark heights that Nolan, Bale and the late Heath Ledger climbed in the middle chapter of the saga, it’s still worth the price of admission.
The Dark Knight Rises, distributed by Warner Bros. opens 20th July.