The Dark Knight Rises

So here we are, the final big superhero movie of the summer (at least if you live outside Japan, but I’ve bitched enough about the four month wait for The Avengers). Not only does The Dark Knight Rises round out the summer trilogy of big superhero movies, but it also rounds out Nolan’s Batman trilogy that began with Batman Begins. When Batman next appears on the big screen, it will be a different actor under the cowl with a different director at the helm, and in a different universe (Warner Bros. has already confirmed they will reboot Batman following The Dark Knight Rises, and I’ll get to that later).

I am a bit sad to see this series end, especially Christian Bale’s role as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Ever since I saw American Psycho, I was telling anyone who’d listen that Bale is the perfect actor to play the Caped Crusader. So when he was actually cast, you can imagine how quickly I flipped. Three movies later, I’m still happy about this choice. There are certain actors who were just born to play certain characters — Christopher Reeve/Superman, Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man, Patrick Stewart/Professor X, and I added Christian Bale/Batman to that list seconds after Batman Begins.

Nolan and Bale brought Batman into the modern superhero cinematic family with Batman Begins and proved that even after the disastrous Batman & Robin, the Caped Crusader can still be a contender. And then Nolan raised the bar for superhero movies everywhere with The Dark Knight. Not only was it a good superhero movie, but The Dark Knight was a game-changer. Now, even the snootiest of film snobs was taking another look at superheroes. And The Dark Knight, in my opinion, didn’t really do anything that hadn’t been done in superhero films before — I think HulkX-MenX2, Iron Man, and Batman Begins all did similar things as well — but the execution of it in The Dark Knight was just better (helped in no small part by Heath Ledger’s stunning performance as the Joker).

But enough on all that. This is supposed to be a review of The Dark Knight Rises so let’s get on that. Spoilers are after the jump.

The movie opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart in the previous film) has been lionized as the hero of Gotham and there’s a Harvey Dent Day to commemorate his legacy. Gotham has also passed the Dent Act to further crackdown on crime and Arkham has now been replaced by Blackgate. Bruce (Christian Bale) has retired not only as Batman, but pretty much as Bruce Wayne as well and become a recluse. The only human contact he has any more is with Alfred (Michael Caine). Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is back here as well and he’s still commissioner, but his time is drawing short. As someone comments early in the film, Gordon is a war hero and this is peacetime, and as such, the mayor (Nestor Carbonell) is planning to dismiss him shortly.

While Gotham is enjoying its peace, a plane carrying Bane (Tom Hardy) makes its way to Gotham. Like Bruce, Bane was trained by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) but was excommunicated from the League of Shadows because he was too extreme (and for an organization that burns cities to the ground, that’s quite a feat). Bane has been hired by Wayne Enterprises rival, John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) to help him take control of Wayne Enterprises through the stock market. To do this, Daggett has also hired cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to get her hands on Bruce’s fingerprints so they can make stock purchases using thumbprint recognition. This stock market gambling almost causes Wayne Enterprises to fall under Daggett’s control, but Bruce and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) work with board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) for her to take control of the company instead.

Young police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Gordon discover the existence of tunnels beneath Gotham where Bane is building an army. Blake tells Bruce about this after Gordon is hospitalized and Bruce dons the Batsuit again.

Batman’s confrontation with Bane, however, ends badly. He’s broken (in a recreation of the classic scene from Batman #497) and thrown in the very same pit Bane grew up in. Here, Bruce recuperates and hears the legend of a child who was born in the prison, protected by a mysterious guardian, who managed to climb out of the pit. Bruce theorizes that this child is Bane, the son of Ra’s al Ghul.

In Gotham, Bane takes control of the city, cutting it off from the outside world and threatening to detonate a neutron bomb if anyone tries to intervene. Batman manages to return, however, and in the big twist, we find out that Bane wasn’t the child who climbed from the pit — he was the protector. The child, however, was Talia, daughter of Ra’s al Ghul. After she escaped, she went to her father and the League raided the pit, freeing Bane and training him before he was cast out. As a result of the injuries Bane endured while protecting Talia, he’s in constant agony, helped only by painkillers delivered via his mask. Talia planned to avenge her father’s death by assuming the name of Miranda Tate.

So yes, Nolan lied to you all when he said Cotillard was not playing Talia. I did suspect that from the beginning, so I was glad that it turned out to be the case.

After defeating Bane and Talia, Batman takes the bomb, set to go off, and flies it away from the city. It detonates and everyone assumes Bruce is dead, but later it turns out he survived and is now living overseas with Selina. Meanwhile, in Bruce’s will, he leaves Blake a bag and in it is spelunking gear and a GPS. When he accepts it, John reveals that his full name is Robin John Blake. He spelunks into the Batcave and discovers all the equipment there and the platform housing the Batsuit begins to rise over the credits as Blake stands on it.

So there are some things here that were accurately predicted — Miranda is really Talia, Bruce is killed, and Blake takes up the Batman mantle. My own theory, that Blake becomes Nightwing, was mistaken, but I was right that Blake is indeed a stand-in for Robin. I was a little disappointed that all these twists were predicted months ago but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment.

The returning cast are all back in top form. Adding to the mix, Hathaway is perfect as Selina. She’s not a villain, but she’s a criminal with a good heart, doing what she needs to in order to survive. Gordon-Levitt is also great to watch in any movie he’s in and I would love to see him actually playing Nightwing. Hardy’s portrayal of Bane is great — the character was shafted in Batman & Robin, turned into a grunting thug. Nolan rightfully restores Bane to the glory he deserves — he’s the pinnacle of human strength and he’s also viciously intelligent. Tying him into the League of Shadows makes perfect sense — as a child wrongly imprisoned for the crimes of his father, he’s the perfect candidate for the League of Shadows. We also get Cillian Murphy back reprising his role as Jonathan Crane, just as we did in The Dark Knight. No mention is made of the Joker, but apparently in the novelization, it’s revealed that he is now the sole prisoner in Arkham. Some people have complained that there was no mention of the Joker, but I saw no problem with it. Without Ledger, there’s really no reason to show the Joker in my opinion.

The Dark Knight Rises does a great job of tying together the three films. As good as The Dark Knight was, there wasn’t a whole lot dealing with Batman Begins other than a few subtle references, so it’s nice to see that this film builds off both its predecessors.

As good as it is, though, it doesn’t quite reach the level of The Dark Knight. I’d rank it as a close second to that film, but better than Batman Begins (but all three are great films). It’s nice to see a superhero trilogy that doesn’t completely stumble with the third film. As I mentioned in my review of The Avengers, most superhero trilogies seem to follow a formula — a good first film, a great second film, and then a completely lackluster third film that causes the story to fizzle out. And in some cases, you get a fourth film, which I deem the  how-much-coke-were-these-movie-execs-snorting-film.

Now that Nolan’s trilogy is over, so is both his and Bale’s time in the Batcave. Warner Bros. has already confirmed they’ll be rebooting the franchise to make way for a Justice League film in order to complete with The Avengers. You could see some shades of this in Green Lantern, but the disappointment of that film makes one wonder whether or not those connections will remain or if it’ll just be sort of ignored. 

The big test will be how well Man of Steel does next year. If it manages to meet the success of The Dark Knight franchise, Justice League is pretty much guaranteed, I think. But if it turns out to be like Green Lantern or Superman Returns, Warner Bros. may have second thoughts.

When the reboot comes along, here are some of my suggestions:

Less Miller, More Dini/Timm

Look, Frank Miller’s contributed a lot to the Batman mythos, but there have been a lot more incarnations of Batman. I say take some more notes from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and the DC animated universe. Batman can be a grim avenger grounded in the world of Gotham, but still be able to work in a world populated by other heroes.

No More Origin

Everyone and their grandmother knows Batman’s origin. Even if you’ve never read a Batman comic book or watched a Batman movie or a TV show. It’s such a big part of modern-day mythology. In this instance, take a note from The Incredible Hulk — if you need to show it, you just need to do it briefly. Nolan already gave us such a perfect origin with Batman Begins that there is no reason to retread that ground. Instead, the next Batman movie should open up after he’s been operating in Gotham for a few years. Again, this also ties into Batman: The Animated Series — it didn’t start with an origin, it started with Batman already established in Gotham.

Batman’s a Team Player

Also along that route, in order to do something different with Batman, it would help to establish him as a team player. Again, look at Batman: The Animated Series. Or how about the recent Batman: Arkham City video game? Yes, Batman is still the focal point, but we get glimpses of his wider world, what with the segments with Catwoman and the appearance of Robin, not to mention help provided by Alfred and Oracle. You can show a bit more of the Bat-family without devolving into Batman & Robin territory. It wouldn’t hurt to finally get a live-action version of Robin who’s not an annoying twit in dire need of a few smacks.

And yeah, I know that any time you mention Robin, the collective assholes of Bat-movie fans tighten, but so what? Robin’s been a very integral part of the Batman mythos almost since the beginning (Robin only debuted about a year after Batman). It’s time to get away from the goofy sidekick stereotype and portray Robin as a capable crimefighter in his own right who brings some light to Batman’s bleak world. Robin has a similarly tragic origin, but he doesn’t wallow in it like Batman does — he’s still able to enjoy life. In that way, he represents hope.

Rethink the Costume

Ever since Tim Burton’s Batman, it’s been accepted as a rule that Batman needs a big, heavy suit. It doesn’t have to be that way. Look at The Avengers — Hawkeye and Black Widow, despite being humans with no powers, didn’t need bulky protection and audiences had no trouble buying it. Think about brightening it up slightly — I don’t mean going back to the blue underpants, but have the cowl, cape, gloves and boots be black while keeping the actual bodysuit gray. It will help differentiate the character from the previous incarnations.

No More “I Don’t Want To Be Batman”

Virtually every Batman movie has had a scene somewhere where Bruce questions whether or not he should be Batman. If I see one more scene like this, I think I may lose my shit. Batman is who Bruce is. He can’t stop, so stop wasting my time with the second-guessing.

But most importantly…

Be Smart

You know why The Avengers has proved to be successful? Because Marvel was smart about it. They hired people who loved the material and wanted to do it justice. They set up contracts to get people to agree to appear in other movies. It takes more than tossing in Amanda Waller to build up to a Justice League movie. You need to have an actual strategy in place. If Batman is going to exist in the same universe as Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman, you can’t just do the same thing Nolan did. Even Nolan himself said that there’s no room in the world of his movies for other superheroes. So plan ahead. If you do, there’s no reason there can’t be a Justice League movie that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with The Avengers.

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