BIGBMH Reviews The Dark Knight Rises
Does the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy live up to the high standard of the franchise? Find out in this extensive review!
Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise has been setting the standard for excellence in comic book movies since it began. I remember falling in love with Batman Begins as it pulled me in right from the beginning and kept me engaged all the way to the exciting revelation of the joker card at the end. There have been very few times when I have awaited a movie as eagerly as I did for The Dark Knight over the 3 years that followed. The more I saw, the more certain I was that it was going to be an incredible movie. Somehow, even with my expectations so high, The Dark Knight managed to blow me away. This year, I had a similar experience of finally getting to watch a movie that was pretty much everything I hoped it would be after years of waiting. That movie was called The Avengers. My experience with The Dark Knight Rises has been quite... different.
Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight left us with an ending that could have been a satisfying conclusion to the story if they chose to leave it there. Yet, at the same time it created a desire to see where things would go. Loving these two movies as much as I did, I put a lot of thought into how to give this series the best conclusion possible. As I started to learn about The Dark Knight Rises, it became clear that this would be quite different from the follow-up I had envisioned. I will admit that I've had some bias against this movie due to the pride I felt toward my own ideas. I will also admit that while I never became one of the extreme fanboys who built up a war between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, my issues with the direction this story was taking caused me to lean toward The Avengers side of this dispute. However, I wanted to see both movies succeed and I always hoped that I would be proven wrong about The Dark Knight Rises. I did my best to keep an open mind and I wanted to like this movie. In fact, after the rave reviews that some critics and many of my fellow fans had given this movie, I drove to the movie theater fully expecting to come out satisfied and raving about how Christopher Nolan had just completed the greatest movie trilogy of all time. However, The Dark Knight Rises drops the ball in some major ways.
I have written a quite a lot for this review so for the sake of the reader and in the hope that this does not feel like a rambling mess, I've separated it into 3 parts. Part 1a has no spoilers so it is the only section I recommend reading for those of you who have not seen the movie. Part 1b is a detailed look at what I believe works and doesn't work within this story. Parts 2 and 3 will be a continuation of this review through separate articles.
Part 1a: Just The Basics
Being as objective as I can, I won't say that The Dark Knight Rises is a bad movie. Like pretty much everything Christopher Nolan works on, it's well made. The acting is great all around. Christian Bale convincingly takes Bruce Wayne through this final part of the journey as the character goes through several stages. Michael Caine delivers his best performance of the series as Alfred, providing some of the movie's most emotional moments. Gary Oldman isn't given as much to work with as he was in the other movies, but is still great as an older, wearier Jim Gordon. Joseph Gordon Levitt brings a humble, everyman charm and an appropriate amount of toughness to the character of John Blake, who might actually be my favorite character in the movie. Anne Hathaway makes Catwoman her own, but I couldn't fully get into this version of the character. At this point I'm unsure if that is more about Hathaway's portrayal of the character or the role the character plays in the story. Tom Hardy does a great job of portraying a very powerful and commanding Bane. I think the appearance of Bane's mask makes him even more intimidating by evoking the image of a muzzle placed on a dangerous dog or the restraint mask worn by Hannibal Lecter. Heath Ledger's Joker was a very tough act to follow, but Bane is such a different character that he really doesn't get overshadowed by the memory of the Joker. I observed an interesting connection between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises that is either coincidental or ingeniously subtle. At the beginning of Batman Begins, Bruce tells one of the prisoners "You're not the devil. You're practice." In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane makes his presence known to a man who was talking about him by saying "Speak of the devil and he shall appear." The writers might have had Bane refer to himself as the devil to reinforce the idea that he is the ultimate challenge that Batman has been preparing for. It's probably just a coincidence, but it achieves a cool effect nonetheless.
The action in the movie is on a much grander scale and the fight scenes are the best of the trilogy. However, some of the action scenes lacked the spark of their counterparts in the earlier Batman movies. I think one of the things that can make an action scene memorable is the inclusion of fun moments that take the audience by surprise. For example, The Dark Knight has an exciting chase sequence that concludes with Batman using the pod to flip a tractor trailer then effortlessly executing a quick turn by running the pod's front wheel up a wall. The chase scenes as well as the other action scenes of The Dark Knight Rises lack those fun moments that can induce an audible reaction from a crowd and make audiences smile even upon repeated viewings. This reflects one of my issues with The Dark Knight Rises as a whole. The majority of the movie is bleak and somber. This tone is understandable, but the movie doesn't offset the darkness with fun as well as the other movies of the trilogy. Meanwhile, most of the dramatic elements of the movie didn't make me feel very much. The plot never really managed to pull me in and engage me the way that I had come to expect from this series. This is partially because the story is somewhat unfocused. I'll elaborate more on this later, but for now I'll just say that the story really just doesn't feel as well put together as those found in either of the other movies in this series. The Dark Knight has a lot going on, but just about every element of the story is well developed and fits together beautifully. The Dark Knight Rises fails to develop the individual pieces to a satisfactory level and integrate them effectively.
Part 1b: Does this story work as well as it should?
Some of the major driving forces in this movie are Bane, what he does to Bruce, and what he plans to do to Gotham. For me, Bane's ultimate goal does not feel new and interesting enough. While the threats in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight manage to feel quite different from each other, The Dark Knight Rises chooses to revisit Ra's al Ghul's mission from Batman Begins. The movie does justify this similarity within the story, but that didn't make it any more interesting for me. In fact, this time around it made less sense and the method for executing this plan felt less fitting. At the beginning of Batman Begins, fake Ras al Ghul says that "... the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die." Ok, I get that. The city is poor, crime ridden, and corrupt so the League of Shadows believes that to serve true justice, they have wipe the slate clean and allow things to begin again. So how about Bane's plan? He still wants to destroy Gotham and "fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny," but the ideological justification isn't really there. As a result of Batman and Jim Gordon's lie, the Harvey Dent act goes into effect and Gotham is no longer plagued by organized crime and corruption. It's just a pretty normal city. The fact that Gotham is so safe is even emphasized in the conversation between John Blake and Jim Gordon when they first meet. So why exactly does Bane want to destroy it?
Also, as I mentioned, the method for destroying the city is not as fitting or meaningful this time around. Ra's al Ghul planned to use a fear toxin to spread panic and drive the people of Gotham to tear each other apart. Fear is central to the story of Batman Begins. The story begins with Bruce falling into a well and being scared by a bunch of bats, who his father later tells him attacked him out of fear. All creatures feel fear. As a man, Bruce sought to use fear as a weapon against those who would prey on the fearful, thus becoming Batman. Fast forward to the climax, and you've got Ra's al Ghul literally using fear as a weapon in what he believes is a mission for justice. Looking at this movie, the themes of fear, overcoming fear, and using fear as a weapon are present from beginning to end, with the endgame of Ra's al Ghul serving as a brilliant cap on everything. I've given a good bit of thought to the method that Bane wanted to use to destroy the city and the most I can come up with is that the fusion core symbolizes the potential one thing can have to do great good or evil. Honestly though, as a plot device it didn't feel particularly creative or original. The way Batman saved Gotham from the bomb felt a bit familiar as well...
Then we have Talia. Near the end of the movie, Miranda Tate reveals her true identity as the daughter of Ra's al Ghul who had been working with Bane the whole time. Along with the majority of Batman fans, for me this revelation wasn't really a surprise. Even so, the sudden shift in her character didn't have very much of an effect because with everything that had gone on previously and all the characters who the movie had attempted to develop, Miranda hadn't made much of an impression on me. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade pulls off a similar betrayal when about halfway through the movie, Indiana's companion Elsa is revealed to be working for the Nazis. Elsa was at the forefront of the action and her role prior to this reveal was both prominent and unquestioned. Miranda was pretty insignificant when compared to some of the other supporting characters and even after her identity is revealed, she really doesn't do much. She stabs Batman and takes off to try to make sure the bomb goes off. They stop her, she delivers a short villainous monologue, and then she dies (rather terribly, I might add). I probably would have had a little more respect for the character if we got to see her fight either Bruce or Selina to establish her as a formidable foe. Instead, she just provides an ineffective plot twist and undermines the power Bane holds as the primary antagonist.
Possibly my greatest annoyance with this movie comes from the two terribly written romance subplots. Bruce becomes involved with Miranda after no real build up. After meeting a few times earlier in the movie, Miranda arrives at Wayne Manor, finding Bruce out in the rain. They go inside, talk briefly, start kissing, then she sleeps with him. To be fair, it's not like they had Bruce fall madly in love with her, but he did seem to care for her. This relationship might have felt more natural if the movie did a better job of illustrating how lonely Bruce felt instead of just establishing that he had been depressed and isolated.
Then we have the Bruce and Selina love story, if you can even call it that. Selina steals from Bruce because she wants access to the clean slate in order to wipe her background and get a new start. Later, she deceives and betrays Batman so that the League of Shadows will leave her alone. Sure, they had a few moments throughout the movie when Bruce attempted to appeal to the good in her, but the movie never really managed to make it feel like these two belonged together. Their kiss before Bruce took off in the bat to save the day just felt like it came out of nowhere, even after Selina's Han Solo-esque redemption. I wouldn't have taken much issue with it if they left it there, but they had to take it further. Selina was with Bruce when Alfred saw him at that cafe at the end of the movie. This was meant as the realization of Alfred's dream that Bruce would move on and find happiness . Given Alfred's statement that he hoped to see that Bruce was with a wife, the ending suggests to a certain extent that Selina is the love of Bruce's life. Wife or not, Selina is a prominent part of Bruce's happy ending. If that's what they wanted to do, then developing the relationship between these two characters should have been a much higher priority within the story. The first two movies did a great job of establishing how much Bruce loved Rachel Dawes and what she meant to him. Given the importance of Rachel to the first two movies, this movie really needed to put a focus on showing why its chosen love interest was really the one for Bruce if it wanted this to feel right within the larger story. In a sense, it needed to prove that Rachel was Bruce's Lana Lang while Selina was his Lois Lane. Given how underdeveloped this relationship was, the cafe scene doesn't work as well as it should as the satisfying end to Bruce Wayne's story.
Meanwhile, we have John Blake competing with Selina for the audience's attention as the movie's most important supporting character. Without all the time they spent on John, they might have been able to develop Selina into a satisfying companion for Bruce to end up with. Without all the time they spent on Selina, they might have been able to really craft more of a relationship between John and Bruce that would have made the ending to John's story more fitting. Catwoman plays a very sidekick-like role during the climax of the movie. If they had chosen to put more emphasis on the John Blake storyline, I could imagine John playing a much more active role by Batman's side during the finale. In some ways, the writing for the character was a little bit sloppy. John tells Bruce that he figured out his identity as Batman after seeing Bruce as a child when he came to visit the boy's home where John lived. He explains that he saw through Bruce's smile which he recognized as a mask due to his own need to disguise his anger after his father was murdered. This was a very well written scene and a good way to establish a connection between Bruce and John. However, it made no sense that this moment when John met Bruce as a child led him to discover that Bruce was Batman.
All this aside, I still liked the character of John Blake and, accepting the story the way it is, I don't mind the suggestion that he would become Gotham's new protector. However, I absolutely despise the decision to make his first name Robin. It was a cheap move that felt like they just wanted to cross off something on the list of major elements to represent from the world of Batman. A lot of fans are defending this decision by saying that he's an amalgamation of all the Robins so the name Robin reflected that he represented them all. I understand this point and I am not entirely opposed to this version of the story inventing a new character to fill the position of Robin. The problem is not with the depiction of John Blake. The problem is that the movie misses what's at the core of Robin's role within the world of Batman. The concept of Batman and Robin is about a relationship. It can't just be that the similarity between these two people leads John to follow Bruce's example. That's fine for this story and is suitable for a character exclusive to this movie, but that's not what Robin is. That's Terry McGinnis. For this to have been a more satisfying version of the Robin story, there had to have been a more powerful connection between these two people based on the amount of time they spent together and the significant role they played in each others' lives. Bruce helped John as a child by funding the boy's home and inspiring them when he made his visit. However, that doesn't have the power of the classic Robin story because it wasn't really a personal enough influence. He didn't have a one-on-one moment with young John that made a major impact on the boy's life. On the other side of the equation, John helped Bruce by encouraging him to come back into the world. This could have been more significant if the movie made it a little more dramatic and put it more at the center of the story, but Bruce's decision to come out of isolation just came a too easily within this movie.
This leads me to my next point. Most comic book fans would probably agree that the two Batman stories that are most represented in The Dark Knight Rises are Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns. After seeing the movie, I really don't feel like these two stories complement each other. The Dark Knight Returns features the triumphant return of Batman when he chooses to come out of retirement. Knightfall features the... triumphant return of Batman after recovering from a broken back suffered at the hands of Bane. When put together, these two returns detracted from each other. After 8 years of not being Batman anymore, Bruce basically just straps a device onto his leg to deal with that injury, puts the suit on and goes right back into action. As frail as Bruce appears in the early scenes of this movie, it would have made sense to show him working to get into a good enough physical condition to go out as Batman again. It seems like they chose not to show the necessary training leading up to this return because they had to show him training later on to recover from what Bane did to him. As a result, this first return just felt empty and the retirement aspect of the story didn't feel like it was executed to full effect.
The second return wasn't very dramatic either, partly because the movie had already gone for a "Yay! Batman is back!" moment. Also, Bane breaking Batman was not as effective a plot device as it was in Knightfall. In Knightfall, Bane formulates a plan to bring down the seemingly unstoppable Batman at his peak. He targets him specifically, puts him through the ringer, and when Batman has given everything he has, Bane breaks him and presents this broken man to the world so everyone would know that he had bested the legendary Batman. The Dark Knight Rises didn't really have the same effect of showing the fall of a great hero. This was a Batman who had been out of the game for almost a decade, who lacked the drive and determination that he had before retiring, and was arguably a shadow of his former self in both body and spirit. Unlike Knightfall, Bane was not responsible for the weakening of Batman that allowed for him to be beaten, making his victory feel less monumental. The Dark Knight Rises doesn't make Bane's plan to take down Batman feel personal enough for Batman's defeat and return to carry the weight that they should have. Bane didn't really do much to draw Batman out so when Batman does come for Bane, it seems like dispatching him and punishing him are just secondary to the larger goal rather than an integral part of his plan. Bane begins executing his plan to take over Gotham and when Batman just happens to come out of retirement to attempt to stop him, Bane sets a trap to defeat him so that he would be out of the way and suffer for what he had done. Bankrupting Bruce was the only action Bane took against him before the fight. After defeating Batman, Bane didn't even make a point of presenting the broken cowl to the world to assert his dominance by showing that Batman was no longer around, leaving no one who could really stand against him. This would make Batman's return so much more dramatic because when the people saw him, they would feel as if hope had returned. I imagine something like the climax of The Lion King could have worked very well. The climax of The Dark Knight Rises shares some key elements with this scene: the return of someone who the people thought was long gone, a challenge for dominance over a place that an evil character has defiled, and 2 factions of people who back these leaders and fight behind them. While The Dark Knight Rises delivers a large scale conflict with high stakes, in some ways it doesn't quite manage to present this final conflict between hero and villain as dramatically as The Lion King. Seeing Batman and Bane exchange words as the men backing them stood and prepared themselves for the battle could have really built the tension before the confrontation erupted.
As I pointed out earlier, the plan to destroy Gotham wasn't anything new and really didn't make as much sense this time around so a greater emphasis on the personal revenge aspect would have been more effective. Bane knows Batman's secret identity. If he wants to punish him, why not start by hitting him where it hurts the most and going after Alfred? The Dark Knight Rises never really had me on the edge of my seat with fear for a character's life the way The Dark Knight did with Rachel Dawes and Jim Gordon's family. Sure, the stakes were high in this story, but I never believed that it was going to end with a nuclear explosion that killed millions of people or that Jim Gordon would die by falling through the ice and freezing to death. When I re-watched Batman Begins recently, seeing the scene in which Alfred comforts young Bruce made me realize that if Alfred died in The Dark Knight Rises I would probably cry my eyes out. Even though Alfred's death would have made the movie a lot more emotional, I'm not saying that Alfred necessarily should have died. However, putting Alfred in serious danger at some point definitely would have had me genuinely afraid for him and given the movie some of the intensity that it was missing. Here is a character that we have grown to love over the course of this series. I think after The Dark Knight, we would all believe that Alfred might actually die. Threatening Alfred might have been a little cliche, but it would have been a good way to show how much Alfred means to Bruce and it would have made the final fight more emotional by giving Bruce something else to really feel rage toward Bane for.
Another significant part of the story that didn't sit right with me was the handling of Bruce and Alfred's relationship. Michael Caine was great as Alfred while he was around, but he left the story too soon and stayed away for too long. I also think that as the final part of the story, it would have been nice to see Bruce express some heartfelt appreciation for the person who was there for him when he needed him the most and stood by him for almost his entire life. We got a scene with Bruce expressing his sincere gratitude to Jim Gordon for what he did after Bruce's parents died. It just seemed like the movie was missing something by not having Bruce do anything to really acknowledge the enormously important role that Alfred played in his life. When they see each other at the cafe, it just didn't feel right for Bruce to treat Alfred like an old friend who he appreciated but had no further business with. I would have been more satisfied even if Bruce had just mouthed the words "Thank you," as a very simple and understated way of telling Alfred that he had made an important impact on his life and helped him to reach this point of happiness.
Finally, I'd like to reiterate my point that the movie failed to fully develop the individual pieces of the story and tie them all together effectively. Lucious Fox, Peter Foley, and Selina's best friend all got lost in this story. I also really wanted to see more of Jim Gordon. He didn't play a very active role for most of the movie and was not given an interesting story arc. As I've argued at several points throughout this article, there are a number of story elements in this movie that work against each other.
•John Blake's relationships with Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon aren't fully fleshed out because they tried to connect him to both without uniting the three as a group.
•In The Dark Knight, the characters with the most important story arcs are Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight Rises attempts to focus on the stories of 4 characters: Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle, and John Blake. Commissioner Gordon feels very underused compared to the roles he played in the previous stories. Meanwhile, the movie doesn't manage to use either John Blake or Selina Kyle as well as Harvey Dent was used. Selina's role in assisting Batman undercut John Blake's role as the ally who becomes the successor. Meanwhile the split focus between John and Selina hindered the movie's ability to really build a satisfying relationship between Selina and Bruce.
•The movie's ability to develop Bruce's relationship with Selina was also hindered by Bruce's romance with Miranda. Maybe if there was less going on, they could have made this into an interesting love triangle that symbolized an internal struggle for Bruce. Miranda would represent Bruce's effort to lead a normal life while Selina would represent his calling to be Batman and the excitement of that life. The increased attention to Miranda and her emphasized role as Bruce's good, normal love interest would have made her betrayal and the reveal of her identity much more dramatic. Then, the betrayal could convey the idea that maybe Bruce is destined to live a life that isn't normal.
•Once Miranda was revealed as Talia, the real driving force behind everything that happened, Bane's role as the main villain was just thrown out the window. This was even reflected in the way that he was killed off so unceremoniously and not given a second thought afterward. However, Bane's dominant presence throughout the movie prevented Talia from feeling like a villainous mastermind the way Ra's al Ghul did. When his role was revealed as the master of Scarecrow, Ra's al Ghul successfully took over as the main villain of the movie. Talia does earn some respect for being the child who was able to climb out of the pit. However, the short amount of time that she was known as the villain and the lack of any memorable action taken on her part once this is known prevent her from gaining the same level of respect that Ra's al Ghul had as the force behind Scarecrow or, to cite a classic example, Emperor Palpatine had as the true evil behind Darth Vader. As a result neither Talia or Bane end up really feeling like the main villain.
•Neither the revenge aspect of the plot or the desire to fulfill the mission of Ras al Ghul really worked. I understand that the motivation to destroy Gotham was partly to punish Bruce, but the movie failed to make this revenge feel personal because Bane seemed so focused on the big picture aspect of the plan. Die Hard with a Vengeance starts out with the villain demanding that the police bring in John McClane so that he could put him through a terrible ordeal. To make the revenge angle more believable as a personal attack, Bane probably should have issued a similar challenge to Batman, threatening to kill people if he did not face him.
•The mission of Ra's al Ghul no longer made sense because the writers insisted on freeing Gotham of organized crime with the Harvey Dent act in order to justify the pointless retirement of Batman. Ra's al Ghul was extreme, but everything he did was in the service of his version of justice. Destroying a safe, normal city wasn't serving anyone's idea of justice. If they really wanted to go that route they should have done away with both the 8 year gap and the Harvey Dent act. I can imagine a monologue from Talia that would be perfectly in line with the story of Batman and justify her desire to destroy Gotham.
"You killed my father and prevented him from doing what was necessary because you believed that you could save this city, but what have you achieved? You let a mad clown wreak havoc upon these people and could not find the will to put that rabid dog down. As long as you continue this fool's quest of yours, more like him will come because that is the madness you inspire. For justice, Gotham must die, and you with it."
Something along those lines would be a nice reflection on the battle Bruce has fought throughout the trilogy and serve as a great representation of the true spirit of the Batman story. It's a never-ending battle that Bruce fights because it is his calling. If they really wanted this to be the end of Batman, it would add an interesting layer to Bruce's death or decision to fake his death.
•Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns don't play well together. If they wanted to do an uplifting story about Batman recovering from his defeat and overcoming adversity, it would have worked a lot better to do away with the retirement aspect of the story so the movie only had one, very dramatic return of Batman scene. It was necessary for Batman to come out of retirement to face the threat Bane posed to Gotham, but it was written in a way that suggested that Bruce was putting himself in danger because he wasn't concerned about whether he lived or died. Batman could have still had this outlook on life at the beginning of the movie even if he had not retired. The love of his life is dead, so all he has left is being Batman for a city that hates him and doesn't really need him anymore (if they kept the Harvey Dent act in the story). The only other role that the retirement played in his defeat by Bane was the fact that this was a weakened Batman, which could easily and more interestingly have been done by sticking more closely to Knightfall and having Bane set off a series of events that would wear Batman down before the fight.
•On the other hand, if they wanted to do an uplifting story about Batman returning from retirement, they needed to make the return the main focus and build up to it. Instead of having Alfred treat Bruce's return to being Batman as a dangerous relapse, it would make more sense for him to encourage it after seeing that Bruce had stopped living life without his mission to drive him. After establishing the reason why Bruce quit being Batman, the movie would take its time and show John Blake attempting to get him back in the game. Bruce would stubbornly refuse at first, but then there would be a dramatic event that shook him out of apathy and motivated him to start training again and dawn the cowl to fight the evil that threatened Gotham.
•Using one of these could have been a powerful story arc, just as the story of Batman being pushed to the limits and enduring was powerful in The Dark Knight. Together, it didn't feel like the true potential of either was fully realized.
I realize that my feeling of disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises is not one shared by many fans, but I assure you that I have not written this very critical review of the movie out of some desire to just go against popular opinion and attack a movie that others love. I am happy for those of you who enjoyed the movie, but I hope I have been able to show you that it is far from perfect. So far, I have done my best to illustrate the flaws with the execution of this movie's story. In the next article of this series I explain why I believe this story itself was not the right way to end the trilogy.
Thank you very much for reading my review. Please check out the video version here!
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