Disappointing conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Okay, seriously, what happened? I’ll ask it again. WHAT HAPPENED???? I would never have thought I’d be overwhelmingly disappointed by this final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but it’s true, I really didn’t like it. I was expecting greatness. Nearly all of the reviews that I glimpsed at were giving this top marks. Sure, there was the odd three star rating, and then there were those two reviewers whose bad reviews of the movie inspired death threats from people who seriously need to get their priorities readjusted. Overall though, this was all set to be the ultimate final chapter, the one that would end it all in grand style.
Now, Batman Begins was a very impressive movie – it salvaged the Caped Crusader’s dignity after those two terrible Joel Schumacher disasters and boasted a fine balance between gritty darkness and soap opera comic book entertainment. There were clichés here and there – ‘Why do we fall down? So we can pick ourselves up’ is almost as banal a message as ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and the villains were slightly underused, but overall it was an exciting, refreshing and effectively dramatic ride. Christian Bale made for the best Bruce Wayne to date, and we could forgive his preposterously gruff Batman voice, because hey, almost everything else here was making us forget Batman Forever ever happened. However, follow-up The Dark Knight was something else altogether. The world of Batman had become something darker, more morally complex and unpredictable than we could have possibly imagined. The film was impossibly brilliant, exciting, spectacular and with Heath Ledger’s remarkable Joker, surprisingly edgy. The downbeat ending, where Batman sacrifices himself to become a figure of hatred in order to preserve the people’s faith in the white knight (but secret fallen angel) that was District Attorney Harvey Dent (who becomes Two-Face), left us in a devastatingly bleak place, though with the hint of light at the end of the tunnel.
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, and Batman has fled the city, while Bruce Wayne is an outcast, all alone in his manor with only his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) to keep him company. The legend of Harvey Dent has kept the people’s spirits high in what appears to be a mostly crime-free period. However, there’s a new guy in town, and his name is Bane. Bane is played by the terrific Tom Hardy, one of my favourite actors, and he’s bulked himself up to an even greater level than he had for Bronson. Nolan’s love for James Bond films becomes evident once more as Bane is rescued from imprisonment thanks to a spectacular plane stunt that recalls the pre-credits sequence to Licence to Kill. It’s always a pleasure to be reminded of the most underrated Bond film ever, so thank you for that, Nolan! Bane is a monstrous, ruthless monster who wishes to turn Gotham into ashes, and indeed, he more or less lays waste to the city, wiping the police out of the equation and demolishing the recently out-of-retirement Batman in a punishing smackdown.
Catwoman (though she’s not referred to as such, and is played by Anne Hathaway) is also in on the scene, as a sly thief who despises Bruce Wayne and his social sphere’s entitlement and wealth, and who warns of a ‘storm coming’ that will destroy Gotham’s complacency forever. She has a friend/possible lover (Juno Temple, so good in Killer Joe, completely wasted here) who shows up for a few scenes and then disappears from the story entirely. There’s some corporate back-stabbery going on at Wayne Enterprises and everything is tied to seizing a machine that should be used for sustaining energy but which also has the unfortunate side-effect of being able to be used as a nuclear device. Batman is out of action whilst Bane takes over the town and holds the city to ransom with said device, so we join a wounded Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), rookie detective Joseph Gordon-Levitt, tech expert Morgan Freeman and Wayne’s business partner/lover Marion Cotillard as they try to save the day.
As you might have noticed, there are plenty of characters in on the action, and to be honest, none of them get anything really interesting to do. Freeman’s Lucius Fox sits around for most of the time, Oldman spends most of his time in a hospital bed or barking orders (though he and Levitt get a good confrontation), while new recruits Cotillard, Gordon-Levitt and Matthew Modine are stuck with stock characters – solid but unmemorable. Hathaway gives a playfully seductive performance but her character is underwritten – she’s meant to be this self-interested rebel, but she has a change of heart near the end for no other reason than that the plot requires Batman to have some extra help in taking down the enemy. Even Tom Hardy fails to leave much of an impression as Bane. He’s certainly physically imposing, and his delectably cruel manner does provide plenty of amusement (check out his appreciation of a singing voice before he delivers the pain), but after the complex Joker and Two-Face, this guy’s strictly one-dimensional. He’s built up as an unstoppable foe, and certainly his destruction of Batman is gruellingly brutal, but his final moments are almost laughably throwaway, especially since a surprise mystery villain takes the focus away from him. After the Joker and Two-Face, the likes of Ra’s Ah Ghul and the Scarecrow in the first film just seemed like…well, comic book characters, and disappointingly, we’ve gone back to this approach. Then there’s the issue of Bane’s voice. He wears a mask throughout the film and his voice is projected through the mask, but he sounds so muffled that I didn’t catch half of what he was saying! It was difficult to get too scared of this man when I couldn’t understand many of the threatening things he was supposedly coming out with. It’s not just Bane – I felt the soundtrack was far too loud, obscuring some of the actors almost as much. Then of course there’s Michael Caine, who is of course Michael Caine, and sometimes I find this a problem. I can never forget that I’m watching Michael Caine, no matter what he’s in, especially when he’s being so Michael Caine-y, if that makes sense. He’s rudely ejected from the story after a key scene and is only brought back after such a long absence that the would-be emotional kick of the moment feels rushed in a mass of loose-end tying. Finally, there’s Christian Bale, who does his best to hold it all together, even if he’s forced to spend most of the time withdrawn, crippled or going through the motions during the fight scenes.
The film disappointingly retreats to the comic-book mythology of Batman Begins, which was fun first time round, but this time it feels like a serious come-down after the grand heights and ambitions of The Dark Knight. The second film was even compared to The Wire by many critics – I doubt any similar comparisons will be made this time round. The thing is, despite the emphasis on more fantastic thrills, the action in this film is strangely muted, even drab – expensive and explosive, but lacking in thrills. We get a flying bat vehicle ducking and diving in-between skyscrapers, and it does look very impressive, but in the end it’s just another Hollywood action sequence. The big dramatic hooks that were introduced in the second film – Harvey Dent’s true actions in his final hours, Alfred sparing Wayne the truth about the love of his life are brought up again here. Alfred and Wayne’s big dramatic face-off is one of the best moments of the film, a moment where the risky actions of the past and brought to task, but after that Alfred’s ejected from the plot and we forget all of that happened. As for the revelation to the public that Dent was a killer – well, at the end of The Dark Knight, we really understood the decision from Batman and Gordon to tell a lie – so much was at stake, but here, the truth is finally revealed and we never get underneath the city’s skin as to how much they feel betrayed. There’s no real consequence. It’s a major let-down. It’s like having Luke Skywalker treat the revelation at the end of Empire throughout Jedi with a mere, ‘he’s my dad? Oh fuck it, we were never that close anyway’. Only Gordon-Levitt and Oldman share a scene that deals with any of this, where the latter is taken to task for his actions, but it’s just one little scene in a film that feels rushed with all these characters doing their thing, with none of them really proving to be more interesting than Wayne/Batman, who should have been concentrated on more exclusively.
The first half is sort-of just good enough – I couldn’t quite shake off the awareness that this was not as good as its predecessor, but it was still pretty entertaining. Still, ‘pretty entertaining’ isn’t good enough. We want more. So then there was Bane’s initial takeover of Gotham – the destruction on show here was frighteningly impressive, and it was here that I hoped the film was going to take things to the edge, but instead we get a lot of hackneyed self-recovery platitudes for Batman/Wayne’s plot (including the wise old man who offers sage advice about confronting your demons) and a lot of faffing around from the supporting good guys as they go on about how time is running out before the bomb goes off. Unfortunately there’s no suspense because we don’t get an appreciation of a proper countdown. One minute we’re weeks away from detonation, then all of a sudden it’s a few days, and oh, here we go, there’s eleven minutes before boom-boom time. The dialogue is serviceable but lacks spark (Bane: ‘So you came back to burn with Gotham’/Batman: ‘No. I came here to stop you’. Well, duh.). There are clichés aplenty: attempts to scale an impossible wall will always be nailed on the third try – it’s a cinematic rule. A cop actually throws his badge into the river. A major death is followed by an unfunny one-liner. The world has seconds to live and two characters actually waste precious time going in for a playful smooch. There are some great little moments here and there – Hathaway’s cruel dispatching of Bale whilst he’s using a walking stick, the wickedly nasty ‘Death or Exile’ judgement as Gotham gives its victims the ‘freedom’ to leave the city but only by traversing over a frozen river, and, delightfully, Batman finally realising what it feels like to have someone vanish on you mid-conversation.
As for the ending….by this time, I just wanted the film to be over, but I can see how fans could get emotional over what happens. There’s a sense of unavoidable inevitability as to what’s going to happen – Batman make a point of not having quite sacrificed everything for Gotham, but any sense of tragedy or pathos is totally compromised by a corny last-minute revelation. There’s also a groan-inducing hint that there will be more to this series’ universe beyond this ‘final’ chapter, and this blatant teaser for a new franchise just felt cheap and tacky. It sounds ridiculous, but The Dark Knight really was on the cusp of achieving grand tragedy, classic drama, timeless cinema, the works. This film is just another slightly lethargic, unfocused, scattershot threequel, and how many of those have we had to suffer? Indeed, I felt this was another case of Spiderman 3 all over again. Two mighty fine first chapters, the second of which was amazing, and then a muddled, tired final chapter which ends proceedings on a limp note. I have to say that TDKR is even more disappointing than Spiderman 3, because at least the so-so reviews for Sam Raimi’s film geared me up for a let-down, whereas the ecstatic write-ups for this have left me high and dry.
The Dark Knight Rises is easily the biggest disappointment of the year so far. Even more so than Prometheus. Such a shame.