It was never really a question of whether the third and final act in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would be good. Nolan doesn’t make lousy films – and even at their most critically divisive (Inception comes to mind), he uses filmic techniques and spectacle that leave most Hollywood epics in the dust, heads spinning. So, no – ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was always assured some degree of quality. But just how much are we talking here?
A brief word on the story – spoiler-free as always. You’ll want to go back and re-watch Batman Begins before heading to The Dark Knight Rises. It, arguably more than the Joker-focused sequel, has more to do with the unfolding events in the closing chapter than you might expect. Nolan sets this entry up to really validate his Batman films as a true trilogy, linking together characters and excerpts from the first two films, recapping the key points with well-edited care, and managing to land this character-heavy, expository behemoth with a steady hand. This is an achievement on par with the greatest film trilogies of the 20th and 21st centuries – no exaggeration.
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first because that’s how we roll at Shotgun Critic. There’s not much, so suck it up, tiger.
Bane, Batman’s rival and Gotham’s self-proclaimed reckoning, sounds like he was voiced by a mildly effeminate Sean Connery, performing through a McDonald’s drive-through speaker. His tone and accent don’t suit his hulking frame, and many of Bane’s lines are also not mixed into the soundtrack properly – they’re laid over the top instead, giving the impression that he’s speaking from all areas of the room at once, rather than as a person affected by the space around him as you’d expect. Because his mouth is obscured too, it’s actually even harder to connect with him now. It’s a conundrum, given Nolan re-recorded these lines for clarity – but his solution is heavy-handed and distracting.
There’s a piece of technology at the centre of this movie that you’ll have to suspend your sense of disbelief to buy into. If you can (and being a comic book movie at heart, you arguably should), you’ll be fine. We can divorce logic at times – when context demands it.
There are nitpicky things to be said about how many problems could’ve been solved with the use of a well-placed bullet or taser shot, one too many ass-ogling moments of Anne Hathaway’s form-hugging Catwoman costume and a lot of perfectly timed coincidences. If you’re watching at IMAX, the jump from full-frame 70mm back to widescreen can be a little jarring – but the sum total of what’s presented here vastly outweighs momentary judder. It’s a gift horse.
A cast as fine and diverse as we’ve seen, The Dark Knight Rises builds credibility early through their sterling performances, backed by a strong script. Christian Bale actually channels ‘The Machinist’ for moments of his tortured, put-upon Bruce Wayne. We’ve seen Wayne struggle with his identity, but there are some gut-wrenching moments of struggle here that will make audiences wince in sympathy. This kind of connection with the viewer is something hard-won by Nolan; his tale really goes to town on upending lives.
Nolan is beginning to assemble his go-to team of favourite actors – Tim Burton-style. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is always dependable. You could cast that guy in anything and he’d turn in a performance with conviction and charm. He’s given an interesting role here – acting almost as the middle-man between the film’s main plot thread and the audience itself; as he pieces it together, so do we. Marion Cotillard, cast as Wayne Enterprises CEO Miranda Tate, carries herself with authority and the camera loves her.
Moving past the poorly mixed audio, the sequence of the film is actually handed to Tom Hardy (Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, opposite Gary Oldman)’s Bane. A mid-film monologue set to a stunning montage of utter destruction not only assures us of his worth as a villain, but convincingly sells his twisted ideology and vision of Gotham’s future. Nolan, meanwhile, marries this speech to top-tier direction. He builds on his continued flair for selective use of silence, wide framing and aerial cameras. When he marries the thunderous chanting of the score to distant explosions and rapid-fire editing, he sets in motion one of the most chaotic and, arguably timely, commentaries about class divide we’ve seen.
Anne Hathaway nails Catwoman – daytime sophisticate, nighttime cat burglar. Her sensuality pours out – but there’s a menace there that is surprising from Hathaway. We suspect the leather helps.
Gary Oldman just needs a hug. All the time. He adds so much vulnerability and depth to Police Commissioner Gordon – and, like Michael Caine, carries the old-guard half of the cast through a screenplay that is worthy of their performance artistry. Finally, Morgan Freeman, who takes more of a back seat role this time around, continues to be Morgan Freeman – and there’s only something wrong with that if you don’t like Morgan Freeman – in which case, we’d infer there’s something wrong with you.
Critics’ hyperbole-laden diatribes will bloat and stretch this fine balloon until it bursts. We inflate the ‘great’ into something revelatory when, in reality, it’s okay for a film to have its faults. It’s how we learn to differentiate quality and infer value between films and filmmakers. That said, most of what will be said is likely spot-on. Batman was a wonderful canvas for Nolan, who has again cemented his supreme talent as a storyteller and filmmaker. The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in surpassing 2008’s ‘The Dark Knight’ to become the best of his three films. Whether that will be enough to secure his Best Picture Oscar (the buzz is already mounting) is frankly irrelevant – because what matters is that this is Batman’s best picture – and that’s all you could really ask for.