Friday, July 27, 2012

Darkness Falls

I've been on more or less a hiatus the past two  weeks. A busy work schedule, not to mention plain old fatigue, has been gnawing on me, and between that and the string of blah releases recently the result I'm afraid has been me been neglecting Hello Mr. Anderson and my readers. Still, I couldn't imagine a better return to the site than reviewing possibly the most anticipated movie of the summer, The Dark Knight Rises. The finale to Christopher Nolan's take on the caped crusader has certainly earned it's "epic" label: at 165 minutes, it is the longest of his Batman trilogy, and borrows extensively from the comic book character's mythology in the formation of its story. In this third installment, the director took pages from one of the Batman's all-time great stories, 'Knightfall', which chronicled a hero driven to the point of both physical and mental exhaustion before being broken entirely. With Marvel having dominated the comic book film wars the past few years - Iron Man, Thor and of course The Avengers performing more impressively than DC's Superman Returns, Jonah Hex and Green Lantern - Nolan's films have been a light of hope for the company to somehow find their way back to the quality of storytelling for which they were once known. We're a long way from the "Bat-Nipple" sham that was Batman & Robin, and I was certainly of a mood to see this movie after spending this last weekend in the REAL inspiration for Gotham City, good old NYC.

You guessed it: he's Batman.
Set eight years after accepting the blame for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Batman has retired his cape and cowl. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has lived in seclusion, avoiding any public appearances both due to the physical trauma his body endured in his battle with Two Face and the Joker and his emotional instability following the death of childhood friend and former romantic interest Rachel Dawes. Gotham has enjoyed a modern Renaissance, with Dent's legacy ensuring that the city is free of the organized crime that had crippled its peace and prosperity in the previous decades. That all begins to change with the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a brilliant, mysterious and deadly mercenary who has Gotham set in his sights, to bring chaos in his wake. What is Bane after? Why has cat burgler Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) targeted Bruce Wayne? And how are Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows involved? It's no wonder the thing stretches out to nearly three hours, as Nolan definitely needed that time to tell the whole story.

You'll wake up to an empty apartment... but it will be worth it.
This was to be the big one. The Dark Knight Rises was going to be bigger, more explosive and exciting than Marvel's The Avengers, being the end of Nolan and Bale's involvement with the storied franchise. It was far and away the most anticipated movie of the year for most people. Naturally this is where you start to pick up that The Dark Knight fails to live up to those impossibly high standards you have set. It's not so much that Nolan does anything particularly WRONG, not really. But there were several curious decisions made that - while not making TDKR as disappointing as Prometheus - seriously hinder the film's narrative flow. The movie starts off exciting with the introductions of Hardy's Bane and Hathaway's Catwoman, two major characters in the Batman universe who benefit from the amazingly talented actors who portray them. Hardy, nearly unrecognizable, has turned himself into a force of nature, and Hathaway masters all the angles of Selina Kyle, from her natural seductiveness to her brilliant strategic mind to her physical prowess. We even get to see a different side of Bruce Wayne, one that has been seriously affected by the battles and losses in his life. For Bale, it might not be as impressive as his turn in The Fighter, but his ability to invest himself fully into a role is nothing if not impeccable. And Nolan has always had a talent for drawing a lot of emotion out of his audiences with stellar visuals and explosive action.

Sure, he's not quite like the comic character, but Hardy's Bane is one of the best villains this year.
Unfortunately, even Nolan can't keep it up in a three-hour film, and when the film inevitably slows down for excessive plot exposition, you start to notice all the things that are wrong with The Dark Knight Rises. Like how Catwoman, despite her and Hathaway's many talents, still turns out to be kind of a one-dimensional character. Or Bane's ending, which is about as anti-climactic as one can get. Or Alfred's (Michael Caine) actions, which would never have happened in the comics. Or how Nolan ceases to focus on Batman for stretches at a time, turning the movie into the John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) show. They're great actors and do wonderful jobs, but the last time I checked the protagonist was supposed to be Bruce Wayne, not some orphan cop. Or hey, remember when the villain conspired to use a Waynetech invention to actually destroy Gotham City in Batman Begins? Well, expect to see that again! Or Batman's steadfast refusal to use guns, while having no qualms about using the machine guns and missiles on his new "Bat" flyer late in the film. Or how there's no reference to the Joker, who contrary to the first law of Batman movies did NOT die at the end of The Dark Knight? I understand that nobody can replace Heath Ledger's Joker at this point but I don't need an actor in makeup, just some sort of sign that he was loose in Gotham as all the craziness was going down. Or the film's surprising predictability. Don't even get me STARTED on Marion Cotillard's character. And that ENDING...!

This guy gets more attention than Batman...
One of the biggest complaints you will hear about films based on comic book characters is that you can't fully get into the story unless you already know all about the character in question. That has at least been partially true of Marvel's recent efforts, especially for The Avengers, which did have some moments that might have been confusing if you hadn't seen any of its predecessors. The irony of The Dark Knight Rises is that newcomers to the franchise will handily be able to follow along whether or not they've read the comic, so long as they've at least seen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Even marginal Batman fans, however, may find themselves frothing at the mouth with all the liberties Christopher Nolan has taken with Gotham's favored son. At it's best, The Dark Knight Rises is a fun, exciting and entertaining thrill-ride with enough action, character development and intrigue to overcome its most glaring faults. It's the little things that will dig into your fun at the theater however, and there is no moment like that one Avengers scene of the collected heroes preparing for battle that will make you cheer and clap your hands in pure joy and exhilaration. TDKR is not that kind of movie, and doesn't try to be. Nolan's Batman is a character mired in darkness, ultimately alone in the battle against injustice. It's unquestionably his creation, and I'll say it's good enough to be the #9 film of 2012. That it could have - and perhaps SHOULD HAVE - been so much better is a shame, but Nolan's successes far outweigh his failures. His Batman epic, though now over, will be remembered as one of the best superhero series of all time, if not THE best. It's too bad it didn't finish better, but perhaps this was the ending Nolan's trilogy needed, if not necessarily the one it deserved.

Dancing lessons have since been cancelled.

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