...shining light on the media, one review at a time
With Batman Begins, the first film in the Batman trilogy, director Christopher Nolan and his creative team aimed for a new take on the Batman legend. Their professed intention to capture the complicated, dark side of Batman led them to explore the emotional beginnings of this superhero with a realism and depth that no film had previously accomplished. Despite their attempts to also interject a sense of moral ambiguity in a few moments, the core of Batman Begins rests on a solid moral foundation, which results in messages that even move into the higher realm of ethics.
Nevertheless, Nolan’s Batman was still flawed, so perhaps it should not have come as a surprise to witness Batman’s utter demise as a hero and moral example in the sequel, The Dark Knight. Far different from the laudable Batman Begins in both content and meaning, The Dark Knight lost itself in a twisted world of horrific violence, fallen heroes, and a too-close exploration of the sadistic mind of a serial killer. Nolan likely intended to follow the classic literary and film trilogy technique of putting his characters in the worst possible position just before the final installment of the tale, but Nolan got carried away and managed to destroy the Batman that generations have admired.
A restoration of the former superhero is desperately needed, but is Nolan the one to do it? In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan makes the attempt to raise Batman, heroism and all, from the ashes. But when such extensive rubble was so unnecessary and of Nolan’s own making in the first place, it’s difficult to admire the effort. The problems as far as Batman is concerned in The Dark Knight came from Nolan’s diversion from the true Batman character. The Dark Knight Rises, in contrast, returns to the roots of the ethical motivation behind Batman’s beginning and goals as a superhero.
Yet there’s a great deal of clean-up required to wipe away the muck incurred in The Dark Knight, and Nolan misses more than one spot. Violence, some of it graphic and some treated too casually, is again a prominent feature, and the film is also peppered with a few strong profanities and obscenities. In addition, this third installment introduces another negative element the other Nolan Batman movies avoided—sexual content.
With several redemptive messages staunchly followed throughout the film, the dark knight, it seems, has indeed risen since his last onscreen appearance—just not high enough to come fully out of the darkness, into the light.
[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE PREVIOUS BATMAN FILMS, BATMAN BEGINS AND THE DARK KNIGHT. RR DOES NOT RECOMMEND, HOWEVER, THAT ANYONE WATCH THE DARK KNIGHT.]
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the second Batman film left off, with Batman in exile and the city of Gotham still blaming him for the murder of many citizens, including the much-admired Harvey Dent. Lauded as a hero, though he was actually a killer, Dent lives on in the memories of Gotham’s citizens, who believe that he, through his legal policies, is responsible for ridding the city of organized crime in the years following his death.
Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, lives as a recluse, lost without his purpose of banishing crime from Gotham and buried in the guilt of his conviction that he failed Rachel Dawes, the woman he loved but could not save from violent death (in The Dark Knight).
Bruce’s peaceful hiding is interrupted by a maid who turns out to be a thief, known to comic book fans as Catwoman. It turns out that that she’s after more than the pearls in his safe, and the question of what she really wanted and why is a spark that ignites in Bruce a bit of interest in life. He soon discovers that Catwoman and her schemes comprise only a small cog in a much bigger wheel that’s running through the center of Gotham.
The new threat to Gotham means that Bruce has reason to put on the cape and start living again. The evil he faces, however, turns out to be more familiar than he expects, and Bruce’s older body, beaten in the battles of years before, doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge. As Gotham’s only hope, Bruce must find the strength and purpose to rise up, saving the people and possibly even himself from destruction.
Nolan has a track record of bringing a rare complexity of plot and character to his films, with classic, sophisticated storytelling techniques more frequently seen in literature and only rarely in the greatest of films. Rises, while not the most impressive of Nolan’s work, matches the director’s M.O.
Evidence of a deft hand at work is obvious in this third film as Nolan seamlessly weaves events and character developments from the first two installments into Rises, creating more layers, realism, and further thematic depth. Viewers who have seen all three Batman movies will benefit the most from these references, and familiarity with at least Batman Begins is necessary for full understanding of the meaning and events of Rises.
Because Rises is built so dependently on the earlier films, Bruce’s personal journey is uninterrupted and, therefore, all the more powerful. His growth and change actually leads him back to his beginnings, to the creation of Batman and even earlier, to the life-changing words and experiences that shaped him as a boy. Bruce, like the other characters, from villains to police officers, is influenced most crucially by the way he was raised and the people who taught him as a child. Love and strong moral instruction, exemplified in real-time, is clearly a prominent factor in Bruce’s eventual identity as a superhero, versus the neglect, torture, and pain that result in the creation of the story’s villains.
The film also makes a point that similar circumstances can lead to different ends, depending on how one responds. While situations and events are important, Rises clearly shows that they are not an excuse for evil behavior. Bruce, for example, is placed in circumstances very like those that were the origins of the story’s villains, but emerges a greater hero than before.
Rises also addresses the decidedly unheroic choices that Bruce and his friend, Police Commissioner Gordon made in The Dark Knight, when they decided to lie about Dent’s actions and let the city believe that Batman was evil. The two men believed that preserving Dent’s reputation and sacrificing Batman’s would enable them to banish organized crime from the city. The Dark Knight concluded by leaving audiences with the idea that deception is a kind of self-sacrificing heroism, rather than the dishonorable, anti-hero choice that it actually is.
Rises, however, condemns what Nolan left dangerously ambiguous and open to interpretation in the previous film. In Rises, Bruce and Gordon must deal with serious consequences of their deception (including condemnation from others), as well as guilt, regret, and the realization that “It was a lie and now there’s evil where [they] tried to bury it.” The truth, they realize, must “have its day.” The importance of truth, then, is added to the messages of justice, compassion, love, courage, and self-sacrifice that form an impressive array of ideals encouraged in this film.
There is, however, a disappointing dark side to this aptly named film—shadows that are plentiful enough to snuff out the light that would otherwise burn strong and true. Among the most serious of the problems are the anti-hero qualities of Batman. Known for using the fears of his opponents to intimidate them, Batman has grown increasingly nasty from Batman Begins to Rises. In addition, he seems to take the violence that he dishes out to the “bad guys” more casually than he did at first.
To his credit, Batman still refuses to use a gun even on enemies, and his policy of “no guns, no killing” is emphasized in the film. Even so, a hint of carelessness that wasn’t present before creeps into a couple fight scenes. If Batman has a cavalier approach to violence on anyone, he becomes far too similar to the borderline bad-girl Catwoman or even to Bane, the sadistically cruel, prominent villain of Rises. The chasm that should divide Batman from Bane shrinks even more in a climactic scene in which Batman treats Bane almost as cruelly as the villain had treated the “hero,” apparently letting go of his usual “no killing” mantra.
As mentioned earlier, a new element is introduced to this picture that further undermines Bruce’s moral stance, as he is physically intimate with a woman. Nothing explicit is shown, but Bruce and the woman kiss passionately several times, once as they are clearly undressed under a shared blanket. Such scenes are never necessary, but that is especially the case here, as this sequence becomes the greatest weakness and odd inconsistency in an otherwise strong screenplay.
Bruce barely knows the woman with whom he has the one night stand and there are no indications that he actually loves her. Rather, the movie has up to that point made an effort to show his continued pining for his lost love, Rachel. The compromising sequence also does nothing to further the plot or character development. When a surprising twist comes at the end of the film, the scene is only further undermined as a throw-away moment that is both unrealistic and ludicrous. Yet, its presence ensures that Bruce is far from a hero worth emulating where it really counts—in his most intimate, personal choices.
The other writing mistake comes with a strange twist in the return to Bruce’s original lessons learned in early childhood and Batman Begins. Nolan brings the story back to the motif of fear that was such a crucial element in the first film. But where fear was something to be conquered in Batman Begins, Rises makes fear of death something that Bruce needs to learn to feel again in order to survive.
This reinterpretation of the function and role of fear within the same extended tale can be termed a mistake because it undermines one of the most powerful lessons communicated in the first film. There is also a subtle suggestion throughout Rises that anger is a motivation for some of Bruce’s heroic behavior, giving Batman yet another shared trait with the criminals he is supposed to oppose.
Yet, more serious problems than this mishandling of the fear theme plague the film. As always, Catwoman is a problematic figure, representing almost everything parents should not want their daughters to emulate, while offering plenty of cool, seductive reasons young girls would want to aspire to her every characteristic. The other women in the film do nothing to offer female viewers a better example.
Women are certainly equal in this film. They get punched, dragged, and generally beat up with the boys, while the nastier women dish out as good as they get. Oh, but they also must be flirtatious and desirable while kicking and stabbing where it hurts. So much for equality, and so much for the human compassion that women in such movies must be the last to feel or demonstrate.
With so much violence to be shown, perhaps Rises can’t afford to leave the women out of it. The brutality here isn’t quite as disturbing as some moments in The Dark Knight, which invited viewers to enjoy and even laugh at a demented murderer’s pleasure killings, but there is a small measure of difference. In Rises, Bane is responsible for the worst of the violence, and several of his killings are memorably macabre. The body count of Bane’s victims alone is plentiful enough to easily lose count, exposing viewers to the possibilities of either being too disturbed to watch or, far worse, desensitized enough to not care.
Offensive language is the capper on the negative content. For a PG-13 film, the occurrences are actually rather few, but the words that are used pack a foul wallop. A couple profane uses of Jesus’s name top the list, along with several obscenities.
As with any of Nolan’s projects that are pulled under by so many negatives, film aficionados, in particular, have reason for severe disappointment, because the production quality is so magnificent that it deserves to be matched by equally beautiful content. The script, with the exceptions mentioned above, is impressively written by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. Their literary-esque abilities give their work a lasting resonance and impact that makes these filmmakers dangerous when they misuse their talents.
As usual, the Nolans’ strong script is well-matched with highly skilled cinematography and polished special effects. This third Batman installment continues the tradition of introducing some new Bat toys and modifications to old ones that are sure to thrill fans and add plenty of “wow factor” to the action sequences. Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking skill isn’t confined to fast-paced scenes, and his visualization of dramatic moments in Rises is just as, if not more, vital and well-executed.
Nolan again gathers his favorite band of actors together to form the ideal cast to bring his well-drawn characters to life. Always magnetic, Christian Bale reprises his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, bringing uninterrupted consistency, yet continuing to find new layers of the character, changing and growing as the part demands. Bale is the center of this story, and none of the unusually talented actors around him can steal a single scene.
The focus is where it should be, given that Batman is the feature of this film, and veterans Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman do their job to support the lead, filling their roles expertly. Caine, as Bruce’s mentor and assistant Alfred, helps to create the most meaningful moments in the movie as he gives a moving performance that functions as the window into Bruce’s deepest vulnerability and emotions.
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman shows that she is becoming more versatile and reliable as a dramatic actor, but Marion Cotillard, playing an important acquaintance of Bruce, overpowers the younger Hathaway with the lasting effects of her screen presence and intensity that inevitably lead to comparisons of the two women in Batman’s life.
Comparisons are just as inescapable between this third film and the ones that came before it. In comparison, then, Rises is not as lost, unredemptive, or pernicious as The Dark Knight. But neither is it as redemptive, moral, or uplifting as Batman Begins.
In Rises, the filmmakers move closer to what they were prematurely asserting (but not illustrating) in the first film—to the story of a complicated “hero” who has lost himself behind the mask he wears and amid the evil he fights.
Yes, Batman had fallen into his deepest, darkest pit in the second film, and Rises in many ways sees him climb out of it. Yet, he is still the dark knight. Nolan’s Batman, like this film, has risen from the depths of darkness, but not from its shadow.
Check out these movies instead:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line Cinema, 2003)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Lucasfilm, 1983)
Batman Begins (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005)