At two hours and 44 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is way too long … and way too short. Welcome to the temporal paradox that is the third, final and a bit overladen entry of Christopher Nolan’s tripartite take on the caped crusader.
Batman Begins, Nolan’s 2005 reboot of DC Comics’ second-most popular superhero reinvested the character and franchise with a dignity not seen since Joel Schumacher led it into a garish, neon-bedecked back alley in the 1990s and emerged later, alone. Turbocharged by Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker, Nolan’s 2008 followup achieved escape velocity—The Dark Knight forced many critics to redraw the line between comic book and “serious” films. (Audiences were content with just enjoying the movie.)
Of course, following up a billion-dollar-grossing, critically acclaimed film is a daunting challenge. As proof, just try counting the times a trilogy capper has exceeded its lauded predecessor. (You won’t need a second hand, nor, perhaps, a second finger.) With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan brings his A game (and A team, for that matter) to bear in an attempt to at least match The Dark Knight in tone, tenor and pace.
In some areas, he succeeds. Returning cast members Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman deliver the solid performances one expects from them in, well, any movie. Among the new arrivals, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a gravity and sincerity that helps ground every scene of which he’s a part. (Jodie Foster may finally have a male counterpart in the sparsely populated “Child Actors Who Excel in the Profession as Adults” Club.) As Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Anne Hathaway offers up a pleasing mix of sinewy, silky and sneaky. Alongside Nolan’s departure from the franchise, it’s equally regrettable we won’t see more of Hathaway’s take on this most classic of “it’s complicated” Batman villains. As for Tom Hardy—the comparison of his Bane to Ledger’s Joker is as unfair as it is inescapable. But while their respective roles as central Bat-tagonists—and apparent fondness for blowing up things—places them in analogous positions, the role of Bane doesn’t really allow Hardy much room for the swagger and panache possessed in abundance by the Joker’s character. (The miniature Alien face-hugger mask and strangely cheery speaker voice don’t help, either.) Still, Hardy radiates an intensity that grabs and holds the viewer’s attention.
The Dark Knight Rises also matches its predecessor in the quality and intensity of its action set pieces. As Bat-cycles, Bat-planes and assorted non-Bat vehicles careen about and occasionally crash within the claustrophobic confines of Gotham City, Nolan’s command over every participant—man and machine—reminds the viewer the extent to which the skills of a good director overlap those of a good choreographer. (“Step, one, two, BOOM.”)
But despite its abundant strengths, Nolan’s film is just as consistently undermined by two persistent flaws.
As much as there is to show, The Dark Knight Rises also has plenty to say. Too much. Right off the bat, Caine’s Alfred comes down with a severe case of “theme-arrhea”—most of his dialogue seems meant to introduce or advance by the least subtle means possible the thematic stakes that will be undergirding the film. Caine’s heartfelt delivery helps lessen the obviousness of his character’s affliction, and it’s not as distracting as the occasional eruptions of “plotty mouth” from other characters. Nonetheless, both forms of screenwriting shortcut are more symptoms of too large a story being told in too short a time than of any particularly egregious errors in judgment and skill (or as I like to call them, “Lindelhof-fian lapses”).
And then, especially when it comes to science fiction-and fantasy-based films, there’s that most mistreated of dramatic conceits—suspension of disbelief. For some reason, script writers and directors the world over seem to think the suspension of disbelief required to accept a world with superheroes (or wizards, or aliens …) stretches farther than that normal stuff used with family dramas, legal thrillers and plays by Oscar Wilde.
For all his skills, Nolan is just as guilty of “disbelief abuse” as his less talented colleagues. This is evident both in the The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, but in the latter, moments that give the viewer pause occur much more often than in the former. The frequency matters. After all, if someone is tapped on the shoulder two or three times over a span of a few hours while watching a movie, it’s likely to be noticed, perhaps even remarked upon, but it’s not going to distract one’s attention too much, let alone ruin the evening. But if those taps come every five to ten minutes, they’ll be much harder to ignore (and deserving of being punched).
But this, too, is a symptom of an over-stuffed and under-stretched script. Two hours and 44 minutes may seems like a long time to maintain tension and reader interest in anything not involving hobbits or the NFL, but it’s also all too short when you’re trying to juxtapose the slow burn of a hero’s psychological journey (and physical recovery) with a villain’s crisp, diabolical plan (throwing in three to four additional character arcs for good measure). It’s at this intersection of hurry up and slow down that the film both bogs down and skips beats. It’s why 30 minutes more would have told a more convincing tale of Bruce Wayne, and 30 minutes less would have done wonders for the story of Batman’s battle with Bane.
As a result, The Dark Knight Rises joins the long list of finales that don’t measure up to what’s gone immediately before. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be any easier of an act to follow.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan (screenplay); Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer (story); Bob Kane (Batman characters)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hardy
Release Date: July 20, 2012