[My hope is that this review is spoiler-free; let me know if I slip up!]
We had an opportunity to see Christopher Nolan's conclusion to his Batman trilogy tonight, and Audrey and I took it. I dearly wish we could have seen it earlier for two reasons: the first being a response to the selfish, damaged hominids of the world, a statement that I will not stop being a member of my community, or refrain from gathering in public for my entertainment, or for any other purpose for that matter, and that's all I want to say about Aurora, Colorado for the time being.
The second, far more trivial reason is because I was afraid of spoilers. I have resolutely avoided all the trailers from the last 5 months or so, as well as any articles, interviews or most dreaded of all, the behind-the-scenes featurette. I've spoiled all manner of little surprises for myself in this manner in the past, and after Nolan's first two masterful entries in the rich shared history of Batman, I was intent on going in to The Dark Night Rises as unprepared as possible.
It's been known for a while now that the director was looking for a conclusion, the final part of a trilogy to conclude the story begun with Batman Begins, and when Warner Bros. announced that instead of a 4th installment that they intended to reboot the property (as a potential first step in copying Marvel Studios shared cinematic universe), that made it clear that for this movie, all bets were off. All preconceptions should be abandoned, all the normal expectations and warm familiarity of a seven-decade character and a billion dollar movie franchise meant nothing in terms of what might or might not occur on screen.
I watch films with a critical eye, but not a critic's eye. I have nowhere near the literary vocabulary nor the insights gained by the actual study of film to articulate myself in such a fashion, but as Mike Baron once said, "a critic's job is to render opinions glibly", and I enjoy films enough to dare sharing my thoughts about what I do and don't like about them. I do this not so much in hopes of changing people's decision whether or not to see a film, but to prepare them accordingly, since they've probably already decided. Every movie has an audience; a review should help you figure out if you should be part of it.
In the case of sequels like The Dark Knight Rises, it is probably sufficient to say this: that if you enjoyed the first two films, and want to see a Batman film on just about as large a scale as the character warrants, with hat tips to the Bat-mythos of not only the comic books (especially The Dark Knight Returns and Knightfall) but also the films themselves, then you owe it to yourself to see this film. And not only that, but to see it quickly, before the ads, toys, and word of mouth starting setting the stage for you until there is nothing left for you to do but see how it turns out. Plus, TDKR is the first time a third installment in a superhero film series has actually been good, and you owe it to the incredibly fickle movie gods to see the movie that broke the curse. Somewhere, Shane Black, who is writing and directing Iron Man 3, is surely breathing a sigh of relief.
I maintain that The Avengers is still the best super-hero movie to date, but TDKR brings Nolan's trilogy to a very satisfying close, with epic visuals, fantastic and dynamic characters (new and old), great writing and acting, and a willingness to twist the myths that brought Batman to this point with an artist's recklessness bordering on cinematic brinkmanship.
The two hour and forty-five minute running time flew by; this not a movie that walks on its heels. The plot ticks along, heedless that there are no daft characters who need to do something stupid in order to keep things moving. There are cruel people and greedy people to be sure, and desperate people and even foolish ones, but no one walks backwards through a deserted house looking for a serial killer, no one leaves the door unlocked for the bad guy, and no one gullibly accepts an offer from someone they fully know capable of betraying them.
Every character rings true, in triumph and in tragedy, and the ensemble cast presents this brilliantly. Michael Caine's Alfred is torn between the boy he raised and the tortured man Bruce Wayne has become. Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle is an incredibly capable thief who is not interested in getting rich, and there is very little danger of mistaking her for the waif from The Princess Diaries. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne and Batman both have to figure out why they do what they do, and whether or not a happy ending is even a possibility.
Tom Hardy's Bane, the villain of the piece, is not particularly nuanced, but he is shaded exactly as much as he needs to be. he is a guttural, muscular, articulate and dispassionate force of nature, an agent of chaos, whose motivations are almost incidental until the conclusion.
Much hay will be made of Bane's 'political' message as he undermines Gotham City, coming as it does less than a year after the Occupy Wall Street movement, but in order to give the trilogy's closure a fitting scope, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan actually looked backwards, not forwards, to the Terror of the French Revolution as seen in Dicken's Tale of Two Cities.
There those who feel Nolan's reach has outstripped his grasp, and that his work collapses under the weight of its own pretension. For myself, I'm glad I've not yet read the original work, but can appreciate a comic-book movie that deals with 'the best of times and the worst of times', both personally and societally.
The Dark Knight Rises is by no means perfect: Bale's gravelly Batman voice still grates on me, and Banes mask combined with Hardy's gypsy accent make some of Bane's lines unintelligible (although this may have been due to an excess of bass in the theater we saw it in, which, to be fair, did make other scenes noticeably more rumbly), and I honestly think the fight scenes could have been done better, but these are quibbles.
I went into TDKR without really knowing what I wanted from it. What should happen? Did I want a happy ending for Bruce Wayne and/or the Batman? Had I ever wanted it?
Nolan and company have answered the questions I didn't even know I had, and as much I have loved his Batman trilogy, I cannot wait to see what he has planned next.