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The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

I don't think this will end well for anybody

dir: Christopher Nolan

The Dark Knight Rises is a very good film, let’s just get that out of the way right from the start. It was like nothing I expected, and exceeded what were insanely high expectations right from the beginning and especially at the end. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the best Batman flick we’re ever going to have access to in this universe.

In that other parallel universe, they’ll keep making great Batman flicks, Heath Ledger’s still alive, and the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply. We, on the other hand, are stuck here in this sucky one for the duration.

Eh, it’s not too bad. After all, we have two great Batman films, at least.

I didn’t like Batman Begins that much, and I had a couple of issues with the second one too (over-edited, visually incoherent at times), but this third one not only gets everything right, but it is entrenched within the story told by the first two movies. It doesn’t stand entirely alone, and is the better for it.

It’s interwoven with the other two, with actions and decisions made in the first two films coming back to haunt all the main characters. Within that is a lot of stuff, to put it mildly. It doesn’t feel overstuffed, but it does feel like they’re trying to encompass every single level of seriousness and complexity anyone ever aspired to have in a superhero movie but was too afraid to ask for.

If Batman Begins was Year One, just to draw analogues with the comic books from which these stories sprang, and Dark Knight was a blend of Killing Joke and The Long Halloween, then Dark Knight Rises is something of a meld of The Dark Knight Returns, the Knightfall storyline and Cataclysm / No Man’s Land, which sees both Gotham and its protector broken. A starting point doesn’t dictate an ending, though. The two Nolan brothers took those storylines and transformed them into something completely their own, which is a great, great thing.

In Batman Begins, the main villain Ra's al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, decides that Gotham, like Carthage before it, must be destroyed. It's part of the natural balancing-of-the-world function that they like to think they provide, gratis, of course. Gotham, not really a stand in for New York, and more the metropolis of all Metropolises, is seen as being way too big for its britches. Arrogant and hubristic like an American college student on holidays overseas, the League decides the city and everyone in it must burn.

The city's protector, who sees more than anyone the level of corruption in its heart, fights to save it and the people in it. And does so, naturally. The second film has Batman seeming like he's getting somewhere in his battle against the cancer of crime within the city, as even petty dealers think twice about dealing, and the heads of the crime syndicates grow so worried about their continued existence that they hire a maniac to take him down.

But Ledger's Joker didn’t care about earning his pay. His only thought, to quote my daughter talking about one of the kids at her school, is that of violence (chaos). He mocks Gotham's sense of order, and is less concerned with killing Batman than he is with showing the Dark Knight that when Order flies out the window, the brave and innocent souls of Gotham will turn on each other and him in a heartbeat.

To 'save' Gotham the second time, Batman elects to protect the reputation of a killer, and takes the blame for several murders, including the blame for Harvey Dent's death. This is with the complicity of Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who goes along with the lie because it will restore Order to the city.

Well, they got what they wanted. Batman hangs up his cape, hobbles around with a cane, a shadow of his former self. He doesn't need to fight crime, because there isn't that much crime to fight. Dent's Law, passed in his honour, has taken most of the crims off the street and kept them in Blackgate Prison.

That's the world they want, where Law and Order in Gotham City are in the complete ascendant, and they've made their sacrifices and upheld the necessary grand lies to achieve this end.

In this third film, along comes a Man, a Man with a Plan, long in the making. He thinks the people of Gotham, blessed with such peace and order, deserve even more Order. He wants to give them Order until it's coming out of their ears. And he's not afraid to break a few eggs for this orderly omelette. In fact, it seems he loves breaking eggs without having any intention of making an omelette at all.

Bane (Tom Hardy) is this Man. His voice is a curious cross between Darth Vader and the pimply teens who usually serve at fast food drive-thrus. He is a monstrous brute of a man, but not too sadistic. He’s not a maniac, for god’s sake. His plan to break Gotham involves first coaxing its protector out of dormancy, isolating Gotham from the rest of the world, and then giving them all a glimmer of hope to make their eventual despair all the more brutal.

The mask is horrifying, but stylish, and it sets him apart from the other men he leads. Powerful men of Gotham, who bring him in and think Bane works for them, don't really understand who they're dealing with (they never understand who they're dealing with in these types of films - how hard is it to figure out that the very creepy huge guy with the bad technology where his mouth should be is not to be trusted and will probably murder you most brutally?).

Ben Mendelsohn? Ben Mendelsohn is in this? How the hell did he manage to get into this flick? Did he sneak onto the set, then start wearing a suit and quoting the lines of the character until everyone just believed he was meant to be there? Was it based on the strength of his performance in Animal Kingdom, or Mullet, or The Big Steal, or The Year My Voice Broke? I like to think it was Mullet. Who knew Chris Nolan liked films about mopes who return back to their home towns much to the disinterest of everyone who was happy to see them leave?

Ben Mendelsohn plays a sneaky Mitt Romney-like corporate raider called Roland Daggett who plots to take control of Wayne Enterprises. But he's on the board of directors, so what can you do? That's worse than having tenure. Not only does he want to consume Bruce Wayne, he's also smoothing the way for Bane and his fanatical devotees, who are making key changes to the city's infrastructure, in the way that the French Revolution made key changes to people's necks.

See what I did there, I made a historical funny! There are a fair few bits of imagery and callbacks to the French Revolution, not least of which is the rhetoric Bane spins to make it seem as if he's liberating Gotham's oppressed peasants from their evil aristocratic masters. Lots of rich people get soaked, but let's not ignore the fair and balanced way they are tried in a court by their peers. If found guilty, and they’re always found guilty, the wealthy are given a choice between Death and Exile.

You can't be fairer than that. And who but the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) could be a fairer judge? If the American Idol judges are looking for a replacement, they could do worse. It'd be a blast to watch performers perform their performance after exposure to Scarecrow’s insane fear toxin.

At least then their general behaviour would make sense.

When Gotham becomes a transformed city, where pray tell is Batman? Him? Oh, he’s long gone. You see, Bane’s plan is so watertight, and so well thought out, and he is so brutal as a fighter that Gotham and its protector didn’t stand a chance from the start. He comes from a darker place than Batman, and when two traumatised psychotics fight, surely it’s the most traumatised who wins.

Oh sure, there’s technology this and that involved, and a convoluted plan that would make a tax return look straight forward, but the real problem is that Bane is too good at what he intends, and Batman horribly underestimates him. Alfred (Michael Caine) didn’t underestimate him, though. He spends most of the film tearing up and begging, outright begging Bruce not to be Batman anymore, and in the end uses the only trump card he possesses. A person watching him choke up who doesn’t choke up themselves is a harder person than me, with a heart full of granite, and an inner voice that sounds like Bane’s.

Poor Bruce, poor poor Bruce. He really cops it hard in this one. I wondered how far they were going to go, and they took it about as far as a PG-13 film can go. Sure, many of the people of Gotham suffer worse fates, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him, and even, despite the knowledge of how films of this type usually go, for a while, even our hope is extinguished that he will survive, let alone prevail.

Sure, there are way too many characters, and the main villain’s plot is overly complicated where a simplified version of the same plan would have gotten them what they wanted with no-one, including Batman, much the wiser, and all dead. But who quibbles with such majesty? What churlish churl complains about the cinematic manna from the heavens delivered up to them? I know there’s a world filled with people who complain and whine for the sake of hearing the sound of their own complaints emanating from their own cry holes, but I am not one of them.

Of the multitude of characters on offer, the two others that deserve singling out are played by Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young cop loyal to both Batman and Gordon. Levitt perhaps struggles for screen time in this epic, but his character owns the scenes he’s in, especially when Gotham becomes a fascist dictatorship under Zod, I mean Bane. With most of the cops out of the picture, someone who believes in the light has to look out for the city’s orphans. Who else is going to, otherwise?

His cop role has a bit of a character arc, an enjoyable one that feels earned, which leads to a place that’s perhaps not too surprising, even as it perhaps evokes a few eye rolls right at the end.

To say that Hathaway plays her role broadly would be an understatement, but I guess they were trying to shy away from camp or the fetish aspects of the character. If there’s a more fetishised female character in the Batman comics in their 73-year history than Catwoman, I haven’t seen her yet. They kind of avoid it a bit, but then they still have her swanning about in skin-tight clothing so skin-tight I think I saw her ovaries.

She’s kind of funny and kind of evil, in that much of the flick’s misery occurs directly because of many of her actions. A kind reading of her character would be to say that generally she looks out for number one, being horribly selfish. She fights like a dervish, loves stealing, and is not above acting girly to get her way. Will she finally side with the forces of niceness, or is she going to betray Batman a ninth and final time?

She is as experience has made her, and she is Bane’s tool as much from fear as necessity, and it is fitting, in a way, that she plays such a crucial role in events to come.

Who knows? No spoilers here, thank you very much. Of the elements of the film that I appreciated the most, the main one is the editing. I’m not sure what prompted it, but Nolan abandoned the chaotic over-editing that rendered several of the action sequences in the earlier films look like dance routines from Moulin Rouge! Here, especially in the first brawl between Bane and Batman, the strong emphasis is on long sequences of Bane beating the absolute shit out of the Batman. When it’s filmed and put together like this, its brutality is impossible to ignore.

We’re all grown ups here, who can tell the difference between reality and fantasy, at least most of us are, unlike that vile moron who shot up the cinema in Aurora, Colorado at a midnight first screening, so we know this fight isn’t real. On the other hand, it feels horribly real, and has an intensity lacking from other flicks of this type.

Bruce ends up in the worst place on Earth, allegedly, and we are not sure how he’s going to come back and save Gotham. How’s he going to do it? What does he have to do? Why do we fall? What will he do after he falls?

He has to Rise, of course.

Cheesy, I know, but the film walks the fine line required, and I think mostly stays on the right side of it. It builds and builds and builds into an impossible climax, one where I couldn’t see where the solutions were going to come from, and, also, to a plot reveal that made sense but wouldn’t be too obvious to people who haven’t read the comics (to the rest of us dateless comic-book reading types, it was obvious from the opening credits). Scenes and set-pieces are lovingly crafted, with everything feeling as if it’s exactly what Nolan wanted, exactly what he foresaw in his imagination.

So, visually, it’s stunning, the story is intricate and intense, the soundtrack pummels you into submission like Bane’s fists, and the culmination of the three movies in the ending is so appropriate, so emotionally satisfying for the characters concerned (for them in my eyes, of course) that I can’t help but call this one of the clear best films of the year. It’s not as fun entertainment-wise as The Avengers, but then it wasn’t trying to be. It instead sells a very mature, very dark vision of where such stories can go on the big screen, and I feel it was tremendously successful at doing so.

And with that, I don’t want to see any more movies based on comic-book films, okay? They’re never going to be up to this level, so don’t bother trying. And no Batman movies for at least 10 years, none of this embarrassing reboot stuff before the popcorn from the last film is stale crap. Know when to say no. Go out in style. Have some class about it. Be the heroes I know you can be.

9 times don’t be afraid to use your nails, boys, out of 10

"When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die" – that's mighty generous of you – The Dark Knight Rises