‘Batman’ flashback: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) (Movie review)

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ith “Gotham” returning for its final season this month, I’m looking back at past “Batman” projects from the perspective of someone who enjoyed “The Animated Series” as a kid and now enjoys “Gotham.” Next up is “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT

This final chapter of the Christopher Nolan Batverse trilogy strips Batman of his allies and friends while simultaneously showing how he inspires new heroes like Officer Blake and Catwoman. It’s a pretty neat trick. The segment where he’s recovering from a broken back in a prison pit is so long and tough to watch that, upon Batman’s return to Gotham, I celebrated every one of his raspy-voiced one-liners (they’re not all intentional zingers, but they seem that way with his voice). I love how the final act – where Gotham is under Bane’s rule — takes place in a snowy, icy winter. Throw in the sewer tunnels beneath Gotham’s streets, and “Rises” has the best production design of this beautiful-looking trilogy.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD ABOUT IT

Alfred’s reason for leaving and Bruce’s reason for hating Alfred are sketchy as hell. I guess it’s because Alfred burned the letter from Rachel and/or because he tells Bruce about the content — that Rachel chose Harvey Dent. It seems like it shouldn’t have caused this big of a falling-out. As with “The Dark Knight,” this is a choppier film than “Batman Begins,” and it brings back the Ra’s Al Ghul thread from that first entry – which is arguably a nice continuity touch, but it’s also arguably a repeat. I wish Bane’s followers were made clearer; it’s a mix of desperate orphans, League of Shadows members, prisoners from the Dent Act and maybe some regular citizens. But it’s nebulous. And we don’t see what the citizenry does with the “fresh start” Bane gives them. Batman saves the day and hopefulness is in the air, but “Rises” lets itself off the hook of bigger thematic questions.

I wish Bane’s followers were made clearer; it’s a mix of desperate orphans, League of Shadows members, prisoners from the Dent Act and maybe some regular citizens. But it’s nebulous.

BATMAN

The first live-action actor to reach a third turn in the Batsuit, Christian Bale gives a meaty performance as the writers put Batman through his paces. He’s a recluse for eight years, but then is drawn back into the game by the threat of Bane. Physically and psychologically broken, Bruce climbs all the way back to the top (with Bane’s prison pit serving as an obvious but effective metaphor), and when he reclaims his Batman role, it’s delicious.

ALLIES

Officer (and later Detective) Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the Nolan trilogy’s best original character (in the sense that he doesn’t come from comic lore), edging out Bruce’s childhood love Rachel Dawes, who loses some impact because she’s played by two actresses. It’s great to watch a brave and decent cop, other than Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), who has been inspired by Batman.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) fills out her sleek catsuit nicely, especially when zipping along on the Batcycle and blowing stuff up. In a word: Meeee-ow! Selina’s arc is familiar – a burglar with inner decency that Batman ultimately teases out of her – but that’s OK. Catwoman deserved a return to her grounded roots after the supernatural versions in “Batman Returns” and “Catwoman.” My only complaint is that this film could’ve used even more Bruce-and-Selina action.

VILLAINS

League of Shadows leader Bane (Tom Hardy) is like Darth Vader in that his voice and body language convey the character. We can see his eyes, but they are stone cold — which makes sense. Bane’s politics are bizarre – and they took me out of the movie on my first viewing – but interesting the more I think about them. He agrees with Ra’s Al Ghul that Gotham needs to be destroyed, but rather than just blowing it up, he gives the citizenry a chance to reclaim the city … but ultimately, he intends to blow it up. We never explicitly get to see what rises from the rubble, although the ending is tinged with hopefulness.

Miranda/Talia Al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) is a rather flat character. First, she’s sort of like a Bruce Wayne conquest – certainly not as shallow as the women from previous incarnations of Bruce, but there’s a lack of heat to their relationship. Bruce is still thinking about Rachel, he has genuine sparks with Catwoman, and his old friendship with Alfred and new friendship with Blake are strong threads. Miranda almost gets forgotten, and then the twist that reveals her villainy requires a quick rethinking of Bane (he has the capacity to care, and he’s actually a follower) and Ra’s Al Ghul (he’s shallower than we thought, rejecting Bane based on his looks). It’s arguably too much piled on to the film’s climax.

THAT’S FAMILIAR

  • “Gotham” Season 5 is currently doing its version of a city forcefully isolated from the surrounding world. In both cases, the U.S. military helps the villains blockade Gotham.

THAT’S SURPRISING

  • In a touch of fan service, we learn that Blake’s given name is Robin. I’m on the fence as to whether that revelation adds anything, but I do like that Bruce trusts Blake with the location of the Batcave.
  • Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) is in this movie too! He serves as the judge for the sham trials in the Bane-controlled Gotham. I think of him as a “Batman Begins” character, but he’s in all three movies.

THAT’S WEIRD

  • The newspaper reports Bruce blew his fortune on futures stocks, apparently unable to tie that to the massive daylight attack and successful hacking of the Gotham stock exchange. Even by the film’s end, most of Bruce’s fortune is still gone. On one hand, the idea of money being that ephemeral – that it could be stolen by a blatant hack, and not recovered – is terrifying. But the portrayal in “Rises” leans more toward silliness. I think Bruce would’ve had an excellent case of fraud against Bane and his cohorts. Even if I’m wrong about that, the fact that this thread goes unexplored is weird.
  • One of the corporatists whom Bane uses and then discards is named John Daggett (Ben Mendolsohn). I don’t understand why they didn’t use the name Roland Daggett, from the animated series.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I gave “Dark Knight Rises” a mediocre review in 2012, but it clicked with me on this viewing, partly because of Batman’s arc of resurgence, but mostly because of how he subtly inspires the new heroes Catwoman and Blake. Even when I watch old-hat Gordon, I feel like he has been inspired by Batman, and it comes full circle when Bruce tells Gordon he gave him hope after his parents’ murder (which is also a way for Bruce to reveal his superhero identity to his trusted friend). Bane is a strong villain-I-love-to-hate thanks to Hardy’s scene-by-scene performance, but his politics and scheme are hard to pin down. Still, on this viewing – my first since the theater – I connected with the good stuff more than I dwelled on the missteps.