Judge David Johnson will rise. And shine!
"Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren't we Bruce?"
Spectacular. Ambitious. Polarizing. And that's just Catwoman's razor-blade high heels.
Facts of the Case
Several years after the events of The Dark Knight, things in Gotham seem to be relatively stable. Galvanized by the shocking death of golden boy Harvey Dent, the populace has seemingly drifted away from the crime and decay that gave birth to the need for a man in a bat costume to drop mob bosses off fire escapes. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, Terminator Salvation) has hung up his cowl and retreated to his mansion, opting to nurse a selection of debilitating injuries and becoming the city's most famous recluse. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element) supervises a police force that isn't nearly up to its elbows in scum as it used to be. Thing is, he's not doing so well either, tormented by the lie he and Batman agreed to tell to preserve Dent's reputation.
Gotham believes itself to be safe. But it's not. A new villain is on the way, bringing with him a complex plan laden with explosions and punches to achieve what the sociopaths preceding him failed to do: bring Earth's mightiest city to its knees. This antagonist in known as Bane (Tom Hardy, Inception), a fearsome masked mercenary with a love of Jacobian agitprop and the ability to demolish concrete with his fists. Bane's machinations will force Bruce out of retirement, but Batman's usual derring-do may not be enough to take him down. Which means he'll have to lean on new allies in form-fitting leather (not Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
The Dark Knight has been enjoying a steady presence in my personal Top Ten All-Time Favorite Movies, so any sequel—as inevitable as they may be, considering these movies generate roughly the equivalent of our annual gross national deficit—would be coming out of the gate on tenuous ground. How could Chris Nolan top his last Batman outing?
The short answer: He didn't. The long answer: He didn't because The Dark Knight Rises is essentially Part 2 of "The Dark Knight" saga. As good as Batman Begins was, Nolan's Caped Crusader debut essentially set the table for the two-course feast that was to follow.
That's not to say that Batman Begins exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, many plot elements are called back to directly in The Dark Knight Rises and plot threads are explicitly tied up. But the two Dark Knight films represent the fulfillment of the promise that we all saw in the first film, and reveal a filmmaker raising his game to a new level, telling a story that is bigger than a comic book and energizing it with themes which are rich, relatable, and not at all safe.
"Safe." That's a word which pops up whenever I talk about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Where Batman Begins did some cool stuff with character and setting, it essentially played out like a standard hero film.
Then The Dark Knight rolled in and within a few minutes the entire landscape changed. It's my Pencil Trick Theory. After The Joker's legendary scene, the world morphed into an anything-can-happen torture chamber. When The Joker surfaced, you knew bad stuff was about to go down. And it did. Frequently. Batman was the unflappable hero, but in the face of such pathology, there was a helplessness to him, forcing Bruce to subvert the very impetus of his alter ego: that Batman is an unassailable symbol.
That symbol is in tatters at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, and the resurrection of Bruce Wayne's original vision for Batman—explicitly outlined in the first film—is the primary concern of this final installment. When Bane hits town, he brings with him that same tectonic shake-up. True, he's not as nightmarish and unhinged as The Joker, but Bane brings with him that same "Oh snap, things are about to get ugly" vibe. He's terrifying in an entirely different way, trafficking in brute force and preying on the base impulses of Gotham. He picks at the city's festering sore, leveraging fear (a clear theme in all three films) and the selfishness of a miserable populace to quicken Gotham's decay.
At this time, let me pause a moment to swat away any ideas that Bane's designs mirror the Occupy Wall Street crowd in any way. Please. That's about as dumb as the notion that the name "Bane" was influenced by "Bain Capital." Clearly Nolan isn't a huge fan of wealth redistribution, but to think that a) Occupy Wall Street has enough clout to influence a tent-pole summer blockbuster, and b) Nolan would be lazy enough to use a Law and Order "ripped from the headlines" trope to wrap up his trilogy is nonsense. Bane is a revolutionary of the Robespierre variety, installing a contemporary Reign of Terror complete with kangaroo courts, angry mobs, and show executions. So unless you think it's been "too soon" since Bastille Day, I'd urge anyone to avoid the trap of assigning the ebb and flow of contemporary politics to this film.
Besides, Nolan's after bigger game here. Throughout these three films, the prize being fought over is Gotham City. These are Bruce Wayne's films, but Gotham is as much a character as anyone. It's why Wayne suits up. Why Ra's al Ghul takes his elevated-train-ride of doom. Why The Joker goes out of his way to set up an object lesson featuring explosives-laden ferries. And why Bane employs his sinister and seductive mini-revolution. Everyone wants a piece of Gotham, and Batman protects her not by simply elbowing gangsters in their throats, but by crafting an enduring icon. It's why he's eager to hand the reins to Harvey Dent. It's why that last scene in The Dark Knight Rises is such a homerun.
Forgive me. I'm yammering on. The fact that this stuff is super-compelling and these stories are being told using my all-time favorite fictional character gets my geek glands firing away like a Klobb.
Let's not forget this is, after all, a big-studio blockbuster, so it has to deliver the spectacle. And it does. Nolan's action is more ambitious and refined than ever; though, to be fair, nothing here eclipses the SWAT truck chase from The Dark Knight. The opening sequence is a jaw-dropper, Bane and Batman engage in two electric and brutal fist-fights, multiple chase scenes are pulled off practically (quite obviously put stuntmen's lives in danger), and the sustained siege of Gotham in the middle of the film generates righteous white-knuckle tension.
Which all looks stunning in high-definition. Blu-ray is the only way to go for this finale and Warner Bros. has taken particular care to ensure their moneymaker gets the A/V love it deserves. As was the case with The Dark Knight transfer, the aspect ratio shifts between 2.40:1 and 1.78:1, the latter transmitting the sequences shot in IMAX. There are far more IMAX scenes here, however, and the frequency of the variable shift is increased. Often times in mid scene, the aspect ratio will change abruptly. It could be a bit distracting I suppose, but I honestly did not notice it. That's probably because I was transfixed by the 1080p picture quality, which is dynamite. We're talking gold standard stuff here, with bleeding-edge detail bringing out the best in Wally Pfister's master-class cinematography. Supplementing the clean visuals is an aggressive DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, delivering a harsh and pounding Hans Zimmer score with power and clarity. When the guano hits the fan (Bane's all-out assault on Gotham) and the music/effects come together in glorious tumult, there are few sound mixes in cinematic history that can compete.
The most surprising element of this release is the shocking lack of suck from the bonus materials. Having been thoroughly let down by the meager offerings from The Dark Knight disc, I was expecting a similar half-baked presentation. Still no Christopher Nolan commentary or any sort of progressive in-movie experience, but the making-of documentaries are copious and worth your time. They break down as follows:
The individual segments aren't terribly long, some clocking in at five minutes or so, but taken together, you're looking at comprehensive and time-killing making-of featurette. A trailer archive and print campaign art gallery round out the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hey, I'm a Batman fanboy and everything, but I'm not oblivious to flaws. For starters, there's a fair amount of narrative smoke and mirrors to keep the plot twists flowing, most notably Bruce Wayne's co-prisoners' aversion to pronouns. Also, how does Batman get all that gasoline up on the bridge so fast? And if you look real hard, he kind of sort of breaks the one character-defining rule he can't break right at the end. I'm sure there's other stuff, but screw you haters!
"I remember seeing Christian in the make-up chair looking very weedy and I thought to myself 'I can handle him.' And I went and got changed into my Bane costume and started flexing my muscles and feeling competent and then Batman turned up and he was three feet taller than me and I was like 'Huh' and there was a three year-old in me that was 'That…that's Batman!'"—Tom Hardy
"What are you?!" Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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