Bats In The Belfry
About mid-way though watching The Dark Knight Rises, something dawned on me. Up to now, I’ve always liked Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but I’ve never loved them the way I’ve loved the comics, the animated Batman movies and TV shows, or some of the games. While I really liked seeing Nolan’s more realistic take on the character, especially his decision to shoot the two Knight movies on real city streets, there were lots of little things — including Batman letting Ra’s Al Ghul die, and that silly growling voice of his — that just never rang true to the character.
But as I watched Rises, I realized that Christopher Nolan was not making a Batman movie, he was making his own Batman movie. He was putting his own spin on the character much the same way numerous comic writers have when they’ve shown what the character would be like in Victorian England (Batman: Gotham By Gaslight) or if he was a pirate (Batman: Leatherwing). Except in his case, he was showing what the character would be like in the real world.
More significantly, I realized a day later, Nolan’s approach to the character is fundamentally different than other people who put words in his mouth, especially since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986. While most who’ve written Batman’s comics, games, and animated adventures treat the Caped Crusader as the man and Bruce Wayne as a mask he wears sometimes, Nolan tells the story of Wayne, a guy who dresses up as Batman.
Bearing this in mind, you realize very quickly that Rises is a smart and skillful action movie. While it clocks in around 2:45, it just flies by, with never a moment that seems excessive or unnecessary. It also wraps up the saga rather nicely, pulling together threads from the previous two films you may not have realized were connected, though not in a way that seems overly convenient or forced.
It even, rather interestingly, make things in the previous Knight work better in context. Specifically, the death of Two-Face, which seemed rather premature at the time, but is used in this film to great effect. Citing the death of Two-Face — or, to be more accurate, Harvey Dent — Gotham City has cracked down on, and thus practically eliminated organized crime. This, in turn, has also eliminated the need for a Batman. Which is fine by him because, for the last eight years, he’s been moping around his house, feeling sorry that Rachel is also dead. But when a smart but psychotic terrorist comes to town and starts messing up the place, it’s up to the Caped Crusader to save the day.
What follows isn’t just a simple superhero tale of a good guy getting beat up by a bad guy, then strengthening his resolve before the inevitable rematch. Rises eventually gets there, of course, but as with the previous Knight, it takes its own circuitous but inventive route, never going where you expect. At least not directly.
It also, like the previous Knight, is wonderfully shot, with a gritty realism you only get from putting Batman on an actual city’s streets. Which really works with a plot that, at times, will resonate with anyone who pays attention to current events (though not in the way Rush Limbaugh has suggested).
Of course, it helps that Nolan’s vision is supported by a great cast, most notably Michael Caine, who’s always been great as Alfred, but here turns in the best single performance in any live action Batman movie, Nolan’s or otherwise.
Similarly, Anne Hathaway is excellent as Selina Kyle, nearly stealing the thunder from Batman the way Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow all but walked away with The Avengers. In fact, Hathaway really nails the character — both the Kyle half and the Catwoman one — like no one has since Earth Kitt in the ’60s Batman show.
But this just reminds us of how much the rest of the film is such a different take on the Caped Crusader. Sure, Tom Hardy is imposing as Bane, but his faux-gas mask — and the reasoning behind it — just drives home how he’s not the same Bane from the books.
There are also a couple problems that will bother fans of both Nolan and comics. Most notably, the volume of some of the music, which occasionally drowns out the dialog. It’s especially bad when Bane gives this one monologue, since he’s somewhat hard to understand anyway. It also glosses over a couple things early on, most notably why Bruce Wayne is walking around with a cane when he hasn’t fought a bad guy in eight years.
This is also, for those keeping score at home, not nearly as much fun as The Avengers. It’s a better made movie — better directed, better acted, and shot better — but it’s not as enjoyable. Though it seriously kicks the crap out of The Amazing Spider-Man.
In the end, anyone who’s liked Nolan’s previous two Batman movies will enjoy this one just as much, maybe even a little more. It may even make you appreciate the previous films a little more, since it pulls them together rather well. But for Bat-fans who are bothered with the liberties Nolan’s taken before, this will prompt many of the same arguments with your friends over how it’s not really a Batman movie, and what the hell is with that voice? But even you’ll have to admit, this is one hell of an action movie.