If there was ever a film that suffered from trying to outdo its predecessor it is The Dark Knight Rises. The film is so stuffed full of ideas, characters, and plot points that not even Nolan’s gorgeous IMAX imagery can save it, though it does help a bit.
To begin with, the story, itself, is all over the place. Characters appear at random, quickly stating their purpose with thinly veiled expository dialogue or show up to play out emotional scenes with little build up. Each new idea exists only to force the plot towards its end as opposed enriching and expanding the story. So many things are going on at once, all of which seem to be influenced by the poorly explained four year period between the films, that one can’t help but feel a little lost.
Most lacking of all is a good villain. Bane (Tom Hardy) is not a bad villain – well actually he is bad, evil in fact – he just isn’t very interesting to watch. Though Hardy does his best, his performance is forever impeded by the giant mask his character wears, and you are never quite understand his motivations. What exactly is the aim of the bad guys here? What does evil stand for in this film? In The Dark Knight it’s very clear: it’s a film about chaos versus order, the joker versus batman, but in Rises things aren’t so clear. Bane seems to share the Joker’s interest in anarchy but seems to lack the relish with which the joker executed his plan. At first he seems interested in tearing apart the class system, blowing up the stock exchange, and punishing the wealthy. All this build up to a “Storming the Bastille” style revolution complete with Robespiere-esque tribunals and executions. Yet, this idea is abandoned as the true goal proves to be simply destroying Gotham, but to what end? Whereas the Joker hopes to kill the idea of hope itself, Bane simply wants to blow things up, and while that’s fun to watch in IMAX, at the end of it all it isn’t quite as interesting.
The other characters don’t fare much better, either, though the actors do as good a job as they can. Because there are so many to juggle – Batman (Christian Bale), Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), Bane, Comissioner Gordan (Gary Oldman), Alfred (Michael Caine), Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) – no character gets enough time to properly develop, even with a nearly three hour run time. Caine’s Alfred is in a constant state of emotional distress, which might be very moving, only it lacks the build up to make it seem plausible and comes off as melodramatic. Hathaway’s Catwoman is probably the most engaging. Unlike most of the overly long film, her portions are actually fun to watch. The viewer can’t help but smile as she dances with Bruce Wayne one second then steals his car in the next or pretends to be a helpless woman in distress to escape the police. It is in these simpler smaller scenes where the film feels the most organic, but sadly she gets too little screen time and her character’s arc from villain to reluctant hero feels rather forced, preventing her from ever feeling fully fleshed out.
But if one can ignore these shortcomings, grand though they are, the film still has a lot – quite a lot – to offer in terms of spectacle. Reteaming with Nolan is cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception). Together, the two shot half the film in gorgeous 70mm IMAX giving it an unparalleled raw power and scope. This, combined with a skull pounding score by Hans Zimmer, make the thirty some minutes finale truly spectacular and occasionally Nolan is able to force the audience to emotions even when the basis for them is empty.
In the end, despite its epic finale, The Dark Knight Rises is not greater than its parts and the movie never really hits its stride. The poor story telling undercuts even the most spectacular of scenes and when the actors begin to shine their characters still never get the individual screen time they deserve. Nolan tries to do too much in too little’s space and ultimately falls short. There are enough stories, characters, and ideas for two full movies, yet, here they’re all crammed into one. There is no time for quiet beats or slower scenes that build up to loud spectacular ones. Sure it’s all epic and grandiose, all surround sound and 70mm, but without the valleys between the mountains it all feels a little flat