Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Poster: The Dark Knight RisesTitle: The Dark Knight Rises
Cinematic release: 2012
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine
Written by: Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer
Directed by: Christopher Nolan

I’d been worried about this movie. Images of Anne Hathaway in a sprayed on catsuit (and yet more of the ridiculous heels that have become such ubiquitous wear for female stars) had me deeply concerned. I am relieved to say that I was pleasantly and thoroughly surprised.

This is the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s renowned trilogy, revitalising Batman for a new generation of cinema goers. Batman has always had dark roots – in his origin story of a child who watched his parents murdered before his eyes, growing up to fight crime in the forbiddingly named ‘Gotham City’ – but for a long time these were largely eclipsed in mainstream consciousness by the famously camp 1960s television show. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns sought to revitalise the franchise in 1986, and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 took this darker vision to the big screen in a way that added new life to a hero that had begun to flag outside of comics. His sequel, Batman Returns, was, for me, the best of this series – visually stunning, clever, and featuring an iconic portrayal of Catwoman by Michelle Pfeiffer, giving a powerful and dark feminist interpretation of a character with a history of hyper-sexualisation that continues today. Yet after Batman Returns the franchise deteriorated into a vision of campness all too familiar. I haven’t even seen Batman and Robin, and it takes a fairly unanimously negative response to put me off seeing a superhero movie.

So, the franchise was again in need of a reboot, and Batman Begins could not have been more welcome or more spectacular. It’s still one of my all time favourite superhero movies, despite having a fairly wet female lead. I was blown away. I lost a stone trying to get fit like a ninja because Batman and Ra’s al Ghul made it look so cool. Nolan’s trilogy draws more strongly on the gritty realism of Miller’s Dark Knight and arguably takes it further. It introduced a whole new way for superheroes to be reimagined on the big screen, ushering in an era where superhero films search for the darker aspects of heroes’ characters, rounding them out to more interesting visions.

Critics were torn on whether The Dark Knight was better or worse than Batman Begins. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was near unanimously praised, but some felt the film was overlong and messily plotted. I was inclined to wonder whether it was really two films, with two villains, which would have been cleaner and neater if separated out. However, on rewatching at home, with the opportunity for a loo break, I did find it a more cohesive piece.

So, there was a lot of expectation on The Dark Knight Rises, which Nolan has said will be the last film in the series. I don’t think I would go so far as to say that it was as good as the previous two, but I still thought it was very good – highly enjoyable and one I will want to own on DVD when it comes out. And, thankfully, there was one aspect in which TDKR left the previous two films in the dust, and that was: its treatment of women.

Anne Hathaway is to be commended for taking on a challenging role that she must have known would always leave her being compared to Pfeiffer. As I myself was doing before the film had even come out. And she delivered. She artfully uses the sweet, vulnerable image she has cultivated in roms-coms and feel-good movies like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada to create a foil for the sexually barbed, completely in control, couldn’t-give-a-fuck-about-anyone-else Catwoman. She sashays from vulnerable flirtation to lightning speed expert violence to utterly convincing screaming-weed to calm and collected woman again in seconds in the scene where she destroys a bar in response to being double-crossed, and leaves unscathed, along with my heart.

Poster: Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer as CatwomanThat said, Pfeiffer still has the top spot, for me. Part of that’s the writing. Whilst this film unquestionably has the best writing for women of any of the Nolan trilogy, Catwoman still has a softer edge that stops her presenting a truly cutting message about women in film, women in superhero films in particular, and women in general. Catwoman’s bitterness is present in Hathaway’s presentation, but it is softened by a vulnerability that was fiery instability in Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Hathaway’s Catwoman has a softer side that can be appealed to, can be won over, can be wooed. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman triumphantly declares ‘four, five, and I’m still alive!’ as her cat’s ‘lives’ are cut down by Max Shrek – she never asks for help and she never runs into the arms of Batman for protection from the cruel world that has driven her to the edge. She is a woman with vulnerabilities, yes – she was used and abused – but she has been forged by them into a force of nature – a cat-force: as dangerous as she is magnetically sexual. The butchered PVC costume that oozes sexuality and brokenness also screams of danger, right down to the wicked claws of her gloved hands. Pfeiffer’s (or perhaps one should say Pfeiffer’s and Burton’s) Catwoman is a statement, an icon, an image in a way that Hathaway’s/Nolan’s cannot hope to be.

But then, I don’t think that was the point. Batman Returns is almost more Catwoman’s film than it is Batman’s – certainly more hers than the Penguin’s. But The Dark Knight Rises is about closing a chapter, about saying goodbye and settling down to something else. We may have always wanted for Catwoman and Batman to get it together, but it would have been deeply inappropriate in Batman Returns in a way that it is not in The Dark Knight Rises. Both Batman and Catwoman start the movie in places where they are tired of this life they have carved for themselves, but don’t really know how to let go of it. It works for them to find a way to do so together; and it must be confessed that Hathaway’s Catwoman is pretty hard in places as well.

I also appreciated that she was not the only prominent female character. Miranda Tate (Cottillard) adds an effective counterweight to Hathaway’s sexuality. She is a beautiful woman, but she dresses sensibly and in a manner that befits a board member of a powerful company. And when everything goes to pot she shows strength and guts in practical ways that are more attainable than Catwoman’s ability to casually break a man’s hands if he looks at her funny. Without spoiling too much, the addition of Miranda Tate added significantly to the balance of this movie, and was greatly appreciated.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake was as wonderful as he always is. That’s a man who deserves his own film, and I feel like this one may have been a way of shifting him on to step up to a leading role. There is a moral complexity and interest to Blake’s character that is very skillfully built up over the course of the film and to which Gordon-Levitt was very well-suited.

Gary Oldman, of course, was immaculately good, and appeared to be having a very good time. His Commissioner Gordon is one of the most truly wonderful features of all three films, and I enjoyed the way the events of the previous films, and his decisions along the way, are all called back to. Gordon is presented to us as a flawed, yet still wonderful, human being. A good man in a bad place who is still capable of making mistakes, but also still worthy of our love for the good he has brought into the world.

But it’s not all glowing praise. There were a number of moments where the script was notably less strong than the previous two films, and both Batman and Catwoman’s costumes had an air of campness that seemed slightly incongruous in the context of the gritty realism that premised this revitalisation of the franchise. And, to be blunt, there were several moments that were just plain silly. Specifically, medically silly. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I choose my example carefully, but if Bruce Wayne really has no cartilage left in his knees he’s going to be having a lot more trouble than a single walking stick will be able to help him out of. And as the film goes on the idea that anything at all is wrong with his legs seems to be jettisoned entirely.

Moreover, the whole episode in the hellish prison that Bane (Hardy) supposedly escaped from is not only implausible, but a little bit dull. Because you know exactly what is going to happen from the moment it enters the plot. The rest of it is just treading water, waiting for the inevitable to happen.

Michael Caine is also decidedly sub-par. There’s a scene where Bale and Caine are required to emote at each other for a protracted period of time, and although the script probably isn’t doing them any favours, it’s clear that this is not the sort of acting that comes easily to either man. It’s just painful, and I was glad when it was over. I’m also not really sure what it added to the plot.

So, it’s not without its flaws, and it’s not the equal to the previous two films, but it’s still a well-made, exciting romp that still deserves to be on your list of superior superhero movies. Moreover, it’s a positive breath of fresh air from a feminist point of view. Hathaway’s Catwoman does everything Black Widow was trying (and, for me, completely failing*) to do in The Avengers, and more. It did a good job of rounding off the series and I left the cinema able to report that I had had a jolly good time.

*I know this is not a popular opinion, and it’s pretty much the primary reason I chose not to review that film – I didn’t want to be dogpiled by the legions of fans – I mention it here merely because it’s relevant to how positively I responded to Catwoman. Please don’t treat this as an invitation to tell me how wrong I am in the comments.