First thoughts.  That’s what this piece will be.  Half-formed, poorly-considered thoughts.

Having maintained my usual exhausting self-imposed media blackout on this film … I went to see it today as cold as anyone could.  I haven’t opened a copy of ‘Empire’ in months, have avoided some of my favourite websites and found myself sitting in the cinema with my fingers in my ears going “La-la-la” while the trailer played.  (If you think I’m joking … You don’t know me that well).

So, I’m not intending to spoil the film, but by merely talking about it, I’m going to … So, if you have any ambition to watch this film … Don’t read on.

Give yourself the chance to see the film …

Okay?  So, I’ll assume you have seen it if you’re still here.

So when is a trilogy not really a trilogy?
I was reasonably indifferent to Batman Begins (2005).  I enjoyed it but, y’know, it wasn’t the ‘Batman: Year One’ I’d been hoping for.  And it had Liam Neeson, which, in his post-Phantom Menace, (1999) pre-Taken (2009) ‘wilderness years’ was rarely a great thing.  Then there were the unconvincing sets (The Narrows) and dodgy special effects (all that mono-rail stuff … please).  But it did have the relationship between Wayne and Alfred and Lucius Fox.  It had the development of the armour and the Tumbler.  It had some pretty bloody spectacular location photography (fighting on a frozen lake, etc).  It at least attempted to be a grown-up superhero film.  A first for a DC-owned property, in my humble opinion!

Then The Dark Knight (2008) arrived.  It was a phenomenon.  Everything that I felt was wrong about Begins was right about this film.  Everything that I had thought right about Begins was even more right.  Gone were the dodgy sets and effects … This time it was shot on location and the effects were practical … where practical.

You won't hear any mentions of either The Joker or Arkham in this film.  No joke.
My straw-poll survey made The Dark Knight the second favourite film of the decade and it was my second favourite too.  It remains my absolute favourite superhero film … And I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Marvelite.

TDK (as its friends call it) was such a profound leap forward from BB (as, I suspect, no one calls it) it vastly surpassed my expectation.  As such, The Dark Knight Rises was almost bound to be a disappointment … Simply because it couldn’t possibly exceed the now stratospheric expectation.

I knew this going in.

As he did with TDK, he begins by catching us off guard.  Whereas that film’s prologue was a bank heist, this film has a full on Bond-movie pre-title sequence, complete with jaw-dropping aerial stunts.  I don’t suppose Nolan is pitching to direct the next Bond but, if he were, this audition would doubtless secure him the job.

Then we go into a lengthy, but necessary process of catch-up.  It’s been eight years since Bats took the fall for the now-sainted Harvey Dent … Eight years when he has not once donned the cape and cowl.  So far so very ‘The Dark Knight Returns’.

If you felt Bats coming out of retirement rang a few bells ...
If you’ve never read Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s definitive vision of The Batman (the one that effectively made every subsequent story unnecessary) then treat yourself.  The build-up to Bats’ inevitable return is mythical and his arrival is seismic.  Sadly, by comparison, Batman’s return in this film is something of a damp squib.

Anyway, as before, Nolan has lifted elements from a variety of Batman comic-books, 1993's 'Knightfall' by Doug Moench and Jim Aparo, of course, Miller’s 'Dark Knight Returns', touches of Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke's revamped version of Catwoman and, as usual, the atmosphere of the Loeb/Sale stories.  He also refers back, often in cunningly subtle ways, to his own previous films (the burning bat symbol, the frozen river, the circular pit) all of which is mixed together with an awareness of the world-wide audience’s rage at the elite rich having destroyed our economy in the years since the last film came out.

There was clearly no plan at the beginning to make a trilogy – hence the clear visual and tonal difference between the first two films, but, never-the-less, Nolan (and his fellow script-writer, his brother, Jonathan Nolan) have woven enough of the thematic fabric of the first film into this third to create a satisfying conclusion.  Very much in the way the Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) ties up the threads of Die Hard (1988).

Problems there are, certainly.  Small problems, such as … Why is Wayne limping for the film’s first half hour and where does the limp go?  How come a punch in the back cures a shattered spine?  Who is in charge of The Pit and why is it there?  And Matthew Modine … Ehm … Why?

Then there are larger problems … Such as my failure to connect with Bane.  Maybe it is because muscle is inherently less interesting than cunning.  Where The Joker was an evil genius, expressively performed by Heath Ledger who was inspired by the opportunities the role afforded him … Tom Hardy is literally muzzled as Bane.   

Hardy, no stranger to out-methoding Bale put on two stone of muscle for this.  Bale grew a tache.
His scenes with Batman are perfunctory and largely consist of them whacking each-other in a, frankly, not very cinematic way.  Nolan has never really made a big deal out of the fight scenes with these films.  I’m not complaining, particularly, since fight scenes hardly constitute the intellectual high-point of a movie.  Maybe some of the limitation is brought about by Bale’s insistence on doing most of that sort of stuff himself, maybe some of comes about because the IMAX screen of which Nolan has become fond, doesn’t lend itself to rapid editing and whip-pans.  Whatever the reasons, the fights have never been the point of these films … So, to reduce Batman and Bane’s conflict to a street-brawl seems anti-climactic, as though it is beneath the dignity of both characters.  And there is some dignity to Hardy’s performance of Bane, even if it is stifled by that (never fully explained) mask.  It is also worth mentioning that the slightly fuzzy vocal effect they have put on Hardy's voice makes some of his dialogue difficult to follow.  So, if you have no idea what he's saying, don't worry, you're not alone.

Okay so, unlike, say, Darth Vader, he can at least use his eyes … Which he does, to great effect.  There is some humour here, not least in his Yoda-like dialogue delivery … But times several I found myself wondering if the dialogue was being added afterwards and Hardy was mere miming.  He seemed like the passion and aggression that his physicality demanded was lacking.  Sadly, Hardy is perfectly cast in this role, but is simply not allowed to play to his considerable strengths.  Watch Bronson to see him being uncontrollably physical and truly, disturbingly terrifying.  Here, only in his final scene with Batman does he become a fully rounded character but it is too little too late.

So I was disappointed with Tom Hardy … Not disappointed by him so much as for him.  

Notice how the eyes seem to follow you round the room ...
Maybe if this film hadn’t been shackled to its 12A certificate and, therefore, it’s need to not upset anyone above the age of five, maybe then we could have seen Bane let off the leash.  Maybe characters we are supposed to be invested in could be allowed to die on screen.  Maybe the realistic vision could be permitted some realistic blood-letting.  But none of that is directly Nolan’s fault, that is down to the MPAA and the BBFC who censor the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

But what about the story?  Does it have the multi-layered complexity of TDK?  In spades!  Lesser film-makers would have made massive set-pieces, if not entire movies out of sequences which Nolan references in passing – such as the blowing-up of the bridges, or the trapping of the entire police-force underground.  Indeed, the number of plot-threads is actually too mind-boggling to follow in a single viewing.  This is not helped by the way that the film’s structure seems to fly apart in the third act.  Our hero is lying on his back on the other side of the planet while, in the space of a montage, three months passes and Commissioner Gordon is leading a resistance movement in the unruly streets of chaos-riven Gotham and them … It’s three weeks after that and a few hours till a nuclear bomb is going to turn Manhattan Island (sorry, Gotham Island) into Hiroshima 2.0.

But, hang on, didn’t The Joker mine the bridges last time?  Well, he said he did … But we didn’t see any blowing up.  Here we do.

Sorry … Did you mention a nuclear bomb?  Yep.   Another touch of the old Bond movie!  Mixed-in (had they but known) with a touch of The Avengers.  That, I confess, was a bit of a stretch.  For a series that had striven to be real, to pitch realistic characters with realistic motivations against each-other in realistic ways … The nuclear stand-off and its resolution was pushing things a bit.

Okay, so I had problems with the film … Problems which may evaporate with a second viewing.  But there were also pleasures.

What's new, pussy-cat?
Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is a pitch-perfect delight.  She isn’t there as cheese-cake.  I didn’t notice a single lingering shot of her arse in her tight costume.  She doesn’t need Bruce to come along and rescue her … indeed she does the rescuing … And no one, at any point, even contemplates calling her ‘Cat Woman’.  Oh.  Thank.  God.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is spot-on as John Blake a character who takes up the campaigning reigns of a younger Jim Gordon, who is now polluted by the lie he has been telling about Harvey Dent all these years.  Indeed, as the film proceeds, he evolves from being a proto-Gordon, to a proto-Bruce Wayne … And there will be much interweb speculation about where that particular story thread will lead.

Rather like Bale before him ... The uncomfortable teenager has all grown -up and is an action movie star in the making.
Michael Caine succeeds (once again) in bringing a lump to the throat as Wayne’s Better Angel, constantly telling him the unvarnished truth … Even if one or two of his exchanges did echo with the recent memory of Martin Freeman’s astonishing turn as John Watson in the TV version of Sherlock.

I loved the way that this film (inadvertently) turns over the coin to its scarred side and shows us what a big city is really like.  In The Amazing Spider-Man (as well as in Raimi’s more fantastical versions of the story) we got New Yorkers pulling together to protect their own.  But Gotham, as seen by Nolan (and, before him, Frank Miller) is a very different kind of New York.  Here, when the ‘ordinary Gothamites’ are cut loose … They just ransack the place, freeing prisoners, setting up kangaroo courts and hanging ‘the guilty’ from bridges.  This is a city where freedom from the shackles of law-and-order simply means anarchic self-destruction.

I loved the hectic, dizzying pace of the third act, with its echoes of Robocop (1987) and Escape From New York (1981).  I loved the sheer scale of the visuals … From the size of the sets (the huge, Goya-esque court-room … The multi-story sewer … The run-off where the police are trapped … The Pit) as much as the audacious way the locations are shot (as often as not from the air).

Half upside-down insect / half helicopter hybrid ... If I can't have Deckard's Spinner - I want that!
I love The Bat.  I love the fact that they don’t call it a Bat-Wing and I want one!

I love the ambition of taking a superhero movie and making it about class-war, terrorism, social group-dynamics, personal-morality and war!

I love the fact that the last act rambles over five months, has none of the unities script-writers are trained to observe, and yet still hangs together as an energetic and epic story.

I love the fact that the film has about four false endings and I only guessed two of them.

I haven't mentioned The Bat Pod ... But Selina Kyle just looks too cool on it to ignore.
Ultimately, this is not as satisfying an experience as The Dark Knight.  It strives for so much scale the human element gets lost.  It strives for so many narrative threads that the coherence gets lost.  It lacks the charismatic heart The Joker gave to the last film and it lacks his clearly-defined motivation.  We never do really know why Bane is doing what he’s doing.  But it is an experience, a truly epic experience full of ideas … And there are precious few of those in most $250 million movies.

If Nolan has failed it is only partially and it is only because he was too ambitious.  And God bless him for it.  That ambition worked in The Dark Knight and gave us the first IMAX block-buster.  It worked in Inception and gave us the most intelligent block-buster probably ever … And it works here more than it doesn’t.

None of that 3D nonsense for our Christopher.
More than anything else … I love the fact that this is in 2D.  And always will be.

I also love the fact that, in a few days, I will be seeing it again on an IMAX screen!  So I might be back with more …

When you have seen the film you, if you're anything like me, probably like to peek behind the curtain to see how it was done.  Well, rather conveniently, this 13-minute-long making-of has been on-line for a while.  Just the job.
… Meanwhile, as you may know, there has been a typically American tragedy at a midnight screening of this film.  In a town apparently just fifteen miles from Columbine, another psychopath starved of publicity has decided to make himself famous in the wrongest way possible. 

The news media, which is whacking itself dry with excitement over this, is sparing is no lascivious detail of what they are already calling ‘The Batman Killings’.  Indeed, as I type this, they are telling us that the perpetrator was made up to look like The Joker.  This will, inevitably, re-ignite the Media effects Debate that rages on year-after-year and which I will, in all likelihood, be evoking to my Media students at some point in the future.

Over at Zap 2 It, they have noticed that Miller's 'Dark Knight Returns' chillingly dealt with this issue (including the notion of the media's culpability) in its Arnold Crimp tableau:

The message here is that a deranged mind - and let us not forget that no-one chooses to be mentally ill - will take inspiration from any source, will confuse and misinterpret that inspiration and will fit it into a skewed reality.  Wiser voices than mine have noted, many times, that you cannot legislate for the infinite variety of human personality.  But one thing we can do, is not obsess over the details. 

Earlier today, a friend and ex-student reminded me of this … It’s short, it’s pointed and it’s the single most coherent comment I’ve ever heard on this type of atrocity …

For now, if you were intending to go and see The Dark Knight Rises … or any other movie … Go.  Don’t let the weakness of one mad individual, or the cumulative weakness of one mad society, dictate your actions.

If you want to know more about violent crime in American – watch Bowling For Columbine and if you want to understand the irresistible power of the media over our minds … I urge you to look up the name Adam Curtis.


  1. From a story telling perspective, TDKR has two big problems:
    1) after all that build-up, Bane is reduced to nothing more than Miranda's lacky
    2) allowing Selina/Catwoman to kill Bane ultimately stops Batman from overcoming all that external conflict that the entire film has built towards, and therefore robs the audience of the satisfaction it has paid to experience - not to mention it cancels out the first two hours of the story because it becomes meaningless...

    Just saying... ;-)

  2. Two things I wasn't prepared to discuss in the review - because it was written the week the thing came out and I didn't want to spoil *everything*.

    But now everyone and their pet bat has seen it ...

    I agree. Bane is given a massive build-up, but no climax. The need to have a script reversal in Act 3 (one of the few structural rules the script does observe) robs him of his motivation and his significance.

    As such, once he's reduced to secondary importance, it's entirely proper that he's killed by a secondary character! That's one of the things I loved, I must confess! That, to me, could have been the reversal, with no reason to have the inevitable-foreign-femme-fatale-who's-really-a-villain plot contrivance at all.

    But, since all the marketing turned on Bane, his reduction to irrelevance (whilst brave and surprising) was anti-climactic and comparable to that involving Darth Maul thirteen years previous.