Expectation is a funny thing. In theory, there can be no disappointment without first having expectation, but there are rare instances when high expectations are surpassed and the stimulating item secures a place in the hallowed halls of awesome. The Dark Knight was one such film that surpassed my extremely high expectations, but after the tragic death of Heath Ledger and the belief that Nolan’s second Batman outing was gearing up to an even greater showdown between Batman, Gotham and The Joker, I knew the third film could never surpass The Dark Knight.
Hell, I didn’t even really expect it to be better than Batman Begins, given the fact that all of the decent villains had been used and Nolan had sworn to not bring any sort of Joker replacement (or reference for that matter) into The Dark Knight Rises. So it was a strange affair for me to be sitting in a cinema at a midnight screening for The Dark Knight Rises—after watching Batman Begins and The Dark Knight back to back at the same theatre—and wanting it to end not long after it had started.
I’d already seen the prologue attached to the front of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, so there were no surprises there, short of the fact they’d considerably cleaned up Bane’s audio track so you can now actually understand what he’s saying. So when the prologue ended, and the real film began, I kept waiting for the real film to start.
Forty-five minutes in and I was looking at the clock, after 90 minutes I was depressed to realise the film was only halfway done, and by the time the inevitable epic action set pieces at the end of the film rolled around, I was so thoroughly uninvested that the spectacle was lost on me.
The bulk of my criticism is reserved for those who’ve already seen the film in the ‘Spoiler Alert!’ section of this article, but for those who want an indication of what was wrong with the film without spoilers, read on.
The Dark Knight managed to juggle one main villain, the rise and fall of a hero, a love triangle and the internal struggle of Batman when Gotham City turned on itself and him. While not a flawless experience, there was a sense of closure and satisfaction with the way the characters were handled, how much screen time they got and, even though it was more about the ascension and descent of Harvey Dent, the final 10 minutes gave the film back to Batman because of how he was willing to take a massive integrity hit on the chin. It was risky filmmaking for a Batman movie, and it really paid off.
In The Dark Knight Rises, you’re dealing with Bruce Wayne and Batman (handled as two different characters in a conclusion that lends itself to a united persona), Commissioner Gordon, bad guy Bane, good cop Blake, Selina Kyle (aka, Catwoman), ambitious high-ranking cop Foley, and a curious sub-plot that involves returning character Lucius Fox as well as newcomers Miranda and Daggett. If you’re exhausted by reading that list, you should be; there are too many damn characters to handle all of them in a respectful way, and the main storyline suffers as it jumps between the core narrative and the various sub-plots and related characters.
By the time the somewhat clever action sequences start to kick in, it goes to show that they don’t mean a whole lot if you don’t care about the plight of the characters: even the main ones. The Bruce Wayne/Alfred Pennyworth dynamic is criminally underwritten, while the usually solid Tom Hardy’s execution of Bane is aurally painful, to say the least.
Just as Mads Mikkelsen’s La Chiffre character from Casino Royale was criticised for having too many bad guy quirks, so too does Bane. Bane has a mouth-covering respirator which leaves Hardy his eyes and body movements for emoting, his accent is akin to the Saturday Night Live Sean Connery Jeopardy parodies, and his breathing is even occasionally channelling (arguably) the greatest screen villain of all time: Darth Vader. This means that Hardy’s fighting and bone-breaking tendencies are left to do the talking, which doesn’t make for a rich Nolan universe character that’s a worthy follow up to Ledger’s Joker. Then again, deliberately picking a villain that’s a physical match for Batman after presenting the cerebral threat of The Joker isn’t a smart move, either. Technically, Ra’s Al Ghul was a physical match for Batman, so we’ve already seen that dance.
An awkward (ex)position
So many sections of The Dark Knight Rises feel like first-draft material that it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s from the same writer/director as the last two Batman films. Expositional dialogue—lines where characters blatantly state what they’re feeling, what just happened or provide plot information without it feeling organic to the conversation or their characters—is rampant in big-budget blockbusters, but Nolan had previously honed his auteur prowess and discovered clever ways to abide by the all-important ‘show don’t tell’ mantra of screenwriting.
The problem is as you start to notice this lazy writing technique the further you get into the film, the more it feels like rain drops on a tin roof: after a while, when there are too many drops, it’s impossible to ignore the din. Every time I think back to something I like about the film, another frustration springs to mind to remind me how what I liked actually doesn’t work.