A few weeks ago, I found myself at Charlotte’s Regal Theater watching Marc Webb’s relaunch of the Spiderman series. There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then there are movies so miserably misguided that they cause you to question major facets of the universe.
“If there was a God, why would She let something like this happen?”
“Why do bad movies happen to good actors?”
“Who told that guy from 500 Days of Summer that he could direct an action flick?”
But the most pressing question I had on my mind was whether or not I’d simply gotten too old for superhero movies. The mainstream press, for the most part, seemed to find The Amazing Spiderman not only digestible, but good. That bloated, poorly acted, awkwardly paced, inconsistent mess of a film was actually praised by some in the entertainment industry. The fact that no one seemed quite as disgusted with it as I was perplexed me. Maybe, I thought, the problem isn’t with the movie, but with me. Maybe this is what good movies are supposed to look like. Maybe my standards are too high.
Then came The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), a movie so ambitious, meticulously executed, and flawlessly performed that I’m a little concerned as to how long it will be before I’m able to watch a movie without comparing it to the last chapter of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece of a trilogy.
There’s no use trying to avoid comparisons to the other films in the series, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. TDKR doesn’t have the same sense of fun one would expect from a superhero movie. Despite what comic book purists would say, the camp element that’s been added to the Batman franchise over the past few decades has inevitably fused itself with what we expect from the Caped Crusader. Even at its darkest points, The Dark Knight was able to make us laugh due to an impeccable performance from Heath Ledger. Although TDKR offers a chuckle here or there, it is a starkly joyless film.
What it lacks in laughs, it makes up for in ambition. Superhero movies have become increasingly introspective in recent years. Rather than follow that trend, TDKR chooses to extend its view to the world at large. The result is a plot line so mired in moral ambiguity, its hard to tell who we’re supposed to be cheering for until the grand climax, and that’s not a bad thing. Bane, the film’s villain, delivers an Occupiers wet dream by opening the prison doors and giving the citizens of Gotham an opportunity to “take back their city,” allowing regular people to put society’s true criminals on trial: the politicians, the police, and the wealthy. The film finally addresses that age old comic book question: why do superheroes spend their time beating up petty criminals while banks and billionaires rob the world blind?
The plot sprawls itself out slowly, budding and blooming in fantastic fashion. Make no doubt about it: this film is Christopher Nolan’s success. It doesn’t have the snippy one-liners and awe-inspiring moments of The Dark Knight, but instead opts for a full package. It’s the film equivalent of eating a three course meal rather than a handful of Twizzlers. It’s not just in the span of the movie either. TDKR feels more like a sequel than The Dark Knight did, complimenting the first two films without attempting to overshadow them. It is this new film that makes Nolan’s Batman series into a true trilogy, rather than just a couple of movies with the same characters.
The heavy moral questions the movie raises require a highly capable cast of actors. Christian Bale delivers his weakest performance yet as the film’s title character, as he seems to be on autopilot throughout the film and never bothers to try and wow the audience with so much as a subtle look or an unexpected inflection. The same can be said of Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. Then again, after two films and nearly five hours worth of their characters, maybe there’s just nothing they can do to impress us anymore in those roles. In Bale and Oldman’s inexplicable absence, two stars rise (pun intended): Michael Cain and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Cain reprises his role as Alfred, but delivers a powerfully fresh performance as his character must deal with what he finds to be a personal failure to Bruce Wayne’s parents. Cain makes every scene in which he appears, and emotional-punching moments of the film all come from him. Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake, a hot headed cop who leads Gotham from the clutches of Bane. He demands attention whenever onscreen, although he struggles through understated moments.
Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is pretty much just there. She wasn’t the disaster she could’ve been, but it never feels as if she fully tackles Catwoman’s psychopathy, so the performance lands somewhere between good and generic. Tom Hardy’s performance as Bane is similar, although Bane comes across as incredibly menacing and believable. Both actors rely on the strength of the plot and screenplay, which luckily for them, are nearly perfect. I honestly think high school theater kids could’ve performed these roles and still made them look good as long as they had Nolan’s script in their back pocket.
So there it is. Christopher Nolan has created an absolute masterpiece of a film. His vision, and to a lesser extent Michael Cain’s standout performance, provide a great ending to this trilogy. It’s too early to tell, but I could completely justify anyone who would call these films our generation’s Star Wars.
Now let’s see if he can finally make a good Superman movie.