If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Four years of build-up can do quite a lot. It gets the people pumped to see what's going to happen next, it raises the expectations considerably since the team behind the film is taking their time and since it's the end, people desperately want to know the fate of all these characters that they've grown to know and love. Now the question that has to be asked at the end of it all is was it worth it? Unfortunately for this film, it's going to be extremely divisive simply because of the kind of film it is and the bold choices that it ultimately makes.
The set-up for this is great! It's bleak, depressing and really sad. The film tells you right away that it's not going to be the typical summer blockbuster that leaves you with a good feeling at the end. It's been eight years since the death of Harvey Dent and the capture of the Joker. Gordon's lie has cleaned up Gotham but it's also created a false utopia. Bruce Wayne is hiding away from the world and it's clear from the very beginning that he has been left broken by his experience as the Batman and his first few scenes are not only terrifying but also incredibly sad. His pain is so resonant in the introduction... that is until Selina Kyle steals a family heirloom of his which forces him to come out of retirement. Little does he know, another fanatical psychopath threatens to destroy everything that Batman has worked so hard to build upon with the introduction of Bane! Unlike the Joker, Bane is not intending to play any kind of mind game with Bruce. He knows who he is, he knows what he's done, he hates him for what he has done to wrong him and the citizens of Gotham, and he is going to use whatever means necessary to ensure that he does not only die but that he suffers beforehand! That is just... damn!
Now to talk much further about the plot would give it away and that's partly why it's so frustrating to talk about this movie because it's ultimately the biggest flaw which is why it is kind of underwhelming if not a little disappointing. For the Nolan brothers to create such an air-tight, compelling and moving story in The Dark Knight, whatever weaknesses there are here really stand out because they have the possibility of becoming real problems. For the most part, they are excusable because it feels like the kind of movie that was originally five or six hours long but it was mostly cut down for time purposes and for some reason, it only feels like a SparkNotes version of what the real story for the film was going to be but was not allowed to be simply because it's an epic film and not an epic novel like A Tale of Two Cities (which this film was partially based on). The plot for destroying Gotham is fine but it doesn't feel as threatening as the Joker's plan and what he did to the city "with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets." Bane's motivation is interesting and has a lot of potential for pathos but the way he reacts to everything is just too cold and evil to really warrant any sympathy or understanding. Selina Kyle is very mysterious as she should be but her sidekick character is one that could be completely cut out because she serves little to no purpose and she's only in the movie for a total of five to ten minutes. Another huge problem is the fact that even though Michael Caine is incredibly powerful and emotionally palpable as Alfred this time around, his character disappears for a large portion of the story and his absence takes away any of the comic relief that a tragic film of this kind should have. The fulfilment of a certain aspect of his character arc that also brings down the ending in a big way.
One of the biggest fears was going to be Bane's voice and for the majority of the prologue, they were coming true for me but in the opposite end of the spectrum. His voice was almost so unnaturally clear and out there that it was really distracting. What I kind of liked in the original version of the prologue was that his voice seemed more robotic, cold and threatening but it just became too clear for its own good. You could actually tell that his voice was dubbed over even though he's wearing the mask the entire time. However, Bane's voice for the rest of the film sounded absolutely PERFECT! His voice could even rival Darth Vader's at points! Not only that but the amount of arrogance, rage and conviction that he conveys through this voice is really scary and while it doesn't quite reach the terror level of Heath Ledger's Joker, Tom Hardy makes Bane into a fire-bred monster from Hell and it is incredible to watch! There is even one scene in the film that really proves his malevolence and while I won't give it away, it's one that especially non-comic book fans will not see coming for its utter brutality. The first time that Batman and Bane actually fight is perfect filmmaking! Throughout the entire scene, there is a feeling of inevitability and dread and it ultimately ends with the most shocking ending that could be done, especially with the more grounded nature of Nolan's Batman universe. Not only that but the lines that Tom Hardy is given to taunt Christian Bale's Batman are so well chosen and chill-inducing that when you see Batman ultimately being reduced to a wailing child as he tries to fight a punching bag who happens to hit harder than he does, it's truly unnerving to watch. Unfortunately the scene at the Gotham Rogues football game has been ruined for the audience in the previews which would really add to the shock value of Bane and what's he's willing to do. While his plot device keeps everyone in check, it doesn't really reveal his menace as opposed to his sophistication and hubris and it's kind of reductive to the plot unlike the fear gas attack in Batman Begins or the boat finale in The Dark Knight. The only moment towards the end that really captures what makes Bane so ferocious and frightening is towards the end where Batman and Bane have their second confrontation. While Bane as a character could have been handled a little better, Tom Hardy gives an outstanding performance! Even though he's not as showy as the Joker, any actor who can pull off a character like Bane with only their eyes, voice and body movement deserves an enormous amount of praise.
Even though Tom Hardy brings the perfect amount of menace that's needed to dissociate himself from the Joker, every other actor performs admirably well here. Christian Bale gives us a Batman that is old, tired, angry and frightening all at the same time and this is perhaps his most compelling performance in the trilogy as well simply because the only thing that will manage to bring him out of the shadows is his own past and he needs to deal with that in order to move forward and it's truly his story like it was in Batman Begins. The only problem with his story-line is that it's perhaps too convenient how he is able to recover from such a long absence in such a short period of time even though he's more reliant on technology than anything else. Anne Hathaway was great as Selina Kyle / Catwoman and she absolutely lived up to all my expectations of who Catwoman should have been and she proves more than enough to doubters and haters that she's capable of almost anything she sets her mind to. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as he always is and what he brings to John Blake is something that is quite honorable. He adds an earnest sensibility and an honest idealism that never feels forced or contrived and out of all the original characters that have been created for the Nolan universe, he is most definitely the greatest character despite the unforgivably contrived wink to the fans regarding his character (that must've been a studio move). However, even if Batman, Catwoman, Blake and Bane get the best moments, it really hurts to see traditional Batman characters like Gordon or Alfred get the shaft just to make room for everyone else. The other two films didn't do that and Alfred is especially left behind in the narrative which is probably the saddest part because of all the major supporting characters, he's the one to constantly be there even when things are at their worst. Now Lucius Fox doesn't get the same treatment as Alfred or even Gordon but since he's heavily involved with the plot device that Bane is planning on using, it would have been nice to see him get the chance to try and fight off these guys even if it resulted in a hero's death. Regardless, every major player does incredibly well and even the majority of the minor characters do well even if their roles should have had more impact on the story.
People will obviously complain about the idea that Harvey Dent's crimes aren't really dealt with and that the Joker is practically non-existent, even in name or passing. It's understandable to make Two-Face be the reason for Bane's plan or something along those lines but it's pushed aside for a larger issue within the story that was left unresolved in Batman Begins and it severely undercuts everything that happened in The Dark Knight which is a major flaw. Leaving the Joker out of the story is understandable because of Heath Ledger's death and he should have nothing to do with the events of Batman Begins, which ultimately pay off in this film, but Harvey Dent's story is the primary reason why this film could even happen the way that it does which makes it harder to appreciate because it doesn't even completely appreciate portions of what came before. Having said that, there are some interesting twists that are thrown in to make the story come full circle in a sense but the worst part of it is that the majority of the characters in the trilogy either end their personal journeys on a down note that don't feel appropriate or that they simply don't get a definitive ending at all. The end of Batman's story is the biggest cop out in most recent memory, Alfred's story almost feels redundant since he's not in the movie as much as he should be, Gordon's story seems to end in essentially the same place it began except that he's much older, Lucius' story just stops and it doesn't have any real pay-off, Harvey Dent's story is tossed aside as if it bears no real importance other than making Batman the real hero again, the Joker's story is left unresolved except his lack of fate is the only case where it's appropriate since it adds to the mystique of his character, Selina Kyle's ending sort of peters out, Bane's ending is out of nowhere and kind of underwhelming, and John Blake's ending while essentially suitable is utterly ruined by a single tacked-on wink and nod to the fans that wasn't even clever or well-integrated especially for the Nolan brothers / David Goyer way of writing.
Aside from the cheap winks and nods to the fans, the cop out ending, the shafting of certain characters that never deserved it and the wonky beginning with Bane's ADR voice, almost everything else works to varying degrees. The crucial plot points that really distinguished this film apart from other Batman films were masterfully done and truly evocative of the intense emotions that they were trying to convey. The few spots of comic relief are well-executed and at times really funny. Wally Pfister's cinematography is as dark, mysterious and gorgeous as ever to look at, Hans Zimmer's score is hauntingly beautiful to listen to, the actual amount of stuff that's going on in camera is unbelievable, the fight scenes are cruel and tough and the Bat is easily the coolest thing to come along and kick some ass! The Tumbler might be cool and the Batpod might be slick but the Bat is where it's at! Now maybe seeing it in IMAX would help with realizing the actual scope of the film but other than that, the majority of the technical stuff and even the acting and directing are spot on which is why it's so painful to think about because whatever good or great stuff there is, it feels like the SparkNotes version of what it should be and it's because of that that things don't seem to match up or feel as satisfying as they should. Perhaps some of the plot problems might be solved with a second or third viewing since it is a dense film with a lot of stuff going on but as a first impression goes, it's not the masterpiece like it easily could have been, especially considering what came before it. If it doesn't improve with another couple of viewings, here's to the very faint hope of a three or four hour director's cut.