THIS year’s most anticipated film could very well be the greatest example of diminishing returns.
As the final chapter in director Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises delivers on everything expected; the directing and acting is first rate, the story and plot is engagingly complex, the action is exciting and involving and most of all the overarching themes reach a satisfying conclusion.
Indeed this could be the most ambitious of Nolan’s Batman films which have been so critically acclaimed.
Yet these exceptional results, which are more or less expected after the excellent Batman Begins and the universally praised The Dark Knight, ultimately make the lesser elements and faults of The Dark Knight Rises all the more glaringly obvious.
While there was no doubt the film would struggle to make the same impact as its predecessor, it’s difficult not to come away from The Dark Knight Rises with the slightest tinge of disappointment and perhaps question whether or not The Dark Knight even needed a sequel in the first place.
Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, billionaire Bruce Wayne has retired his alter ego Batman after taking the fall for the death of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent.
Wayne too, has gone into hiding, becoming a rarely-seen recluse still hurting physically and emotionally from his years invested as the Batman.
Meanwhile Dent’s supposed heroism has pushed legislation which gave the Gotham City police the power to eradicate all violent and organised crime, putting the city in a state of peace.
The plot briskly moves along as Wayne and Batman is forced out of retirement when the terrorist mastermind Bane reveals himself and his plan to destroy Gotham City.
That and the appearance of the mysterious and amoral cat burglar Selina Kyle further adds to Wayne’s problems as he struggles to confront his inner demons.
Despite containing a depth rarely seen in other films, let alone those based on comic books, the story, plot twists and revelations made in The Dark Knight Rises are rarely cohesive or as expertly crafted as the previous two films of this trilogy.
The film seems to be dominated by characters explaining motivations, story exposition and metaphors rather than letting those characters reveal them through action and behaviour.
We can see Wayne is hurting in more ways than one, helped largely by a consistently great performance from actor Christian Bale.
He imbues both Wayne and Batman with a stubborn altruism which we see slowly begin to crack, so why do we need other characters constantly reminding us of what he has been through, what he’s doing and why?
At the same time the new primary antagonist of the film seems to miss the mark of what Nolan’s Batman villains were all about.
Sure Bane plans to destroy Gotham City but his confrontations with Batman end up being disappointing fist fights rather than the severe moral challenges like those represented so brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
In that film Wayne was forced to confront his altruistic intention of Batman as the Joker tested him through a series of twisted and disturbing moral tests.
It was a far more engaging and sinister challenge and story arc for Batman than simply having him prove who was better at beating up an endless array of thugs.
And although he is seriously tested, it creates a less than engaging story arc when Wayne is forced to confront a new enemy whose strength is more physical than mental.
It’s also hard to really pin-point what motivates Bane and despite a strong performance by Tom Hardy, this villain ends up more a mindless but articulate brute rather than a disturbed terrorist mastermind.
The real standout actor of the film is Anne Hathaway as the enigmatic Kyle (who is never once referred to as Catwoman, which the character is based on) and not because of the overt sexuality of the character.
Hathaway gives the sort of unhinged, ass-kicking, femme fatale performance which is fun and at times unnerving to watch.
While her motivations are never entirely clear, Kyle becomes a charismatic and intriguing character to follow as the film progresses.
Characters commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), inventor and CEO of Wayne Enterprises Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne’s loyal butler and confidant Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) all make welcome returns with the usual strong supporting performances.
The story adds Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) as another love interest for Wayne and John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as an intelligent but naive young cop ,who both become crucial additions to the plot.
But the film decides to keep going and throws in a slew of other minor characters such as deputy commissioner Peter Foley (Matthew Modine) and Kyle’s friend Jen (Juno Temple).
The attempt to follow all of the characters and give each meaning and depth eventually makes some so lacking in development that their inclusion is almost unnecessary.
It also makes a large part of the first half of the film almost pointlessly confusing to follow as the film struggles to explain who is doing what, with whom and where.
It means that structurally the film becomes a bit of a mess until everything miraculously comes together for the second half of the film, with some excellent set pieces only marginally let down by a surprisingly cliché epilogue.
If this review sounds far too negative, it’s only because it’s such a shame the problems become so prominent considering how much the film gets right.
The action-focused finale is hugely exciting and fun to watch, the musical score is suitably grandiose and each performance from the large ensemble cast is excellent.
This is to be expected considering the film’s list of credits.
Nolan is still arguably the most interesting big-budget director in Hollywood and The Dark Knight Rises fits nicely into his catalogue of engaging, often confusing but genuinely entertaining films.
Yet no matter how big the budget, how many extra characters were included or how far the screenplay went, perhaps the final chapter in this Batman saga was doomed from unfeasibly high expectations.
In the end The Dark Knight Rises is a good, but not brilliant film which at least gives a satisfying conclusion Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.