There's something perverse about a blockbuster comic-book adaptation as unwaveringly self-serious as The Dark Knight Rises. No matter how often character actors intimate nihilistic mantras or how much dread Hans Zimmer's score portends, it's impossible to forget that this is still, in the end, the story of a man who dresses up in a bat costume. That's probably why each of Christopher Nolan's three Batman films tend to find their footing when the action shifts away from Batman and his attendant iconography and toward a more credible dramatic pulse. The Dark Knight's Joker, though easily the most recognizable of the franchise's villains, was nevertheless believably realized as an emblem of some greater anarchic spirit, divorced from the campy source text; his presence grounded the film and to some degree justified the tone. The Dark Knight Rises recognizes the value of this formula and thus continues to relegate its bat-suited protagonist to the margins of his own film, breaking him ostensibly so that he may rise in classical narrative fashion, but really, if we're being honest about the machinations of the screenplay, so that he may be absent during much of the film's overlong running time. The film only functions as it needs to because Batman spends a half hour in self-imposed Howard Hughes exile and another hour-plus sequestered in an Israeli prison/pit hybrid—not because the plot necessitates his intervention only at the last possible moment, or because his escape from imprisonment coheres with the film's theme of resurrection, but because we need to be thinking about something other than rubber bat ears and Christian Bale's gravelly voice if we're to take this lumbering epic seriously for 165 minutes.
How The Dark Knight Rises actually integrates Batman into the film when it finally gets around to doing so is pretty dismal: Our hero's two major action scenes are literally nothing more than well shot pro-wrestling matches in which Batman trades blows with beefed-up megalomaniac Bane (Tom Hardy), their fisticuffs an unintended manifestation of hamfisted storytelling that's in many ways the nadir of Nolan's series. Naturally, the film needs to ultimately validate the valiant efforts of its protagonist, and it does so by trotting out a shopworn gesture of last-act self-sacrifice meant to cash in the chips of emotional investment accrued (it hopes) over the course of this three-film journey. Joss Whedon's The Avengers, the year's other superhero epic, concluded its swirling 30-minute battle royale with a nearly identical act of selfless heroism, one similarly concerned with wringing tears from an audience held rapt. But how these noble near-deaths differ in practice is telling. The spectacle of Iron Man's outer-space collapse is humanized when this overtly jokey and unserious character struggles in vain to reach his wife on the phone seconds before what looks like certain death, a moment that resonates precisely because it's unexpected; Batman's momentous (faked) death, on the other hand, strains for money-shot grandeur and importance, as a busload of inspired schoolchildren look on in schmaltz-soaked awe. Bale gives it the old college try, smiling proudly from under that plastic bat mask, his eyes aglimmer. And yet it looks completely ridiculous, not just because we're mourning a guy in a silly costume, but because the film refuses to acknowledge that the costume is inherently silly. It's the opposite of humanizing a hero: It blows him up to cartoon proportions, a preposterous epic writ large.
What The Dark Knight Rises does without Batman it does for the most part rather well: the addition of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) brings a modicum of levity to a series urgently in need of it, which may account for why her scenes tend to be the most purely enjoyable; rising star of the Gotham police force John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) provides a viable flesh-and-blood option for a hero worth rooting for; and a few of the major Batman-free set pieces, particularly the controlled demolition of a football field, are quite astonishing to behold. But in general, the most interesting quality of The Dark Knight Rises is its imperfection: It's sloppy and incoherent in a way that jibes strangely well with the content of the film, which is all about decentralization and planned disorder. The film's narrative is elliptical in a manner uncommon for such large-scale studio projects, to the point where it seems to be adopting a kind of dream logic (or perhaps comic-book logic?) rather than any conventional cinematic one; as a structuring principle, this has the advantage of keeping the audience in a state of confusion and anxiety—the unshakeable feeling that the film's parts don't quite add up creates a cognitive dissonance as unsettling as it is strange. That the film is incoherent—narratively, yes, but also ideologically—makes it unsatisfying, but in a way it's preferable to something more streamlined and tidy, where any chance of friction is minimized once the edges are sanded away.
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Back in 2008, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better use for a brand-new Blu-ray player than Warner Home Video's release of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises, then, has a lot to live up to, and in some ways Warner has failed to disappoint: footage shot on 70mm looks more striking than ever, detail is strong, colors are rich. That said, the constant back and forth between 70mm and boring old 35mm, as well as the attendant change in aspect ratio, is more noticeable (and annoying) on home video than it was in the theater, and those bothered by the contrast during The Dark Knight should remember that The Dark Knight Rises more than doubles that film's IMAX use. More frustratingly, the transfer has a perceptible dimness that, given the darkness of the film, makes it difficult to be wowed by clarity, and while the black levels are impressive, they also tend to be overpowering.
The disc's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, as expected, packs an incredible wallop: The score is piped in loud and clear, gunshots and explosions have real force, and, for the most part, dialogue is balanced and easy to parse. But the one major flaw of this track is immediately obvious: Bane's voice is mixed to deafening volume above everything else in the mix, to the point where it often sounds like he's providing voiceover rather than dialogue. This was noticeable in the film's theatrical run, but a home-theater system makes it that much more obnoxious. During the opening air-heist sequence, for example, Bane is relegated to the front channel, over and above not only the other characters (who speak at half his volume), but the sound of gunfire, airplane engines, and music. It's incredibly distracting.
As this release has clearly been timed to capture the lucrative holiday market, a standalone second disc of special features transforms Warner's anticipated Blu-ray into something like a gift set in miniature (just check that shimmering holographic slip sleeve). Much of this additional content has the PR-platitude quality of any grandiose studio feature, particularly the dozen-plus hype trifles in the disc's "Characters" suite, which resemble casual fan service. Some of the behind-the-scenes content, on the other hand, plays out like a privileged look behind the curtain, explaining with surprising depth the technical wizardry that fuels the film; the most interesting of these reveals how Nolan's special-effects team created the football-stadium demolition using a real stadium and a real crowd (spoiler: It was awesome). The real gem of the set, though, is an hour-long documentary about the Batmobile, which takes us through the history of its conception from the original comic books straight through to its representation on the silver screen. It's comprehensive and, surprisingly, deeply fascinating: Featuring interviews with everybody from Adam West to Joel Schumacher, it really gets to the heart of what has made this essentially ridiculous vehicle beloved and iconic.
The Dark Knight Rises, the year's silliest and most stubbornly self-serious blockbuster, arrives on Blu-ray with a flawed A/V transfer and a slew of largely inessential extras.