There are two journeys in Dark Knight Rises. One sees Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) mentally and physically bringing himself back into fighting shape after Gotham found itself in an extended period of piece. He’s beaten, battered, and certainly cannot go heliskiing.
Then there’s Bane (Tom Hardy). Fitted with a mask to hide his pain, his journey is less direct. His methodology is purposefully slow, spiraling an entire city into madness, doing so emotionally or through a series or paralyzing attacks. Everything he does has a purpose, even if it’s not immediately decipherable.
That makes Bane one of the best villains of this series, a methodical, patient killer with an approach that is as hands off as it is hands on. What he lacks in the insane charm of a Joker or poisoning madness of a Scarecrow, Bane is dangerous because you don’t know when you’re stepping into his plot. Calculated and precise, it’s arguably too perfect, going off without a hitch until that third act when things unravel.
Which narrative arc is more interesting? Neither. They’re direct equals. Batman’s destroyed legacy has emotional weight, turning him frail physically and well as mentally. He becomes sloppy, losing his focus when brawling, relying less on his critical thinking and more on his weakening physicality. That element intersects with a hulking Bane, in his prime as he stands alone as a superior specimen. This is a Batman villain you fear on brute force as much as you do his intellect.
A number of key decisions will introduce this comic book rivalry within this Christopher Nolan reality grounded trilogy. An initial face off between Bane and Batman is left without music, a striking, bone breaking rumble that is fitted with adrenaline and strength. The script winds around to develop and answer questions in a natural manner, although most of the important material is left out of Bane’s portion of the script. Digital tinkering has left most of Hardy’s voice work almost unintelligible. For the flack this series has received for Bale’s scratchy, mumbling Batman voice, Bane almost seems like self parody.
It’s impressive then that the script moves so fluidly, even with dual key character components. Exposition is handled with immense care, a build up that is neither stretched thin for material or languishing in pacing. Despite the length, this might be the fastest moving of the entire series, a breathless, tight, and compact thriller taped together with enormity amongst the action set pieces. It’s fast enough that sprawling plot holes are lost in the realm of the inner workings and character arcs.
Despite the focus on such a backlog of characters and newcomers in the likes of Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), Rises finds time for intense street chases and numerous explosions. Gotham is clearly New York as vehicles pan around noted locales, but moments pull the film into the realm of the comic book for the better. The judge’s bench, overseen by Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and made up of discarded tables, strewn paper, or other city-purchased goods, is one of the best designs of the year.
Rises’ greatest asset is how direct of a line it has towards its goals and how precise it stays on that path. It’s a busy film, meant as a summer blockbuster with humorous quips, also as a story determined to stay fresh, and as the final piece to Nolan’s Batman puzzle. Rises succeeds on all of those, even when scrutinized individually.
The Dark Knight brought with it an interesting quandary for the home market. The shifting aspect ratios caused by IMAX sequences could have been trimmed down to a constant 2.35:1, but Warner decided to swap the large scale ratio in as needed. That trend continues for Rises, although in greater frequency. The decision to both shoot in IMAX and stay true to the source’s style is commendable, but often odd. A mid-film shot has Christian Bale waking up in bed and then walking down some stairs. It’s roughly 15 seconds, and it’s done in IMAX. Why? That effect, where maybe a cityscape expands then condenses into a board room for mere seconds, is jarring. For larger scale action – including a gloriously epic finale – the format shines.
Also true to Dark Knight is the transitional quality. Broad, colorful, and intense IMAX scenes are simply brilliant. Inside the stadium as the National Anthem is sung, you’re viewing some of the best live action on Blu-ray. Each hole in the jerseys, every fan, and every blade of grass is readily visible. What 70mm adds to the fight scenes is immeasurable. When Rises is thinner on scale, the 35mm photography takes on some unwanted hallmarks. Imagery turns fuzzy with the lightest level of ringing on certain edges. This isn’t the over zealous sharpening visible prior, but still an eye sore for such a tremendously successful film.
Some of this is, of course, the source photography. Certainly the black crush that stomps on shadow detail is a sign of the intricate lighting schemes that develop mood. It’s not as if you’re missing much in those areas of the screen anyway, and what it adds in image density makes it all worthwhile. Other elements, including rough close-ups and middling medium shots are not as direct in their blame. Digital manipulation – and who knows at what point it was done in the creation of the film or disc – is concerning. There is little reason for such methods to be employed. If nothing else, the Blu-ray seems consistent about it. Medium shots sourced from 35mm are simply not that engrossing. That can’t be said for the theatrical IMAX presentation, which looked stunning.
Color timing involves a parade of hues that consistently warm up flesh tones and cool down the contrast. Even the snow that falls during the energized finish carries a slight (sometimes stronger) blue tint. It never becomes difficult to sort out characters who, despite being amidst the dead of winter, look like they’ve been beach tanning for months.
Despite the misgivings, Rises does come forward with a capable AVC encode against some remarkably challenging material. You can seek out compression during the thousand-man charge in New York… err, Gotham, but you won’t find any. The same goes for the swirling, quickly edited, and fast moving action scenes. Watching the Batwing pan around the cityscape while the encode keeps a clamp on the material for maximum definition is a joy. Few scenes will even exhibit a grain structure, and those that do hold firm without revealing anything digital. This isn’t walking away cleanly. The many sights it offers, however, save it from a worse fate.
It will be the score that immediately demands your attention. As the DTS-HD mix comes into life, the heavy throbbing present in the mix will make you wonder how much deeper the action can go, and the answer is a lot.
Rises’ first mega-scene has Bane hijacking a plane which produces an enormous thrust from the LFE, and stands a beacon to this disc’s positional capabilities too. Stereos work in tandem with ambient surrounds to create a full in-flight atmosphere. This is also the point where you pick up on how obviously dubbed Bane’s voice work is, clearly elevated to become more noticeable to the audience. His first words sound louder than the plane itself.
Summer blockbusters will always hit the action highs. We’ll get there, but it’s always a pleasure to acknowledge the rest of the piece. The water dripping inside the Bat Cave or in Bane’s sewer lair is wonderful. The crowd inside the stadium and then Bane’s voice, which for the first time in the movie, actually fits. He works through the PA system and it swirls around into the rears naturally. The extension is perfect.
Then things blow up, rock the subwoofer, and create an absolutely heavenly finale. Charged with the Batwing’s overpowering engines that pack the biggest punch here, it’s an all out war of missiles, explosions, and vehicles panning through each channel. The set up is nothing to laugh at either: Underground explosions put all of their might into selling the size convincingly, and you’ll find few (if any) who would argue effectiveness.
Despite all of that, the key aural moment remains the first encounter between Bane and Batman. Locked in a cell, it becomes a war of punches, Bane’s punishing in the LFE, Batman’s coming across as a whimper until his anger consumes him. There is a consistency to Bane’s style that sells him as dangerous, as if he needed another element. World class work.
If you don’t have access to a Second Screen device, the bonus on the first disc is useless to you. The good stuff is over on disc two.
Three sections (Production, Character, Reflection) balloon out into twelve more. It all comes together under the banner of Ending the Knight. This is deep, honest material that avoids many of the bonus feature cliches. The only genuine gripe is the lack of a “play all” option. Heading back to the menu after a few minutes of content is a bit of waste. What is here is still worth your time though.
The Batmobile is – if you count the other sections as individual parts – the longest thing here. This cycles through the history of Batman’s most famous gadget, even allowing Joel Schumacher to get in a few words. At an hour long, it’s exhaustive and a ton of fun to boot. A wealth of trailers and collection of print campaign art will signal the end to one of 2012’s major home releases.