If you’ll recall, my initial reaction to The Dark Knight Rises was simply “wow.” Everyone else’s reaction was probably a little different. For those who only saw the film after the tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, it may have been difficult to divorce the actual quality of the film from the media attention surrounding it. It was bad enough that The Dark Knight Rises had to compete with the previous film in the franchise, The Dark Knight, considered a modern classic by most circles (even non-Batman fans), and that without the instantly iconic presence of Heath Ledger – or a similar scenery-chewing counterpart – The Dark Knight Rises didn’t make quite the same impression. Combine that with the film’s overpowering indictment of Batman as a concept, questioning whether Bruce Wayne was inherently selfish for playing superhero when his billions of dollars could have made a more tangible positive impact on the world at large, and you had a recipe for a film that was bound to be a little disarming, regardless of how good it was.
But The Dark Knight Rises is very good, and while it never captures the same anarchic lightning in a bottle its predecessor boasted, that’s not what it’s about. The Blu-ray release of The Dark Knight Rises comes out on December 4, and with those months of separation it may be a little easier to appreciate this film for its daring attempt to close out Christopher Nolan’s version of the Batman mythos with an intelligent and emotionally moving climax. Having revisited the film on high-definition home video, I can say with confidence that not only is The Dark Knight Rises one of the best films of the year, not only does it conclude the franchise with an truly grand finale, but it may just be the best film in the whole series.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan and his team have something deeper on their minds than order vs. chaos, or fear vs. personal responsibility. In this film they take on the entire world, the rich and the poor, the brave and the cowardly, and challenge that world to take action for the greater good. Bruce Wayne’s heroism as Batman actually comes under scrutiny. His obsessive dedication to the legacy of Batman, and the late Harvey Dent, have caused him to neglect his financial support to orphanages around Gotham, and the shame of his failed clean energy project have forced him, in his own mind, into hiding. His failings as a philanthropist and as a man, particularly his failure to save the life of Rachel Dawes in the previous film, have left him with only the success of Batman to keep him aloft. Then Wayne’s near constant failure to overcome the machinations of his new villain, Bane, take that away from him too. He is left a broken man, stuck at the bottom of the well that trapped him as a child in Batman Begins, and is forced to find within himself the will to survive when all the superficial defense mechanisms he has developed for himself have failed.
Nolan expands on Wayne’s personal journey with an expansive supporting cast that comment on and represent his failings and successes. Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) embodies the legacy of Batman, and takes from Wayne’s story the strength necessary to do what’s right without deep-seated psychological affliction as a motivator. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) enjoys the power that comes from her double-life, but like Batman finds her worldview perverted over the course of her story, generating more chaos than justice. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struggles to balance his guilt and culpability at deceiving the people of Gotham but, unlike Wayne, does not allow that internal struggle to remove him from the constant fight for righteousness. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) embodies the selflessness with which Wayne could have saved the world without donning a mask, but in the end reveals her motivations to be just as self-serving as the hero’s, albeit darkly mirrored. And Bane, despite greater hardships than the hero ever endured, never allowed that horrible trauma to deter him from his grander mission.
Wrap those characters around a city divided by "haves" and "have nots" and you have a sweeping narrative that, in many respects, becomes A Tale of Two Cities for a new generation: a richly sculpted melodrama that comments on complex personal struggles against a backdrop of social relevance. That Christopher Nolan told his tale in luscious 70mm cinematography, peppered with ecstatic action sequences and wrapped inside one of Hans Zimmer’s most expressive scores only adds to the powerful scope of The Dark Knight Rises. This is not a Batman movie. This is a movie about the entire world that uses Batman as a metaphor for the way our personal strife informs and interferes with our ability to change that world for the better, and often for the worse. It’s pure, unfettered ambition masquerading as a summer popcorn flick, and it deserves to be devoured by all.
The Blu-ray edition of The Dark Knight Rises, like The Dark Knight before it, boasts one of the most exceptional transfers you’re likely to find in a motion picture, thanks largely to the abundance of visual information that the IMAX format provides. It’s a beautiful, booming demo disc for your home theater system. The special features lack a commentary track, but do provide interactivity with one of those cell phone or iPad apps that studios seem so hot about lately. I was more impressed by the assortment of behind the scenes documentaries, each running between five to ten minutes long, and each focusing on a different aspect of the production. The longest documentary, about an hour long, focuses on the long history of the Batmobile, from the comics to the Adam West series to the previous film iterations through the beloved Tumbler, and has an emotional heft that most Blu-ray features rarely achieve thanks to the participants’ obvious affection for one of cinema’s most beloved vehicles.
As for the rest, the “Bonus Features” disc does not include a “Play All” button, which makes watching these documentaries unnecessarily tedious, and there are a few significant gaps in the information provided. Bruce Wayne, Bane and Selina Kyle each get a special feature dedicated to their characters, but John Blake, Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, for example, are completely ignored. Most of the film’s key effects sequences, set pieces and locations are given their own spotlight feature – the football sequence is particularly impressive, considering how much of the devastation was photographed practically – but if you wanted to know more about film’s unexpected cameos, for example, or the somewhat controversial final scenes, you are completely out of luck. Fortunately, the behind the scenes footage that is available is hours-long, when taken as a whole, and full of fascinating looks at the mammoth production and some memorable shots of all the impressive stunts captured in The Dark Knight Rises.
Commentary track enthusiasts will be disappointed, since again, The Dark Knight Rises has none, but practically everyone else will be thrilled with the way this Blu-ray turned out. It’s a spectacular presentation of a brilliant film, with enough bonus material to satisfy most fans who want to know more of how this sweeping production was put together. The Dark Knight Rises rose to new heights of superhero cinema, and extends beyond that into grand dramatic territory. While it doesn’t have the pizzazz of The Avengers, Nolan’s third and supposedly final Batman movie has a thematic heft that Whedon’s film, and practically every other movie out there, never even dares to approach. And most amazingly of all, it really works.
The Dark Knight Rises is available on Blu-ray combo pack, DVD and download 12/4.