The Dark Knight Rises Review: Rising

Christopher’s Nolan The Dark Knight Rises closes out a trilogy unprecedented in the superhero genre. Following the highly praised second-entry The Dark Knight, the final entry successfully meets its lofty expectations, a feat not shared by Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 3. It was pretty much inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises would be weighted heavily against its predecessor, which has likely been as much of a challenge for Nolan as the villainy  Batman has faced throughout the dark trilogy.

Batman (Christian Bale) took the fall last time around for Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and as the title suggests, Gotham’s caped crusader has returned to rise to meet his destiny. Terrorism, corruption, and social unrest have once again taken Gotham City hostage (literally) with the main villain Bane at the forefront (after a brilliant and exhilarating introduction by plane in the first set-piece). Bringing ruin to both the stock exchange and infrastructure, Bane leaves little hope to the citizens of Gotham while Batman falls once, twice, again and again to come to its aid. What’s so riveting about Batman’s rise here is how hard our hero falls. Bane’s chaos ensues on the city in the third act for what feels like a straight hour before we see the mask again, but when we do, the epic conclusion that follows is an unforgettable ride that will strike fear into any superhero film that dares to follow.

Many will argue that Bane (Tom Hardy) pales in comparison to the Heath Ledger’s legendary role as the Joker, but while all the entries of a series are inescapably tied, it is better to treat Bane for his role here, and not to be compared with The Dark Knight. As for this final entry, he couldn’t be a better fit for its themes. I didn’t find the mouthpiece to hinder his expression as many have noted, but find it a strong character piece in itself. Hardy’s ‘holier than though’ voice, complemented by well-written dialogue, go far in creating a distinct villain who steals every shot he’s in, sometimes even whilst sharing it with Batman. The shots of Batman and Bane together are well-spaced, reserved for the most dramatic moments.

There are some truly great shots throughout. Landscape panoramas of Gotham in chaos strike a different awe than those closer to the ground, but seamlessly. They befit the terror Bane exudes in his voice, stature, and actions. There is a raw, brute evil to Bane that is very different from the twisted mental state of the Joker; he’s more of an ideological terrorist than one who is self-gratifying. I usually admire cunning over strength in a villain (see my post on Thor regarding Loki), but Bane has both in droves. While it doesn’t beat anything in final act, I have to say that the single most effective set-piece leading up to it is the ‘mano a mano’ fistfight between Batman and Bane in the second act. This is a powerful scene that is revisited again later, where both Bane’s and Batman’s full dimensions are shown without distraction: no bat-mobile, no bat-wings, no explosives, no goons. The setting is dim and there is a reviling feeling that Batman takes his biggest fall here and now.

The Dark Knight Rises does so much perfect, but not everything. Running close to three hours is fine for such an ambitious film, but the screenplay is not completely balanced, with too many plot threads running parallel to each other. I won’t complain too much about that though. I imagine Nolan had a lot he felt compelled to include in his last entry, and it’s nigh impossible to find fault at anything leaving the theater. Undoubtedly, this is the finale everyone expected.

There is going to be a drought for superhero films for the rest of the year, and budgets won’t be getting any lower following Bruce Wayne’s last endeavor. Superhero films have been evolving to greater heights, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future. The first truly great trilogy of the modern superhero genre, Nolan’s dramatic, somber take on Batman in The Dark Knight Rises has set the bar high.

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Chronicles of Fate

Xenoblade ChroniclesI am increasingly optimistic about the expressive capabilities of video games as a story-telling medium. Lately, I’ve been working my way through Monoliftsoft’s Xenoblade Chronicles, a role-playing game for the Nintendo Wii that came close to never being released outside of Japan. Thankfully, an English port made its way on to U.S. soil after a European release. Although I’ve logged about thirty-one hours of playing, it’s hard to tell how much longer I have to go, but I’ve come far enough to reflect on some of the great things successful RPGs have been doing to drive the video game medium toward greater narrative heights.

Art design, story, sound, and character are essential to an engaging work of interactive fiction. These combined characteristics are more relevant to film than prose, which depends more on description and writing style to take the place of visual and audible elements. The RPG (role-playing game) genre has been most successful when all of these elements come together to create a world worth being immersed in for the average forty-hour completion time. The Final Fantasy series has successfully laid this foundation since the glory days of the Super Nintendo, as have a slew of stand-alone titles such as Chrono Trigger and Legend of Mana, to name just a few. It is easy to lose oneself without notice of time while progressing toward the end of these stories, and it is no less an engagement in Xenoblade Chronicles.

But it is another element entirely that really separates this medium from film or television, and that is interactivity. Whereas cinematic cutscenes and dialogue are one way to press the plot in a RPG, directly controlling a character’s commands, equipment, and skill or talent progression exceed rote description to create an attachment between the player and character. This attachment makes the world more believable and relatable, and it helps create a focal point from which a narrative perspective is created. Often it is a single character that plays host to the adventuring party, and when it is the player that decides this host, that narrative bond can be as wholesome as that found in literature.

The player-customization of equipment is also a supportive element for the progression of narrative in the RPG. Like traditional archetypes in literature, it is often that the armor and weapon choices of a party member reflect that member’s personality and character traits. The protagonist typically bears a single sword or other basic weapon, not overbearingly but dutifully, with the air of one chosen to play the hero (the armor is also typically of a medium set to denote the hero’s balanced dimensions); others of the hero’s party wield their own distinct weapon and armor sets reflective of their own character attributes, including the brutish but likable sidekick, larger in size and wielding a two-handed weapon, filled with strength but who devotes that gift to the aid of the unlikely hero, the mage or healer who is often scholarly or of royal lineage, among other archetypes.

The most successful RPGs alter or redefine these archetypes in creative fashion while remaining faithful to the genre. These are not only attributes to bring the characters to life; in likeness to skill and talent progression, they are symbolic of each character’s journey. As players advance their party’s tale, stronger equipment is obtained, usually with increasingly impressive art design. Combined with the progression of plot and the development of newly acquired skills, a powerful impression of advancement toward a greater climax is created. This impression is played out, of course, through countless battles and dungeons through chapters that each end with a dramatic hook greater than that which preceded it. RPGs follow the plot structure of the epic narrative, and can be as successful as some literary epics that immerse us in such a manner that we are devoted to finishing the tale.

Xenoblade Chronicles is one such RPG. The world is a rich, expansive setting. The story takes place on two continents created by two dead gods who defeated each other in battle ages past: Bionis, who exudes life and all things natural, and Mechonis, a haven of technology and things engineered. The overarching conflict is symbolized here quite literally, with the Homs or humans of Bionis utilizing technology to aid them in their peaceful settlement, and rogue machines draining the Bionis and its inhabitants for ether or life energy.

Following a tragic attack by Mechons on Colony 9 (based on the foot of the fallen Bionis god), our unlikely hero Shulk joins a band of other memorable characters on a journey for vengeance that is ultimately intertwined with larger schemes. The setting in which the story takes place is memorable through and through (I am currently in a locale called Sword Valley, which consists of the sword that bridges the two gods together), and the story moves along at a brisk pace. There is no shortage of new developments in each chapter pushing me to the next. The unique and colorful art design that unifies the character and setting also lend authenticity to the story, thus creating a greater impact.

Shulk wields a legendary weapon known as the Monado, which only he can use and seems to hold great significance to Bionis. It also happens to be very effective against the Mechonis. Though it is typical for an unlikely hero to hold some hidden power that brings him to meet his fate (Frodo with the ring of power in The Lord of the Rings, for example), it is not a detracting element of Xenoblade Chronicles because the rest of the story remains distinct from the typical RPG.

I could be wrong, though; I feel as though I am more than halfway through, but it is equally hard to say because there seems to be a great deal unanswered at this point and that I don’t think can be wrapped up in a brief denouement. I expect that I will traverse the neighboring Mechonis quite a bit before all is said and done.

Image: Nintendo, Monolith Soft