Friday Night Lights: a celebration of sport in all of its futile glory

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As early as its first episode, Friday Night Lights seems intent on making sure that you’re fully aware of the wonderful juxtaposition that is competitive sport. It’s that recognition of the utter futility of throwing, kicking or catching a ball around a defined playing surface, knowing that wins, losses and championships all mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Games are won and lost, players come and go and seasons tumble into each other, all with little in the way of real-life consequences. Yet it exists alongside the admission that sport, and in this case, football, can also mean absolutely everything at the same time.

The pilot sets this up perfectly; almost everyone in Dillon, Texas is thinking only of beating Westerby all week long and starting the season off right. The atmosphere his fever pitch, the stands are packed and the Panthers soak up a wave of love and adulation. Then, bam! Our handsome All-American quarterback Jason Street gets badly injured trying to make a tackle. He’s unable to move and has to be stretchered off the field, and the whole façade, that obsession with winning and the importance that everyone had placed on this team up to this point completely falls apart. Real life invades and forces everyone present to watch on with some perspective.

For a minute or two, anyway. Because once Jason leaves the field, it’s up to the plucky and stammering Matt Saracen’s turn to jump in. He’s wonderfully well-tailored to fulfil the role of the unlikely hero and predictably sends the entire crowd nuts by launching the winning play, simultaneously reminding them why they came here on a Friday night in the first place and providing them with that priceless distraction once again. It’s engrossing stuff, and you’re drawn into the same contrasting set of emotions as the crowd is; you want Matt to throw that pass and win the game, but you also want Jason to be ok, and there’s a small feeling of guilt that you forgot about him for a little while as he’s shown in hospital at the end of the episode. Yet, even though there are plenty of characters like Tyra, Landry or Tami that will bemoan football’s status in Dillon and point out the problems that this all-consuming beast creates, you still find yourself celebrating Panthers’ victories and triumphs almost as if they were your own team, as if their success actually matters.

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Because football is seemingly all that Dillon and its inhabitants have. In terms of a setting, Dillon is as bare and basic as they come. There’s no sense of exploration in this show, setting up a distinctive environment or letting the viewer forge a connection with the town; we see the school, a few local hangouts, some houses, the locker room and the football field. For the most part, that’s it, but that’s the point; this is Anytown, USA. Non-descript and unremarkable. A town in the middle of nowhere that isn’t meant to stand out, and that only serves to further emphasise just how important the Panthers are as an institution and a beacon for the locals to pour their energy and emotions into.

It makes total sense that the town would be so obsessed with this team, because you don’t have to look far to find problems in Dillon. We see two separate Sunday worships in separate churches for white and black people, kids beaten up for daring to openly question football’s importance and three of the show’s key characters are missing at least one parent, be that caused military duty, alcoholism or gang-related violence. So it might explain why every single radio station segment that we hear during scenes is obsessed with the inner workings of Coach Taylor’s team, from who he’ll start, the form of star players or whatever new drama is currently in focus, which again hammers home this sense of Dillon’s disconnection with the real world. Things may be tough, unemployment may be an issue and there’s not a whole lot of hope for our young people when they get out of high school but LOOK, FOOTBALL! GO PANTHERS! And you go along with it all, you get swept up in the focus to win because what else is there to do? You celebrate those early wins against Westerby, Arnett and Gatling and feel the sting when South Milbank snatch a victory in the Panthers’ back yard, because the show has you in its grip.

The pitfalls of this team being the town’s only source of hope, what it forces people to do and the consequences of falling outside of its all-encompassing bubble are frequently laid bare, too. When Jason is paralysed from the waist down, he predictably struggles to cope with a life that won’t be centred on being a star quarterback. When Reyes beats Kastor to a pulp in a parking lot, makes up a lie about being racially abused as his provocation and is found out, he pleads for Coach Taylor’s mercy, stating “football’s all I got” as he’s kicked off the team with no good grades to fall back on. Smash has a stinker on the field one night in front of a prominent scout, and feeling that football is his only available path to success, he turns to steroids to give himself an edge. None of this is high-brow fantasy stuff, either; you can picture scenes just like this in any small American town with limited opportunities and a high school football team at its core, which makes the drama of it all even more engrossing.

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Still, even though Dillon’s focus is so singular, the Panthers and their games they only make up a short part of each episode. Friday Night Lights is remarkably well-balanced television, with plenty of space left for big dramas like Tim and Lyla’s affair or for smaller, heartfelt moments that the show excels at providing. It’s little things like Coach’s marriage with Tami, which is a consistently glorious battle of loving back-and-forth squabbling that thankfully steers clear from full-blown warfare; like Matt taking care of his grandmother and her worsening dementia, which is equal parts heartbreaking and, when he pretends to be his deceased grandfather and sings Mr. Sandman in order to calm her down, wonderfully soft. It’s there again when Coach needs to play Father, and tries to give Julie a fatherly lecture on boys and their motives whilst playing a lacklustre ping pong in their garage. There’s understated, genuine warmth amongst the tackles and the drama, which actually ends up being a big part of the show’s appeal. Sure, you want the team to succeed, but you also want these people to be happy, even when they argue or make mistakes because they feel real. Even though Friday Night Lights isn’t a particularly high-stakes show, it’s wonderfully adept at absorbing you into this world.

Of course, everything still comes back to football. Matt’s grandmother watches it, Tim’s brother watches it, Landry watches it and even Jason watches it from his hospital room whilst trying to piece his life back together. It’s inescapable, and only rarely is its importance challenged. Yet as an onlooker, you’re complicit in that double standard; you see the problems that such an obsession can cause, you see its victims and you see people do bad things to themselves and others in order to maintain the protection, the ego stroke and the opportunities it provides. Without having finished the first season, I can’t say for sure but I’ll bet that life isn’t going to get much better for a decent chunk of these high school kids than what they have now; living for the same night each week so they can play or cheer for their team from the sidelines. But it’s a pageantry that you can’t take your eyes off of, a slice of the American dream laid bare with all of its faults, its trappings and glorious highs smashed together. And I’m only eleven episodes in, too.

 

Until Dawn

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On the face of it, Until Dawn might look like a bog-standard horror game indulging in far too many genre tropes for its own good, and in some ways, it is; from the masked antagonist to the recognisable set-up (eight friends, remote cabin etc), it’s not a narrative that’ll leave fans or casual dabblers of the genre in awe. But in some ways, it doesn’t need to. By allowing the player to control what happens to this hapless set of teenagers through quick time events, dialogue choices and your own potentially morbid desires, developer Supermassive games have crafted a clever, interactive and thoroughly engaging game.

As mentioned, the set-up isn’t anything out of the ordinary. After the mysterious deaths of his sisters a year earlier, bright young thing Josh invites seven friends back up to his family’s remote mountain cabin to mark the occasion. If you’re thinking this is a recipe for disaster, then give yourself a pat on the back, as a maelstrom of crap is most certainly on its way, although not before a relatively quiet first few hours. This slow start might prove too uneventful for some but it’s somewhat vital to the experience, with the game introducing its mechanics and fleshing out its key players. Without delving too deeply into this (at first glance) clichéd ragtag bunch of sexual promiscuity and overt bro-ness, Until Dawn does quite a decent job of developing each of the main cast to the point where your initial, unflattering first impressions are challenged, which will certainly make your experience of playing the game more interesting given that their lives are constantly in your hands.

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Which is great, considering that death is very much the game’s central theme. The intricacies of Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect system might seem slightly pretentious in the game’s opening explanation, but it has the stones to back it up; plenty of your actions during the game will have significant consequences further down the line. It pushes your perception of what doing the right thing in certain situations actually means, and puts you on the spot on several occasions where your choice could well result in one or more fatalities. The beauty of it is that through careful planning, you can tailor the experience to suit your own desires. If you fancy saving some of these characters but not others, you can. If total preservation is your thing then there’s a way that every character can last the night, or if you’re feeling particularly masochistic then there are a handful of ways for each character to die before the sun rises, each death scene more grizzly and graphic than the last.

Thankfully, Until Dawn doesn’t overdo it in that sense. This is absolutely a horror game and you’re never that far from a gory moment or two depending on your choices once you’re a good few hours in, but they’re not used to excess. The game’s actually more effective when it’s trying to make you uneasy, anyway, with much of its running time dedicated to exploring dark corridors and environments which only exacerbates the sense that something terrible is always lurking around the corner, even when it isn’t.

As mentioned, this story won’t be remembered as one of Unit Dawn’s strongest elements. The intention appears to have been to set up a somewhat generic horror tale but with the added spice of directing what happens to the cast, and Supermassive Games have absolutely succeeded in that respect partially because of how carefully they’ve crafted their gameplay. It’s not particularly difficult by any stretch of the imagination, mostly boiling down to walking, using the right stick to select conversation options and interacting with the 100+ clues scattered around the game’s environments with plenty of prophetic totems awaiting discovery and offering guidance or warnings of upcoming danger.

In the game’s more high-pressured moments, control of movement is taken away with your ability to react to quick time events or holding your controller incredibly still during moments of tremendous peril determining your success (if you feel like succeeding, of course). In some ways, it’s welcome that the game doesn’t demand too much from the player in these tense scenarios purely because it spends so much time trying to unsettle you, what with its lack of light in almost every single building you enter, from log cabins to cable car shacks to signal towers. Elsewhere, the constant use off snow and shadow add a real menace to a forest that you’ll find yourself wandering or stumbling through on more than one occasion, with its ever-present layer of darkness creating a suffocating atmosphere.

It’s a great package, to be honest. The presumably extensive motion capture work carried out in order to bring the main cast to life has yielded a great, natural looking game with sharp facial animations and believable performances, which only adds to the high level of presentation. It’s a bloody, tense and frequently satisfying 10-12 hours, despite the well-trodden ground that its story treads. The thrill of guiding these characters through it is probably Until Dawn’s greatest triumph, and its ability to make even the smallest decision feel like it carries some weight (which it frequently does) gives it plenty of replay value. On the downside, the inclusion of so many collectibles does dilute those tense periods of exploration and stretches the scares out somewhat, and whilst the ability to replay the story’s ten episodes in any order after your initial playthrough is welcome, having to sit through every cutscene and piece of dialogue again without the ability to skip them is a brutal, enjoyment-sapping decision. Still, once you work past the generic set up and get to grips with your role of story tinkerer, you’re offered one of the most rewarding and downright enjoyable experiences on PS4.

Moonrise Kingdom

It’s not stretching the imagination to any unreasonable degree to proclaim Wes Anderson’s films as an acquired taste. His characters are well-spoken, measured, dry and unflinchingly deadpan. His films put these characters into unconventional situations but present them in a stoic reality. They’re not instantly accessible and can leave you feeling thoroughly patronised if you don’t click with Anderson’s style. The man himself doesn’t always strike gold, but when he does, it’s often very rewarding. After the potentially dodgy task of adapting Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was navigated with charming aplomb, Anderson has assembled another wildly impressive cast for Moonrise Kingdom, and created probably his best picture to date.

Centred around the burgeoning affections between two pre-teens on a small North American island, orphan scout Sam Shakusky and rebellious Suzy Bishop cause a storm when they run off together, forcing everyone from Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) the local Police (consisting solely of Bruce Willis) and even Sam’s local scout master (Edward Norton) and his troop to search for them.

Essentially, the less you know coming in to Moonrise Kingdom, the better. It develops at its own pace, revealing a superb cast of characters and setting. Once you get over the shock of seeing Bruce Willis in such unorthodox territory, his turn as the island’s lone voice of authority is delicately understated (for him, anyway). Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are irresistibly sweet, awkward and direct as Sam and Suzy, and Murray turns in another Bill Murray performance so Bill Murray-esque as to somewhat negate his onscreen wife. Barring a quite surprising yet charming scout-overlord cameo role for Harvey Keitel, Norton steals the show as Randy, Sam’s scout master, however. In a film full of endearing people, Randy is modest, determined and thoroughly committed to leading his young charges. It’s a role that could easily become farcical quite quickly were it not for Norton’s steady but honest delivery.

As with every Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom is very visually rich. The 1960s setting means some striking period dresses for Suzy and tight, short-shorts for every scout on patrol. New Penzance acts as a stunning backdrop, successfully making the setting feel remote, yet never so backward as to do the film a disservice. Musically, Anderson’s choice of Alexandre Desplat is spot on once again, with a fantastic main theme amongst others. Perhaps where the film distances itself from the likes of Anderson’s predecessors The Darjeeling Limited or The Life Aquatic is in its use of children to lead the story. Sam and Suzy face their own difficulties but their actions, reactions and their resolution makes for a much more affecting journey because of their age.

Considering how 2012 has been about huge movies in which a bunch of costumes swoop around broken dystopias, it’s refreshing to consider that a film as delightful as Moonrise Kingdom is one of year’s standout experiences.

The xx – Coexist

One of The xx’s greatest triumphs over the last few years is that they’ve been able to experience a particularly high level of success and acclaim despite being a somewhat unmarketable proposition. Almost every song on their eponymous debut was quiet, sparse and draped in misty-eyed, bordering-on-obsessive romanticisms whilst nigh on every photo you’ll find of Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith finds them clad in black. Regardless, critics fell in love with them and the public soon followed, so realistically, Coexist has its work cut out for it. To their credit, The xx don’t appear to be a band consumed by their own success and have taken their time in creating a follow-up, to the point where Coexist arrives with a similar kind of nervous, restrained air.

As the moody restrains of Angels gently begins proceedings, change isn’t instantly obvious. Madley Croft’s dreamy, whispered vocals still sit simply alongside her gentle, simplistic guitar melodies and the backing is even more stripped back, with Smith providing something barely resembling a beat. The subtle alterations to The xx’s sound that Coexist offers are seemingly designed to evoke a very similar feel to its predecessor; nothing will overpower you, no one instrument, melody or voice has dominance and the sombre nature of proceedings is unmistakable. If you can believe it, Coexist strips things back even further than before, with its less invasive beats slowing things down to an even more relaxed yet fragile tempo.

For the most part, this isn’t a problem at all. Part of the album’s charm is that it does force you to engage with it before it’s prepared to fully reveal itself. Sim’s soft baritone has grown more assured with adolescence despite not truly breaking free from the music it adorns, and the beats offered by Smith have mostly evolved to something more akin to dance than anything daring to call itself indie. This gives Coexist the air of a record finely crafted and pieced together slowly, deliberately and carefully.

Trouble being that this means we are treated to the steadiest of evolutions as a result. Sure, there are signs of shackles being tested; there are pleasing touches sprinkled throughout like the oddly effective steel drums in Reunion that hint at e desire to experiment and the throbbing pulse underlying the closing Our Song almost creates something bordering on epic yet it hides itself before repeating its mild crescendo. There’s almost a sense of invisible restriction stopping these songs from expansion and that ultimately makes Coexist too much of a tinkered retread.

The xx earned so much praise for its debut that they earned the right to respond how ever they wished. That they haven’t pushed their own boundaries far enough with Coexist makes this a follow up worthy of affection but not adoration. The future will tell if this decision rules The xx out of being able to provide a stirring third effort, but for the time being, their desire for evolution over revolution probably won’t win anyone else over to their bleak charms.

Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man

After the necessarily dark, grand and stunning strains of 2009’s Two Suns, the next question for Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) of where to go next appears to have been difficult to answer.  Two Suns was a magical record, effortlessly creative with expansive pop, piano balladry and experimentation. Three years later, The Haunted Man is the rather stark reaction. As the cover suggests, it’s stripped down and honest with little to hide. Trouble is that after repeated listens, that’s not necessarily a great thing.

In picking apart her approach to songwriting and keeping the instrumentation light, Khan has made sure her work is even more penetrable than before, with only light rhythms and her soulful, honest vocals offering to hold the attention. The good news is that this approach works very well for her singing; this is her strongest vocal performance to date. Marilyn’s soaring chorus features a command of the high register that Khan had only been able to casually hint at previously and the piano-led Laura demonstrates the other end of the scale, mostly offering proof of her ability to quietly seduce and overpower emotionally. There are also enough angular yet enjoyable beats sprinkled throughout to save things from getting too stale, with the welcome bounce of A Wall standing out.

Musically is where this approach stumbles, however. Extracting the grandiose edge has forced Khan into a position where choirs, loud rhythms and melodrama aren’t instantly welcome, so The Haunted Man often relies more on its subliminal melodic edge as a means of attraction. Simply put, it doesn’t always work. All Your Gold is wonderfully playful and catchy, featuring a sparse electro-accompaniment along with some gorgeous string work. The aforementioned Laura is slow, moody and beautiful, with barely any touches to distract from the vocals and piano. But Horses of the Sun asks far too much of Khan’s voice, with a middling, slightly angular drum-machine beat offering driving proceedings without giving much back. This can be lumped in with at least four others that offer little reason to return, which means the gems of the record are in short supply. For a songwriter of Khan’s invention and experimentation, this is a shame as opposed to a disaster, but it’s still impossible to ignore.

After the grand statement Khan made with Two Suns, offering her music more space must have felt logical. The Haunted Man is by no means a weak record because it doesn’t exist in the same dramatic space as its predecessors. Despite its lack of power, it’s a ballsy record in that it even exists, and it was a risk worth taking for Khan’s career.  But it is a weaker record, and doesn’t hold the attention or display quite the same level of allure as well as Khan’s previous efforts.

Batman: Earth One

In a sense, DC’s Earth One series has the potential to prove far more divisive and frustrating than their New 52 reboot. The latter has taken every single DC series back to #1, which has proven highly successful for the likes of Batman, Superman and Batwoman, whereas Earth One is designed solely for writers to get a crack at re-telling the origins of the company’s biggest heroes. The Man of Steel didn’t fare so well in his entry into the series, so what can Geoff Johns and Gary Frank bring to The Dark Knight to spice things up?

Batman’s origins have been told so many times to the point that they’re almost tattooed onto the public subconscious, even with those unfamiliar with his comic outings knowledgeable enough thanks to Batman Begins. Earth One also stands to suffer to a certain extent as a one-shoot graphic novel simply because Frank Miller’s Year One exists, and it’s pretty hard to argue with the most popular Batman book of all time. Johns has an unenviable task with this book; keep things too familiar, and it’s boring. Change things too much, and there’ll be uproar. Perhaps wisely, he plonks Earth One squarely in the middle, maintaining just enough in the way of convention whilst tweaking a sufficient amount to let Earth One stand on its own. And, in some ways, at least, it succeeds.

This reimagining starts with Alfred Pennyworth, a grizzled war veteran arriving at Wayne Manor to begin work as security for his ol’ buddy Thomas. Alfred insists that with this candidacy for Mayor making him a target, he, his wife and his exuberant young son Bruce should hold off on a visit to the movies that evening. Thomas flatly refuses, and before you can say “Crime Alley”, Alfred is suddenly fostering a young, angry and parentless Bruce Wayne. This time, there is no global travelling; Alfred acts as mentor and butler, teaching his young charge all he needs to begin fighting back against Gotham’s worst. This, however, is Batman at his most primitive; devoid of a plethora of gadgets, uncoordinated and clumsy, he’s also the angriest he’s been in print for some time, consumed by avenging his parents death as opposed to helping his city.

The boys in blue also get a fresh coat of paint, with Harvey Bullock a dashing, famous young detective searching for a big case to solve and Jim Gordon paying criminals for protection. It’s a nice flip, with Bullock pretty arrogant but well-meaning enough so as not to be insufferable, but more could’ve been done with Gordon’s weathered turn as a cop on the take, however. Perhaps the most significant character alteration here comes in the form of Alfred. Missing a leg from an accident whilst serving in the army with Thomas Wayne, he’s still compassionate and offers Earth One’s most human moments when offering Bruce support. He’s much more brutal in exposing his master’s faults in contrast, which is another welcome twist.

Anyone brave enough to include Penguin as a central villain in their story deserves kudos considering just how wonderfully un-threatening Oswald Cobblepot actually is. His role as Gotham’s Mayor and potential suspect in the death of Bruce’s parents grants him a bigger part than he’s seen in years, but even with this in mind, it’s tough to feel genuine dislike towards him. Fair play, Frank actually goes to good lengths to make him at least appear evil, but there have been very few points in time where Penguin has been well-utilised, and Earth One doesn’t add to that list. His muscle, the one-dimensional Birthday Boy fares worse, with a needlessly brutal shtick coming across as lackadaisical as opposed to lethal.

Earth One is, as another tale of Batman’s origins, fairly solid. Its use of flashbacks and its tinkerings with Bruce’s past come are welcome, and Frank’s artwork is sufficiently gritty for what is a darker origins tale than the classics it follows. Unfortunately, it’s held back by a number of errors. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship feels underdeveloped with a huge leap from their first meeting and Batman’s emergence criminally unexplored, which is a shame as their relationship acts as one of Earth One’s highlights. Some of the decisions in Earth One simply don’t work. I’ve no fault with making Batman more vulnerable at this early stage of his career, but the threat he faces feel woefully unthreatening. Also, for every interesting reimaging (e.g. Bullock, Alfred), there’s one like Lucius Fox that barely deserves a mention.

Earth One’s task is unenviable, and Johns and Frank equipped themselves as best as they could, but they don’t quite pull this off. There’s enough quality in Earth One to make it worth a read, but perhaps not quite enough to make it a keeper.

6/10

The Dark Knight Rises

In many ways, Christopher Nolan had set himself up for a fall with his Dark Knight trilogy; no director had ever had a third crack at Batman. Coupled with the phenomenal critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, then following it up without the late Heath Ledger and the biggest stars of Batman’s rogues gallery already used up was a tall order. That Nolan has been able to round off his vision for this group of characters and give each one an appropriate send-off is a triumph enough; that it’s an engrossing, epic and thoroughly enjoyable experience at almost three hours in length is even better. And to top it all off, it’s an awesome representation of one of the biggest superheroes of all time. Tidy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a more important film than its predecessor, no doubt about it. The Dark Knight was all about seeing how far things could be pushed after the success of Batman Begins. Characters, setting, tone and Bat-related support had all been established, now it was time to see how far they could be stretched. TDKR has to react to that in the sense that there were expectations that had to be met in terms of scale, antagonists and threat. Couple that with Nolan confirming this was his Batman swansong, a fitting end had to be constructed. It all begins by keeping the focus away from the cowl, with Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile shaken by the monstrous terrorist, Bane, his attacks on Gotham and the apparent bankrupting of Wayne Enterprises. With Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman)in hospital after a Bane-related attack, and the city crumbling, Bruce’s apathy is smashed long enough for him to don his costume once more. But after eight long years spent mourning the death of Rachel Dawes at the hands of Joker, and with his body ravaged from years of fighting his endless battle against crime, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the strength to overcome Bane and his army of mercenaries.

What Nolan does spectacularly, albeit slowly, is up the ante. As mentioned, Bruce is trapped very firmly within Wayne Manor as the film opens and doesn’t seem willing to escape his mourning. Gotham is still mourning Harvey Dent, and the secret behind his death is slowly consuming Gordon. This allows Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (never mentioned by name) and Tom Hardy’s Bane to initiate their own plans for taking over Gotham whilst Bruce gears himself up for yet further fisticuffs. With Gordon out of picture, it’s down to the emergence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic good-guy cop John Blake to help lead the Police charge, which swaps the authority role quite nicely for a good chunk of proceedings. Michael Caine gives a far meatier turn as Alfred with his total opposition to Bruce’s re-emergence as Batman offering up several highly charged scenes, whilst Morgan Freeman successfully if unspectacularly reprises his Lucius Fox role.

As with The Dark Knight, the antagonists do provide some big hooks to the experience. It’s no great shock that Catwoman toes the line between crafty burglar and Batman’s ally, but she appears capable of kicking butt in a much more hard-hitting fashion than previous incarnations. Nolan’s reimagining of Bane from the goliath Mexican wrestler of comic  lore to the intelligent, resourceful and ruthless revolutionary provides a seminal take on the character, offering Batman his biggest physical test on film to date. As such, their fight scenes are awesome to behold, both highly charged, emotional and brutal. Bane’s plans for Gotham are more elaborate, calculating and more focussed than Joker’s in The Dark Knight, making him much more malevolent even if not quite as engrossing as the clown prince of crime. Hardy does a wonderful job of projecting Bane’s authority even with a mask, thanks to some smart work with his facial expressions (what you can see of his face, anyway) and an oddly regal but commanding, articulate voice. And then you’ve got Christian Bale, offering up his strongest turn in the Batman role. He takes both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego through hell and back, offering up more power, command and humanity to contend with the character’s biggest challenge yet.

Without wanting to divulge too much of what is a quite intricate and detailed plot, Nolan has managed to do a lot right with TDKR’s long story; offering Batman a credible, physical adversary, plunging Gotham into its bleakest moments yet, casting a group of actors capable of carrying this tale to its conclusion and offering necessary endings for each of these big characters.

The easy criticisms for the film stem from its tone, which is admittedly quite bleak and laced with little shade. Criticising such a stylistic choice feels somewhat pointless when the stakes are considered; Batman and Gotham City are facing its biggest threat yet, and for that to be believable, the tone has to be dark, and perhaps somewhat suffocating. Contrary to some reviews, it isn’t humourless, it rightly doesn’t overdo it in the laugh department. Those looking for greater depth in that field can always bugger off and watch Batman & Robin instead.

Could the film be a bit shorter? For the story Nolan’s trying to end, probably not. He makes some bold moves, but makes the odd misstep within those decisions; a visual representation of Alfred’s described dream of seeing Bruce happily wed having never returned to Gotham was utterly unnecessary, and appeared to suggest his audience had no imagination.  TDKR connects with some big points from Batman Begins, so the level of flashbacks and references to the trilogy’s beginning is understandable but handled in such a way that it too becomes a distraction and a detriment. Also, for a series so rooted in Gotham’s salvation, there’s so little time spent with the citizens at the mercy of the film’s villain.

These aren’t major gripes, because Nolan has managed to do a huge amount right with this saga’s conclusion. There are plenty of nerdgasm-inducing moments for the die-hards to latch onto, the scale of Gotham’s terror is unreal and, most importantly, there’s a solid ending for the most important superhero film series of our time.
9/10.