With the final installment in his Batman trilogy, director Christopher Nolan abandons any pretenses of realism and focuses instead on epic bombast and supervillainy.
If “Batman Begins” was the superhero as film noir and “The Dark Knight” a companion piece to Michael Mann’s crime dramas, “The Dark Knight Rises” tells the Batman story as a war epic. It’s a theater-shaking behemoth of a movie, short on subtlety and full of spectacle. While it never clears the bar set by its predecessor, “The Dark Knight Rises” is still a powerful, thrilling and satisfying close to Nolan’s take on the mythos.
It’s been eight years since the tragic events of “The Dark Knight,” where Batman took the rap for the murders committed by Harvey Dent so that Gotham City could have hope. Although the city has thrived and is nearly crime-free, the lie has taken its toll on those who keep it. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up the cape and lives as a recluse, walking with a cane and suffering under the weight of the knowledge that his actions led to the death of his true love. He doesn’t even know that Wayne Enterprises hasn’t made a profit in years, thanks largely to a commitment to a wealthy investor (Marion Cotillard) that has gone unfulfilled. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), meanwhile, still heads the police force, but is a relic of old times, ready to be replaced. His wife has left him and Gordon is ready to tell the people of Gotham once and for all about who the city’s true hero is.
Wayne is coaxed out of retirement after cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway–never referred to as Catwoman here, but that’s essentiall who she’s playing) absconds from Wayne Manor with a set of pearls and Bruce’s fingerprints. At the same time, the hulking, masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), is putting together an army in Gotham’s sewers and has already crossed paths with Gordon and idealistic rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt).
Although Kyle and Bane are in cahoots, both have different goals. The cat burglar merely wants to upset the status quo and get back at Gotham’s wealthy; Bane, on the other hand, has a horrifying plot in mind that involves nothing less than the destruction of Gotham City and the death of its inhabitants. Bruce Wayne returns to his cave, compelled to save the city, but loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) sees it a different way: he believes Batman has a death wish.
As I said before, “The Dark Knight Rises” is bigger and more entrenched in its comic book trappings than the previous two films. Its scenes of Gotham under siege, ad hoc public courts and epic battles in the streets are bigger, louder and more over-the-top than anything in “Batman Begins” or “The Dark Knight.” But while its scope and scale are increased, Nolan’s story always feels in line with what’s come before. If “Batman Begins” explored what it meant for a man to become a symbol of hope and “The Dark Knight” questioned the escalation that choice could bring, “The Dark Knight Rises” asks what wins out in the end: hope or chaos.
Nolan’s loves big ideas, and “The Dark Knight Rises” is full of heady themes. Following “The Dark Knight,” which had no problem killing off main characters and taking away everyone Bruce loves, the dread of death and tragedy hangs over every minute of this film, from Bruce moping about in his mansion to the dark prison Bane keeps him at in the film’s second half, to the bleak fate of those left behind in Gotham once Bane makes his move. Suffering as a road to strength has always been a major franchise theme, and there’s plenty of suffering to go around in Nolan’s bleak Gotham City.
But hope is also present, in good cops like John Blake, who grew up hearing about Batman’s exploits and expects him to return. Alfred hopes that he can convince Bruce Wayne to give up crime fighting once and for all, urging him to pursue a normal life before his obsession kills him. And it’s no coincidence that the same pit where Bruce is held closely resembles one in which he fell into as a child; the same one where his father asked him “why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” Of course, the question remains of what it costs to achieve hope, and there’s the very real possibility that Batman may be called to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect his city and the people he loves. “You’ve given these people everything,” Selina protests at one point. “Not everything; not yet,” Batman responds.
These ideas are woven alongside a political motif that brings to mind the Occupy movement, as Bane urges Gotham’s citizens to rise up against the rich who have taken advantage of them. Nolan seems less interested in this aspect, though, using it as more of a plot point rather than a statement, and the political details can be nit-picked and analyzed until they’re ultimately revealed as lightweight. Still, they lend the film a grounding in real-world issues that makes it feel of-the-moment. None of these themes are handled with much nuance or subtlety,but that’s the way it has to be in films like this–when the volume’s so loud, sometimes Nolan has to shout.
And he might as well shout into a megaphone here, as “The Dark Knight Rises” is not just the biggest of the Batman films, but also the biggest film of the year. From a tense raid on the Gotham Stock Exchange to two bone-shattering (literally) brawls between Batman and Bane, to a devastating terrorist attack on a football game, to a revolutionary battle in the streets for the soul of Gotham, “The Dark Knight Rises” layers on the action much thicker than its predecessors, which stuck mainly to shadowy shots of Batman dispatching villains, with a car chase thrown in for good measure. Here, the entire city is in chao and the city is ready to crumble–in IMAX, it’s almost overwhelming, with the theater enveloping audiences and the sound threatening to shake the theater apart.
Nolan’s improved a great deal in his action filmmaking–probably a result of the work done on “Inception”–and his choreography is stronger here. There’s a visceral charge to the fight sequences between Batman and Bane, and the film has great fun trotting out an improved Batpod and a flying machine for some extended chases. Selina Kyle’s fight scenes are a great deal of fun as well, a mix of kung fu and gymnastics, delivered with wonderfully spunky flair by Hathaway.
It’s easy for films of this scale to collapse under their own weight, and you can feel the movie’s foundations creaking and threatening to give way throughout–most notably in a first hour that feels labored and in need of momentum and an epilogue that is a bit too clever for its own good.
But Nolan’s one of Hollywood’s most skilled directors and it’s to his credit that most questions won’t creep into audiences’ minds until the credits roll. It also helps that he’s aided by a cast of skilled actors who keep the characters grounded even when the movie is anything but.
Of all the new additions to the cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake is the most memorable. His idealistic cop is reminiscent of what I imagine Commissioner Gordon’ persona was before he encountered the corruption of Gotham City. Blake has a past in common with Bruce Wayne and Levitt gives the character an integrity and hope that never feels cheesy or cliche.
Hathaway, who I originally feared would be the film’s weak link, has a blast as Selina Kyle. Filled with a cynicism for the rich and a chip on her shoulder, Hathaway gives the character a feisty and seductive charm that energizes things whenever she’s on screen. She’s having so much fun here and is so enjoyable in the role that poor Cotillard, a superb actress in her own right, is left looking a bit boring in comparison as Tate, a character with secrets of her own, but who never feels as compelling or intriguing as Kyle.
Slighlty more problematic is Bane. Hardy’s a fine actor–he was great in last year’s “Warrior”–but he’s faced with the unenviable task of following up Heath Ledger’s dynamite performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” The script tries to make Bane interesting by giving him a back story that ties into Bruce Wayne’s experiences in “Batman Begins”, but the character is just not as memorable as Ledger’s psychotic king of chaos. The Joker was unpredictable with no real motives–he just craved watching people get swallowed by chaos–and the character and the performance elevated everyone in the film around him. Bane’s more formulaic–he simply wants to destroy Gotham. His physicality makes him an interesting foil, but not a necessarily iconic one. It doesn’t help matters that Hardy spends the entire film behind one of the most unfortunately designed masks I’ve seen, talking with an accent that sounds like Sean Connery speaking through a sock.
The returning cast has done this twice before and returns comfortably to their roles. Bale has never been better as Bruce Wayne, the energy and spark drained from him, haunted by the decisions of his past. Bruce Wayne is nearly suicidal near the film’s beginning and Bale finds a way to play the bleaker notes without making the film too dour, and he’s happy to sprinkle in a little levity when called for–particularly Bruce’s visit to a doctor before he returns to crime fighting. In this genre, the heroes are often overshadowed by the villains, so it’s easy to forget what Bale has done with this role: he’s the first actor to make both Bruce Wayne and Batman equally intriguing and likable.
Oldman’s Gordon has always been the franchise’s soul. Like Bruce Wayne, he spends the beginning of the film haunted and broken by his decisions. But Oldman also shines late in the film as Gordon gets to be the hero, leading the police on a fight to take back the city. For a character that started the series disliked by other cops for his integrity, it’s a great close to his arc.
Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, given a little more screen-time here, but nothing really new to do. Still, he’s a welcome face in this closing chapter. Much stronger is Michael Caine as Alfred. If Oldman’s been the series’ soul, Caine’s its heart, and the film’s most emotional moments come from the way Alfred worries about Bruce Wayne, and the fear he has of having to bury another member of the Wayne family. Caine’s always been strong in the role, but his work here is the strongest that he’s done in the trilogy.
“The Dark Knight Rises” never hits the heights of “The Dark Knight” and, as a standalone movie, has its moments where it wobbles and threatens to fall apart. Sometimes, as in the film’s beginning, it feels too long and meandering and others, such as the long stretch where Bane occupies Gotham, I wish we’d been given more time to focus on Gotham’s citizens and the new realties they face and for some of the relationships to build. Still, the work by Nolan and his cast is so confident that the film remains entertaining throughout, even when we’re aware of its inherent logic flaws and silliness.
But as a trilogy capper, the film is a satisfying and powerful close. It takes the themes Nolan’s been building on and brings them to their logical culmination. Its final moments are surprisingly emotional and Nolan manages to call back to moments throughout the franchise to give his wrap-up resonance. Even if the last few scenes left me scratching my head and picking apart some logic, the series closes on just the right emotional and thematic moments. It’s a strong ending to the trilogy and the bar has been set extremely high for anyone who comes along next.