The Dark Knight Rises may be the most overwrought of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but it still closes the series out on an extremely satisfying high note. Although not as viscerally effective as The Dark Knight and quite a bit pulpier than Batman Begins, Nolan puts the whole of his craft on display in Rises.
This Dark Knight cohesively binds the other two entries to itself, forming one complete story. If the last go-round had the sensibilities of an edgy graphic novel, this one is a big, bombastic Saturday morning cartoon transformed into socially conscious pop art. The visuals deserve the benefit of the big screen, much of the acting is impeccable even if it’s in service of outsized dialogue, and Nolan has improved his own style when it comes to crafting exhilarating action. It’s a messy, ambitious, hyperactive epic and it’s as interesting for its flaws as its achievements. I dare say, the franchise is cheerier this time around, even if the story stakes are graver.
Of course, that melancholy that settled slowly over the last act of The Dark Knight permeates the opening chapters of Rises. After a decidedly James Bond-esque prologue involving new villain Bane, an absconded Russian scientist, and a hijacked aircraft, Nolan settles us into Gotham City eight years after the night Harvey Dent died. Taking a page or two from Frank Miller’s esteemed The Dark Knight Returns, this first hour is the most intriguing section of the movie.
Bruce Wayne is a broken, regretful recluse, hiding out as his empire is ruined over the shelving of a clean-burning energy source and the city continues to blame Batman for Dent’s death. Crime-wise, things couldn’t be sweeter for Gotham. The carefully planned lie that Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman perpetrated has spared the city knowledge of Dent’s alter ego Two Face or to the depths that their righteous crusader had fallen. The Dent Act has seen the end to organized crime in Gotham, and now the greatest threat is a police force grown ambivalent and soft around the middle thanks to extended peacetime.
It is an enticing climate in which to bring a little chaos, and Nolan does that with a patient and deliberate hand, introducing the gestating rot and poison of the Wayne/Gordon deception and the impact it has had on them. A pair of new characters challenge the two men and bring the past racing back. For Bruce, it’s a fetching cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who has carved out a niche stealing from wealthy men and running roughshod over authorities ill equipped to handle her. Gordon’s interruptor is a young officer by the name of Jon Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), once an orphan and beneficiary of the Wayne Foundation’s charity, now a forthright inquisitor about Batman’s whereabouts and his real involvement with Dent. In addition, there are a few other new faces and the welcome return of Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, head of Wayne Enterprises and developer of Batman’s wickedly lovely toys. Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate is a wealthy philanthropist who wants to get in on Wayne’s prospective clean burning fuel and maybe into his bed as well.
As Bruce’s faithful butler Alfred struggles to break him out of his spiritual malaise and direct him to a life away from Gotham, Kyle drops hints of an approaching storm headed for the city. A storm called Bane, a mercenary rising out of the legends of the old world, born in the depths of a prison well and linked to the League of Shadows. He and Wayne shared a mentor, the late Ras Al Ghul (Liam Neeson)who himself took a shot at wiping out Gotham in Batman Begins. Bane’s plans for Gotham—and the Batman in particular—are far more sinister and grand, unraveling the city’s social order and its assumed era of peace. The sneaking undertones of Charles Dickens and the original Bob Kane creation begin a cautious duet in these early sections, and reach a screaming crescendo in the film’s unadulterated final third.
To speak more of the plot would do a disservice to those who haven’t seen it. At a basic level, it can be said that Nolan has undoubtedly raised the stakes for Batman and Bruce Wayne and created in Gotham and its residents a a microcosm so lovingly detailed that it can stand on its own without the caped crusader. This allows him to sequester Bruce for a time and really delve into the warring facets of the man, reminding again that the trilogy has always been about this character first and foremost. Christian Bale turns in his best performance of the three films, exploring Wayne’s ambition and frustration. He is introduced to us with his body bent and tested, watching his vision of a secure Gotham become a reality while his own personal dreams and happiness lay in ashes. Bruce comes alive again slowly, and this process—including the grueling passages where he must walk the original path of his enemy—is made real and poignant by the sincerity that Bale brings. He’s more than a rugged constipated growl this time around.
The scale and scope have increased at the same time the film pushes for a character study of Batman. Oldman and Levitt carry much of the second act as they race around in the shadow of Bane’s epic plot and try to find a way to save the city. They play well off of each other, and Oldman proves again why he’s such an underrated gem of the series; Jim Gordon is the public face of justice Batman could never be, and it has held just as dear a cost for he and his as it has for Wayne. The burden of a well-intended but ultimately corrupt lie weighs heavy on Gordon, and Oldman wears it openly and nakedly on his face. It’s a great performance, and Levitt matches it with a man that echoes and reminds Gordon of his early days as a greenhorn detective who was less desperate, less corruptible.
Caine and Freeman bring a warmth and tenderness to their roles, much needed this time around, and I found Caine’s scenes as Alfred the very backbone of this movie. I would have traded up some of Bane’s copious screen time for more Alfred Pennyworth and his strained relationship with the man he’s lovingly watched over all these years. Every film so far, Nolan has managed to scrounge up at least one or two vanished actors who we haven’t seen in awhile. Begins had a nice Rutger Hauer turn, and Dark Knight gave us Eric Roberts and Anthony Michael Hall. Rises tops those with Matthew Modine, playing a sagging police captain who has adjusted too well to the lack of criminal activity in Gotham. He’s gone too cocky, too complacent, but like Gordon he’s a good man who will have his iron sharpened and his mettle tested before all is said and done. I’ve not mentioned Bane, but there’s not much to say. Hardy is physically imposing, and the production team have done the best they could with that sinister face mask without turning him into Phantom of the Opera. Hardy’s sympathetic eyes and berserker posturing make him a tantalizing contradiction, but this character was never my top pick for a villain. He’s not quite charismatic enough, not as mysterious or splendidly weird. Everything about him screams lackey or minion, a fact even Nolan ultimately acknowledges. Still, following up Heath’s Joker, Hardy had his work cut out for him and he gives the character a better turn than he deserved, including some surprising internal humanity where we least expect it.
How about the ladies? Cotillard’s Miranda has a lovely and soft kind of presence that calms and tames some of the early turmoil, and I was encouraged to see Nolan willing to let her take part in some of the more harrowing action in the last third, not a potential love interest in a Batman film. Hathaway’s Catwoman (never referenced by that name) is of course much more the action figure type, a lithe thief that looks great in leather and embodies a self-serving ethos that makes her as guilty as the Gotham fat-cats feeding off the city’s misfortune, even if she romantically sees herself as part of the 99 percent. Although she’s not the sleek and unmistakably feline presence that Michelle Pfeiffer was, I quite liked Hathaway in the role and believe that her trembling morality, wavering between responsibility and selfishness, requires greater emphasis and may have resulted in a stronger, more focused film.
Focus is something The Dark Knight Rises could have used much more of. I have talked only of the characters, limited the gargantuan plot, and said nothing of some of the off-the-wall and splendidly huge action scenes that fill almost all of the last 45 minutes, and still I’ve barely given suggested shape to the film. The reality is that this stew is just too full, too rich, a potpourri of flavors that goes down well but leaves your taste buds tingling in shock. For one thing, Nolan has never gone this blatantly campy and pulpy before, in anything he’s done. Those who felt Batman could use more jolts of a serialized, devil-may-care adventure will leave this one satisfied. Anyone who had hoped this would delve more into the psychological underbelly of the madness of Batman, not so much. Nolan gently (at first) reminds that this is a comic-book character, not by rendering his choices moot and inconsequential, but by building events and actions to a peak so dramatically high that it can only remind of opera. Sometimes, it even has a little soap in it.
On the technical side of things, The Dark Knight Rises is more accomplished and impressive than its two predecessors, but it never hit me as hard dramatically and it doesn’t flow as well narratively. There’s extra fat here by about 30 minutes and some of the investment is lessened because the quiet character moments are limited to a handful of scenes. When he goes big in that finale, evoking the better instincts of Michael Bay and Ridley Scott, and referencing cinema classics like Fritz Lang’s dual masterpieces Metropolis and M, Nolan’s direction ignites with the passion found in breathlessly good comic book stories. Lang’s astonishing silent-era imagery and blatant but effective class-struggle melodrama are paid homage to in Bane’s restructured Gotham, with apocapytic kangaroo courts presided over by maniacs, and a standoff between cops and criminals which is so unapolegtically symbolic it feels ripped from an ancient funnybook strip. Unfortunately, this hair-raising miasma can’t help but also lose just a bit of its emotional impact because the emphasis keeps shifting.
The plot holes are probably more abundant here than in TDK or BB, but the overall atmosphere of Rises reminds of a fairy tale, and the logic gaps feel more like the delicious twists of a surreal dream than the attention-diverting gaffs of a sloppy filmmaker. In many ways, I see it as the spiritual compaion to Burton’s equally overstuffed Batman Returns. It’s not a traditional Batman movie, but it sure is a fascinating one. If there’s anything particularly diverting during the running time, it’s that inevitable question than even the most disinterested will be asking on their way in. Is this final curtain for Nolan’s caped crusader? Not as a film series—we know that—but as a character. Essentially, does Batman die? It turns out Nolan makes that question worth the 160 minute wait leading up to it. This is a strong and extremely entertaining end to the best superhero film series we have gotten to-date.