The Dark Knight Rises
Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Story by David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne, The Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle), Tom Hardy (Bane), Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox)
Eight years have passed since Jim Gordon and the Batman lied to save the city of Gotham.
They conspired to a grand deception, lionizing the physically and mentally corrupt Harvey Dent. A white knight for a weary world. In doing so, they agreed to cast the Batman as his dark reflection, not only culpable of Dent’s murder, but of his heinous final acts. We left Bruce Wayne bleeding and broken, fleeing from dogs and sirens. The Batman went into hiding, gone but hardly forgotten. Jim Gordon became the custodian of a tragic legend, summoned time and again to stoke the flames. After a long and storied crusade for truth, Gotham’s best cop has become a professional liar. Galvanized by Dent’s apparent martyrdom, Gotham cracked down on organized crime, filling its prisons to bursting. Peering out on the world from his stately, if moldering manor, Bruce Wayne manages to excuse his lie, to justify his complacency. Gotham is no longer a sanctuary for mobsters and madmen. The only shred of the Batman this new world needs is his shadow and nothing more. Bruce Wayne has made a mausoleum of his home and resolves to die a little more each day.
But then comes a cat forecasting a storm.
Cool and composed, Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle purloins her every scene. Though she delights in one-liners and never hesitates to flaunt her gymnastic prowess for dramatic effect, this Catwoman shrugs the flamboyance of previous incarnations in favor of cunning and guile. If she’s borrowed anything from the Newmars and Pfeiffers of TV and films past, it’s the feral intensity (unhindered by purring or nuzzling or hissing) and not the taste for live canaries. And, okay, maybe a little of the sashay. She’s maybe the sultriest harbinger of economic collapse since Hoover went with the blue tie. If anything, her composure and conviction actually make Bale’s Batman register as campy in comparison. In a case of staggering irony and even a little youthful arrogance, Catwoman along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s valiant John Blake, walk off with Batman’s own movie.
Back to that storm.
Reprising themes from Batman Begins, this third film in the cycle recalls the League of Shadows and the legacy of Bruce’s old nemesis Ra’s al Ghul. The plan back then was to obliterate the capitalistic blight of Gotham, viewed by the League as a modern Sodom and Gomorrah. Bruce would’ve sooner turned into a pillar of salt than watch that happen, so he renounced his League membership (and cassock) in favor of the now iconic cape and cowl. But the League’s efforts did not die with Ra’s in that train crash. His heir literally crawled out of a hole in the world to ensure that the plan could come to fruition. Yes, Gotham seems sunnier these days, but discontent remains. While the major crime families have been rounded up and tucked away in Blackgate, corruption still manages to fester a little higher up in the food chain. Portrayed here as a world-class cat burglar living modestly in Old Town, Selina Kyle despises the uber-wealthy. That makes her extracurricular activities all the more fulfilling. Reflecting modern concerns of villainy on a corporate level, DKR positions many of its bad seeds on the board of Wayne Enterprises and presents a hostile takeover on the floor of the Gotham stock exchange. Grounding the film like this offers a sense of timeliness that might alienate some audiences as it nibbles precariously close to some raw nerves. It’s going to make for a fascinating time capsule though. Hopefully sooner, rather than later, yeah?
Selina’s promised storm arrives in town on the shoulders of a mercenary terrorist called Bane. He comes to us in a shroud, and though we chip away at his mystery throughout our time with him, we manage only fissures in that steely veneer. He’s a survivor, we know. He’s merciless and demanding. As with so many annihilators, he comes from obscurity and speaks with the kind of charisma that shepherds weak men, contentedly, to their deaths. Like Ledger’s Joker, Hardy offers a deeply eccentric performance. Combined with his imposing physique and mysterious Vader-wear mouth piece, that piercing, unplaceable vocalization makes for an unforgettable presence. While his introduction in the film’s prologue isn’t nearly as playful or surprising as the Joker’s, Bane insinuates himself as a major threat capable of spectacular mayhem.
Speaking of mayhem…
Here, Christopher Nolan engages in his boldest spectacle yet, leveling Gotham with a series of devastating explosions, creating something like a No Man’s Land. It’s an ambitious scenario, made all the more staggering by Nolan’s larger-than-life knack for staging and photographing scenes of disaster amidst his totally grounded portrayal of Gotham. Though tonally grand, Nolan’s films forego the hyperbolic aesthetic of past Batman films or even this summer’s Marvel’s The Avengers. Especially in this chapter–perhaps due to the daylight–Gotham presents as a real city cast into a traumatic terror plot. That makes the calamity all the more real, all the more tense. A football stadium becomes center stage. A world away in a cavernous prison, Bruce watches in mounting horror as bridges collapse. As hanged men dangle high above the streets. Heaps of cars blockade exits out of the city. Given the circumstances, this looks like a filmmaker closing out his tour with a little scorched earth. To be sure, Nolan didn’t just make three Batman movies or even one Batman movie and two sequels. He made a trilogy, and it arrives with a satisfying conclusion, an end to the Batman story. Even on its own, this third film greatly benefits from its nearly three-hour running time. Not only does Bruce undergo a lengthy recovery from his fight with Bane (a fairly short section of the movie’s duration that manages to feel just long enough), but we also see a months-long hostage situation encompassing all of Gotham. It makes the Arkham Asylum breakout at the climax of Batman Begins feel downright paltry, both in size and in level of realism.
Hans Zimmer accompanies each rise and fall with tremendous themes in a score channeled straight from Hell. It’s monstrous and relentless when it needs to be. Often, it’s tenuous and haunting. It’s the aural expression of waiting for a storm–smelling it on the air–then being swept up by it. It’s a remarkably pure representation of dread.
As interesting and as tragic as Bruce’s journey is, the real glimmer of hope arrives with a young cop named John Blake. With the Batman otherwise engaged through much of the film, Blake is our man on the street. He doesn’t have the resources Bruce does. He doesn’t have the stature he needs to really get as much accomplished as he’d want. But he’s a scrappy little bastard, with intense passion for the people of Gotham. And the kid’s smart too. Likely a better detective in the making than Gordon or, hell, Bruce. Many will begrudge Blake’s story as a distraction from a relatively anemic Batman plot, but that’s missing the point of this massive, ensemble saga. Nolan made an ambitious play to tell a Gotham story with multiple protagonists, each diversely affected by their brushes with the Bat.
Though not a mark against the film, it’s unfortunate that the final villainous turn is unlikely to surprise large sections of the audience, largely due to close analysis of the casting information months in advance of the theatrical release. Even still, it’s a fun puzzle to piece together and made for a poetic completion of the circuit.
And yeah, it feels like an ending. Which is exceedingly difficult to imagine in this realm of superhero movies. But it happened!
In Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Neil Gaiman offered a masterful defense of Batman’s impossible longevity and ability to reinvent himself, like a folk hero, with the times. I’ll always be taken with that treatise on the paradoxical nature of myth as both malleable and everlasting. But if you’re going to put a bow on the Batman story, Nolan’s solution is downright elegant. From the evolution of the Batman legend from nightmare to dark knight to savior. To Alfred’s holiday fantasy realized. To the fate of Wayne Manor. To an orphan venturing into a cave and then ascending to heights we’ll never know. It’s satisfying. Really satisfying. And it ends with what might be the biggest wish fulfillment scene imaginable.
Legends can die. Legends die all the time. Try as we might, we can’t bottle up an echo forever. Legacies though? Legacies have staying power. If you make the right connections.
(Out of 5)