The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The pain in Bane (Tom Hardy) falls mainly for Bruce Wayne. “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan; story by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer; based upon characters created by Bob Kane and published by D.C. Comics. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Wally Pfister. Edited by Lee Smith. Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine.

At long last, the end has arrived, and the shape of things has been made clear. The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment in director Christopher Nolan’s visionary Batman trilogy, is a triumphant and exhilarating motion picture that proves, once again, that Nolan is one of the premiere mythmakers of his generation. True, he is adapting a comic book character with more than 70 years of stockpiled history…and yes, this trilogy capper is merely an extended payoff of what he has done before, in Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). But there’s nothing lazy or redundant about Nolan’s final trip to the Bat-well. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan draws together themes and ideas that he has been working at since the beginning, and reinforces them with a bracing, borderline-apocalyptic resonance. That he also delivers a spectacularly well-made action film and beguiling character drama is, as we say, the icing on the cake.

What Nolan has done with his Batman trilogy, on whole, is to transform the safe harbor of the comic book genre into a fraught arena to dramatize the pressing issues of our day. Far from the confidently-orchestrated mayhem of The Avengers (which is essentially a movie about itself), and far from the pinnacle of “traditional” comic book films (Spider-Man 2, which is a movie about people, but only people), Nolan’s trilogy operates on a plane that is both higher in its social-mindedness and lower in its evocations, as all of his Batman films have possessed a puckered, post-9/11-by-way-of-urban-horror tone. All of Nolan’s Batman films raise the spectre of terrorism, and use that overarching theme as a drafting board to discuss topics of morality, loyalty, altruism, haves and have-nots, and the very existence of decency. They are about how we live right now, at this very moment.

For The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan pursues his preferred theme of urban terrorism to its logical conclusion, conflating it with nods to class warfare, social upheaval, American indifference to foreign affairs, even a little Occupy Wall Street (it’s not name-checked, but the rumblings of mass dissent heard throughout the picture are unmistakable). There’s even some fugitive traces of commentary within a moment where an anonymous soldier makes good on his promise to effectively burn a village in order to save it.  None of these toyed-with premises are foreign to anyone who puzzled through the little moral quandaries at the center of The Dark Knight, but here Nolan plays them to the hilt. He also probably bites off more than he can chew; while I was carried along by the film’s scale and momentum, I was lost on some details. And I’m not sure I will be able to listen to any complaints about Nolan wrapping up his involvement in this series. Dark Knight Rises is so jam-packed (almost bloated?) that it feels like Batman 3, 4 and 5 all wrapped into one massive endgame.

Yet The Dark Knight Rises is absolutely a trilogy-ender; woe to the virgin moviegoer who enters without having seen either of the previous pictures. We pick up eight years after The Dark Knight, with Batman having left the public arena under a (purchased) cloud: having falsely accepted blame for the murder of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman has let go and allowed Gotham to thrive; under the “Dent Act,” rampant crime is a distant memory. So positive are Gotham’s prospects that poor Comissioner Gordon (noble, wise, compelling-as-ever Gary Oldman) is unknowingly being put out to pasture. “He’s a war hero,” his replacement (Matthew Modine) sneers, “and this is peacetime.” Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne operates in shadow, even during a gala event happening on his front lawn. He remains shuttered in his suite, a recluse of frail body and restless mind.

What brings Bruce Wayne out of hiding are two threats: one delightful, one diabolical. The delightful one is Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Selina Kyle, a slinky burglar who steals a prized bit of jewelry out of Wayne’s own safe, and has more tricks up her sleeve than a Jason Bourne. When cornered, Catwoman isn’t just sardonic and feisty, (as is tradition) she’s a 98-percenter in training, and uses her dime-store philosophy to justify herself.  “A storm is coming,” she purrs. “When it hits, you’ll wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Hathaway, who is tasked with the unenviable job of making us forget Michelle Pfeiffer (and Halle Berry…brrr…), acquits herself nicely, navigating the two sides to her confident-but-troubled character with aplomb. She has a frisky connection to Batman, but their relationship is understated and complicated, because she hangs out with the wrong crowd.

That would be Bane (Tom Hardy), a muscular, masked pseudo-philosopher who has the bulk of a wrestler, sharp wits, and murky ties (we learn) to a villain from the past. Hardy plays the character with reptilian intelligence that—it must be said—goes uneasily with his muffled mouthpiece. Like The Dark Knight’s Joker (Heath Ledger), we hang on Bane’s every word…but this time not because they’re compelling words, but because we’re trying to decipher what he’s saying. What he makes up for in clarity, however, he compensates for in vision; unlike The Joker’s case made for anarchy, Bane is a sicker kind of evildoer, who wants to raze Gotham City, but slowly, and job one is turning the populace against each other. His motivations (which gradually become clear) are reminiscent of the villainous Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) from Batman Begins, but while that villain used a toxin to stir unrest, Bane whispers honeyed poison into Gothamites’ willing ears, preying upon their real fears. A sign of the times?

The film is slightly clunky in its early passages, as it has a lot of ground to cover, not only to check in with these fresh faces, but also to give some much needed face time to the series regulars. This is a trilogy-ender, after all, and everyone has to play their part: we get Lucius Fox (the wonderful Morgan Freeman), who is Q to Batman’s Bond, and boy does he have some nifty gadgets now. And there’s loyal Alfred (the invaluable Michael Caine), who gets some of the best and heartfelt scenes in the movie; he knows what drives Bruce Wayne, underneath the cowl, and expresses fatherlike concern that his charge is embracing a death wish. There are more characters to introduce, too, like John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a Gotham detective whose story parallels Wayne’s in a surprising way. And the lovely Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who is helping Bruce bankroll a massive energy project that could sink or save Wayne Enterprises. What are her plans? I’ll never tell ya.

As for The Joker, he gets not a mention or a body-double appearance, out of respect to the late Heath Ledger. But his presence hangs over this movie, as his Satanic aim to instill evil into men comes to horrific fruition here,; Bane’s plan pits Gothamites against each other under eerie threats of uprising and rebellion. In the film’s quickest snatch of cynical commentary, righteous anger is soon supplanted by decadence, greed, and oppression. But the film takes shortcuts, some of them here: Bane’s ability to play pied piper to the disenfranchised masses is a little quickly sketched, and lacks a bit of verve. We witness his ranks grow, but we’re not persuaded how he does it. The earlier films treated Gotham City as a character, but in this one it’s more of a prop that gets batted around. The fight for its soul feels near-forfeit at this point, and the implications of that aren’t dealt with enough.

The film’s pace demands other corners cut as well; unlike the earlier Nolan Batmans, where everything had a logical precision, we find ourselves confused why one character is here and now they’re there. This is never more so than in a large chunk of the movie where Bruce Wayne finds himself trapped in a prison with a curious architectural detail: a well-wall riddled with frightening footholds that tease the possibility of escape, for what is despair without the mirage of hope? Here Nolan sacrifices some of his well-noted realism in favor of poetry, but that is his right as a filmmaker, especially when taking the final breath before the plunge. The question of how in the world an already-fragile Bruce Wayne can survive not one but two run-ins with the pugilist Bane is a good one, and I’m not completely certain the film has an answer for that.

The Dark Knight Rises works better as action film than parable, because when we get to a climax that involves a ticking clock and some twists, we certainly realize this isn’t about Occupy Wall Street anymore (and I don’t think Nolan thinks it is, either). If he has a theme in his social commentary, it’s perhaps a note held about how grassroots political movements without specific goals can be corrupted by powerful opportunists…ones without the MacGuffin within The Dark Knight Rises, we hope. More successful are the film’s thesis points about heroism and sacrifice, up to and including a sweeping conclusion that leaves us wanting more, as it should. By about the halfway point (and you’ll know it when it comes), the movie jumps into a high-gear with a devastating (and massive) climax that, like Batman’s punch, packs a hell of a wallop.

There are minor quibbles you could have with The Dark Knight Rises. You could say that Bane isn’t nearly as charismatic a villain as The Joker, or that the film trades intelligence for spectacle at the end (I don’t agree, but a case can be made). Or that the opening hour, which involves a daisy chain of characters who are plotting about each other, is kind of confusing. (The logistics of Catwoman’s business transactions especially elude me). My complaint is tinier; in a key moment towards the very end of the picture, I wish an exchange of glances was less overt. And I wanted some more closure on Catwoman. And I think the film ends with the wrong shot. But that’s ultimate nitpickery. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, by the way, as always, is arresting.

The central cast remains compelling as ever for this final trip to the Batcave. I’ve always like Bale’s take on Batman/Bruce Wayne, especially how he has been freed to approach both men as more than just suits. But Bale is at his best here, going through an emotional and physical wringer that would be right at home in a Rocky movie in terms of outright punishment. Freeman is an actor whose eye just naturally twinkles, so when things go to hell, we get the extra punch of seeing his smile fade into grimness. Michael Caine, the soul of this franchise, is briefly but significantly used, including one key moment that had me sniffing. But the MVP for The Dark Knight trilogy has always been Gary Oldman, who embodies the very soul of workaday everyman integrity, bestowing the whole enterprise a beating heart.

It has been a wild ride, these past seven years. But, as we discover in Dark Knight Rises, it has been a class, as well, and here is our final exam. Nolan has given a crash course in what being a hero (or superhero) means in the world today, and he crosses his t’s on this idea with a humanism that you’d think wouldn’t become such a technically-minded filmmaker. But it fits him just fine. In Batman Begins, the first act of heroism we ever saw was not that of Batman, but of Lt. Jim Gordon comforting young Bruce Wayne. Batman may be the easy go-to for nobility, but The Dark Knight Rises makes it clear that inspiration is the real mark of heroism: a true hero is anyone who moves us during times that petrify us. And so Christopher Nolan is our hero as well, for giving us a great story when those are hard to come by, and delivering to us this time a worthy end that solidifies greatness. Nolan may be done with Batman, but I don’t see him hanging up his own cape anytime soon. Nor should he.

GRADE: A-

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