It’s unlikely that we’ll ever again see a film version of Batman that is this dramatically rich, reverent to the character and, honestly, packed with so many fantastic actors. What becomes clear about Nolan‘s success with The Dark Knight series in this finale is that the director has created three very different types of film around this hero: we’ve had the dark origin story, the fight against terror and now, with The Dark Knight Rises, the war movie.
It’s a triumphant send-off, one that will likely divide audiences more than the previous installments, but is nevertheless the kind of ambitious, large-scale character piece that we so rarely get to see in genre cinema.
The Dark Knight Rises takes the bare bones of prominent Batman comic-books Knightfall and No Man’s Land as a foundation this time, yet once again, Nolan creates something richer out of that source material. As with The Dark Knight, the director has nominated a prescient theme to guide the narrative, and this time it’s the economy, more specifically the wealth gap that exists between the haves and the have-nots.
Early on, we’re introduced to Selina Kyle (Hathaway), a thief from a poor background who crosses paths with the now reclusive Bruce Wayne (Bale), in her eyes, the filthy rich. This is layered on a bit thick, but it adds a basic dimension of relevance to the story.
The Dark Knight Rises begins in peacetime for Gotham City, kept on a tight leash by an army-sized police force and anti-criminal legislative powers, both enabled by something called the Dent Act. The Batman is long gone, forced into exile to protect Harvey Dent’s reputation, as well as keeping Gotham in ceasefire mode.
All set to change that is Bane (Hardy), a dangerous and calculated terrorist who infiltrates every strata of Gotham City, armed with a loyal band of followers and a master plan (which we won’t divulge here).
Bane aggressively exploits the vulnerabilities of the fragile Gotham City in an effort to seize control. High on his list of targets is Batman, who, as you’ve probably guessed from the trailers and posters, isn’t in the best shape to be facing such a threat. Having previously been out of action for eight years, Bane reduces Batman to nothing, inside and out, and with the city under siege, Gotham needs a hero to reclaim its freedom.
Christian Bale is undoubtedly hit a high watermark in this franchise closer. His interpretation of Batman/Bruce Wayne remains a rich, psychological construct, and The Dark Knight Rises gives the actor his strongest arc, showcasing the Caped Crusader at his heroic best and corrosive worst.
Whereas Bale was sidelined by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight – which worked for the purposes of that story – this absolutely belongs to the actor, cementing his legacy as the ultimate on-screen version of the DC Comics character.
Tom Hardy’s Bane may ultimately prove to be divisive, however. Perhaps it’s the bizarre mixture of accents, the weird mask-vest combo or the fact that we went into the film knowing that this villain is a gimmick, purpose-built to destroy Bruce Wayne, but either way he’s not nearly as compelling as Ra’s Al Ghul or the Joker.
Hardy tackles the brute with gusto, and there is a brilliantly unsettling quality to the way he physically embodies the character, but he’s so over-the-top on a conceptual level that he feels at odds with what we perceived to be the ‘rules’ of Nolan’s Bat-universe.
Again, though, that’s more of a hangover from the comic book DNA of the character, who was transparently created to beat Batman in an effort to sell comics back in the Nineties. Hardy triumphs in the face of that irrelevance, though, and in a strange way, the Inception actor hasn’t been given a character that’s worthy of his efforts here.
What is effective about Bane as a plot device is that he establishes a towering threat level for the rest of the ensemble to play off of. Every member of this high-end cast has a key role in this Gotham apocalypse – while Selina Kyle initially seems out of place as a feisty cat burglar, the character is eventually given an interesting moral line to tow in the midst of Gotham’s fall, which Hathaway handles capably.
The excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt secures a surprising amount of screen time as do-gooder beat cop John Blake. Caine, Oldman and Freeman remain essential components of Batman’s world as Alfred, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox respectively. Only Marion Cotillard is short-changed as love interest Miranda Tate, which unfortunately limits her impact on the film. The combined quality of this ensemble allows Nolan to lean on his actors in balancing what is a very busy story.
The question, then, is whether it’s too busy. While burdened with an even greater number of narrative threads than The Dark Knight, Rises is a better-structured picture. The first act is a little scrambled, yet the rhythm of these many storylines is precise after Batman’s return, avoiding pace-breaking pitfalls like the ferry detonators sequence in The Dark Knight.
Action scenes are deployed with classic James Cameron-style masterful pacing, while the entire movie is gorgeously shot; we were fortunate enough to see the film in IMAX, and it’s an extravagance well worth paying for, particularly for the grand scope of the closing set pieces. Underlining all of that, of course, is Hans Zimmer’s predictably amazing score, which uses chanting as a stirring and infectious leitmotif.
The Dark Knight Rises is an intense and brutal viewing experience, easily the most emotionally exhausting of the three films. As a result of Bruce Wayne being pushed to the limits of his humanity, we’re given a complete cross-section of what still makes Batman such a fascinating creation.
The director chose a risky premise for The Dark Knight Rises, and certainly, the surprising final third is likely to polarise audiences – but that’s the price of a movie that is this ambitious, that seeks to tell a worthy personal story while at the same time painting a larger picture of an American city facing its own demise.
Batman will inevitably be rebooted in a few years’ time, yet Nolan and company have left a credible stamp on this icon that has forever expanded the potential of superhero movies. If this isn’t the best of the three, it’s certainly a tie with its predecessor.