The Dark Knight Rises
dir. Christopher Nolan
Release Date: Jul 20, 12
It’s over now. To steal from The Dark Knight Rises’ legion of taglines, “it all ends,” the Christopher Nolan leg of the Batman franchise has reached its conclusion, now awaiting the next very brave filmmaker who will take on the task of trying to continue Warner Bros. lone remaining A-list franchise for an America that has embraced Nolan’s now-trilogy as the definitive statement on the Batman character and universe. Rises has already polarized those who have seen it, and the general trend emerging is that it will not be the same uniformly raved-about phenomenon that made The Dark Knight a bonafide cultural event four years ago. That aside, for its issues (and they very much exist), The Dark Knight Rises may be one of the most singularly ambitious, defiantly envisioned superhero movies ever made, and it will be hard for another to come again quite like it.
Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham City has changed, and mostly for the better. Predicated on the lie that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) agreed upon regarding the true death of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, the “Dent Act” served as a crimebusting initiative that moved Gotham into a never-before-seen time of peace and prosperity. The tradeoff is that Bruce, without Batman serving as his driving purpose, has retired to Wayne Manor, bearded and reclusive and pretty much inconsolable after the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes. However, when a masked terrorist known as Bane (Tom Hardy) begins playing mind games with Gotham’s population, Bruce is moved to return to the world, to the consternation of the ever-loyal Alfred (Michael Caine). He’s promptly greeted by a struggling Wayne Enterprises, which Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and the ambitious young Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) are struggling to keep afloat. If Bruce wasn’t already facing enough adversity, he also crosses paths with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a skilled thief with a preference for catsuits whose motives change by the situation, and John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who eventually gets involved with Commissioner Gordon and Batman.
There are a lot of moving pieces at work in The Dark Knight Rises, and at times, unfortunately, the film almost verges on Spider-Man 3-level overstuffing. For a director who’s nothing if not expeditious with his films in terms of narrative speed, Nolan moves the film through a surprisingly leaden first 45 minutes or so, in which the many new players and stakes in the film are established, without really getting anything moving in the way of story. It diminishes the film’s momentum to such a point that even when the film gets moving, and it does in abundance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it took way too long to get there. That aside, there is at least payoff for the film’s many, seemingly disparate story arcs, even if the focus as the film unfolds is very much based around the twin themes of Bruce Wayne’s role in Gotham as Batman and Bane’s plan, which essentially involves reducing the city to a state of brutal survivalism.
It’s in that story that the often murky politics of Nolan’s first two films come to harsh light, in a way that’s wholly compelling and gives Rises its true sense of life. Gotham has become, in his films, an intellectual battleground for debating the virtues of fear, paranoia, the government’s role in daily life and the effects of cataclysmic events on a population. Bale, in response, delivers the best of his Batman performances, maintaining a bleak humor in the face of rapidly spreading darkness (this may be one of the bleakest summer movies ever made) and giving Bruce/Batman a flickering inner strength; indeed, Gotham comes to need him back after exiling him, and Bale wisely does not act as though the years have not taken a profound toll upon him. The rest of the cast makes this story work equally as well, as it may well have floundered without them. In particular, Hathaway precariously straddles several lines of kitsch without slipping over, and Hardy steals the show as Bane, whose disarmingly polite, genial accent belies a man whose survival through times of suffering have convinced him that the world’s only chance to achieve the same will come from putting them through the same kind of hell he experienced.
If the film’s first act spends too much time setting up all the pieces, its final hour sets them toppling into one another in spectacular, epic fashion. It is here that Rises finally becomes the fitting, grandiose resolution to a saga that has come to mean a lot to many. With a combination of pure spectacle and the kind of larger social discussion that the other films handled so well (sidebar: I refuse to believe that this film was not made with the “99 percent” struggle in mind, especially given the rather pointed nature of one of the later action sequences), Rises becomes a big-budget meditation on the strength and frailty of man in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s not a perfect film, but in hindsight none of Nolan’s movies really were. (Take the Joker out of The Dark Knight, and you have a really uneven superhero movie.) Like Batman, though, The Dark Knight Rises is more than the sum of its flaws. It is an essential mirror of how we currently live, made palatable enough to show audiences what they needed to see. Nolan’s Batman may not have been the hero we wanted, but he’s the hero we deserved.