NOTE: Very often when I really want to see a movie, I will avoid reading reviews beforehand if I don’t want to read spoilers. It’s a policy that I must say has served me very well. Because reviews often have spoilers. Sometimes they openly discuss plot points from all three films with the assumption that readers have seen the films being discussed. I’m just saying.
In case I wasn’t clear, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ALL THREE NOLAN BATMAN FILMS, YOU READ THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK. IF YOU WHINE TO ME ABOUT SPOILERS, I WILL POINT AT YOU AND LAUGH. THIS ALSO APPLIES TO ALL COMMENTS IN THE FOLLOWING THREAD, BECAUSE SPOILER WARNINGS FOR EACH COMMENT ARE TEDIOUS.
Christopher Nolan has become the undisputed king of the event movie, but with this entry into the Batman franchise, he somewhat miraculously produces a film that is an incredible action spectacle on its own terms – in my opinion, the very best of its kind ever made – but a film that beautifully closes off his Batman trilogy, providing extra meaning and texture to the first two entries. It’s like the opposite of The Matrix Revolutions; instead of cheapening all that came before it, it makes its two preceding chapters even better, especially Batman Begins.
The Dark Knight Rises is set 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight, which I think is a good choice. The ending of The Dark Knight ended very bleakly for Batman, and it marked a turning point in his career. From the end of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s goal has been to make Gotham City into a place that doesn’t need Batman, and the sacrifice he made at the end of The Dark Knight was to try and make that happen by turning the city against him. He made himself the focal point of the city’s anger and vengeance, and we learn early in the new film that the tactic has largely succeeded. Gotham has defeated the scourge of organized crime, and Batman is still viewed with ambivalence at best in the eyes of citizens and law enforcement alike.
Out of the relative peace in Gotham comes Bane, known internationally as a ruthless mercenary, who has now turned his sights on Gotham City. It soon becomes clear that traditional law enforcement is no match for him, and Bruce Wayne – who has spent the previous eight years closed off in the rebuilt Wayne Manor, nursing his wounds and neglecting his social obligations – is brought out of retirement to once again don the cape and cowl.
I should probably say upfront that Bane is in some ways an inferior character to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger worked Joker on multiple levels, making him into performance art not just for the movie’s audience, but for the other characters in the movie. His powers seemed supernatural at times, always two steps ahead of his adversaries. He was purposeless and manic and hyperactive, doing horrible things just for the fun of doing them, for the benefit of himself and no one else. He was a pure manifestation of fear and anarchy and broke new ground in movie villainy.
Bane, however, is in some ways a better match for Batman. Like Batman, he’s been trained by the League of Shadows, and he understands Batman’s methods and mindset much better than the Joker ever could have. The Joker existed only to be pursued by Batman, but The Dark Knight Rises turns those tables, and sends Bane in pursuit of Batman. Bane is just as skilled and driven as his rival, and comes across as a kind of doppelganger, what Batman might have become had he allowed himself to be consumed by hate and anger and cede his humanity to the League of Shadows.
To this end, Tom Hardy plays the character not as an unaffected psychopath, but with his humanity subsumed under layers of pain and fury. It’s a magnificent performance in its own right, but very subtly brilliant with so much of the character communicated by Hardy through his eyes and body language. It’s to the Hardy’s and the film’s vast credit that, when we learn his backstory, it’s actually very affecting.
One of the key aspects of the Nolan Batman films has been their willingness to ask very hard questions about the Batman mythology. While The Dark Knight asked questions about Batman’s role as a vigilante, though, the new film turns these questions more towards the introspection of the first film. What personal toll does Batman’s actions take on Bruce Wayne? For that matter, is there a difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman? Can one exist without the other? Batman Begins was about Bruce becoming aware of these questions, and The Dark Knight was about his pursuit of the Joker giving him a reason to avoid them (until it was too late), but The Dark Knight Rises is about him facing them head-on. It’s a wrenching portrayal of an iconic character, and Bale more than ever seems like the perfect choice for the role, brooding and weary, physically and emotionally battered.
Bane and Batman, however, are just two characters of an expansive ensemble, and a few new characters also figure prominently in the story. Anne Hathaway takes on the role of Selina Kyle (who of course is Catwoman in Batman lore, although she’s never referred to as Catwoman in this film as far as I know), a jewel thief with ambiguous, shifting loyalties. Joseph-Gordon Levitt plays Detective Blake, loyal to Commissioner Gordon and with his own insights into Batman’s psychology. And Marion Cotillard joins the cast as Miranda, helping Wayne defend his company from hostile takeover by Bane’s minions.
All three have very nicely layered storylines, and are fine supporting roles in the true sense of the term; they have their own contributions to make to the Batman character, playing off different aspects of his character. I’d also single out Gary Oldman, reprising his role as Commissioner Gordon, who has been the trilogy’s most indispensable supporting character. He gets one of the most moving moments when he finally learns Batman’s identity, a scene calling back to Batman Begins when Rachel has a similar moment.
Meanwhile, in terms of scope, Nolan manages to up the ante considerably from The Dark Knight, a film that already seemed maxed out in intensity. It’s a good thing this is the final chapter in the trilogy, because it’s hard to imagine how the stakes could possibly be higher next time around. Nolan’s direction this time, though, is considerably more elegant than in the previous entry, and as a result, the second half of the movie is quite possibly the greatest series of action sequences that I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing how he holds the tension over such a sustained length of time, even topping the extended, multi-layered dream sequence that takes up the second half of Inception. This is, to this point, the pinnacle of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking in the Franchise Era, and it makes The Avengers (not to mention even lesser movies like The Amazing Spider-Man) look like crude children’s drawings.
And so, I find it actually bittersweet to some degree that the trilogy has ended, because I’m a little sad that there won’t be more to look forward to. The Franchise Era has not been a good one for quality films, but Nolan’s trilogy has separated itself from the pack by several lengths. Nonetheless, this is a powerful ending to the story, and as improbable as it might have seemed, I think it’s the best in the series, and a remarkable achievement.