The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy ends with an epic — even majestic — crash with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
In case you’d forgotten — and the summer of 2012 has given us much to forget — this is what a superhero movie is supposed to look like.
With “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan brings his Batman trilogy to a close with a majestic, almost completely satisfying crash. Everything feels epic about the film: the characters, the effects, the emotional stakes — even the missteps (and there are more than a few). Because this director puts an individualist’s stamp on all his movies, from “Memento” to “Inception” to the two films preceding this one, “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008), he’s that very rare creature, a blockbuster auteur. “The Dark Knight Rises” feels personal, and that’s what separates it from dully efficient corporate products like “The Avengers” and cynical retreads like “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Nolan’s a Wagner for the multiplex, fashioning his operatic eccentricities on the grandest possible scale.
How eccentric? “Rises” is a superhero movie whose superhero at times seems like a supporting character. It’s eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight” and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes-like recluse, hiding in stately Wayne Manor and tending wounds both physical and psychic. Bale brings the crazy-eyed intensity that makes him so alarmingly enjoyable to watch, but he’s effectively upstaged by the film’s villain, a hulking ogre named Bane who has a praying-mantis mouthguard and a voice on loan from Darth Vader. Through a combination of makeup and sheer will, British actor Tom Hardy disappears far beneath the surface of this character while suggesting hideous depths. “You’re pure evil,” someone gasps at Bane, who thunders back, “I’m necessary evil.”
Bane, whose roots intertwine with Batman’s own and who had a particularly formative upbringing in a desert prison known as The Pit, is leading an army of criminals with intentions that take a while to play out. Above ground, Gotham City seems at peace; in the sewers and tunnels below, an entire mirror-city of malicious enterprise flourishes and builds.
Above ground, too, characters collide and collude. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) pines for the return of Batman but spends too much of the film in a hospital bed; his eyes on the street include a doughty young beat cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the ace in the hole of “Inception.” Trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) gets off a few teary monologues about Bruce’s tormented soul, and Wayne Enterprises head Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is on hand to show off the new toys, which are choice. While “Rising” lacks a mercurial scene-stealer like the second film’s Joker — much less a performer with the pop baggage of the late Heath Ledger — it manages to convince us that more is more.
The most critical new character is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman — although no one actually calls her by that name — a stylish thief who robs from the one percent with coldhearted glee. (In fact, there’s a curious rhetoric coursing through much of “The Dark Knight Rises” in which the villains espouse what can only be called “Occupy Gotham” platitudes and, early on, shoot up the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Is Nolan on the side of the fat cats or the people? The answer is that one reads political meaning into superhero movies at one’s peril.)
Unexpectedly, Hathaway is the film’s chief delight, completely at home in ball gown or cat suit, kickboxing thugs with a serrated stiletto heel, and keeping Wayne/Batman off-balance with acidly deployed taunts. As is typical for this franchise, the relationship between Selina and Batman teeters between lust and rivalry, but Bale’s too dour to really catch fire and, besides, he has the love of a billionaire clean-energy maven (Marion Cotillard) to keep him warm. Such a waste; Hathaway is the first Catwoman to really give Julie Newmar on the old TV “Batman” a run for her money.
Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, keeps piling it on until the seams of the genre threaten to snap, and when Batman is sidelined for a central chunk of “The Dark Knight Rises” in a prison sequence morphed from an old French foreign legion movie, you wonder how many balls this filmmaker can keep in the air. Yet where the second film at times turned into a muddle, the scope and pace and endless details of this one conspire to keep a viewer mesmerized.
If you want, you can pick at the loose threads after the lights come up. Bane and his minions manage to take all of Gotham City hostage for months without intervention from the nation’s armed forces? Even for a fantasy film, that’s pushing it. A late-inning revelation about a major character seems there just because the movie needs a twist, not because it makes any sense. (By contrast, a tiny fact we learn about Gordon-Levitt’s character is a treat, one last firework going off after the grand finale.) The movie’s unquestionably overlong. And, please, please, someone tell Hollywood that we don’t need another climactic Doomsday device with a ticking-clock countdown. It’s done. Over. Move on already.
Given all that, why does “The Dark Knight Rises” carry one along with such breathless, doomy conviction? Maybe it’s that Nolan and company are so clear on the costs of being a costumed vigilante — that it’s more curse than blessing, that a mask is better for hiding from the world than confronting it. Nolan delivers his summer-movie thrills with the concussive force we pay for, but the most lasting seismic shocks lie within his characters, not outside them. Most superhero movies play like upbeat origin stories, but Nolan’s Batman trilogy represents a darkening vision that, with this film, earns its weight. It’s the genre’s “Twilight of the Gods.”
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org