Christopher Nolan had said all along that a third installment of the Dark Knight movies was never a guarantee and, at the very least, wouldn’t happen until he had material that would rise, pun fully intended, to the material of The Dark Knight. With The Dark Knight Rises, the one thing Nolan is not lacking is material. And while there are moments here and there that can be nitpicked, Nolan has delivered a film chock full of big ideas and comic book pulp that is every bit the equal of The Dark Knight. It’s a film that interweaves classic comic book themes such as good vs evil, revenge, redemption, partnerships, mentors and sidekicks, knockdowns and comebacks, physical and mental warfare, victory and loss, among many others with commentary on such wide ranging themes as politics, social class, gender, economics, government, revolution, personal morality, the role of the collective vs the individual and even just plain common decency. Throw in some larger than life good guys and bad guys mixed in with normal people, some super cool technology and toys, and some good old fashioned beauty and the beast action, and you get a feel for what Nolan is striving for with this movie. This is a home run swing of a film, and Nolan absolutely connects. It’s the best movie of the first half of 2012, and one that deserves praise for not just its execution, but its ambition.
In comic book terms, the plot throws it all against the wall. Bruce Wayne is in self-imposed exile after taking the fall for Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Wayne is broken down physically and emotionally, and Christian Bale does some of his best work making Bruce seem small in every way. All seems calm in “peace time”, but as Anne Hathaway’s cat burgling Selina Kyle lets us and Bruce Wayne know, there’s a storm ‘a brewing for Gotham. The storm shows up with both fists flying in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a baddy that establishes his physical and mental bona fides in a bravura opening sequence involving his hijacking a plane with another plane… while both planes are airborne. This hijacking sequence does double duty, both throwing us right into things in classic action film style and contrasting Bane’s prowess with Bruce Wayne’s literal limpness. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Batman.
Bane rolls into Gotham and his plans unfold slowly but surely, involving his organization’s plot to take over Wayne Enterprises in order to use Wayne’s nuclear technology to build a bomb. As Bane terrorizes Gotham, Bruce Wayne realizes he has to bring Batman back. He also enlists environmental philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to protect Wayne Enterprises against Bane’s plans for the nuclear technology. But the Batman turns out to be no match for Bane, and Bane quickly and literally tosses Batman/Bruce Wayne down a hole that he may not be able to rise out of… Except, of course, he does. But that rise is just the beginning of the start of the end. Batman rises, but he still has to overcome the power of Bane, not to mention a classic double cross from an assumed ally, and an old school race against time, all the while inspiring others to be and do their best. The Batman can’t do it by himself and relies on old stand by Commissioner Gordon, rookie cop John Blake, Lucius Fox and Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, among others, to help him try to beat the bad guys, who end up numbering more than just Bane.
Through it all are all the knock down drag out fights, super cool toys and gadgets, and dark and edgy plot twists and turns that you expect at this point out of a Dark Knight film. There are some clumsy, awkward steps taken here and there, mainly in advancing the plot from point to point, but the set pieces, action sequences, and characters never miss the mark. Strictly as a comic booker that is more than just a comic booker, but also a first rate adult thriller and pure actioner, The Dark Knight Rises is first rate.
In terms of performances, this is the best I’ve seen Christian Bale in the trilogy. He probably has more to work with across the spectrum in this movie than in the others in the series, and he delivers on every level. The story in Rises attempts to restore the Batman as a symbol. Maybe not as an ideal, but as a human with weaknesses that can nevertheless shoot for something more. It’s a bumpy ride we get taken on, and Bale is the fulcrum of it all. It remains to be seen what the movie year holds performance wise, and this is normally not the type of role you start talking about at awards time. But it is an award worthy turn. Also in the middle of it all is a very, very good Anne Hathaway as the cat burgler Selina Kyle. Hathaway’s character is at the center of almost everything Nolan is trying to say in the film, and so her performance is crucial to the success of the message. Selina Kyle starts the film as a cynical 99%-er bent on taking what she sees as rightfully hers. But as the movie moves along, she realizes that maybe her self-righteousness has led her down a false path. She longs for a “clean slate” and to start over in life. Nolan’s ultimate belief in our ability to find the right path for ourselves individually and collectively (while not always smooth and easy) is largely embodied in not only Bruce Wayne/Batman, but also in Selina Kyle. It’s a tricky role to play when you add in the fact that Kyle as the Catwoman figure also provides most of the few moments of lightness in the film, but it’s a role that Hathaway pulls off extremely well. I won’t lie, I probably came in with a bit of an anti-Anne Hathaway bias, but Hathaway’s performance is very much a big chunk of glue that holds things together.
Tom Hardy’s Bane is also a piece of possibly underappreciated excellence. This could have been a thankless role in many ways, and not just because Bane’s face mask leaves him often sounding like Sean Connery in an underwater phone booth. Hardy also has to follow up Heath Ledger as the Joker, a role that is already etched in movie lore. On top of that, Ledger’s Joker was a true anarchist in an almost weirdly romantic way, and Ledger had the freedom to play the role with complete abandon and no strings attached. It was an actor’s dream, the chance to riff without a net, complete with cool makeup and crazy hair. Hardy, on the other hand, is put squarely into the box of playing a guy with a mask, with no chance for facial expressions. His performance is all about physicality and presence. Plus, he’s boxed in in another way. While Ledger had the freedom of playing the no rules anarchist, Bane’s motivations turn out to be the simplest and oldest in the book. There’s a back story presented that I won’t ruin for you that leads to Bane’s quest, and the story leaves Bane with a completely focused, straight ahead goal. The story line keeps the character of Bane squarely in the center of the lines. But Hardy paints beautifully between those lines and the result is a movie bad guy that holds up just fine in comparison with the Joker in his own way.
Other roles in the film are hit or miss. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon does his usual spot on job as the true believing public servant that steadfastly believes in the power of doing right. There has always been an understated nature about Oldman as Commissioner Gordon that brings not just a dignity but a strangely calming naivete to the role. There is a moment in the film where Oldman’s Gordon becomes possibly the last guy on planet Earth to discover that Bruce Wayne is the Batman and the moment as played by Oldman strikes just the note of hope, and even wonder, that Nolan is looking for in his film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine and serviceable as rookie cop and fellow true believer John Blake. Blake plays crucial roles in the playing out of events in several ways, so Gordon-Levitt is key to the success of the film. He’s functional in this movie, and brings just enough of the every-man feel to the character. But he doesn’t add much beyond that. Blake gets the rub from the acknowledgment of Bruce Wayne and Gordon-Levitt seems to prefer to let that stand on its own instead of bringing much of anything else to the party. He’s just OK. Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate brings a nice air of mystery and false innocence to a part that is small on screen time but big on story impact. Morgan Freeman is sort of Morgan Freeman. He’s always seemed to kind of mail in the Lucius Fox role, but he does pull off the casual cool component pretty well. And Michael Caine as Alfred must have been given about 40 pounds of gummy bears before filming began, because he’s still chewing as we speak, I think.
You really can’t talk about The Dark Knight Rises without talking about the politics and social commentary in the film. They deserve a review and analysis all their own. Christopher Nolan clearly sets out to leave a mark on more than just his place in the comic book/action movie pantheon, and he does it in spot on fashion. It’s his ambition of bringing something more to the table than your everyday comic booker or actioner, pulled off as well as Nolan does, that allows The Dark Knight Rises to end up being something to remember and talk about long after you’ve left the theater. Nolan grandly forces us to stare into the spotlight of where we are as a country, particularly the folly on the left and the right of demonizing and socially persecuting others completely out of hand. He doesn’t stick his head in the sand on anything, and he doesn’t have any pat answers. What Nolan does have, though, through the Batman as his symbol (“the Batman was always supposed to be just a symbol” Bale’s Bruce Wayne tells rookie cop Blake) is the obvious overriding belief that, while we may be flawed in many ways as individuals and as a society, it is still through straight ahead notions of individual morality and doing what’s right, and working hand in hand within a system (working together, period) that we can ultimately set things straight. One of the interesting tricks Nolan pulls off is while we still leave the film looking at the Batman as hero figure, Batman is constantly being defeated (he never overcomes Bane) in the movie even as he keeps fighting for victories. And the victories that do come pointedly often come as much (or more) through the work of others as through Batman. He can’t do it alone. But the victories are, in the end, always inspired by Batman, or the idea(s) of the Batman. It is the victory of the interconnectedness of optimistic ideas, and the ideas of the power of the individual and the power of cooperation, and even simply being good to each other, in fact, that overcome the ideas of cynicism, and demonization of others, and demagoguery, that are the true victors in the film. The Dark Knight Rises is a plenty kick ass movie and there are plenty of moments of cheer worthy excitement, but I like to think that the cheers that greeted the closing credits at the showing I saw were cheers for the ideas of Nolan’s Batman as a little bit of positive inspiration. Because that idea of the Batman as “symbol” is an idea worth holding on to.