Yep, it’s here. Few blockbusters have caused such feverish anticipation as The Dark Knight Rises.
When the trailer played before my rowdy opening night Avengers screening, it received hushed silence from a crowd who had just loudly mocked an ad for Battleship (to be fair, a totally reasonable response). For a trailer about a superhero to get that much reverence from a goof off Friday night movie crowd is a damn strange thing. It’s safe to say the last time it happened was…well…The Dark Knight. That’s a testament to the power that Christopher Nolan’s unique take on Batman holds. He managed to take possibly the most famous superhero around and turn the character into something new (well, for folks who hadn’t read his darkest comic book incarnations anyways). Now his series is officially complete, with a fitting ending that caps off a trilogy sure to be remembered as one of the greats in the geekiest of debates from now on. The good news is that Nolan managed to avoid the dreaded third-chapter curse that plagues most trilogies. The series goes out with a big satisfying bang. It might not top The Dark Knight, but honestly how would that have been possible, particularly without The Joker? This epic finale is a worthy companion piece though and one that deserves all of the inevitably accolades and millions of dollars coming it’s way. Simply put, Nolan done good. The rubber bat nipples of yore have been forgotten. The Avengers may have been the best piece of popcorn entertainment this summer, but The Dark Knight Rises is the superior film.
It’s unlikely anyone reading this will need any sort of plot description, but let’s go through the motions, shall we? It’s been 8 years since the Joker did his thing and Batman has been absent, considered a villain who murdered the martyr Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, obviously) has been living as a recluse and the time has come for him to go back to the ol’ detective ways. First there’s that beautiful burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, fantastic) who stole his mother’s pearls that he wants to track down. More importantly, there’s this mysterious Bane (Tom Hardy, even better) figure that he hears whispers about, building up an underground army in the sewers of Gotham with plans to rise up and destroy the city. Put those two factors together and throw in a new flying toy called The Bat from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) as well as support from old chum Comissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a new honest cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Bruce has a reason to bring back ol’ Batman. Bane kind of presses the issue when the mad genius/physical force stages a heist on Gotham’s Wall Street and announces plans to take over the city. Revealing more would be unfair, but trust me. It’s one hell of a ride.
What’s immediately impressive about The Dark Knight Rises is the sheer scale of the production. Christopher Nolan clearly had a blank cheque from Warner Brothers on this thing and it shows. Bane’s long promised “Gotham’s Reckoning” feels like exactly that, plundering the city into civil war between the haves and the have-nots in a manner very reminiscent of recent events. About 72 minutes of the film were shot in IMAX, allowing for massive images to engulf the audience, backed by a deep sounds design and pounding Hans Zimmer score. On a technical level alone, the experience can be overwhelming. Yet, for all of the extraordinary action in the film (and it truly delivers on spectacle. The director who seemed uncomfortable with action back in Batman Begins has mastered the craft), Nolan never allows the film to be merely a blockbuster. Themes of duality, revenge, the nature of heroism, civil unrest, and economic disparity float throughout the movie and are embodied by Nolan’s characters. All that and somehow the movie never feels pretentious. It’s a Batman story first and foremost by a filmmaker who understands the full potential of the material and delivers on it. Ideas are there to tickle those who appreciate it, but always wrapped in an epic action story designed to please anyone with a pulse.
Nolan’s skill with casting of course continues to be evident. Bale’s bat-growl is kept more in check this time out and he has more scenes to play Bruce Wayne (as the character of “eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne” that Batman consciously adopts), which was always his strength. Wayne’s trio of father figures played by Michael Cane, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are more than sidekicks this time as well, providing a strong emotional core. Anne Hathaway proves to be one hell of a Catwoman, a damaged character living duel lives much like Wayne who also lives strictly by her own moral code, just one that operates on the opposite side of the law. She does less brooding than her costumed counterparts, has a little more fun with her superhero ways, and while she might not quite top Michelle Pfeiffer’s giddily sexualized take on the character, her memorable version fits perfectly into Nolan’s universe. Then there’s Tom Hardy as Bane, an actor given the unenviable task of not only having to replace Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker, but do so with a metallic mask covering his mouth for the entire film. Fortunately Hardy is possibly the finest actor of his generation and while Bane may not be as charismatic as the anarchistic Joker, his physical menace combined with an ingenious evil mind puts him in the ranks of villains like Darth Vader and his many blows with Batman deliver the type of intense combat lacking in the series thus far. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard also have memorable and familiar roles to play, though getting into the hows and whys is very inappropriate pre-release. Just rest assured that they are also strong and crucial components.
Of course as incredible as Nolan’s bat-cycle has been, it’s never been perfect and The Dark Knight Rises is consistent with the series’ strengths and flaws. For one thing, no Batman movie should be over 2.5 hours long and there are times when this epic sags that could have used a few nips n’ tucks. Part of that has to do with Nolan’s love of speeches that verbalize his themes. There’s nothing here as distracting as Katie Holmes’ gag-inducing moralizing in Batman Begins or the awkward conclusion to the ferry finale in The Dark Knight. Nolan has at least improved at slipping that material in. However, there are still many speeches and scenes that literalize ideas that Nolan explored more compellingly in the background elsewhere. Thankfully, this time out these complaints are fairly minor and to be expected. When you attempt something this ambitious in a studio tent pole, perfection can’t be expected.
What Nolan did accomplish is to once again provide not only the smartest and most exciting blockbuster of the summer, but also a film guaranteed to rank amongst the year’s finest outings. More importantly, he’s now laid to rest a Batman trilogy likely to go down as the definitive cinematic take on the character. There are ways in which the series could continue from here, but everyone involved respects Nolan too much for that to happen. This won’t be the end of Batman though. We live in the age of the superhero movie and the Dark Knight will return soon enough. If Warner Brothers were smart, they’d allow intelligent and individualistic filmmakers like Nolan to come in and play with the property in one off cinematic graphic novels rather than trying to relaunch the franchise yet again. That’s fantasy talk though. Hollywood doesn’t work that way and I don’t envy the poor bastard assigned to revive Batman from his slumber. This is going to be one damn tough act to follow.