Heading into The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan had a couple of things going for him. First of all, his last installment, The Dark Knight, is largely considered to be the best of the Batman stories committed to film, and considered by some (including myself) to be one of the top super-hero stories period. Secondly, Nolan went into The Dark Knight Rises with the knowledge that this was his final Batman movie. Nolan had the opportunity to give his characters and his narrative closure that is rarely seen in the comic book adaptation. So how does the best story of Gotham’s hero end? There’s no whimpering here and, despite some flaws, The Dark Knight Rises delivers a satisfying bang to conclude Nolan’s trilogy.
Eight years have passed since the events of the previous film and Batman hasn’t been seen since the night the Joker was captured and Harvey Dent was killed. As you may remember, Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s deeds, with “Gotham’s White Knight” maintaining a clean reputation in everyone’s eyes except the select few who knew about Dent’s horrible transformation. Under the legacy of Dent’s name, crime has been largely cleaned up and Batman hasn’t even been necessary, but the arrival of a new threat – a revolutionary with interesting echoes to the real world’s Occupy Wall Street movement – leads Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to don the cape and cowl again. But, true to the comics, Batman finds a true threat in his opponent, Bane (Tom Hardy), and it isn’t long before both the city and its hero are broken in different ways. But why do we fall down? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up… or rise.
Nolan’s approach to Batman has always been to try and portray him in as real a way as possible, giving the previous movies the gritty feel of realism. That feeling is a bit lacking here, as Batman gets his hands on more outlandish devices (including a flying vehicle lovingly titled “the Bat”) and starts appearing in broad daylight (what is it about super hero costumes that look more ludicrous in daylight scenes – territory previously uncovered in Nolan’s Batman tales). As Gotham is isolated and destroyed by the revolutionaries, even the location takes on a less-realistic tone, giving a feeling more like the Cylon-occupied New Caprica of Battlestar Galactica than the Gotham city we’ve seen in the first two films. This is certainly the more fantastical of the trilogy, no longer exploring the origins of Batman but instead showing a hero at the height of his power. While some might miss the gritty gangsters and decaying city of the first two movies, Nolan’s realism still finds some footing here, particularly in his depiction of Bane.
Those who have only known Batman from the movies will be in for quite a surprise with Tom Hardy’s Bane. Offensively relegated to the role of a mindless thug in Batman & Robin, this Bane couldn’t be more different. Much like the Joker of The Dark Knight, most of Bane’s history and background is shrouded in mystery for the bulk of the film. He is an incredibly powerful revolutionary wearing a strange mask that adds a sense of enigma to the character. For those who were worried about early reports that Hardy’s dialog was difficult to understand, fear not. The actor brings to life a character whose strength that extends beyond his muscles, creating a commanding and frighteningly charismatic personality. Unlike Joker’s followers, it isn’t hard to see how Bane amasses an army and he is the perfect villain for Batman’s final story in Nolan’s hands.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the picture’s second villain, Catwoman (who is never explicitly referred to by that name in the film). Anne Hathaway brings an interestingly diverse performance to the femme fatale, playing both the maiden in distress as well as the independent woman frustrated at how foolish men are for falling for her shtick. Unfortunately, Hathaway’s character is oddly placed in the film, serving mostly as a sidekick who bounces between the good (Batman) and bad (Bane). While Hathaway attempts to give the character independence, the truth is the script keeps her subservient to someone throughout most of the story, leading in a disappointing inclusion of the character.
More interestingly is the soulful side of the film, which has largely been conveyed by Michael Caine’s Alfred throughout the trilogy. For reasons that make sense to the narrative (but less sense for the character), Alfred winds up being absent for a large part of the film. Instead of leaving a void, the character’s absence is filled by a mix of Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon, a stalwart friend to Batman who carries regret over the consequences of The Dark Knight and John Blake, a member of Gordon’s team played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who carries quite a bit of loyalty to the caped crusader despite what the public was told about Batman. Christian Bale also does quite a bit of stepping up to the plate to give Batman more of a soul than ever before. Unlike the previous chapters, Bruce Wayne now has more experience and an outlook that evolves over the course of the movie, affording Bale an opportunity to shine. Bale, Oldman, and Gordon-Levitt do an excellent job at providing an emotional side for the film, but Caine’s presence is missed, particularly after he was such an enormous part of the first two movies.
The big disappointment is that The Dark Knight Rises is the least deep and complex of Nolan’s trilogy. While there are some themes in play here, they are nowhere near as developed as The Dark Knight, which did an excellent job of looking at the mythology of the super-hero. The first two movies showed action and consequence, the power of the icon, the strength of fear or chaos, and the development of a hero, most of those ideas are left behind in the final chapter. The movie toys a little bit with Batman’s symbol, showing the rebellious civilians in the occupied Gotham chalking his logo on walls, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Batman is less of a symbol than either of the previous movies, which actually hurts the film’s final act. Instead, he’s just this guy – and a guy who hasn’t even been part of Gotham’s culture for almost a decade.
While The Dark Knight Rises may not be as strong a film as its predecessor, it is still a satisfactory conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy. I may not fully agree with how Nolan chooses to leave his characters or how this film fits in with the previous ones (and I will take a more critical stance with this film in another article later), but it does take advantage of the rare opportunity Nolan had: a chance to give closure to the caped crusader and other characters. This film may not wind up having the same draw to revisit it as a film as The Dark Knight, but it is an enjoyable chance to draw to a close the story Nolan started seven years ago with Batman Begins, even if it winds up being the shallowest of the three films.