Dark, portentous, poker-faced, ultra-earnest and square-jawed. That’s Bruce Wayne’s alter ego Batman (Christian Bale) for you, and that’s also Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of films in a nutshell, of which The Dark Knight Rises is the third and final part. No-one can accuse the director of not treating his subject matter seriously, or for failing to get to the root of the character.
Picking up eight years after the events depicted in The Dark Knight, Batman (or rather “The Batman” as he is unfailingly referred to here, which serves to create some distance from previous non-Nolan big and small screen incarnations) is retired, having nobly taken the fall for the crimes of former DA Harvey Dent. As a result of Dent’s posthumous lionization as a crusader for justice and peace, the draconian Dent Act means that Gotham’s officials have a tighter control over crime than ever before, though Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, who has been consistently excellent in these films) is conflicted, and contemplates telling the truth about Dent’s crimes, in order to exonerate the superhero. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne – so public and extravagant as the millionaire playboy in Batman Begins – is a recluse, mourning the death of Rachel Dawes, his love interest from the previous two films.
Hobbling around his mansion with the aid of a stick, Wayne cuts a tragic, depressed figure. He is easily bested when he catches cat burglar* Selina Kyle (Catwoman, though never named as such, played by Anne Hathaway, the only actor allowed to bring a sense of fun to proceedings) in the process of stealing both a set of pearls and a set of Bruce’s fingerprints from Wayne Manor, and when he dons the Batsuit once again to fight a new threat, the muscular, muzzled terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), he is soundly and viciously beaten.
Bane robs the Gotham Stock Exchange, using Wayne’s fingerprints to bankrupt the businessman. The disgruntled suits at Wayne Enterprises – having plotted against Bruce in the first place – express their displeasure at this turn of events and a lack of confidence in the recluse; Wayne responds by promoting board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to CEO.
While the late Heath Ledger’s Joker was a cerebral opponent in The Dark Knight, Bane is all about the muscle (despite this initial move), and his one-on-one fights with Batman are full of thudding socks to the jaw, elbow slams, roundhouse kicks and powerful headbutts. The scrapping is heavy, and ploddingly old school, and although a comic-style “Kapow!” would be well out of place here, I occasionally wondered whether a nod to the lighter Batmen of old would be welcome.
Bane is an ex-disciple of the chief protagonist from Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson, making a cameo re-appearance here), and he has amassed an underground army of devoted mercenaries who are all prepared to die for his cause. After he defeats Batman, he drops the battered bat into the same prison he himself once escaped from, somewhere in Asia. As a dedicated supervillain, Bane doesn’t just stop there, and holds the city to ransom by blowing up all the bridges, trapping the police force underground and keeping the army at bay by threatening the detonation of a nuclear bomb (though sadly Nolan decided against using a giant black ball with a fizzing fuse and the word “BOMB” painted on it in bright white capital letters). Bane frees Gotham’s many prisoners, reveals the truth about Harvey Dent and presides over the anarchy that follows.
Gordon, along with Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ably getting into the serious spirit of things by deploying a furrowed brow at all times) form a kind of resistance, and wait for Batman to escape and return from his captivity; this takes an age, and the point that Batman is really at his lowest ebb is laboured (the film feels well-paced, but ever-so-slightly bloated as a result of this extended sequence). Will he escape and return to Gotham before Bane can blow the entire city to smithereens? Of course he will, although I’m none the wiser as to how he manages to get back to Gotham from the other side of the world without a passport or a penny to his name.
Going back to the point about Bane v Batman being solely about the brawn, the same can’t be said of Nolan’s world more generally. The director has engaged convincingly with the ins-and-outs of Gotham’s high society across his three films, and the political, judicial and commercial aspects of the city – always so crucial to the stories of this particular comic book character –take up a lot of the running time here. The Dark Knight Rises is far more than simply a succession of set pieces and fights, enjoyable as they are. That said, on occasion the boardroom wrangling is a little tedious, and I found my attention drifting during two scenes set at fundraising balls. It’s not a Batman film without at least ten minutes of tuxedo-heavy fundraising, purists will tell you.
Still, despite his acceptance of the importance of City Hall, you get the impression that the director – like us – gets those warm, gooey feelings from the rest of the film: the action-packed scenes of the caped crusader crime-fighting, the shots of the city at night, and the free licence to include as much sleek, futuristic military-style hardware as he wants. The Batmobile is long gone, but in its place is a Batcycle with tyres so wide they make the Michelin Man look like Kate Moss and a frankly ludicrous Batcopter, which has seemingly been built entirely out of testosterone and a succession of mid-life crises.
As Batman possesses no superpowers of his own – as well as, presumably, an incredibly small penis – he needs all this extra garbage to compensate / take on his enemies in battle. (It’s interesting to note the similarities between Bruce Wayne / Batman and Tony Stark / Iron Man here; these two DC / Marvel staples have been far and away the most popular standalone superhero franchises of recent years, yet both characters essentially rely on technology and wealth for their power, rather than special, otherworldly abilities. Perhaps their current popularity is a damning indictment of our times; kids don’t want the ability to use x-ray vision any more, or something as useless as tingling spidey-sense: they want massive guns and big bank balances instead. Personally I’m a bit tired of the rich, bored capatiilst pig alter-egos now, though.) Nolan handles the meat-and-two-veg scenes of flying and fighting and blowing up bridges well, although the regularity with which he cuts away from characters at the point they are killed becomes frustrating after a while. Show me death! Close-up death!
While Hardy’s cold, ruthless Bane is no Joker, he’s still a memorable character, and the actor is a commanding presence here despite the fact his expressions are limited by a face mask. The Joel Schumacher era, with the dismal villainous turns of Jim Carrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman, has been soundly laid to rest: Nolan’s villains have all been worthy opponents of Bale’s phlegmy, stern Bat.
Ah yes…the voices. Clearly unsatisfied with the fact that Bale’s Batman has consistently spoken with a gravelly rasp that serves only to satisfy fans wondering what the actor sounds like when straining out a biggun’ on the toilet, Nolan introduces a counter-voice in Bane’s ridiculous impersonation of Sir-Ian-McKellen-playing-Darth-Vader-while-gargling-in-the-shower. Focus groups and early test screenings for The Dark Knight Rises criticised the character’s diction, complaining that he was difficult to understand. It was cleared up somewhat in post-production, but does not sit comfortably with the volume of other characters or the background noise, yet although it still grates throughout it’s weird enough to help make the character more threatening, and as a result more memorable.
Nolan rams home the strength and depth of the Batworld he has created by bringing back characters from previous films, even though some of them – though not all – feel a little shoe-horned into the script. While Michael Caine’s Alfred gets most of the film’s emotional moments, the re-appearances of Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, last seen in Batman Begins), Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox seem a little gratuitous, though the intention is to help to tie this film to Batman Begins.
The director’s version of Gotham has always felt a little toned down compared to those we have seen before; he seems less interested in making it distinct from our own New York City than previous directors, and it’s certainly not as vivid or striking as Tim Burton’s creation. You could certainly argue, though, that Nolan has still managed to fabricate his own original, dark, unforgiving city through his characters, as opposed to using constant rain and gothic skyscrapers; it’s a more subtle way of achieving a necessarily gloomy setting, and a confident creation that closely resembles the claustrophobic LA of Inception.
The new characters are, by and large, welcome additions; although Gordon-Levitt’s heroic Blake occasionally feels superfluous, he is not without motivation and at least has some depth. He also serves to highlight the jaded, tired natures of both Jim Gordon and Batman, both of whom seem spent after a life spent fighting crime. Hathaway’s role is clearly the most fun, and she gets the best lines – the film’s only nods to time-honoured and quick-witted superhero verbal jousting are delivered via Catwoman. Cotillard is fine, but ultimately has little to do until the final fifteen minutes of the film.
Bale is again relentlessly intense in his dual role. Clearly one of the best actors of his generation, his has been an impressive run as Batman, but I’m glad it’s over now and look forward to seeing him in a greater variety of roles in the coming years, as opposed to one recurring performance (granted he tossed out that amazing performance in The Fighter in the midst of all these Bat-shenanigans). Though surrounded by good (and great) actors, it’s a shame there’s no Joker here for him to play off. Not that I would advocate bizarre plot devices that bring characters back from the dead, and I appreciate it would have been impossible for anyone to follow Heath Ledger’s turn as the grand, insane panto villain, but a Batman film without the Joker always feels a little lacking.
Overall, this is a fitting end to a very, very good and very, very serious superhero reboot, one that outperforms Sam Raimi’s enjoyable, lighter Spider Man blockbusters in terms of the strength of style and vision applied from movie to movie. Nolan has repeatedly employed people he can trust to carry out excellent and consistent work: not just the cast (as well as those that appear in all three Batman films it’s worth pointing out that Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Cillian Murphy were all in Inception) but also the crew, for example his ever-present Director of Photography Wally Pfister, and the excellent costume designer Lindy Hemming. This has ensured a continuity throughout the series that has only been blotted once, an enforced change made as a result of Katie Holmes’s decision to retire temporarily from acting.
Nolan has made three very good films instead of Raimi’s two, though, and his impact on the genre is currently being felt across Hollywood: lesser directors (*cough* Zack Snyder *splutter*) have mistakenly adopted the same serious, dark tone with scant regard for the fact they are making movies about entirely different characters.
There is no tongue in cheek in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and some may long for even a glimpse of humour, but for me The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to a well-crafted trilogy. It feels weighty, but not pretentious, and doesn’t neglect its raison d’etre: to provide plenty of thrills and spills. Christopher Nolan has raised the bar by which other superhero films must now be judged; that he made even better work during the same period, with The Prestige and Inception, is quite impressive.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 165 Minutes