Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Crime
Summary: Eight years after his retirement as the Batman, Bruce Wayne (Bale) must reclaim the cowl when a terrorist (Hardy) threatens Gotham City.
Before The Dark Knight Rises was e’en a twinkle in his eye, Christopher Nolan asked, “how many good third movies in a franchise can people name?” It’s certainly a chin-kneader, particularly when you consider the framework Nolan is working in; the “third movie curse” may not be exclusive to the superhero genre, but it is especially prevalent throughout it.
Just think. How many times has superheroic brilliance been followed by bunkum? The amazing Spider-Man 2 was succeeded by the crap-tacular Spider-Man 3, similarly with X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, Blade 2 and Blade: Trinity, Superman II and Superman III, and, lest we forget, Batman Returns and Batman Forever. Matching, let alone superseding, 2008′s The Dark Knight was always going to be a daunting, nigh-impossible task, curse or no curse. And even though it is flawed, fraught with the same limitations that have plagued all of Nolan’s films thus far and the vagaries endemic to late-franchise films of this ilk, The Dark Knight Rises is a triumphant conclusion to the Caped Crusader’s legend that stakes a claim to be the best third movie ever.
Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham City is a crime-less haven of capitalist indulgence and excess. Batman (Christian Bale)’s sacrificial self-criminalisation at the end of The Dark Knight — where he willfully took the blame for Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart)’s crimes — has ensured the creation of the Dent Act, a piece of super-legislation that has essentially swept the streets clean of all but the pettiest of petty larcenies. Batman, now a wanted man, hasn’t been seen since that night and has morphed into an urban legend, much like his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, who has become an eccentric, Howard Hughesian recluse who, according to myth, has “eight-inch fingernails and pees into Mason jars”.
A big part of the superhero mythos is the interplay between ego and alter-ego, the mask and the man beneath, and the best superhero narratives are those that focus on this conflict. Considering that Christopher Nolan’s auteurist ideology is so concentrated on issues of identity, it’s not surprising that The Dark Knight Rises places Wayne’s inability to move on from his Batman persona at the forefront. As Alfred (Michael Caine) points out, Wayne has hung up his cape and cowl, but has failed to reclaim his former life. Batman, much like in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, is an addictive parasite that has consumed Bruce Wayne, leaving an empty shell who paradoxically loathes what he has become and secretly yearns for any excuse to don the mask again.
It is only after an encounter with a wily, seductive cat burglar called Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway — just don’t call her Catwoman) and the emergence of a terrorist threat in the form of the unstoppable behemoth Bane (Tom Hardy) that Wayne feels impelled to rise out of the batcave (there’s a lot of literal and metaphorical rising in The Dark Knight Rises — the film’s name is certainly not a coincidence) and become the Batman once more. So begins The Dark Knight Rises‘ gargantuan, bum-numbing narrative. To reveal much more would only spoil the numerous twists, turns, and loop-de-loops that the Nolans (Christopher and his co-writer brother Jonathan) have peppered throughout the film.
Considering the eight year diegetic gap between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, it’s to be expected that The Dark Knight Rises‘ first act will be exposition laden and, it’s true, the film is top-heavy. For the most, Nolan is able to balance introducing new elements — Bane, Catwoman, the idealistic young cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — and addressing old ones — the deaths of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey Dent and their affects on Batman and Gotham — with a tact that really exhibits his talent as a cinematic composer.
As a writer, though, he is less convincing. There’s a certain directness in his characters’ dialogue that denies any degree of realism or subtext. Characters don’t overtly speak in themes as much as they did in The Dark Knight, but each line has such an obvious purpose that it’s hard to see the characters as anything more than simple narrative devices. It’s economic, utilitarian writing, fit for purpose, that would make the film feel detached and clinical like Inception were it not for gut-wrenching performances by the entire cast and the fact that the script is trading off cultural icons to whom most of the audience will already be emotionally attached.
Speaking of the cast, Nolan’s ensemble here is one of the finest ever assembled, and so much praise has been laid upon them already that to repeat it will be pointless. Safe to say, Bale, Caine, and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon provide the film’s heart and soul and they more than make up for any deficiencies in the writing, with each giving a series-best performance. Franchise newcomers Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy steal the show, however. Hathaway is the summation of everything that made Catwoman such an elusive seductress on the page and Hardy’s Bane, a lumbering juggernaut that dominates the frame, is an absolute joy to watch, if a little difficult to understand through that robo-gimp mask and ridiculous, quasi-Shakespearean accent that sounds a little like David Attenborough with roid-rage (or, David At-Bane-borough, if you will).
Alright, where was I? Oh yeah, the script.
By having to shoe-horn in eight years’ worth of plot development into the first hour, Nolan impedes the growth of his new narrative. Take, for instance, Bane. Instead of allowing fear and anxiety about his first brush with Batman to bubble within the audience and raise to a boil naturally (like what happened between the Joker and Batman in The Dark Knight, which, coincidentally, didn’t touch anything from Batman Begins), Nolan simply has Alfred tell Bruce — and, by extension, us — how frightfully nasty Bane is and how he should be avoided. When Batman and Bane finally meet in battle, it’s strangely undramatic, albeit brutal and extremely well choreographed. There hasn’t been any organic momentum building toward it. It’s a foregone conclusion that they will fight, therefore Nolan feels like he is able to shift focus to the less interesting (and less narratively significant) Wayne Enterprises boardroom and the corporate slime Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) who’s trying to usurp Wayne as chairman.
However, whilst the first act may be diluted, once The Dark Knight Rises moves past its expository early stages and into its own story, it becomes an altogether different beast. A lot of reviewers have called The Dark Knight Rises morose, oppressive, and utterly dark and depressing. I would say those tags are more appropriate for The Dark Knight, apt when you consider it the second act in a larger, three-act narrative of which The Dark Knight Rises is the climax. Even at its darkest moments, when the strains of post-9/11 terrorist rhetoric show on the screen more brazenly than any other mainstream blockbuster has dared to do, The Dark Knight Rises is strangely hopeful, with a redemptive, messianic aura to Batman’s arc that keeps a light on when everything else conspires to plunge the film into darkness.
Another contributing factor to The Dark Knight Rises‘ lighter tone is the degree of fantasy present in the story. Whereas The Dark Knight was grimly realistic, painted with a neo-noir brush on loan from Michael Mann, The Dark Knight Rises is very much unashamedly a comic book movie, with aspects lifted from the comic arcs Knightfall and No Man’s Land as well as non-canon entries Batman Beyond and The Dark Knight Returns. With the inflation of the stakes to the apocalyptic and the superfluity of double- and triple-crossing supporting characters — as is standard for a third movie — you can see a greater reliance on stock narrative tropes that would otherwise stretch the limits of plausibility were it not for Nolan’s ability to keep them contained within his serious, pseudo-realist sensibility. The Dark Knight Rises‘ tone isn’t miles away from Batman Begins, which, it has to be remembered, isn’t the paragon of superhero hyper-realism that everyone seems to remember it as.
In fact, The Dark Knight Rises‘ connection to Batman Begins should be addressed in greater depth. Circularity is something that third films try, and so often fail, to achieve. Take Spider-Man 3. It tried to make its story resonate by revealing that the Sandman, that film’s principal villain, actually killed Uncle Ben in the first Spider-Man. It was forced, artificial, and retroactively tainted the first film and Spider-Man’s character development as a whole. Simply, it wasn’t needed and it was cheap emotional blackmail.
Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises curls back on itself elegantly, with a dramatic weight that feels absolutely necessary. Whereas Spider-Man 3 could’ve ended any other way and been infinitely better, The Dark Knight Rises is as good a finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as it could be, standing as the culmination of all those themes and ideas that have been building throughout Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The obvious care and attention that has gone into making this film narratively and thematically coherent with the rest of the trilogy is astounding and should be praised. As should Nolan’s conviction in actually making a superhero saga that has a definitive ending, whether you like that ending or not (I didn’t at first). In light of this, qualms about the script’s heavy-handed telegraphing of certain plot points and the unassuming, generic score by Hans Zimmer that doesn’t so much support the film’s emotion as batter you into quivering submission fade into non-significance.
However, as with most third movies, The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t stand on its own. Its thematic debt means that it doesn’t really have anything new to say; its narrative just serves to confirm those earlier hypotheses posited by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Ignore all the waffle about The Dark Knight Rises being an Occupy Wall Street allegory; those links are tenuous and don’t hold to closer scrutiny. What The Dark Knight Rises is instead is the final part of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever made, right up there with Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and The Godfather. Imperfect, uneven, bloated it may be, but The Dark Knight Rises is an intense, moving spectacle that harkens back to the glory days of the blockbuster and actually stands alongside its predecessors, even if it isn’t objectively “better” than The Dark Knight. The curse is broken. Go see it in IMAX, and go see it now.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.
Warning: there be spoilers up ahead. Abandon now all ye who want to remain unsullied.