How do you wrap-up The Dark Knight trilogy? Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have come to represent the absolute pinnacle of excellence of the superhero zeitgeist. Throughout the franchise to date, Nolan has given viewers everything they want from a superhero movie and so much more; detailed characters, jaw-dropping set-pieces and themes big enough to have you gripped on more than just a superficially entertaining level. Batman Begins was a great opener to draw us back to the Bat-verse, a new Bat-verse set firmly in our reality rather than the Technicolor nightmare of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. And then came The Dark Knight; a film that was more crime thriller than superhero movie. So how, in holy hell Batman, do you finish such a franchise? The Dark Knight Rises answers that question, not with a whimper, but with a gob smacking, crowd cheering BANG.
Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Rises sees Batman aka Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) having hung up the cowl. The laws Gotham has introduced, after the death of Harvey Dent, have ensured the city no longer needs the Caped Crusader. Caught between the nurturing romance of colleague Miranda (Marion Cotillard) and the dangerous affections of cat burglar Selina (Anne Hathaway) Wayne learns of a storm brewing beneath the surface of Gotham. That storm is terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy); a member of The League Of Shadows hell bent on leveling the city to a pile of rubble as an example of greed and over-indulgence to the rest of the world. Between trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and ally Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne reluctantly dons the pointy ears and sets out on a quest to free Gotham of the tyrannical rule of Bane. Along the way he will be aided by old friend Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and street cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) but will it be enough to stop this army of destruction marching over Wayne’s beloved city?
Any Batman fan will tell you that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is the essential Bat story; an aging and forlorn Wayne returning to the cape in order to save the day once again. Rises is likely to be the closest thing we’re ever to see on the big screen of that seminal work. Opening with a decrepit and depressed Wayne haunting Wayne manor like a reclusive Howard Hughes, the film slowly and then powerfully rises like a phoenix from the flames.
Rises is an almost Greek opus told on an epic scale. This time it’s not just a couple of ferries loaded with people who are in jeopardy but the whole of Gotham. Where Heath Ledger’s Joker may have been Batman’s intellectual equal, Bane outstrips Bats in physical power. He is a hulking brute of a man, a goliath to Batman’s buzzing fly. Always one step ahead of The Caped Crusader and able to predict his every move, there is never any doubt that Batman will almost certainly get crashed, banged and walloped. Here our hero is no longer able to lurk in the shadows, he’sexposed, literally for much of the film with Batman’s identity seemingly well known by those in his inner circle, and Nolan is not afraid, for the first time in Batman’s cinema cannon, to have The Dark Knight take the fight into the daylight. It’s a bold move but it’s a resounding success, creating a canvas hitherto unseen in Nolan’s franchise.
As with the previous two films, Nolan shoots Gotham with a sense of grandeur. The city is just as important in this world as the characters who occupy it. And with help from his brother, Jonah Nolan, Christopher is by no means afraid to express a political premise. Bane targeting the Gotham stock exchange whilst sighting the city’s rich elite as the cause for its cancer, is not so much a thinly shrouded allegory of the Occupy Wall Street movement as a politically injected commentary on the one-percenters and how eventually, the people will Rise up to take the power back. If it sounds too heavy handed for a superhero movie it is not, it works on a level that streamlines into the narrative without feeling shoehorned or intrusive.
There were moments in Begins when Nolan looked a little at sea with the action scenes. By Dark Knight those fears were allied and here he’s proving to be one of the most accomplished action directors of his generation. Rises’ action is rarely superfluous, instead progressing plot and, with the help of Hans Zimmer’s endlessly evocative score, bringing everything to a crescendoing level of excitement. The moment when Batman returns, mid car chase, the Bat-Pod stealthy weaving between speeding traffic, is one of this year’s most brilliantly inspiring moments.
By now Bale and Bruce Wayne are almost indistinguishable; the cocky playboy juxtaposed with the brooding and vengeful hero. Here though he’s broken, beaten down not just by the brutality of Bane but also the inner demons of losing the love of his life in the previous film. Indeed a scene between Bale and Michael Caine’s Alfred is probably the franchises’ emotional tipping point that strikes a cord after everything they’ve been through. Gordon-Levitt continues to prove that, along with this year’s other hit film Looper, he may well be the thinking person’s action-man du jour. Hardy meanwhile is utterly compelling as Bane. His physical presence notwithstanding his almost Bondian villain is intoxicatingly brilliant. Forget what you may have heard about his dialogue being inaudible, it’s simply not true, his voice is what makes the role so terrifying; a calm, calculating almost whisper packaged in a ferocious frame. But perhaps the most surprising part of Rises is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. She’s repeatedly proven herself a good actress but here her versatility is outstanding. Her opening scene alone is enough to draw a smile to the face.
So the burning question is; Is The Dark Knight Rises as good as The Dark Knight? Perhaps not but only by the smallest of margins. What Rises does do is draw a natural and hugely satisfying conclusion to the greatest superhero franchise to date. Nolan and his team have done the near impossible and proven that concluding chapters can Rise up like you never previously thought possible. This isn’t Gotham’s reckoning, it’s Hollywood’s. The gauntlet for thinking peoples’ franchise has been firmly thrown down.