In a season filled with big movies that somehow ask even bigger questions, “The Dark Knight Rises” feels like the superego to its competition’s id. An action opus that manages to be both viscerally and intellectually engaging, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated third Batman film comes full circle, examining both the Dark Knight and the society that produced him without sacrificing any of the sweeping thrills for which the series is known. A literate, thoughtful and invigorating finale, “The Dark Knight Rises” delivers everything audiences could ask for and then some, albeit in fewer of the ways than they might expect.
Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, limping around his estate because of injuries sustained as Batman, while the public speculates about his sanity. Although Bruce is happy to let the rumor mill keep turning, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) informs him that Wayne Enterprises is in major financial trouble, thanks in no small part to a clean-energy research project which Bruce spearheaded and then mothballed. But when a masked, monolithic terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) empties the Wayne coffers and launches a populist uprising using an underworld of thieves and criminals, Bruce is forced to don the cape and cowl again to try and restore order, even as Gotham remains convinced that Batman was responsible for the death of late district attorney-turned-psychopath Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Looking piecemeal at “The Dark Knight Rises,” it feels like a movie of profound disillusionment about America that could only be objectively told by someone who’s not a native: Nolan dissects our current financial woes, our clash of cultures, even one-percent-versus-99-percent-style class warfare with a scalpel, assigning culpability to all involved and condemning the whole system as a sort of demagogue-exchange program. From the corporate fat cats to the mouth breathers scraping by on pennies, everyone aspires to change their situation, to triumph over the forces of (sometimes rightful) opposition, or to wipe the slate clean and start again, and their motives are almost unilaterally unclean – either in origin or execution. The film should have its own Faustian bargain counter in the corner of the screen, ticking off bad decisions and foolhardy expectations.
Moreover, Bane more or less distills the status quo of America into a few depressingly succinct ideas, which form the basis of his plans: fuel his followers with a sense of fear, incite them to anger by suggesting betrayal, allow them the pretense of hope, and they will become believers. He leads with a combination of ruthless control and facetious empowerment, keeping his minions under his thumb and turning Gotham into a battleground for revolution – but only for his nefarious purposes. The concept of turning the citizenship against its own interests is nothing new, but Nolan makes it frighteningly palpable in this fictional setting without undermining the real-world implications of this sort of manipulation.
But oddly, the film ultimately proves to be not just a redemption tale for virtually all of these characters, but an embodiment of the fundamental American belief in the individual. Although its deep bench of recognizable talent and a story with an incredible variety of moving parts suggest the necessity of cooperation – a well-oiled machine whose parts all work together towards a common goal – Nolan allows almost every “important” character an opportunity to shine, to distinguish him or herself. As the hero himself has said numerous times in all of the films, “Batman could be anyone,” but the point Nolan seems to be making is that he can be any one – even working within a system that requires the cooperation and coordination of others, a person can still distinguish himself with an act of intelligence, sensitivity, leadership, or yes, heroism.
In terms of the film’s devotion to canon, meanwhile, fans should be more than satisfied by Nolan’s treatment of familiar storylines – especially those whose conclusions probably come as little surprise (although they won’t be spoiled here). Perhaps most importantly, the caped crusader remains the root of the entire ensemble, and unlike in past films – okay, the previous “Batman” series – he never takes a back seat to his adversaries. And it’s his troubles that provide the foundational themes for the rest of the characters, and the story as a whole: after eight years of inactivity, Bruce is convinced that he’s neither able to save Gotham nor redeem himself, no matter how desperately he wants to. Bane wants to fulfill the destiny of Ra’s Al Ghul – which was thoroughly detailed in “Batman Begins” — which means enabling Gotham to destroy itself and rebuild atop the rubble. And Selina Kyle is a criminal desperate for a fresh start, but unable to find a legitimate way to seek redemption.
As both Batman and Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale’s work here is master-class, and he gives the character such an inescapable melancholy – a certain perseverance in the face of absolute resignation to his fate – that he becomes a more tragic figure than ever. That said, he’s aided enormously by a never-better Michael Caine, who turns with hope and palpable love what might otherwise be expository dialogue into searing, supportive criticisms of Wayne’s self-destruction. And as sexed-up and skintight as Michelle Pfeiffer’s charms were in “Batman Returns,” Nolan’s Catwoman is the best cinematic rendering of the character to date, allowing Anne Hathaway sex appeal, humor and real humanity in equal measures, not to mention motivation that places her on equal footing with her male counterparts without making her a fetish object who’s ultimately subject to them.
On the other hand, after being marketed as heir to the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Tom Hardy’s Bane is a different sort of villain – a focused and more ideologically-developed version of Heath Ledger’s anarchist – but one with equally ruthless charm. After brutally taking control of a building, he surveys his hostages, and offers one of them an almost-friendly “what’s up” nod. As many obstacles as Bane faces as a compelling character – chief of them being having his face covered almost entirely, and constantly, by a mask which also obscures much of his dialogue – Hardy juxtaposes an almost jaunty vocal intonation with a sort of monolithic, chilling stillness, creating a villain worthy of the series’ rogue’s gallery.
It should be interesting to see precisely how the film translates to home video given the number of times within a scene the frame switches from IMAX to a traditional film format, but cinematically the film is gorgeous, meticulously constructed and seemingly effortless in execution, even with so many moving parts racing towards what is ultimately a narratively and thematically cohesive finale. More importantly, however, is how it fits into the summer’s conversation about the Big Important Issues that are preoccupying us, even when we’re walking into darkened theaters and asking only to be entertained.
If, as Badass Digest argues, “The Avengers” “defeated irony and cynicism,” then “The Dark Knight Rises” feels like the rock-bottom, lowest-point examination of ourselves which provides the substance to make Joss Whedon’s optimistic vision endure. Because Nolan’s film is a reminder that superheroes aren’t merely a frivolous distraction, or even a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but an embodiment of our best selves – or at least what we want our best selves to be. A cinematic, cultural and personal triumph, “The Dark Knight Rises” is emotionally inspiring, aesthetically significant and critically important for America itself – as a mirror of both sober reflection and resilient hope. [A]