It’s almost too much to hope for: a summer blockbuster that’s compelling, original, well-crafted and perfectly cast. Yet that is precisely what director and co-writer Christopher Nolan has given us in The Dark Knight Rises. As someone from the minority camp who didn’t care for The Dark Knight (but did like Nolan’s reinvention of the caped crusader’s origin story in Batman Begins) I now emit a huge sigh of relief.
That’s not to say that The Dark Knight Rises is without flaws or beyond criticism. I still find Nolan’s work ponderous at times and too self-serious—not to mention long. David S. Goyer cowrote the story that Nolan then developed into a screenplay with his brother Jonathan. They enjoy exploring the darkest avenues of human nature, and audiences have responded with great enthusiasm. But the film also has grace notes and dashes of humor I found missing from The Dark Knight.
Among its prime assets are the new role of a straight-arrow cop created for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who worked with Nolan in Inception, and a much-expanded part for the peerless Michael Caine, who brings warmth and polish to his performance as the devoted butler Alfred. Anne Hathaway has fun with the flippant character who eventually becomes Catwoman. They are joined by a superior ensemble including Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, and an unrecognizable Tom Hardy as the villainous behemoth known as Bane. (I also didn’t recognize another old favorite, British actor and onetime Oscar nominee Tom Conti, as a shaggy, bearded prisoner in the latter part of the story.)
As for Christian Bale, he brings a great reserve of repressed emotion and physical command to his dual role as Bruce Wayne and Batman. The story begins eight years after the last film’s conclusion; Wayne has become a recluse, his body and spirit beaten down. That means there’s nowhere to go but up. Watching him harness his inner strength and build up his battered body gives us great rooting interest. Here is a misunderstood hero who is worthy of redemption.
I wish the movie didn’t take so many storytelling detours, but I’m willing to forgive a great deal because Nolan gives us such a terrific conclusion. I’m not talking about the extended race-to-the-rescue climax so much as the resolution of the story that brings every character full-circle in the most satisfying way imaginable. For that alone, Nolan should earn the gratitude of Batman fans around the world.