As The Dark Knight Rises, so has anticipation. In 2005, when Christopher Nolan rebooted and resuited Batman, the cinematic reputation of the Caped Crusader was at a pitiful low after the gaudy debacle of The Film That Shall Not Be Named. Now, a short seven years later, Nolan could deliver the print of his trilogy topper in a chariot drawn by flame-breathing unicorns with diamond eyes and some people would still shrug and say, “Meh. It’s not as impressive as The Dark Knight.”
In this—as within Rises itself—he could be said to be the victim of his own success. He raised the bar so high, no one could be expected to clear it. Still, whether you believe this betters Begins or eclipses Knight, it is certainly a satisfying conclusion to what is now—we’re calling it—the best superhero series of all time.
Not that Nolan ever really wanted his Batman to be “super”—instead, he posed what proved to be a compelling question: What if this was real? Sure, the notion may seem farfetched, but Nolan bends more rules of physics than he breaks, with his heart focused on the heart of Bruce Wayne: a child traumatized by the murder of his parents and raised with a rage he cannot quench. Rises asks other probing questions: Can you redeem without sacrifice? Can revenge bring peace? What the hell is Tom Hardy saying?
Actually, the preview footage palaver about Bane’s babble is largely irrelevant—he may sound like Sir Ian McKellen gargling mints in a wind tunnel, but the verbal clarity of the masked, muscled monster is never as important as his brute bulk (though he does have some memorable vocal barbs). Hardy looks like he could have played the Hulk, and is more than convincing as the man who could break the Bat. For the first time, perhaps ever, you really worry for Batman, with his armored suit unable to disguise a relative physical frailty, his body worn down by years of putting it in the literal line of fire for the citizens of Gotham.
Bane is not fuelled simply by whatever pumps through his mask, either, as Alfred (Michael Caine) observes: “I see the power of belief.” The Wayne family butler has acted as his master’s conscience throughout the films and he’s at it again here, challenging the bruised billionaire about what he could achieve if he sought social justice instead of the rougher kind. Indeed, there’s a sense Wayne has regressed back to the boy of Begins, his journey out of the grief of his orphaning reset by the death of his childhood love.
As Gotham prospers in the wake of the criminal crackdown brought about by the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent—and his mythologizing by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman)—Wayne feels he can stay hidden in his mansion, a truculent Beast resisting being transformed by Marion Cotillard’s Beauty. Where his parents were active, engaged philanthropists, giving life to the city, Wayne nurses only his own grief. He walks with a stick as symbolic of his psychological frailty as his physical degeneration.
Then, when Batman finally returns, you relish the gleeful comment of a cop to a younger colleague: “Boy, you are in for a show tonight, son.” That you are, even if the film doesn’t, until the very end, match the emotional tenor of its blistering beginning. There is more plot here than there is story and as impressive as certain scenes are—the sporting spectacle seen in the trailer, for example—they can feel a little like a very expensive treadmill when you’re waiting for the emotions to really run.
As ever, Nolan’s Batman is at its best in the more intimate moments—whether it’s a man finally realizing a hero’s identity, or the scene- (and jewelry-) stealing introduction of a new character. As slinky burglar Selina Kyle, Anne Hathaway is superb: physically dangerous, emotionally intriguing and sexy without milking it. As ambiguous as Kyle is, her journey shares with Wayne’s a sense of struggling for a fresh start, for a clean slate, ultimately for redemption.
Many of the best characters in the Batman universe offer a mirror to the man himself, whether walking that razor-wire between justice and revenge, or being trapped by the traumas of the past.
What’s impressive is how Nolan, his fellow story wrangler David S. Goyer and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan have found a way to bring their Bat-cycle full circle without coasting—instead touching on our world within a comic-book context. Where Avengers demolished New York with a glee unrivalled outside of a terrorist training camp, Rises takes turning Gotham into Gomorrah very seriously indeed. Nolan’s has been the Batman of the War On Terror and the credit crunch, made in an age where belief-driven crazies threatened world security (Osama bin Laden, George Bush) and men with nothing more than computers and a sense of entitlement destroyed arguably as many lives as thugs with guns. Rises plants seeds of sedition, questions the position of the financial elite and presents the plight of the 99 percent. Even as the jeopardy ratchets and our position—as surrogate citizens, the people Batman has sworn to protect—is dire, Rises doesn’t forget to have some fun, with a pyrotechnical act that brings to mind Fight Club’s Project Mayhem. It’s this balance between sobriety and sensation that is Nolan’s most significant achievement throughout these films. Batman can easily play as either glum or camp—it takes a special talent to not just recognize his inherent absurdity and his inspirational power but also embrace them both: a talent with a taste for the theatrical.
With spectacle in abundance and sexiness in (supporting) parts, this is superhero filmmaking on an unprecedented scale. Rises may lack the surprise of Begins or the anarchy of Knight, but it makes up for that in pure emotion. A fitting epitaph for the hero Gotham deserves.
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