Review: 'The Dark Knight Rises', directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan faced a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle with The Dark Knight Rises. Ignoring for a moment our sky high expectations, The Dark Knight trilogy faced the deadly "third movie" curse, which has sunk so many otherwise great franchises. In the crowded superhero landscape, where The Avengers can make over $1B in just a couple of months, Nolan's movies are in such a unique, singular place that they don't have to compete with Marvel and their shared universe. His biggest competition is with his own, well-established greatness that has sent our hopes for the finale soaring.
With those expectations comes the realization that "sticking the landing" is the hardest part of every trilogy, but if there's anyone who could shatter that trend it would be Nolan. While it was clear that he was still finding his footing with Batman Begins, Nolan's confident clarity of vision took hold in The Dark Knight, and sharpened to laser precision in The Dark Knight Rises. We've never seen an epic hero's journey quite like this before. The Dark Knight trilogy breaks beyond the confines of the traditional superhero movie into something unrecognizable; thrilling in the way you know something truly special is unfolding right before your eyes. For good reason, many will enter into this film thinking Nolan could never best the spectacular heights of The Dark Knight, but those people will exit The Dark Knight Rises with their minds blown and a totally new outlook.
Others see Gotham's peace in a different light. The city's wealthy have only grown more insulated over the years, the wealth disparity widening as the poor continue to struggle. There may not be people dying in the streets anymore, but Gotham's corruption continues to eat away at it from the inside, and certain parties are looking to exploit the plight of the downtrodden to their advantage. Yeah, this is Nolan's most overtly political film yet, shining a spotlight on much of the anger that festers in today's society, where the rich get all the breaks and the poor just....break. Bane(Tom Hardy), a masked, hulking figure seeks to harness that rage against the top 1%, and burn Gotham City to ashes.
Where's Bruce Wayne during all this? Holed up in his study like Howard Hughes(minus the urine jars), more of a myth than an actual man at this point. Broken down and beaten both physically and emotionally, he's a shadow of his former self. The indomitable will that seemed to radiate from him at all times is gone, leaving only a shell. It's only when his home is broken in to by a sleek and sexy cat burglar named Selina Kyle(Anne Hathaway), that he begins to feel inklings of the old curiosity again. That detective spirit starts to emerge as he checks into her background, discovering that his old enemies, the League of Shadows, may be alive and well and in Gotham City.
Rare is the film that can take you on a roller coaster of emotions quite the way The Dark Knight Rises does, and it's safe to say you'll probably cry a couple of times, while also feeling the exhilaration of Nolan's epic direction. The film has a larger than life scope from the very beginning, kicking off with a breathtaking aerial hijacking that puts the latest Mission: Impossible to shame. Batman's conscience, the heart and soul of the Caped Crusader, has always been his loyal butler and caretaker, Alfred(Michael Caine), but this story sees them reaching a heartbreaking impasse. It's the natural evolution of their relationship, and watching it unfold is probably the toughest part of the film, even worse than watching Batman get beaten to a bloody pulp.
And get beaten like a dog Batman surely does. Bane poses a threat the likes of which Batman has never seen. The Scarecrow was merely a psychological threat, while the Joker was lunatic id run amok. Bane is as coolly confident and unafraid as Batman ever was, and is superior in every way physically. More than that, he's equipped with a similar fanatical purity of his beliefs, which strengthens him and inspires others to die for his cause. Batman's visage, created to inspire fear in his enemies, has also become a rallying point of sorts, most notable to Thomas Blake(Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an altruistic cop who joins the fight to save Gotham. Miranda Tate(Marion Cotillard), inspired by Bruce Wayne's philanthropic notions, seeks to join him in a secret energy project that has gained Bane's unwanted attention.
Bale's performance as Batman has always bothered me in that it never quite measures up to that of his co-stars. He was woefully outmatched by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, to the point where that film felt smaller when the Joker wasn't on screen. Here, Bale gives what I think is his best turn of the series yet, portraying Bruce Wayne as a guy who is still bound by his family legacy. He's still endeavoring to measure up to his father. Despite all the suits and weapons and fancy vehicles, Bruce Wayne is still the kid who stood helplessly by while his parents were murdered. Those who saw Tom Hardy in the MMA flick, Warrior, know the terrifying volatility he can bring, and he does much the same here. Only what makes Bane even scarier is his nonchalant attitude, and the fact you can only understand about half of what he's saying. Hathaway doesn't get enough to work with to surpass Michelle Pfeiffer's iconic performance as Catwoman, but she's got the sultry and conflicted character down to a tee. Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Marion Cotillard are all typically outstanding, but I think people will be mostly surprised by how well Joseph Gordon-Levitt steps into the big leagues here.
Clocking in at roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes, you never feel for a second that the film is dragging along or being padded out to fill time. Every scene that Nolan leaves in is essential, even as he diverts some of his attention to the subplots of the supporting characters. Every one has their natural arc, fully realized and having a major impact on the final battle. Nolan ups the ante in just about every respect, ramping up the stakes to an incredible degree, and plunging Batman into the depths of despair. There's no need to be a comic book fan to understand the redemptive quest Batman faces, or to appreciate the numerous other themes Nolan has seamlessly weaved into the story. It's always been about what drives the man in the suit, not how the suit drives the man.
As the bittersweet final minutes began to creep up, it was impossible not to start thinking about the legacy Christopher Nolan is leaving behind. Nobody has left their stamp on a character quite like this. Certainly not Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher and their candy colored circus versions. Nolan has taken one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history, and totally redefined him in a way that nobody will be able to touch it. Certainly, others will try, but it will be a long time from now in order to escape from Nolan's shadow. In the most simple terms, Christopher Nolan has crafted the best Batman story ever told.