In The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan reaches the light at the end of his Batman trilogy’s dark, doomy tunnel
By Matthew Singer 07/26/2012
The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and some sensuality
2 hrs. 45 mins.
“I always knew there was nothing for you here but pain and tragedy,” Michael Caine’s Alfred tells Christian Bale’s gimpy, reclusive Bruce Wayne at the start of The Dark Knight Rises. So did the rest of us, Al; Christopher Nolan’s made sure of that. Through the first two films in his unremittingly dour Batman trilogy, the director stripped the world’s most tortured superhero down to his psychic wounds and let them bleed out onto the monochrome streets of Gotham.
Here’s the thing, though: Underneath the pall of ashen gloom, these are still movies about a guy in a cape who fights crime. And for all the critical appraisals that would have us believe Nolan is making steroidal tributes to Ingmar Bergman, their success is measured by the same criteria facing any film based on a comic book: How empathetic is the hero? How threatening is the villain? And how often do the action scenes make us compulsively high-five our buddies in the theater?
In each regard, The Dark Knight Rises — the final installment of Nolan’s triptych — outdoes its predecessors. It’s better written and better paced. Its set pieces, including a midair plane hijacking and an imploding football field, are more spectacular. And, despite ongoing themes of torment and loss, it’s the most exciting, purely pleasurable entry in the series. Sure, it’s still plenty broody, but take away the grim veneer and you’ll find the framework of a traditional, rousing superhero movie, and one that ends with an unambiguous message of hope.
But first: the pain and tragedy. Eight years after his alter ego took the fall for Harvey Dent’s death, Bruce Wayne lives as a battered hermit, limping around his mansion in self-imposed exile. Forces conspire to draw him out of retirement: master thief Selina Kyle (a superbly slinky Anne Hathaway), who sneaks out of a soiree at Wayne Manor with his family jewels and, more worryingly, his fingerprints; a rookie cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who deduces Wayne’s identity and wants his Batman back; a philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) pushing Wayne Enterprises to reinvest in a halted clean-energy project; and a threat so imposing it finally compels him to respond.
As Bane, a carved-from-granite mercenary bent on exacting a violent redistribution of wealth against Gotham’s 1 percent, Tom Hardy intimidates with hulking menace. Muzzled by an apparatus that appears fashioned from one of Alien’s facehuggers, it is, by nature, a more constrained performance than Heath Ledger’s boundlessly manic Joker, but what Hardy lacks in anarchic charisma he makes up for in sheer physicality. His first confrontation with Batman, in the sewers beneath Gotham, is the franchise’s most viscerally brutal moment. I can’t recall when a superhero has ever been made to look so powerless. It’s like watching Kimbo Slice beat up a cosplayer in the Comic-Con parking lot.
Oddly enough, getting the everloving piss kicked out of him is the best thing that could’ve happened to Bruce Wayne. For all his searing brilliance, Ledger’s outsized presence shunted Bale’s self-pitying billionaire playboy to the margins of his own movie. He made Batman seem boring. In that way, Hardy is the more effective antagonist, because he puts the sympathy back on the hero. It’s the Rocky principle: A guy gets knocked down that hard, you want to see him get up again.
It goes to show that, for all the talk of Nolan reinventing the epic-sized box-office juggernaut, he’s working with familiar templates. He may have drained the superhero film of its Technicolor, but he didn’t change its basic shape. The Dark Knight Rises is still one of the best films of the year, for what it is rather than what some so stringently argue it isn’t. A certain segment of the audience will find that disappointing, as if the only way for this kind of movie to qualify as high art is to detach completely from its ink-and-paper roots. In the words of somebody we used to know, I ask: Why so serious?
Note: This review was written prior to the tragic shootings in Colorado.