The ambitious conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy may lack The Dark Knight's clarity and that performance from posthumous Oscar-winner Heath Ledger, not to mention the elegant simplicity of Batman Begins' arc, but it's a vigorous spectacle that brings Nolan's cherry-picking vision to a rousing climax. The wonder of Nolan's work in this universe is how he's managed to create something that feels singularly distinct, yet borrows so much from the cream of Batman comics (particularly Frank Miller's acclaimed Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns) in a way that isn't indiscreetly imitative. In some ways Nolan's the Tarantino of Batman; wearing his influences proudly on his sleeve, creating pure cinema from his passions and inspirations.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become reclusive gossip-fodder for Gotham's upper classes, his Batman alter ego a tainted memory after taking the blame for Harvey Dent's murder. And with organised crime eradicated thanks to tough legislation ratified in Dent's memory, Gotham no longer needs a crime-fighting symbol to cow its criminal underworld. That is until mysterious muzzle-wearing extremist Bane (Tom Hardy) takes up residence in the sewers with a mob of devoted radicals, plotting to flip society on its head and watch Gotham tear itself apart at the seams. Fortuitous shades of the Occupy Wall Street movement are just one of the ways The Dark Knight Rises managed to capture the zeitgeist, just as Batman Begins distilled something of America's self-image after 9/11.
Throw in comely cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anna Hathaway), an egotistical jewel thief who dreams of an era when the Haves are the Have-Nots; and idealistic orphaned cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who believes The Batman must return to prevent forthcoming resolution, and the stage is set for the Caped Crusader to mount a comeback against a physically superior adversary.
There's plenty to enjoy about Nolan's portentous Bat-finale, as both bombastic blockbuster and intelligent art-house action flick. It's the biggest of the three movies in scale and vision, particularly with the introduction of aerial tank "The Bat", Bane's citywide destruction, and the repercussions of a metropolis cut-off from outside help by a madman. As befits the final part of a trilogy, the stakes are higher and the hero's journey much tougher. An underground fight between Bane and Batman on a gantry works particularly well, for upending the tacit safety you feel whenever the highly-skilled Batman's at work, eliciting a stomach hollowing feeling of desperation and humiliation when the mighty Batman resorts to a utility belt of parlour tricks... as the unstoppable of Bane (part-wrestler, part-strongman) counters his every attack.
I loved how Bane proves to be another warped mirror of Batman's psyche (a constant theme of the trilogy's nemeses), only as a lower-class and ostracised member of the League of Shadows. He's a mistrusted monster of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and his outfit, unlike Wayne's privileged golden boy with his own philosophy. I like how the movie can again be tagged as a realistic take on superheroes (certainly compared to Marvel's output), yet still includes all manner of fanciful craziness and a loose, playful feel to specifics of plot. Those who compile lists of narrative transgressions or lapses in logic, as if that undermines the movie to any real extent, are missing the point of cinematic entertainment. The idea that these Batman movies can only be considered wholly successful if everything has watertight reasoning, feels ridiculous to me. Suspension of disbelief is a key tenet of watching every movie, and this unspoken agreement between filmmaker and audience was never stretched past breaking point in my mind.
Bale gets the best material he's had since Begins started this billionaire character's journey, partly because there's no scene-stealing Joker in the pack; Michael Caine is afforded more opportunities to tearfully emote as faithful butler Alfred; Hardy turns a second-rate comic-book bruiser into a memorable supervillain, conveying everything through body language, gesture, and an amplified aristocratic accent that's brilliantly incongruous to his gorilla-like physique (is his brogue the result of elocution classes, given his humble background); Hathaway provides sassy fun, doing an impressive job with a sexy archetype it's easy to overplay (her introduction from quiet housemaid to confident safe-cracking crook was a delight); old pros Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue their sterling support as Bruce's support team, often making you forget that Batman's barely on-screen; Nolan's Inception muse Marion Cotillard is very good as altruistic businesswoman Miranda Tate; and an unexpected bonus was how deftly Joseph Gordon Levitt crafted a nuanced and likable "sidekick" for Gordon/Batman to rely on.
For an eagerly anticipated "event", there are problems and issues that ultimately prevent The Dark Knight Rises being the perfect ending; some large, some small. I was disappointed with the climactic fight between Bane and Batman (particularly as it was setup so brilliantly with their first bout), the fight sequences in general have never been Nolan's forte (often blurring into an incomprehensible mix of flailing arms and dark shapes), both of Bruce's romances felt undernourished (particularly with Tate), Selina's role isn't quite as central and important as it could have been, the section with Bruce stuck at the bottom of a prison pit wasn't as hellish as anticipated (and didn't last long enough for you to feel truly euphoric about his escape), and the trilogy ends with a marvellous sequence that, nevertheless, will raise eyebrows over some of the decisions.
But the majority of this movie is a success and a fitting way to bring Nolan's interpretation of Batman to an end, in a way that references the beginning in unexpected ways (I especially liked how Bruce is reborn by climbing out of a hole in the ground, not unlike his childhood ascent from a well teeming with bats). It didn't feel as gripping as The Dark Knight because, well, it was always going to be impossible to eclipse Ledger's vivid interpretation of fan-favourite The Joker, but this wasn't the soulless spectacle it may have been in lesser hands. Nolan and his writers had a story to tell with something to say about the world we live in, amplifying our existing political situation and populating it with tough people in skin-tight rubber and masks.
These are great movies, excellent morality tales, and I'm just grateful someone like Christopher Nolan's around to make crowd-pleasing summer blockbusters that don't patronise their audience or beat them over the head with digital trickery in lieu of characters, story, passion, subtext, emotion and wit.
directed by Christopher Nolan / written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan (story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane) / starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon Levitt & Marion Cotillard / 165 mins.