After seven years and two films that have pushed Batman ever deeper into the dark, the director Christopher Nolan has completed his post-modern, post-Sept 11 epic of ambivalent good versus multi-dimensional evil with a burst of light. As the title promises, day breaks in The Dark Knight Rises, the grave and satisfying finish to Nolan’s operatic bat-trilogy. His timing couldn’t be better. As the country enters its latest electoral brawl off screen, Batman (Christian Bale) hurtles into a parallel battle that booms with puppet-master anarchy, anti-government rhetoric and soundtrack drums of doom, entering the fray as another lone avenger and emerging as a defender of, well, what?
Truth, justice and the American way? No, and not only because that doctrine belongs to Superman, who was bequeathed that weighty motto on the radio in August 1942, eight months after the United States entered World War II and three years after Batman, Bob Kane’s comic creation, hit. Times change; superheroes and villains too. The enemy is now elusive and the home front as divided as the face of Harvey Dent, a vanquished Batman foe. The politics of partisanship rule and grass-roots movements have sprung up on the right and the left to occupy streets and legislative seats. It can look ugly, but as they like to say — and Dent says in The Dark Knight, the second part of the trilogy — the night is darkest before the dawn.
The legacy of Dent, an activist district attorney turned murderous lunatic, looms over this one, the literal and metaphysical personification of good intentions gone disastrously wrong.
Eight years later in story time, Batman, having taken the fall for Dent’s death, and mourning the woman both men loved, has retreated into the shadows. Dent has been enshrined as a martyr, held up as an immaculate defender of law-and-order absolutism. Gotham City is quiet and so too is life at Wayne Manor, where its master hobbles about with a cane while a prowler makes off with family jewels (the intensely serious Nolan isn’t wholly humourless) and Gotham sneers about the playboy who’s mutated into a Howard Hughes recluse.
Batman has always been a head case, of course: the billionaire orphan, aka Bruce Wayne, who for assorted reasons — like witnessing the murder of his parents when he was a child — fights crime disguised as a big bat. Bruce’s initial metamorphosis, in Batman Begins, exacts a high price: by the end of the second film, along with losing the girl and being branded a vigilante, Bruce-Batman rides virtually alone, save for Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the Wayne family butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), a fussy uncle with a remarkable skill set. It’s central to where Nolan wants to take The Dark Knight Rises that Batman will be picking up new acquaintances, including a beat cop, John Blake (a charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and a philanthropist, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
Nolan again sets his machine purring with two set pieces that initiate one of the story’s many dualities, in this case between large spectacle and humanising intimacies: one, an outlandishly choreographed blowout that introduces a heavy, Bane (Tom Hardy); the other, a quieter cat-and-bat duet between Bruce and a burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). After checking in with his personal armorer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce-Batman swoops into an intrigue that circles back to the first film and brings the series to a politically resonant conclusion that fans and op-ed bloviators will argue over long after this one leaves theatres. Once again, like his two-faced opponents and the country he’s come to represent, Batman begins, feared as a vigilante, revered as a hero.
Informed by Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s resuscitation of the character in the 1980s, Nolan’s Bruce-Batman has oscillated between seemingly opposite poles, even as he’s always come out a superhero. He is saviour and destroyer, human and beast, the ultimate radical individualist and people’s protector. Yet as the series evolved, this binary opposition — echoed by Dent’s rived face — has grown progressively messier, less discrete. Much of the complexity has been directly written into the franchise’s overarching, seemingly blunt story of good versus evil. It’s an old, familiar tale that Nolan, in between juggling the cool bat toys, demure kisses, hard punches and loud bangs, has layered with open and barely veiled references to terrorism, the surveillance state and vengeance as a moral imperative.
Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan, further muddies the good-and-evil divide with Bane. A swaggering, overmuscled brute with a scar running down his back like a zipper and headgear that obscures his face and turns his cultivated voice into a strangulated wheeze, Bane comes at Batman and Gotham hard. Fortified by armed true believers, Bane first beats Batman in a punishingly visceral, intimate fist-to-foot fight and then commandeers the city with a massive assault that leaves it crippled and — because of the explosions, the dust, the panic and the sweeping aerial shots of a very real-looking New York City — invokes the Sept 11 attacks. It’s unsettling enough that some may find it tough going.
Watching a city collapse should be difficult, maybe especially in a comic-book movie. The spectre of Sept 11 and its aftermath haunt American movies often through their absence though also in action films, which adopt torture as an ineluctable necessity. Nolan, for his part, has been engaging Sept 11 in his blockbuster behemoths, specifically in a vision of Batman who stands between right and wrong, principles and their perversions, because he himself incarnates both extremes.
Nolan has also taken the duality that made the first film into an existential drama and expanded that concept to encompass questions about power, the state and whether change is best effected from inside the system or outside it. Gordon believes in its structures; Bane wants to burn it all down. And Batman? Well, he needs to work it out.
So will viewers, explicitly, given the grim, unsettling vision of a lawless city in which the structures of civil society have fallen, structures that Batman has fought outside of. In a formally bravura, disturbingly visceral sequence that clarifies the stakes, Bane stands before a prison and, in a film with several references to the brutal excesses of the French Revolution — including the suitably titled A Tale of Two Cities — delivers an apocalyptic speech worthy of Robespierre. Invoking myths of opportunism, Bane promises the Gotham citizenry that courts will be convened, spoils enjoyed. “Do as you please,” he says, as Nolan cuts to a well-heeled city stretch where women in furs and men in silk robes are attacked in what looks like a paroxysm of revolutionary bloodlust.
If this image of violent revolt resonates strongly, it’s due to Nolan’s kinetic filmmaking in a scene that pulses with realism and to the primal fear that the people could at any moment, as in the French Revolution, become the mob that drags the rest of us into chaos. Yet little is what it first seems in The Dark Knight Rises, whether masked men or raging rhetoric. Nolan isn’t overtly siding with or taking aim at any group (the wily Bane only talks a good people’s revolution), but as he has done before, he is suggesting a third way. Like Steven Soderbergh in Contagion, a science-fiction freak-out in which the heroes are government workers, Nolan doesn’t advocate burning down the world, but fixing it.
He also, it may be a relief to know, wants to entertain you. He does, for the most part effortlessly, in a Dark Knight saga that is at once lighter and darker than its antecedents. It’s also believable and preposterous, effective as a closing chapter and somewhat of a letdown if only because Nolan, who continues to refine his cinematic technique, hasn’t surmounted The Dark Knight or coaxed forth another performance as mesmerisingly vital as Heath Ledger’s Joker in that film. The ferocious, perversely uglified Hardy, unencumbered by Bane’s facial appliance, might have been able to dominate this one the way Ledger did the last, but that sort of monstrous, bigger-than-life turn would have been antithetical to this movie’s gestalt. The accomplished Bale continues to keep Batman at a remove with a tight performance that jibes with Nolan’s head-over-heart filmmaking.
After repeatedly sending Batman down Gotham’s mean streets, Nolan ends by taking him somewhere new. That’s precisely the point of a late sequence in which he shifts between a multitude of characters and as many locations without losing you, his narrative thread or momentum. His playfulness with the scenes-within-scenes in his last movie, Inception, has paid off here. The action interludes are more visually coherent than in his previous Batman films and, as in Inception, the controlled fragmentation works on a pleasurable, purely cinematic level. But it also serves Nolan’s larger meaning in The Dark Knight Rises and becomes his final say on superheroes and their uses because, as Gotham rages and all seems lost, the action shifts from a lone figure to a group, and hope springs not from one but many.
The Dark Knight Rises, the third and emphatically final film in his Batman trilogy, goes even further: for the most part, this is a superhero film without a superhero. Batman here is less a character than a symbol, then a cipher, and later an icon, and swathes of the film pass without its notional hero appearing on screen in full, Caped Crusading regalia. (With a running time of two and three quarter hours, it’s fair to say The Dark Knight Rises is a film that can be divided into swathes.)
Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is living a Howard Hughes-like existence in his Manor, “holed up with eight-inch nails and peeing into jars,” as a Gotham congressman indelicately puts it. Thanks to draconian laws passed in the wake of the Joker’s spree, the city’s streets have been cleaned up, and the need for a costumed crimefighter is no longer too pressing. In fact, Bruce is only spurred back into action when a cat burglar called Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) infiltrates Wayne Manor and swipes his late mother’s necklace (Nolan’s script, co-authored with his brother Jonathan, never lowers itself to using the C-word: Catwoman).
But it’s Bane (Tom Hardy), a gas-masked, ox-built revolutionary who paints himself as “Gotham’s reckoning”, who is the far greater threat. Nolan introduces his villain in a thrillingly ambitious opening sequence: here, Bane and his cronies are extracted from central Asia on a CIA plane which is plucked out of the sky and demolished piece by piece — with no visible use of computer graphics — by a second, larger aircraft. Like all of the action sequences in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan shoots the scene with a minimum of artifice and visual fuss, which imbues inherently far-fetched scenarios with a chilling plausibility.
Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker was disguised as a bank robber in The Dark Knight, Nolan fools us into thinking his big bad guy is a footsoldier before revealing his true face, but this time the trick has a deeper, thematic significance. Bane issues a call to arms to the recession-struck citizens of Gotham, to rise up against businesses and institutions that grew fat at their expense: in this film, the everyman is the most dangerous, powerful figure of them all.
Fortunately, one of those everymen is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a beat cop whose integrity impresses Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and who becomes a key figure in the fightback against Bane’s weaponised masses. The Dark Knight Rises is Blake’s story as much as it is Bruce Wayne’s, and while to say more would spoil the fun, Gordon-Levitt’s character arc is perhaps the juiciest and most compellingly-plotted of the entire trilogy.
Themes and imagery from the first two films are interwoven effortlessly, with an enormous African bottleneck dungeon recalling the well down which a young Bruce plummeted in Nolan’s Batman Begins. But Nolan makes the most of his broadened palette and spiralled budget. I spotted riffs on sequences from Lang’s Metropolis and Eisenstein’s October and there are extensive borrowings from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in the film’s second and third act. At one point, Gotham’s Blackgate Prison is stormed like the Bastille, with Bane a kind of steroid-pumped, morally curdled Ernest Defarge. (It’s worth noting that Hardy’s hollow, Vader-ish voice has been cleaned up following early test screenings: he is often inscrutable but seldom unintelligible.)
The scope here is unashamedly novelistic, and although the plotting of the film’s first act is arguably muddled, Nolan’s sheer formal audacity means the stakes feel skin-pricklingly high at all times: if he is prepared to go this far, I found myself often wondering, just how far is he prepared to go? Well, the answer is further than any other superhero film I can think of: after a breathless, bravura final act, a nuclear payload of catharsis brings The Dark Knight Rises, and Nolan’s trilogy, to a ferociously satisfying close.
All doom and gloom and
Christopher Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy in typically spectacular, ambitious fashion with The Dark Knight Rises, but the feeling of frustration and disappointment is unshakeable.
Maybe that was inevitable. Maybe nothing could have met the expectations established by 2008’s The Dark Knight, which revolutionised and set the standard for films based on comic books by being both high-minded and crowd-pleasing. With Christian Bale as his tortured superhero starting from 2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan has explored the complicated and conflicting motivations of man as well as the possibility of greatness and redemption within society.
Here, as director and co-writer, he’s unrelenting in hammering home the dread, the sorrow, the sense of detachment and futility of a city on the brink of collapse with no saviour in sight. Gotham is under siege in ways that tonally and visually recall 9/11; what is obviously the island of Manhattan gets cut off from the outside world at one point. Rather than seeming exploitative, it’s just one of many examples of the script from Nolan and his usual collaborator, his brother Jonathan, making the franchise feel like a relevant reflection of our times. Identity theft, economic collapse and an uprising of the disgruntled, disenfranchised have-nots against the smug, comfy haves also come into play.
There’s so much going on here, though, with so many new characters who are all meant to function in significant ways that The Dark Knight Rises feels overloaded, and sadly lacking the spark that gave 2008’s The Dark Knight such vibrancy. The absence of Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the anarchic and truly frightening Joker, is really obvious here. It retrospect, it makes you realise how crucial Ledger’s performance was in making that Batman movie fly.
By comparison, The Dark Knight Rises is plot-heavy, obsessed with process, laden with expository dialogue and flashbacks that bog down the momentum and — dare I say it? — just flat-out boring at times. Yes, the Batman world through Nolan’s eyes is supposed to be moody and introspective; you’ve got to admire the fact that he is willing to challenge us this way when summer blockbusters so often feel flashy and hollow. And yet at the same time, it takes some giant leaps with its characters which either make no sense, haven’t earned the emotions they’re seeking, or both.
The Dark Knight Rises does feature the kind of impeccable production values we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s films; many members of his core team are back, including cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh. The Dark Knight Rises feels weighty and substantive — and, thankfully, isn’t in 3D — but it takes on an even grittier look than its predecessors as Gotham City devolves into desperation and ruin.
But Nolan’s approach is so coldly cerebral that it’s a detriment to the film’s emotional core. It’s all doom and gloom and no heart. There is no reason to care about these characters, who function more as cogs in an elaborate, chaotic machine than as real people whose souls are at stake.
Several new characters manage to draw Bruce out of his funk in various ways. Anne Hathaway brings some much needed zest to the proceedings as Selina Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman in the Batman universe, a slinky thief who punctures Bruce’s bubble when she lifts his fingerprints from his safe, along with a beloved pearl necklace. She’s selfish and cynical, only looking out for herself, but at least she goes about her crimes with some verve and style. They never call her Catwoman by name, and she’s never as campy as Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry were in previous film incarnations of the role, but she’s always fun to watch.
The other woman in Bruce’s life, however, is woefully underdeveloped — which is a real problem because she plays a key role in the film’s climactic revelations. Marion Cotillard co-stars as Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist who hopes to work with Wayne Enterprises on developing clean, sustainable energy. The romance that develops between her and Bruce is utterly unbelievable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds a youthful presence as John Blake, an up-and-coming member of the police force who inspires Bruce to revisit his own childhood as an orphan. Gordon-Levitt is as solid as always but there’s not much to his character aside from earnestness.
Then there’s Bane, a muscular mass of pure evil who orchestrates an elaborate takeover of Gotham City. The role is a huge waste of what Tom Hardy can do; his character is so one-dimensional and poorly defined, he’s never so much a fearsome figure as a large and hulking one. Hardy can be sexy and charismatic but also a dangerous and unpredictable figure. None of that is on display here. He’s all brute force.
But he is the instigator of the film’s dazzling opening sequence, worthy of the best of James Bond: a daring aerial manoeuver in which Bane kidnaps a scientist by hijacking his plane from the skies above. That’s probably the most effective of the many set-pieces.
This is the problem when you’re an exceptional, visionary filmmaker. When you give people something extraordinary, they expect it every time. Anything short of that feels like a letdown.
Christy Lemire (AP)