Christopher Nolan continues to plumb the psychological depths of the Batman universe with The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in his critically acclaimed franchise. Following Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), two films that perfectly encapsulate American post-9/11 angst, The Dark Knight Rises turns the focus on the guilt that our characters face after the events of the previous films. The caped protector of Gotham City is gone while the now reclusive Bruce Wayne remains literally hobbled by the weight of his city’s sins, only to Rise as the Dark Knight when the balance of power is once again threatened. Forces that symbolize proletariat anarchy clash with forces that symbolize bourgeois wealth while Batman remains philosophically somewhere in the middle.
What makes Nolan’s Batman series the greatest superhero franchise of all-time is not just his ability to add a layer of psychological depth or mirror current socio-political climate. Nolan’s operatic saga offers big-budget filmmaking at its finest with memorable set pieces, realistic depictions of violence, and fully fleshed out characters. Director of Photography Wally Pfister has the audacity to hold the camera still for extended action scenes that employ so much cinematic imagination that every sense of the viewer is aroused. The Dark Knight Rises is loud and tightly structured with heart-stopping action that will undoubtedly captivate even the staunchest of superhero skeptics.
The film picks up eight years after the fall of Harvey Dent in a Gotham that reveres the late District Attorney and loathes the vigilante Batman who they believe destroyed him. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) remains secluded in his expansive manor while his corporation crumbles under financial strain. Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struggles with knowing the truth about Dent, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) attempts to keep the Wayne Corporation afloat, and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine) wants Bruce to abandon the notion of Batman and settle down to safety. Meanwhile several new characters want Mr. Wayne to come out of retirement for various reasons. Entrepreneur Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is interested in Wayne’s fusion energy project, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) seeks information on the billionaire for a mysterious employer, police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is Batman’s biggest fan and hopes he defends the city once again, and Deputy Police Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) wants Batman gone altogether. Most ominous is the masked villain Bane (Tom Hardy) and his army of mercenaries who seek to restore Gotham to the people in the most violent way possible.
This library of characters seems like a daunting list, but Nolan masterfully intertwines each narrative with remarkable economy, giving us just enough of each to be fully satisfying. The scene-within-a-scene trickery of his previous effort, Inception, was a nice warm-up for the complex narrative threads in The Dark Knight Rises as Nolan takes us from one part of the world to another in the span of minutes. The expository scenes create such momentum that only builds throughout, making every cut to a different character feel like it comes at exactly right moment. With a running time of 164 minutes, the movie does not feel a second longer than necessary.
Nolan addresses the deadlocked partisanship that overwhelms the United States by presenting different situations that represent both Conservative and Liberal nightmares. Bane is like Occupy Wall Street gone wild as his army literally pulls the one percent from their homes and dumps them on the street. The Gotham that results, however, is equally unjust with a recognizable character acting as judge, jury, and executioner to any party that opposes the ways of the new society. Batman can only put the world right by taking down the forces on separate extremes and allowing the system to operate somewhere in the middle.
Fitting with the film’s theme of balance is Nolan’s ability to contrast enormous action set pieces with more intimate moments of conflict. A one-on-one fist fight between Batman and Bane that occurs halfway through the film reflects their confrontation in the film’s climax amidst hundreds of police officers and mercenaries. A dramatic scene between Alfred and Bruce feels like it has equally high stakes as the massive takeover of Gotham by Bane and his army. Despite the expansive conflict and political symbolism in the movie, the story is ultimately a personal one for Bruce Wayne and the various supporting characters.
Each of the actors is certainly up to this task. Unlike The Dark Knight where Heath Ledger stole every other scene, there is no single performance here that dominates. Michael Caine’s desperation will most tug at the heart strings, but he is not in enough of the movie to own it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are superb additions with the former adding a completely fascinating subplot and the latter providing some of the film’s only light moments. Gary Oldman proves his versatility once again and Christian Bale remains the most interesting actor to have ever played Batman. Matthew Modine redeems himself in a performance that at first seems like a deflating cliché. Tom Hardy is a little harder to critique because of the physical restrictions of the performance. His dialogue was clearly added in post-production and makes him sound a little bit like the voice of God.
Hans Zimmer, whose name has now become synonymous with deep, loud music, provides the score that never ceases during the film’s running time. There are a few brief moments of silence, wherein you may find yourself holding your breath until the brass once again lets out a relieving boom. Zimmer’s score would only work for a movie like The Dark Knight Rises as it only serves to enhance the spectacle on screen.
There are a few minor flaws in Nolan’s movie, like the addition of a flying Batmobile that detracts from the realism by defying gravity a bit too effortlessly. However, when the film reaches its delightfully open-ended conclusion, one cannot help but feel winded by the entire experience. This is what people are referring to when they use the term “movie magic” as Nolan’s sweeping series could only work as a piece of cinema. This is the type of movie experience that brings the audience together and makes one of the finest arguments for big Hollywood blockbusters that modern film may ever see.
Bottom Line: Go see The Dark Knight Rises for the spectacle and stick around for the substance.