Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises completes two different trilogies this summer. It is, of course, the third film after Batman Begins (05) and The Dark Knight (08), but it also follows, and serves to anchor, the season’s superhero must-see films, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man.
As part of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan’s latest reaches back to the first film as well as continuing the storylines from the second, addresses character questions and issues more than satisfactorily, and plays out themes to well-thought-out conclusions. You could happily watch all three together as a unified whole. As far as the summer’s Comic Book Geek cup-runneth-over fest is concerned, you could look at it this way: The Amazing Spider-Man is the film for the pure kid in you, The Avengers is the film for the know-it-all teenager in you, and The Dark Knight Rises is for the comic-book-loving grown-up in you.
The film picks up eight years after Batman (Christian Bale) has taken on the role of fugitive accepting the blame for Harvey Dent’s death, with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) complicit in the lie. In the meantime, Bruce Wayne has holed up in his manor like a slightly better groomed Howard Hughes with a limp, and Gordon’s conscience has steadily eaten away at him. Just as Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) emotionally implores him to begin living his life again, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) enters the picture, and warns Wayne of “a storm coming” to shake up the lives of Gotham’s wealthy and privileged.
That storm will come in the person of Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking masked man, and the latest member of The League of Shadows with a plan to lay waste to Gotham City. Born in a prison, he escaped as a child but sustained injuries so severe that he must wear a mask that looks like a dog’s bite guard which continually pumps painkillers into his system allowing him to carry on with his super-terrorist plans.
Hardy’s Bane does not approach the wild-card level of insanity that galvanized The Dark Knight. But by design, he is a brutal villain as opposed to a wicked villain. And Nolan delivers a gift to the fanboys by recreating an iconic Bane vs. Batman moment from the DC Comics series during one of their epic battles. However that gift is slightly balanced in a not-so-great way, after following online criticism that an early teaser made Bane difficult to understand, he now sounds as if he’s speaking through a megaphone, stuck on a hammy vaguely English setting.
As far as Selina Kyle is concerned—don’t call her Catwoman, because the movie never will—she more than makes a suitable match for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. Hathaway delivers a performance that mixes a cutthroat out-for-number-one ruthlessness with just enough humanity under the surface to allow the possibility that her “villain” persona could be redeemed. However, as with everything else in the film, that possibility is no sure thing. Selina Kyle also points out a moral hurdle that Nolan doesn’t quite clear with his more adult-minded treatment of the Batman universe: she is willing to kill their would-be killers, even as Batman refuses to. It is one of those moments when a character echoes a problem that is likely occurring to more than a few audience members (and the conclusion is a little awkward in this case).
A couple of new characters are also introduced to this Batman universe: Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a new board member at Wayne Enterprises with a romantic interest in Bruce Wayne that matches her financial interest in the good he’s trying to do with his company; and John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a street cop who was reared in an orphanage supported by Wayne and believes in the goodness and heroism of the Batman legend.
Clocking in at more than two and a half hours, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot to work through as Batman/Wayne is brought to the brink following his first encounter with Bane and must find his way back both physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to thwart Bane’s plans and save Gotham from total annihilation. But the run time is justified as the film satisfyingly ties together so many story strands and themes from the prior two installments as well as those introduced in this one.
The Dark Knight Rises is a much larger-scale epic than your typical filmed comic-book saga. But that larger scale is reflected more in its themes as opposed to geography, even when contemplating blowing an entire city the size of New York off the map. In the big picture, the film references the enduring class struggle of the “99 percent and the 1 percent,” while at a more intimate level, it touches on how three different men (Gordon, Wayne Enterprises exec Lucius Fox, and Alfred) have taken over for Bruce Wayne’s father.
In fact, the three actors playing those roles (Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine) might have been my favorite part of the film, especially Caine. Regardless of all the “cool toys” like the Bat-Pod or the jet/helicopter called simply “The Bat,” the film needs a beating heart, and Caine delivers that in a big way. Ultimately, the film gives a sobering grown-up take on the central question on the mind of every film of this kind: what it is, what it means, and what it takes to be a hero.