You know a movie’s a big deal when the handful of critics who give it less than glowing reviews start receiving death threats.
Such was the case with “The Dark Knight Rises”, the impatiently awaited and mostly dazzling final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Who knew film criticism was such a high-risk job?
Mentally unstable movie buffs aside, the passion greeting the release of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20 is understandable. Starting with 2005’s “Batman Begins”, Nolan heroically swooped in to reinvent the franchise, ditching the expressionistic flourishes of Tim Burton’s take on the DC Comics figure, as well as the sheer camp Joel Schumacher had steered the material into (protruding Batsuit nipples and all). The London-born director, then best known for his anti-chronological thriller “Memento”, did something unusual: he brought the Batman/Bruce Wayne myth down to earth.
Nolan’s three Batman films indeed amount to a somber interpretation of the “Caped Crusader”, mixing noir-ish elements with a startling realism. Batman, in Nolan’s vision, is no high-flying, magical power-flaunting superhero, but a painstakingly trained ninja protected by hand-crafted armor and wielding homemade gadgets. As played by Christian Bale, this Batman may be a fierce fighter, but his feet are often planted firmly on the ground and his mind is full of plausible anxieties, both existential and socio-political. Whereas “The Dark Knight”, the trilogy’s brilliant second installment, used America’s post-9/11 “war on terror” as a subtext, “The Dark Knight Rises” is set against the economic crisis, with Gotham City sharply divided into haves and have-nots.
The new film is not as breathless or bruising an experience as the previous one, lacking its almost Shakespearian gravity and especially the wild streak provided by Heath Ledger’s indelible Joker. But “The Dark Knight Rises” is a stunning entertainment in its own right: furiously paced, full of powerfully staged action and emotional nuance, and performed with great heart by a cast featuring faces both familiar and new.
Anne Hathaway, an intriguing ‘Catwoman’
One of those new faces, hidden behind a mask, belongs to the latest bad guy to hit the town: the sadistic Bane (played by Tom Hardy), who uses his muscle-bound physique and growling, gravelly voice (achieved through creepy sound distortion) to rouse Gotham’s poor into rebellion (think Occupy Wall Street meets the Tea Party). Two fresh female characters also help stir Bruce/Batman from the self-imposed exile he’s in at the film’s start: Marion Cotillard’s philanthropist Miranda Tate and Anne Hathaway’s Selena Kyle, otherwise known - but never named - as Catwoman.
Hathaway, in a delightful performance, plays Selena as a slinky survivor who follows her own ethical code – and whose hard exterior shows cracks of empathy and vulnerability the closer she gets to Bruce/Batman. Their relationship – initially built on mutual need, and then perhaps on something deeper - is one of the film’s great pleasures. Bruce and Selena begin by pushing each other’s buttons (their slow dance at a masked ball is a master class in erotically charged menace), but Nolan coaxes their connection toward more intriguing territory. The filmmaker has always been drawn to ambiguity, and these two live their lives in a grey area that defies clear-cut definitions of good and evil: Bruce’s noble instincts are tinged with a destructive vigilantism, while Selena’s individualism is not as ruthless as she thinks it is. They balance each other out.
The other newcomer is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who turns what might have been a bland good cop character into a dashing, resourceful moral touchstone.
Michael Caine (as Bruce’s loyal butler, Alfred), Morgan Freeman (as Wayne Enterprises head Lucius Fox), and Gary Oldman (as the upstanding Police Commissioner Gordon) all slip back into their sympathetic roles comfortably.
A triumph of big-budget filmmaking
“The Dark Knight Rises” is hardly a seamless piece of work. Compared to the Joker, with his grab bag of scathing moods, sadistic mind games, and irony-infused monologues, Bane is a rather one-note villain. The film’s middle section sags just enough to make you wish Nolan had chopped about 15 minutes from the nearly three-hour running time. And some expository, dialogue-based scenes are filmed in a rather flat, shot-countershot style, giving the impression that the director was taking a break between set pieces.
But what set pieces! From an opening that has Bane disposing of a plane full of hostages to a football field that explodes – and implodes – mid-game, Nolan’s sequences of violence and chaos have a propulsive rhythm and a pounding, visceral impact (several were shot using high-resolution Imax cameras, increasing the size of the frame and the scope of the action). His direction of fight scenes has also gained in coherence over the course of the trilogy, with Nolan pulling his camera back this time to let us better see who’s hitting whom, and how.
Christopher Nolan Filmography
"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)
"The Dark Knight" (2008)
"The Prestige" (2006)
"Batman Begins" (2005)
Beyond its technical prowess, however, “The Dark Knight Rises” succeeds where Nolan’s plot-heavy, borderline-incomprehensible “Inception” (2010) failed; it is forceful, visionary big-budget filmmaking that feels obsessive and personal, but also resonates with tensions that are genuinely, not glibly, topical. Nolan’s Batman movies are not just about the journey of one man toward self-knowledge; they’re also about a scarred country’s struggle to position itself along a slippery, increasingly opaque spectrum of right and wrong.
Raising as many questions as it answers (including those about potential spin-offs and follow-ups), “The Dark Knight Rises” brings the series to a haunting, fittingly ambiguous conclusion. All good things come to an end, indeed.