If The Dark Knight Rises is truly Christopher Nolan’s last Batman film, this is a hell of a way for the series to go out. While this third chapter isn’t as cogent a political statement as The Dark Knight and doesn’t offer anything as pure as the terror of the abyss that we found there, it gives us a more varied palette and ties up loose ends that were left hanging as far back as Batman Begins. It’s all so very, very clever. Oh, and it’s a pretty good action-thriller, too. So there’s that.
The story picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, with Gotham City a more peaceful place after Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes and the city, inspired by Dent’s unsullied legacy as a martyr, found the will to lock up all the mobsters. Now Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives as a recluse, shattered by the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes. However, he’s forced to take Batman out of hiding because of Bane (Tom Hardy), a giant, muscular, masked warrior who leads an armed uprising against the city. Bane claims to be leading a proletarian revolution against Gotham’s corrupt rich people, but deeper motives and alliances lie concealed.
The low, steady drumbeat of suspense in this movie will be familiar to everyone who’s watched Nolan’s other films. What’s not so familiar is the emotional power that this movie wields as Bruce and his allies face up to the lies they’ve told and compromises they’ve made over the years. You can see this in an early rupture between Bruce and his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), as the old man desperately tries to pull Bruce out of his personal hell by burning his own relationship with his master. Nolan’s known for gigantic action set pieces, but he pays closer attention to his actors here than in any other film –– the handsome dividends repaid by those actors can be seen in the anguish that Caine projects under the butler’s flinty exterior.
Sequels almost always incorporate new characters, but this movie is notable for having so many fully realized ones without feeling overly stretched. These include a philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) who offers Bruce aid during a corporate takeover of Wayne Enterprises and a glory-chasing deputy police chief (Matthew Modine) who’s more concerned about catching Batman than stopping the insurgents. The most savory turn comes from Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who’s conflicted about her line of work. The lithe and dancerly Hathaway injects a note of grace and delicacy that no other Nolan film has had. The most complex character is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Gotham beat cop who becomes the right-hand man to an incapacitated Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Gordon-Levitt’s understated brilliance enjoys its best showcase in an early scene when Blake confronts Bruce with a surprising piece of information.
Nolan’s action sequences have typically lacked coherence, so it’s good to see that here he has improved markedly in this area. The opening sequence with an airplane breaking apart in midair and the massive coordinated bombings of Gotham during a football game are impressive rather than terrifying, but they’re admirably well executed. We don’t have the elements going missing that we had during even The Dark Knight and Inception’s set pieces. The motorcycle chase after a terrorist attack on Gotham’s stock exchange is cleanly done, as is the scene when Batman and Selina Kyle (strange, I don’t remember anyone calling her “Catwoman”) fight side by side as he extricates her from a bad situation.
The movie raises pertinent questions about Bruce’s position in society; after all, he only gets to be Batman because he’s incredibly wealthy. It also makes hay out of the fact that Bruce’s exertions as Batman have left him with an old man’s body, as we see when Bane administers a frightful beating to Batman midway through the film. This latter element feels appropriate to the winding up of a saga as Bruce prepares, one way or another, to say farewell to his career as the Caped Crusader. The intelligence and seriousness of purpose that Nolan has brought to his Batman adaptations have helped Hollywood make comic-book movies to exacting standards of quality that were unimaginable 20 years ago. The depth of feeling he brings to The Dark Knight Rises raises the bar yet again.
The Dark Knight Rises
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Anne Hathaway. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Rated PG-13.