Review: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ closes out Nolan’s trilogy with brains and bombast

“Are you so desperate to fight criminals that you’d lock yourself in so you can fight them one at a time?” – Ra’s Al Ghul

So began “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film.  At the time, it felt unlike any film ever attempted with these characters, and strikingly different from superhero cinema in general.

This trilogy is exactly that:  three films that work as one, a story told in three movements, and with “The Dark Knight Rises,” it seems that Nolan has finished out his time with this icon in the only way he could based on where it began.  I would argue that his so-called “real world” approach has never been particularly realistic, but it has always felt plausible based on the rules that he establishes for his world.  The first film starts with an angry billionaire climbing a mountain so he can join a ninja death cult.  That’s not exactly Errol Morris.  But there is a sincerity, a sober direct quality to the way the fantastic is handled, that makes it all feel like it could happen, and that’s an enormous gift that should not be discounted.

Look at the imagery in “Batman Begins” of Bruce looking up from the bottom of the well he fell into, the well he is rescued from by his father, who asks him, “Why do we fall, Bruce?  So we can pick ourselves up.”  Then look at the imagery in “The Dark Knight Rises” of Bruce looking up from the bottom of a prison where he finds himself at a physical and emotional low during a second-act stretch of the film.  They look identical.  Bruce spends his whole life confronting the things that he fears.  His mission to make Gotham safe is selfish from start to finish, a personal journey towards either destruction or salvation with no acceptable middle ground.  The moment his mother and father are gunned down in that alley, he is on the path that will eventually bring him face to face with Bane (Tom Hardy), and it is a preordained Apocalypse.  The moment Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) comforts that boy with a jacket around his shoulders, he is also locked into the dance, caught up in this fate.  The moment Lucius Fox turns on the lights in the Applied Sciences storage rooms, he’s caught.  For Rachel, for Harvey Dent, for Alfred Pennyworth… for everyone in Bruce Wayne’s orbit, there is only one way this story can possibly play out once Bruce is damaged in the first place.  The clock has always been ticking for Bruce Wayne.  The shadow of death hangs over this entire series, and while I think it is a great film, an impressive film, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a film I cannot easily describe in terms of fun.

Some people want fun from their comic book characters, and I don’t fault them for that.  There are incarnations of Batman, both in print and on film, that I think perfectly mine the potential fun from the premise.  Nolan wasn’t after that, though.  Instead, he decided to explore the madness that would drive anyone to wear a rubber suit and face death every night, and what it would take to heal someone so profoundly broken.  And by following that one idea through these three films, he’s created my own personal favorite interpretation of the character on film so far.  Is it the ultimate Batman, the best anyone can ever do?  Nope.  I’m not sure there could be such a thing.  One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the character is that it’s so limber, and it can survive re-interpretation for many reasons and in many ways.

Jonathan Nolan and his brother are co-credited with the script, and David Goyer shares a story credit, and I’m curious to see what people think of the tale they’ve crafted.  It is the most overtly comic-book of the three films, and I think when you look at this one and you see how it ties the three films together, you’ll agree that this is not out of line with what came before, but rather a logical extension.  It may also be the least subtle of the three films, but I think that’s okay.  These movies aren’t really about quiet discourse.  These are big, broad, bombastic statements, and each one has grappled with a different theme while tracing the development of Bruce Wayne’s bizarre obsession.  In the first film, Bruce had to find the method he would use to fight the darkness.  In the second film, he had to deal with the escalating madness that erupted from his efforts.  And now, in this final film, he has to decide which is more important:  his life, or the symbol he has created.

And before anyone yells at me about ruining anything, I’m being exceptionally careful here.  I’ll be running a “Second Look” piece, as I did with “Prometheus” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” once the film has been out for a few days, and at that point, we can discuss all the details in the film.  For now, I’ll just say that “The Prestige” remains the most personal film of Nolan’s career, a mission statement of sorts, and even if you think you’ve got “The Dark Knight Rises” figured out based on things you’ve heard, you probably don’t.  Considering how familiar so many of these films are in terms of story structure, I loved the feeling when I reached the halfway point of this film and realized I had no idea how they were going to wrap things up.  And even once things started to fall into place and things start to take on a certain inevitability, it is done with such control, such confidence, that there is a pleasure that comes from watching it all play out.

One of the things that has made this series work has been the casting of pretty much every key role, and that continues here.  Anne Hathaway’s interpretation of Selina Kyle, known best as Catwoman to most fans, is indelible, a strong and savvy match for Bruce Wayne, and instead of just being a flip-side mirror to him as she often is portrayed, she is instead presented here as the masked and angry face of the forgotten and the poor, justified in whatever she does because of the way life has treated her.  She would have been enough of a character to support an entire film, but Nolan uses her as one part of the thesis of the movie, with Bane, the strange terrorist played by Tom Hardy, as the blunt instrument that drives the point home.  Bane’s plan to bring Gotham to its knees is elaborate and, once revealed, somewhat horrifying.  He is not simply a rehash of the Joker, who was more of a force of chaos than anything.  Bane is evil.  He is unrelenting, unquestioning, destructive evil.  He has no goal other than pain and horror and death, and he represents the first truly irresistible force that Batman has encountered. 

Matthew Modine appears in this one, and he plays a sort of street’s eye view character, someone whose importance might seem out of proportion at first because you recognize the actor.  But that’s not the point.  It’s not some stunt casting to tie in some obscure character from issue #137 of “Detective Comics” or whatever.  I assume Nolan cast Modine because he’s really good at what he does, and he’s just a normal cop caught in the middle of this… well, let’s call it what it is… this completely absolutely insane city-wrecking wrestling match between a demonic masked cult leader and a guy in a Batsuit made of body armor.  And putting a face on that normal cop, and taking the time out of a two hour and forty-something minute movie… that’s part of what appealed to me about this entire approach.

Another new cast member is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, who also provides a normal person’s view, but with a broader perspective on the events of the first two films, since he was a young man growing up in Gotham during the ascent of the Batman.  He is a cop now, a sincerely good officer who catches the attention of Jim Gordon (Oldman), just as Gordon is struggling to cope with the emotional guilt of the lie that he and Batman told eight years earlier at the death of Harvey Dent.  Batman’s been gone that entire time, and Blake wants to understand what happened and why, and he believes Gordon has those answers.  Marion Cotillard is also a new addition to the cast as Miranda Tate, and she seems to represent a new opportunity for Bruce to connect to someone, a chance for him to build a life outside of Gotham.  She does strong work with a tough role, and she has several moments that are impressively nuanced.

Gotham has always been a major character in the Nolan films, and that’s true here as well.  As appropriate as “The Dark Knight Rises” ends up being as a title, I think “Gotham City” would have been equally fitting.  Using numerous cities to stand in as Gotham is clever, because it ends up feeling like every city, even though it has several characteristics that don’t tie to any one location.  In this film, the city becomes the final battle ground for Bruce Wayne’s soul, his body, and his sanity, and he is pushed harder than ever before.  Nolan seems to believe that a lie in service of something good is still a lie, and it’s been festering.  Every bad decision Bruce Wayne has made since the start of this series comes back to haunt him in this film, and fans would be advised to watch both of the earlier films to see how everything ties together.  Bale’s performance here is miles different than his work in either of the other films.  In “Batman Begins,” there is a boyish inexperience, and I like the material where he’s figuring out this new identity for himself.  Even though “The Dark Knight” is very dark at times, there’s an exuberance to Bruce as he comes into his own, and he seems driven, pleased to have found a purpose.  In this film, a sorrow has settled onto him, and even when he is suited up and in action, he barely seems like a shadow of the man he used to be.  He’s rotting from the inside, knowing full well what his actions have cost the people around him.  He is dying because of the loss of Rachel in “The Dark Knight,” and he doesn’t seem to know how he can heal at all.  The end of the first film, when Rachel confronts him about his identity, offers Bruce his one way out of things, and much of “The Dark Knight” deals with his struggle to take that escape route and what happens when it’s taken from him forever.  In this new film, he has no more hope, no more heart, and it makes him just as dangerous as Bane, but to himself more than anyone else.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman have become the de facto fathers to Bruce at this point, and their work as Alfred and Lucius in this film is just as strong as it’s been throughout the series.  I really like the way these characters have been defined in the films, and I think these actors have done tremendous work bringing warmth and heart to roles that could easily have been excuses for exposition.  And if you’re looking for bastions of class and dignity to be mentor figures, you couldn’t do much better than those two.  Oldman is excellent as the tormented Gordon, and at this point, I don’t care how he does or doesn’t compare to earlier print versions of the character.  This Jim Gordon intrigues me, and it’s a real role, with a complex heart.  He loses at least as much as Bruce over the course of the series, and he does it without the safety of a secret identity or the resources of the Batman.  He may see himself as morally compromised, but the film definitely sees him as a human scaled hero.

The technical side of things is sharper than ever before, and if this really is the last film that Wally Pfister shoots, he’s going out in style.  Even more of this film was shot with IMAX cameras than “The Dark Knight,” and it makes for some breathtaking visual moments that match the emotional impact of the film’s operatic final act.  Hans Zimmer’s work here is brutal, percussive, borderline crazy.  It feels like things are starting to shake to pieces, like the entire world is about to implode.  I found the final movement of the film, a good thirty minutes or so, almost unbearably emotional, and I think it may be the best stretch in any of the films.  There are some logic issues I have with parts of the film, and we’ll get into those in the “Second Look,” but there is a clean, uncompromised emotional arc that steamrolls those problems for me, and I think the film more than fulfills the promise made by the first two films.

We may never see superhero films quite like these again, and that’s fine.  Nolan had something special to say with his time in the trenches, and he’s ended on his own terms.  I suspect that the reaction to the film will be hotly divided, but I’m firmly on the side that this is a triumph, a victory for all involved, and one of the year’s most impressive efforts so far in any genre, on any subject.  “The Dark Knight Rises” confirms that these films have always had an endgame in mind, and it has been a remarkable ride, one I would not want to follow.  Whoever Warner Bros hires to reboot the “Batman” films a few years from now, I wish you luck.  The bar is as high as it could possibly be.

“The Dark Knight Rises” everywhere on July 20, 2012.