The Dark Knight Rises
Director : Christopher Nolan
Screenplay : Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Tom Hardy (Bane), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake), Anne Hathaway (Selina), Marion Cotillard (Miranda), Morgan Freeman (Fox), Michael Caine (Alfred), Matthew Modine (Foley), Alon Moni Aboutboul (Dr. Pavel), Ben Mendelsohn (Daggett), Burn Gorman (Stryver), Daniel Sunjata (Captain Jones)
Shrouded in both astronomical fan expectations and unexpected real-world tragedy, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final entry in his acclaimed Batman trilogy, is nothing if not grandly ambitious, the filmmaker’s bold, sometimes unwieldy statement on how familiar comic book characters can be cinematically reinvigorated both socially and aesthetically. Drawing from both the Dickensian class warfare of A Tale of Two Cities and the recent turmoil surrounding economic meltdown and the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement, Nolan’s film is socially prescient and stirring, frequently exhilarating, but ultimately exhausting in its almost overwhelming desire to do everything the series does best, but bigger and bolder. Lacking the intensely focused edge of its immediate predecessor The Dark Knight (2008) and the initial thrill of reimagination that fueled Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight Rises toys dangerously with bombast and overkill, coming close to the edge but never quite slipping over.
The story picks up eight years after the events in The Dark Knight, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) having retired his Batman alter ego after taking the fall for the murderous deeds of white-knight-district-attorney-gone-bad Harvey Dent, whose sterling reputation as an incorruptible crime fighter was left unmolested to stand as a new symbol for Gotham. The ploy seems to have worked, as Gotham’s crime rate has fallen while its economy soared; Wayne, meanwhile, his work as a symbol for justice having been accomplished, sinks into Howard Hughes-like seclusion in Wayne Manor. But, as history repeatedly shows, times of peace and prosperity are never eternal, and dark forces emerge once again to upset the balance, this time in the hulking form of a partially masked mercenary known as Bane (Tom Hardy), whose army of thugs set up in Gotham’s sewer system before literally taking over the city by fostering a twisted, bottom-up revolution pitting the have-nots against the haves. It’s a canny subject for an Obama-era blockbuster, feeding equally into rightwing fears of the unwashed mashes and leftwing anger at the dominance of the much loathed one-percent. Nolan has said that Batman Begins was about fear, The Dark Knight was about chaos, and The Dark Knight Rises is about pain; thus, the series as a whole effectively mines the psychological, the sociological, and the physical in crafting a wide-ranging post-9/11 fable about the interplay of humanity’s best and worst tendencies.
Moreso than the previous films, Nolan (again scripting with his brother Jonathan) spreads the narrative focus across a wide gallery of characters. The center is still held by Bale’s Bruce Wayne, who is depicted as a heroic burn-out living in seclusion and gradually finding his way back to the world via his crusading alter ego; without a role to play, he disappears into the shadows of his enormous (and, as it turns out, impermanent) wealth. Wayne is surrounded by surrogates and doppelgangers, although there are so many of them that the connections feel thin at times, lacking the intensity of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight. Obsessed with father figures, the film gives us both Wayne’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine), his surrogate father and guiding conscience, who steps away when perhaps he is needed most, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), the series’ ode to hardworking, honest decency (it is no surprise that he was the first person to comfort Wayne as a child when his parents were gunned down, a scene that Rises smartly replays). Gordon is complimented by Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an earnest young police detective who believes in what Batman stands for and refuses to submit to the mediocrity embodied by Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine), Gordon’s second-in-command who is more posturing politician than law enforcer. Wayne confronts the essence of his old, pre-Batman self in Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cynical master jewel thief to whom he feels deeply drawn as both Wayne and Batman. As Wayne wanted nothing more than simple vengeance against his parents’ killer before finding a higher calling, Selina is invested only in herself and uses her hardened life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to justify stealing from those who can afford to lose what she takes.
“There’s a storm coming,” she warns Wayne at one point, which foreshadows the arrival of Bane in Gotham. Part mercenary, part terrorist, part horror-movie freak, Bane is a frightening (and fascinating) conceit whose concepts of social justice are the modern-day equivalent of the French Revolution’s rows of guillotines (instead of chopping off the heads of royalty, he guns down Wall Street sharks at the Stock Exchange and detonates football fields). Unlike the Joker, who just wanted to see the world burn, Bane has a vicious political agenda, which he enacts with force and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Tom Hardy, one of today’s most intriguing, charismatic, and physical actors, literally disappears behind Bane’s H.R. Giger-like face mask, which covers his nose and mouth with a series of alien-finger-like metal tubes that give the impression of a maw in constant shriek. His eyes still burn brightly, though, and when we hear his strangely accented, heavily filtered voice, it seems to be coming from some dark place deep inside him. He has a backstory that is slowly revealed throughout the film, but in some ways the more we know about him, the less interesting he becomes. Nevertheless, he still provides a philosophically incisive counterpoint to Batman, albeit essentially the same one that Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) provided two movies ago in championing the destruction of a corrupt society rather than fighting for its redemption. The one-on-one showdown between Batman and Bane in Gotham’s sewer is the film’s physical, bone-crunching high point and a crucial narrative pivot point, as it requires Wayne to literally resurrect himself from the aftermath, thus replaying the tenuous pleasures of his physical training and hardening in Batman Begins.
Befitting its extended social and political canvas, the action in The Dark Knight Rises is also inflated to massive, IMAX-worthy proportions, with Gotham City becoming a literal warzone as Batman and the city’s police face off against the army of thugs Bane has mobilized to upend the social order. Nolan orchestrates the action with familiar aplomb, riding the razor thin line between the thrilling and the incoherent while maintaining enough semblance of physical reality to keep the film from devolving into two-dimensional comic-book mayhem (it is this adherence to some approximation of “the real” that tends to separate Nolan’s Batman films from so many other comic book adaptations, at least aesthetically). Nolan is something of a purist, evinced in his shooting and editing entirely on film and resisting the cash-grab allure of 3-D in favor of a nostalgic harkening back to the cinematic past (he has cited both Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago as major influences here). For all of its socio-political subtext, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately plays on all the pressure points of good ol’ fashioned storytelling, which makes it ironic that some critics see the series as being too heavily laced with cynicism and nihilism, both of which are undoubtedly present in various characters, but neither of which is celebrated nor rewarded. At the conclusion of this trilogy, open-ended though it may be, there is no doubt about the final message: fear, chaos, and pain do not have to rule our world.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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