In many ways, Christopher Nolan had set himself up for a fall with his Dark Knight trilogy; no director had ever had a third crack at Batman. Coupled with the phenomenal critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, then following it up without the late Heath Ledger and the biggest stars of Batman’s rogues gallery already used up was a tall order. That Nolan has been able to round off his vision for this group of characters and give each one an appropriate send-off is a triumph enough; that it’s an engrossing, epic and thoroughly enjoyable experience at almost three hours in length is even better. And to top it all off, it’s an awesome representation of one of the biggest superheroes of all time. Tidy.
The Dark Knight Rises is a more important film than its predecessor, no doubt about it. The Dark Knight was all about seeing how far things could be pushed after the success of Batman Begins. Characters, setting, tone and Bat-related support had all been established, now it was time to see how far they could be stretched. TDKR has to react to that in the sense that there were expectations that had to be met in terms of scale, antagonists and threat. Couple that with Nolan confirming this was his Batman swansong, a fitting end had to be constructed. It all begins by keeping the focus away from the cowl, with Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile shaken by the monstrous terrorist, Bane, his attacks on Gotham and the apparent bankrupting of Wayne Enterprises. With Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman)in hospital after a Bane-related attack, and the city crumbling, Bruce’s apathy is smashed long enough for him to don his costume once more. But after eight long years spent mourning the death of Rachel Dawes at the hands of Joker, and with his body ravaged from years of fighting his endless battle against crime, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the strength to overcome Bane and his army of mercenaries.
What Nolan does spectacularly, albeit slowly, is up the ante. As mentioned, Bruce is trapped very firmly within Wayne Manor as the film opens and doesn’t seem willing to escape his mourning. Gotham is still mourning Harvey Dent, and the secret behind his death is slowly consuming Gordon. This allows Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (never mentioned by name) and Tom Hardy’s Bane to initiate their own plans for taking over Gotham whilst Bruce gears himself up for yet further fisticuffs. With Gordon out of picture, it’s down to the emergence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic good-guy cop John Blake to help lead the Police charge, which swaps the authority role quite nicely for a good chunk of proceedings. Michael Caine gives a far meatier turn as Alfred with his total opposition to Bruce’s re-emergence as Batman offering up several highly charged scenes, whilst Morgan Freeman successfully if unspectacularly reprises his Lucius Fox role.
As with The Dark Knight, the antagonists do provide some big hooks to the experience. It’s no great shock that Catwoman toes the line between crafty burglar and Batman’s ally, but she appears capable of kicking butt in a much more hard-hitting fashion than previous incarnations. Nolan’s reimagining of Bane from the goliath Mexican wrestler of comic lore to the intelligent, resourceful and ruthless revolutionary provides a seminal take on the character, offering Batman his biggest physical test on film to date. As such, their fight scenes are awesome to behold, both highly charged, emotional and brutal. Bane’s plans for Gotham are more elaborate, calculating and more focussed than Joker’s in The Dark Knight, making him much more malevolent even if not quite as engrossing as the clown prince of crime. Hardy does a wonderful job of projecting Bane’s authority even with a mask, thanks to some smart work with his facial expressions (what you can see of his face, anyway) and an oddly regal but commanding, articulate voice. And then you’ve got Christian Bale, offering up his strongest turn in the Batman role. He takes both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego through hell and back, offering up more power, command and humanity to contend with the character’s biggest challenge yet.
Without wanting to divulge too much of what is a quite intricate and detailed plot, Nolan has managed to do a lot right with TDKR’s long story; offering Batman a credible, physical adversary, plunging Gotham into its bleakest moments yet, casting a group of actors capable of carrying this tale to its conclusion and offering necessary endings for each of these big characters.
The easy criticisms for the film stem from its tone, which is admittedly quite bleak and laced with little shade. Criticising such a stylistic choice feels somewhat pointless when the stakes are considered; Batman and Gotham City are facing its biggest threat yet, and for that to be believable, the tone has to be dark, and perhaps somewhat suffocating. Contrary to some reviews, it isn’t humourless, it rightly doesn’t overdo it in the laugh department. Those looking for greater depth in that field can always bugger off and watch Batman & Robin instead.
Could the film be a bit shorter? For the story Nolan’s trying to end, probably not. He makes some bold moves, but makes the odd misstep within those decisions; a visual representation of Alfred’s described dream of seeing Bruce happily wed having never returned to Gotham was utterly unnecessary, and appeared to suggest his audience had no imagination. TDKR connects with some big points from Batman Begins, so the level of flashbacks and references to the trilogy’s beginning is understandable but handled in such a way that it too becomes a distraction and a detriment. Also, for a series so rooted in Gotham’s salvation, there’s so little time spent with the citizens at the mercy of the film’s villain.
These aren’t major gripes, because Nolan has managed to do a huge amount right with this saga’s conclusion. There are plenty of nerdgasm-inducing moments for the die-hards to latch onto, the scale of Gotham’s terror is unreal and, most importantly, there’s a solid ending for the most important superhero film series of our time.