While Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” may not be the tightly constructed masterwork its predecessor was, it’s a fully rewarding and all encompassing closing chapter to the director’s truly accomplished Batman trilogy. It is a dark, brooding and uncompromising piece of filmmaking that asks bold questions about morality weaving in broader social and cultural relevance that is shocking. No superhero movie has gone to such levels of depravity and hopelessness. Nolan and his team take us there and manage to make “The Avengers” look like child’s play. Pummeling its audience at a whopping 164 minutes full of doom and gloom with only a small circle of light at the end of the tunnel, this grandiose spectacle doesn’t forget its obligation to thrilling comic book entertainment. It delivers. Recalling to mind not only “The Dark Knight” but also “Inception,” the most anticipated movie of the year is the anti-blockbuster blockbuster of our time.
It’s been eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, and the caped crusader Batman has been in recluse ever since. The billionaire behind the mask, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), has been mostly absent, as well. Hiding within the walls of his mansion, Wayne lives in permanent bachelorhood with his lifelong butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). The faithful butler is thankful Wayne has decided to end his Batman days but also longs for him to move on with a new life. There’s been no need for Batman due to his public blame for Dent’s death but also because organized crime in Gotham has nearly been eradicated. That, of course, can only last for so long.
Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a muscled villainous man forced to wear a muzzle-like mask, whose only desire is to watch Gotham destroy itself and turn to ashes. There were sound issues with Bane’s altered voice, and while new sound mixing makes him easier to understand, it’s not perfect. Because the mask doesn’t allow you to see his mouth move, his booming and bass-filled voice feels almost disembodied. And yet, this strange phenomenon works to emphasize Bane’s notion of representing a threat greater than himself. Tom Hardy’s performance here is limited to physical gestures and expression through his eyes, both of which he puts to great effect. The voice he creates, too, is haunting with pseudo-sophisticated inflection and a Darth Vader-esque artificiality.
Now, Heath Ledger’s Joker can’t be beat. His villainous reign of chaos and anarchy in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” echoed the times of post-9/11 and terrorist threats. Bane, however, represents something more abstract: vague references to the occupy Wall Street movement and the financial crisis. For the first time, the city of Manhattan is used to represent Gotham, further eliciting scary topical relevance that Nolan masterfully draws out of the comic book lore. Bane’s plan for Gotham includes two terror-filled set pieces involving an assault on the Stock Exchange and a series of explosions that not only trap the city’s law enforcement underground but cut off Gotham from any outside aid.
There are a handful of new characters with Bane and, of course, returning ones including Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne’s go-to for all updated Batman gadgetry and vehicles, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) who’s always been at the forefront of support for Batman. After Bane crashes the stock market, Wayne Enterprises consequently goes bankrupt. This introduces a wealthy board member named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to take the reigns. She must protect what once was a reactor meant to be used as a clean energy source for the city against Bane who seeks to turn it into an unstable, mobile nuclear bomb.
Initially luring Bruce Wayne out of seclusion is the sly, sexy thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who slinks into Wayne’s mansion to steal his late mother’s pearl necklace, along with his fingerprints. The moral ambiguity of Hathaway’s Catwoman — never actually referred to as Catwoman in the film — is intriguing, and the actress plays it up with sinister glee. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the script based on the story from the director and David S. Goyer (who penned the upcoming “Man of Steel”), and they cleverly weave Selina Kyle’s character into the story. She becomes an integral part of the concluding saga both helping and thwarting Batman. Seeing these two together in action sequences is also a real show.
An unexpectedly solid new character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s street cop John Blake. He’s fully aware of Batman’s existence, knows Bruce Wayne is behind the mask and is a resourceful product of the Wayne Foundation’s orphanage for boys. There’s a sort of kinship there, and a lot of screen time is granted to Blake and the likes of Commissioner Gordon when Batman is imprisoned by Bane in a literal hell hole beneath the earth. After a blood-curdling fist brawl between the two masked figures, Batman’s heroic frailty surfaces. The fact that a majority of the second act is void of Batman makes his triumphant return to the screen all the more visceral, powerful and emotionally potent also thanks to Hans Zimmer’s continuously pounding score.
With his “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan gives humanity to the superhero and delivers thrills that have substance, depth and implications of a harsh reality. Yes, it’s bloated and exhausting, but it’s hugely ambitious and accomplished, making a solid claim for this Batman trilogy to stand tall among the best film trilogies in history.