There is a fine line between bloated and epic — and The Dark Knight Rises skirts that line constantly throughout its running time, threatening to fall into an abyss much like the prison pit featured prominently in the storyline. People being broken and rising from the depths of despair, both literally and figuratively, is a big theme in The Dark Knight Rises. And while there are certainly aspects of the film that are broken — it has perhaps one or two characters too many, and there are stretches where it becomes almost overwhelmingly morose — its able to climb out of the darkness with Nolan’s superb direction, powerful class warfare metaphors, a great cast of multi-faceted characters, and a breathtaking final-half hour that raises the stakes for Gotham higher than any other previous Batman adventure.
The first half of the movie is filled with maneuvering – elaborate schemes are set in motion and a web of intrigue involving several new characters is spun. To some it may seem ponderously slow and confusing, but what Nolan does masterfully in the early going is sprinkle the seeds for the satisfying and heart-pounding climax to come. Three of the new characters introduced in the beginning of the movie – Anne Hathaway as cat burglar Selina Kyle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as beat cop John Blake, and Tom Hardy as the terrifying Bane – are superb, adding texture to Gotham while propelling the narrative forward with their character motivations.
Tom Hardy is extraordinary here; his Bane is brutal and menacing, yet intelligent and calculating at the same time. He’s a scarred, haunted, walking blunt force trauma with machinations of complete class equality through terror and violence. The ultimate enemy of billionaire Bruce Wayne and the Gotham socialites that have grown fat and powerful in the safe, but borderline fascist society the city has become in the wake of Harvey Dent’s martyrdom in The Dark Knight. I was fearful of the muffled, heavily accented vocal performance that was so heavily scrutinized and mocked on the Internet for months, and for a heartbeat it seemed silly, but I soon found it to be chilling. Certainly Bane is not on the level of Heath Ledger’s now-iconic Joker, but that was never an attainable goal. Instead he provides Batman with an equal physical threat, and a mind uncluttered by chaos.
Anne Hathaway’s performance as Catwoman/Selina Kyle is revelatory, injecting the inky blackness of this movie with the spark of light it desperately needs in the first half. In her first scene, Hathaway pulls off a staggering transformation from timid chambermaid to sultry vixen in heartbeat, simply by adjusting her eyes, mouth, and posture. I was blown away. She’s slinky, seductive and absolutely badass. She did enough in this movie to convince me that her Catwoman is the best live-action interpretation of the character ever. Yes, even better than Julie Newmar and Michelle Pfieffer.
Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a nuanced performance as “hothead” beat cop John Blake who, along with Selina Kyle, set events in motion that get a retired and emotionally destroyed Bruce Wayne out of his mansion and back into the cape and cowl. He’s a lot like Gary Oldman’s Gordon in Batman Begins – unwaveringly honest, incorruptible, and dedicated to his job. I won’t go into details or spoilers about what role he ultimately plays in the film — you can read all about the speculation surrounding his character in dozens of articles around the web — but I will say his character has a huge role in the film and has a very cool payoff in the end.
Now, I have to address something about The Dark Knight Rises that is fascinating. We only see Bruce Wayne in costume as Batman for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes of the two-hour and forty-five-minute run time. In the beginning of the film, Batman no longer even exists. No one has seen him in over seven years, since the night that he took the blame for Harvey Dent’s death in The Dark Knight. Then later in the story, he’s defeated and left to rot in a prison pit halfway across the world. This is colossally ballsy on Nolan’s part, and fortunately for him, the story he constructed and the characters he introduces are able to do the heavy lifting required to keep things compelling in Batman’s absence.
He’s also helped along by the usual outstanding supporting cast including Michael Caine’s Alfred, who serves as the films brains and heart in contrast to Bane’s muscle. His relationship with Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne comes back full circle to Batman Begins (as much of this films does), and is resolved in truly heartbreaking fashion. Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is wonderful as ever, this time giving us a weary Gordon who is haunted by his actions years ago to go along with Batman’s plan of self-imposed exile in order to preserve Harvey Dent’s white knight legacy. And Morgan Freeman is delightful as always, providing Batman with his arsenal of superheroic vehicles and gadgets. In this case, it’s “The Bat” – a beast of a helicopter-jet hybrid.
I’ve discussed numerous characters and I haven’t even mentioned the ravishing Marion Cottillard yet, so you can see how The Dark Knight Rises nearly buckles under the sheer mass of all these moving parts. She plays Wayne Corp investor Miranda Tate, who appears classy, innocuous, and a good romantic fit for a lost and brooding Bruce Wayne, but it’s clear from the get-go (at least it was to me) that she has a mysterious agenda. Again, there were rumors galore during production about who she was really playing that will neither deny nor confirm here, but if you’re a fan of the twist that comes towards the end of Batman Begins, you’ll appreciate the direction of her character.
After all of these chess pieces are placed on the board, The Dark Knight Rises truly becomes something special. The threat that Bane unleashes on Gotham city draws national attention, and sets in motion an epic, tense, heart-stopping final forty-five minutes full of character payoffs, brutal physical combat, spectacular destruction, and an all-out war between Batman, Catwoman, the cops of Gotham, and Bane’s terrorist forces. It all wraps up with a truly moving finale that features some winks and nods to Batman comic book readers.
The movie landscape is littered with the broken corpses of failed third movies. Final chapters of trilogies that choked and sputtered before reaching the finish line, or collapsed under the weight of the enormous burdens on their backs. The wasteland stretches as far as the eye can see – with recycled plots, sabotaged narratives, overstuffed screenplays, and studio meddling strewn over its expanse. Making two great movies is challenging, but also a third? Nearly impossible. Yet that was the task Christopher Nolan decided to take head on, and remarkably, he accomplished it. He’s crafted three films that are consistent thematically and tonally, honoring the legend of the Batman by imbuing him with mythic qualities and planting him firmly in a real-world setting that still allowed for exciting superhero spectacle. This is a trilogy you can proudly park on the shelf next to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Indiana Jones. Thank you, Mr. Nolan.