NOLAN’S BATMAN TRILOGY ENDS ON AN EPIC NOTE
Greatness is a title not easily won. Not for our cinematic heroes and assuredly not for our filmmakers. To be great, one has to do something utterly unexpected, fresh, or awing. Four years ago, writer-director Christopher Nolan concocted arguably the greatest superhero film of all time, “The Dark Knight.” He did this not merely by cramming in brutal action or sly humor, but by seeing something in the superhero genre that no one else in Hollywood did: drama worthy enough to take itself seriously. To this day when I watch “The Dark Knight,” I see it not as a superhero film, but as an epic gangster saga as deserving of recognition as any Martin Scorsese masterpiece. Nolan’s follow-up with “Inception” cemented the prospect: we have found true greatness in a filmmaker.
Now with “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan’s farewell to the Nolanverse Batman trilogy, is deservedly daunting in its cinematographic splendor and mesmerizing spectacle. Greatness is achieved within this film, particularly the climax and finale. Just as we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s Batman, this is a deepened genre film that surpasses its structured microcosm of being a ‘superhero movie’ and dives into the far greater challenge of evaluating and observing human nature.
We return to Gotham City a full eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight.” Harvey Dent died a hero and the city was able to rise to the occasion and become a peaceful place. But in that time, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and James Gordon (Gary Oldman) have lived with the lie they made that night. Gordon, whose family has left him, no longer sees himself as a that one unwavering cop he used to be. Wayne, who still sustains his shattering injuries and hasn’t put on the cowl since that day, has become a injured recluse within his mansion. In the years gone by, Wayne has gone from the Batman without limits to a man completely consumed by his limitations. He’s a broken man who believes he has nothing to offer. The people in his life – from loyal Alfred (Michael Caine) to Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to new Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) – try pulling him out of his depression, to get him to move on. But it isn’t until the a sneaky robbery from Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and rise of master terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) within Gotham’s sewers that the Bruce Wayne we remember finally emerges.
Now Bane – who has ties to the League of Shadows from “Batman Begins” – is a man of lofty ambitions, and those plans quickly surpass the abilities of the dark knight. He has a grand master plan that involves the Stock Exchange, the city’s football stadium, and even Wayne Enterprises itself. Even with the help of integrity-driven rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a now war-worn Gordon, Batman is no match. Bane is, in many ways, a dark mirror image of Batman in how he feels everything that drives Batman in more visceral ways. The pain, the hate, the anger of Bruce Wayne is nothing compared to the black soul that pushes Bane closer to his goal. And when the two finally come face-to-face with one another, Batman is no match for just how much power of hate Bane has inside him. Of all the Batman films to date, this is where we truly see Batman pushed to truly unimaginable depths and agony. His first confrontation with Bane leaves him in a position of less than loss, and only something of truly great power will allow him to rise from the ashes to save Gotham City from a horrific fate.
“The Dark Knight” holds the spot in Nolan’s repertoire as being both the director’s darkest film as well as his most muzzled. The underlying themes that can be quite depressing and the moments of true human nature bring about the film’s dark tone. Yet despite that darkness, Nolan surprisingly feels like he holds back from showing all he wants to show. I can’t think of another film of his – assuredly not “The Dark Knight” – that feels shortchanged because of its PG-13 rating. The moments where this becomes most apparent is the allowance given to Bane’s character. He is nowhere near as effective of a villain as he should be specifically because he’s limited in his forms of physical violence. The rating-pushing menace of the Joker isn’t to be found here. This is not the truly bone-splintering, head-crunching savage that I expected from Nolan. Now does that mean I didn’t like Bane? Absolutely not, I loved him. But I felt like he could have been better.
What I love most about the film is its massive subjects and themes. This is a film about people who are broken, in one way or another. In body. In spirit. In soul. Even Gordon, who has always stood as the best of Gotham, is battered in his moral relativism (a problem that provides a conversation between Gordon and Blake that is one of the best-written dialogue scenes of the film). At the finale of “The Dark Knight,” Batman’s decision to take the fall for Dent’s crimes was something that we applauded – we agreed with him. But now, we have a different angle on that moment, as well as several others in the series. That moment wasn’t his decision to make. For the man willing to give up his life for Gotham… when the moment came down to it, he didn’t trust Gotham enough with the truth. Nolan loves having a major theme in each of his movies, and I believe this one would be truth. We see how the truth – or lack thereof – manipulates the lives of every single person in Gotham, even eight years later. Truths are revealed in such a way that they compound the harrowing problems of its predecessor.
I was incredibly impressed in how the film joins all the plot strands we didn’t even know connected of the two previous films and molds it all together into a beautiful mosaic that we feel foolish in not seeing from the get-go. Going back to involvement with the League of Shadows was an inspired choice, as it brings Bruce’s full-circle. The trilogy as a whole comes together in such a cohesion fashion that you’d half expect that Nolan knew the whole story all along. The parts come together seamlessly.
Characters and performances weave in and out of the story with a precision of perfect length. Everyone, even characters who were sidestepped in the two previous films, has more to do in the finale. Christian Bale has never been better as Bruce Wayne/Batman, as his pain and agony have never been more hard-hitting. He is pushed to unimaginable levels, and what Bale does with the role is nothing short of spectacular. Here we see that enveloping of a character fans of Bale know he’s capable of from “American Psycho,” “The Machinist,” and “The Fighter.” He gives the best performance of the movie. It was a pleasure to see Morgan Freeman have more to do as Lucius Fox than being Bruce’s gadget manufacturer, as well as watching Alfred deliver two truly heartrending monologues (one of which rivals my favorite portion of “Good Will Hunting”). We see more than anywhere else just how important these two men are in Bruce’s life and just how far they’d go to help him. Gary Oldman is, as usual, outstanding as Gordon. Although it would have been nice to see him in another scene rivaling the acting he delivered at the climax of “The Dark Knight,” his scene of defending his decisions against Blake is wowing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfect as a cop whose level of observation lets him in on several secrets of the most secretive members of Gotham. All in all, everyone has that “one” scene that they shine. I have three favorite scenes, and while that might pale to the 10-12 of “The Dark Knight,” they’re pretty awesome scenes. Blake gets most of them.
Now on to what I’m sure everyone really cares about: the villains. How does one follow up from Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Heath Ledger, and Aaron Eckhart? Do they succeed?
I was pleasantly surprised at Anne Hathaway’s villainous turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She’s got some REALLY fun stuff to do, and we can tell by Nolan saw something special in her that no one else did. She has a seductive darkness that she can radiate at both subtle and harsh levels. Her motivations might be rather pedestrian, but her Catwoman is still my favorite among the character’s incarnations.
Tom Hardy emerges from the shadows as Bane. We can tell that this Bane is supposed to be so monstrous and at times terrifying that he morphs into a cinematic creature not unlike movie monsters Dracula or Jaws. His costume and mask design is alarming, and his sense of presence is imposing to say the least. We have no doubt that this guy could pummel Batman, especially a Batman who has been inactive for nearly a decade. For fans of the character who physically cried regarding his portrayal in “Batman and Robin,” there’s no comparison. Unfortunately, this Bane isn’t quite as iconic a villain as the trailers, and interviews suggest. He is close, granted, but he has two problems. The first is his monologuist nature. I didn’t mind his voice, but he talked more than Jeff Bridges in “Iron Man.” There’s a scene in the film that could have easily been the best Batman scene of all time – and it gets close – if not for Bane continuously monologuing. While Nolan monologing is better than most, it’s still monologing. The second is his methods of killing, which are unimaginative and never savage enough for the character. I didn’t expect R-rated violence, but Nolan’s Bane is limited to snapping necks more than anything else. This is disappointing considering this is a villain who has a mesmerizing cold brutality that would rival Anton Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men.” If even a little bit of that potential popped out, Bane could have stood in the annals of great cinematic villains. As is, Hardy is without fault, I love what he did and how hypnotic and intimidating he could be just by the intensity of his eyes (which were never showcased enough), and I do feel that he clocked in as a cool final villain in this Batman’s roster.
Nolan has bigger toys to play with (the Bat hovercraft is jaw-dropping) and larger themes to tackle in the purpose of truth and redemption, but the dialogue isn’t as meaningfully crisp and action scenes aren’t as consistently memorable. I don’t see much on par with the ingeniously-layered plotting, motivations, and characterizations that made “The Dark Knight” a world-changing revelation. But ultimately, although it may not be as quotable or ingenious as its predecessor, it is far more emotional resonant. This film’s emotional ending controls how you feel about the series as a whole. This couldn’t have ended on a better note. We love the Batman all the more because of this ending, and the other films are even more of a treat because now we know where his journey will end.
When “The Dark Knight Rises” ends, it has hit such a note of power that all our emotions, all our thoughts, transcend to this moment – and what a moment it is. I love this ending, because it surprised me and satisfied me. The climax turns what was before an excellent addition to Nolan’s body of work into an iconic, unnerving, and unforgettable experience. This is the ending that Nolan’s Batman deserved, and I think hardcore fans will be more than fulfilled.
So does Nolan surpass himself? In a way. Is this a better Batman movie? In a way. That’s the problem with a complete comparison: they are totally different creatures, almost different genres. Both “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are excellent and astounding in what they set out to do, but what they set out to do is entirely different. The best example I can provide is comparing “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” – “Empire” may be the better movie, but “Jedi” is the payoff that makes the whole thing work. With any flaws “The Dark Knight Rises” may have, it is absolutely the perfect payoff and sendoff for what is my favorite superhero series of all time.
When all is said and done, it’s saddening to see the Nolan Batman universe come to a close. It feels appropriately like the end of an era. There has never been anything quite like this series, and I doubt there ever will be again. It will stand as a beacon of what superhero films are capable of: a level of intimate seriousness and raw humanity. This Batman, as envisioned in the mind of Christopher Nolan, turned a flight of fancy into something more. He made us look at this crime-fighting man dressed like a bat not only as a character existing in realism, but also as a vessel containing a high-class type of drama, emotion, and weight we usually withhold for more adult fare. Nolan rewrites the rules of what we can and can’t connect to on the most visceral levels. This is, without a doubt, the stuff that legends are made of.