Eight years after Batman disappeared, blamed for murder, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a wounded recluse, but Gotham is vibrant — until masked maniac Bane (Tom Hardy) decides it’s high time to bring the city down. Facing this new threat and mysterious cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), Wayne decides the Dark Knight must rise, once again.
As The Dark Knight Rises, so has anticipation. In 2005, when Christopher Nolan rebooted and resuited Batman, the cinematic reputation of the Caped Crusader was at a pitiful low after the gaudy debacle of The Film That Shall Not Be Named. Now, a short seven years later, Nolan could deliver the print of his trilogy topper in a chariot drawn by flame-breathing unicorns with diamond eyes and some people would still shrug and say, “Meh. It’s not as impressive as The Dark Knight.” In this — as within Rises itself — he could be said to be the victim of his own success. He raised the bar so high, no-one could be expected to clear it. Still, whether you believe this betters Begins or eclipses Knight, it is certainly a satisfying conclusion to what is now — we’re calling it — the best superhero series of all time.
Not that Nolan ever really wanted his Batman to be ‘super’ — instead, he posed what proved to be a compelling question: what if this were real? Sure, it’s hardly Ken Loach’s Batman (though we’d pay to see that: about a Hackney bat-wrangler with anger issues), but Nolan bends more rules of physics than he breaks, with his heart focused on the heart of Bruce Wayne: a child traumatised by the murder of his parents and raised with a rage he cannot quench. Rises asks other probing questions: Can you redeem without sacrifice? Can revenge bring peace? What the bloody hell is Tom Hardy saying?
Actually, the preview footage palaver about Bane’s babble is largely irrelevant: he may sound like Sir Ian McKellen gargling meths in a wind tunnel, but the verbal clarity of the masked, muscled monster is never as important as his brute bulk (though he does have some memorable vocal barbs). Hardy looks like he could have played the Hulk — with a CG Bruce Banner — and is more than convincing as the man who could break the Bat. For the first time, perhaps ever, you really worry for Batman, with his armoured suit unable to disguise a relative physical frailty, his body worn down by years of putting it in the literal line of fire for the citizens of Gotham.
Bane is not fuelled simply by whatever pumps through his mask, either, as Alfred (Michael Caine) observes: “I see the power of belief.” The Wayne family butler has acted as his master’s conscience throughout the films and he’s at it again here, challenging the bruised billionaire about what he could achieve if he sought social justice instead of rough. Indeed, there’s a sense that Wayne has regressed back to the boy of Begins, his journey out of the grief of his orphaning reset by the death of his childhood love.
As Gotham prospers in the wake of the criminal crackdown brought about by the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent — and his mythologising by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) — Wayne feels he can stay hidden in his mansion, a truculent Beast resisting being transformed by Marion Cotillard’s Beauty. Where his parents were active, engaged philanthropists, giving life to the city, Wayne nurses only his own grief. He walks with a stick as symbolic of his psychological frailty as his physical degeneration. Here, the film could be said to be going over old ground, but Wayne’s mental fissure has been mined in the comics for 73 years and it’s testament to Christian Bale’s stalwart, admirably unshowy but soulful performance that we once again feel for a man born to privilege but eternally trapped in a personal prison.
This is aided by a valedictory feel to the first act, with everything freighted with the knowledge of its finality and a sense that this will not end well. Caine is all heart in a beautiful recollection about his hopes for his surrogate son, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt — who looks supremely dashing despite a somewhat glamour-free role as a rozzer — also has a sorrow-fuelled speech, but with a more positive sense of belief to counter Bane’s destructive faith.
Then, when Batman finally returns, you relish the gleeful comment of a copper to a younger colleague: “Boy, you are in for a show tonight, son.” That you are, even if the film doesn’t, until the very end, match the emotional tenor of its blistering beginning. That 45 minutes or so can be called the ‘beginning’ gives a clue that Batman not only rises but lengthens. This is a long film that feels weighed down somewhat in its middle section, struggling to carry the weight of exposition. The desire for scale and belief-beggaring action also means that, curiously, what would be other movies’ budget-blitzing conclusions are reduced, in a way, to the level of mild incident. There is more plot here than there is story and as impressive as certain scenes are — the sporting spectacle seen in the trailer, for example — they can feel a little like a very expensive treadmill when you’re waiting for the emotions to really run.
As ever, Nolan’s Batman is at its best in the more intimate moments — whether it’s a man finally realising a hero’s identity, or the scene- (and jewellery-) stealing introduction of a new character. As slinky burglar Selina Kyle, Anne Hathaway is superb: physically dangerous, emotionally intriguing and sexy without milking it. (It’s a very different take from the Catwoman portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, but no less enjoyable.) As ambiguous as Kyle is, her journey shares with Wayne’s a sense of struggling for a fresh start, for a clean slate, ultimately for redemption.
Many of the best characters in the Batman universe offer a mirror to the man himself, whether walking that razor-wire between justice and revenge, or being trapped by the traumas of the past.
Dedicated fans of the comic books are unlikely to feel surprised by many story twists here, but that’s no surprise in itself given the DC icon’s extensive history. Another story strand feels a little familiar and may unconsciously reflect the director’s love of Bond (please, God, let him and Bale one day deliver 007), but it’s ideas, not schematics, that you will be mulling over afterwards. What’s impressive is how Nolan, his fellow story wrangler David S. Goyer and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan have found a way to bring their Bat-cycle full circle without coasting — instead touching on our world within a comic-book context.
Where Avengers demolished New York with a glee unrivalled outside of a terrorist training camp, Rises takes turning Gotham into Gomorrah very seriously indeed. Nolan’s has been the Batman of the War On Terror and the credit crunch, made in an age where belief-driven crazies threatened world security (Osama bin Laden, George Bush) and men with nothing more than computers and a sense of entitlement destroyed arguably as many lives as thugs with guns. Rises plants seeds of sedition, questions the position of the financial elite and presents the plight of the 99 per cent. Even as the jeopardy ratchets and our position — as surrogate citizens, the people Batman has sworn to protect — is dire, Rises doesn’t forget to have some fun, with a pyrotechnical act that brings to mind Fight Club’s Project Mayhem. It’s this balance between sobriety and sensation that is Nolan’s most significant achievement throughout these films. Batman can easily play as either glum or camp — it takes a special talent to not just recognise his inherent absurdity and his inspirational power but also embrace them both: a talent with a taste for the theatrical.
With spectacle in abundance and sexiness in (supporting) parts, this is superhero filmmaking on an unprecedented scale. Rises may lack the surprise of Begins or the anarchy of Knight, but it makes up for that in pure emotion. A fitting epitaph for the hero Gotham deserves.