A film this hyped is hard to have an unbiased opinion on, and boy, has it been hyped. As I mentioned in my previous piece about Batman fanboys, two effects of this mega hype are that over-praise is spouted by loyal fans, followed by contrarians feeling the need to try and single-handedly rebalance the public perception of a film. Where’s the reality in this situation? Usually, it’s in between. So, with this in mind, the questions are: Is The Dark Knight Rises good? Yes. Very. Is it a fitting end to this box office behemoth of a trilogy? Indeed it is. Is it better than The Dark Knight? No, but only just.
Going back as far as 1998’s Following, Nolan’s films have displayed inventiveness at a story and script level that is rare in the mainstream. Christopher Nolan loves an idea then, and, apart from the thoughtful casting, the grounding in realism, and complex but coherent storylines, it is the introduction of ideas that has made his Batman trilogy more than just a superhero franchise. TDKR has a complex narrative bursting at the seams with ideas. So full of ideas in fact, that it actually ends up working against the movie, to the point where it falls behind The Dark Knight in the quality stakes. But, as I said before, only just.
In Gotham City, eight years have gone by since the events of TDK. The citizens have been at peace, and, after allowing himself to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s actions in TDK, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has allowed his superhero alter-ego to fade from public life. Indeed, Bruce Wayne himself is a recluse, walking with a cane, sporting a beard and some grey flecks in his fair. The Wayne Corporation hasn’t been doing too well financially, but other areas of the city have. There’s an effective cat-burglar that comic book fans will recognise as Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who bears witness to a coming storm. A storm that threatens not just Wayne, but the entire city of Gotham. This metaphorical storm is best personified by ideologically-driven main antagonist, Bane (Tom Hardy) whose brutal physicality alone gives an idea of the things to come. To say any more would be to spoil a wonderfully intricate plot, influenced by Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which, in the style of the other entries in this franchise, uses the larger themes of our times to pull us deeper into the story.
The opening set-piece has deservedly grabbed plenty of attention, and, indeed, the opening 45 minutes is paced expertly, ebbing and flowing with an urgency that grabs you by the shoulders, and doesn’t let up for some time. Even when it does (which is understandable), the plot throbs with intensity. And by the time the final plot machinations start, followed by a fitting ending, it feels like you’ve lived through every rain drop of the promised storm. The intricate, idea-laden plot, at times threatens to spin out of control, is not as cohesive at TDK. A Tale of Two Cities concerns the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and the events of the latter in particular, are evident in the plot of this film. A scene set in the Gotham Stock Exchange, themes of economic bubbles bursting, and class warfare all make it unsurprising that Chris Nolan actually filmed sequences in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street protests. If Batman Begins was about emerging from the shadow of 9/11, and TDK a terrorism allegory, the TDKR deals with the economic disarray that has defined our times since the release of the previous film.
Against this broad, plot-heavy canvass, do the actors get to strut their stuff? It might be surprising to hear that, yes, they do. Michael Caine is allowed to display a greater range of emotion as Alfred than he has before, and he delivers his lines with the kind of honesty that such an extravagant plot needs. Anne Hathaway effectively high-kicks the fanboys’ concerns repeatedly in the face with a performance that displays physical dexterity and a great line in amorality-while also getting some of the best quips. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman are able to escape some of shackles of the old ‘good cops trying to do their job’ shtick by giving their performances the nuance that lesser actors couldn’t. Tom Hardy’s voice courted controversy in early trailers, with some fans complaining they couldn’t understand it. I found him mostly audible, with a lip-curling accent apparently based on Bartley Gorman. His physicality is spot-on, and although he has a mask on his face for most of the film, is able to bring forth at least some performance with the rest of his body and his eyes. But this film marks what is, in my opinion, Christian Bale’s best performance in this trilogy. In the first film, he was hamstrung by the dead-weight of the hero origin story. In the second, the late Heath Ledger took centre-stage. Even though his performances were successful in the past, this film finally allows him more of a range, and he ‘rises’ to that challenge believably and rousingly.
As I’ve said, the plot is nearly pulled under by the weight of its ideas, but it does hold together-helped by excellent performances, and as a whole, is able to outweigh its shortcomings. Bane doesn’t provide the kind of gravitas that the Joker did in the previous film, and the plot probably wouldn’t give the Joker room to shine anyway. Directing action has been cited as a weakness of Nolan’s in the past, and although the film’s car chases and fight scenes go some way to dispelling that theory, an injection of action into the middle section of the film might have given the film more momentum.
The film ends in a fitting way, coming thematically full-circle, and echoing plot beats from previous films. In times where the 99% are deciding that it’s time the 1% pulled their weight more when it comes to solving the world’s problems, what Nolan seems to be saying is that we all have a responsibility to each other, and the world at large, to do what’s right, before it all collapses in on us. A throughly well-executed and thrilling conclusion to the series, I wait with baited breath for Nolan’s next move.
PS: Before the film, the teaser for next year’s Nolan-produced, Zach Snyder-directed Man of Steel played. All I can say is: epic.