(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on July 27, 2012.)
Before we start: on behalf of Reel Film News, we would like to offer our sincerest condolences to the victims of the Aurora shooting and their families.
I had originally written an overlong piece about the merits of The Dark Knight Rises. There was a quote by Randy Meeks from Scream 3 about the nature of trilogies; there was a five-item list of things I wanted to see done in it, which I then proceeded to tackle point-by-point. Throughout it all, I saw one constant theme I kept touching upon in almost every paragraph: I kept marveling about how wonderful the entire Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy was for its constant real-world grounding.
When you think about it, most superhero movies are crime stories – crime stories involving mostly normal heists, mostly normal villains, with a touch of the absurd to blow things way out of proportion. Richard Donner’s Superman didn’t have some supervillain behind it all; it had a criminal genius (Lex Luthor, played masterfully by Gene Hackman) who managed to get his mitts on nuclear launch codes and spoil everyone’s good time. Even the 1966 “Batman” television series featured regular human beings as their villains – overly eccentric, yes, but still, they were just regular humans.
Tim Burton’s two-film Batman series released in 1989 and 1992 gave us toxically modified villains who had lost all sense of humanity and good; there was no lofty purpose behind their actions. All the Joker and Penguin wanted was mayhem en masse. Their reasons for destroying Gotham were entirely selfish and proved no point. Joel Schumacher’s set of schlock-filled follow-up films cemented what was originally started by Burton by having outlandish villains, cartoon colors, and an overblown sense of style. While Burton’s was set in a gothically decorated space, Schumacher drove set decoration to its limits, making it the most over-the-top incarnation of Gotham and Batman’s world.
Christopher Nolan has dismissed the previous two filmmakers’ approaches and given us a trilogy set in a city that could be any one of our current major metropolises – Chicago, New York, DC, anywhere. While, yes, some of Batman’s technology is still outside the realm of possibility, most everything you see put up on screen has real-world roots, from the weaponry to the vehicles driven by all parties. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan lays before us a perfect setting for a criminal takeover: a Gotham finally rid of organized crime, thanks to The Dent Act, named for Gotham’s anti-organized crime crusader, Harvey Dent. Into this world steps Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar known for high-line robberies, who’s just stolen a necklace (and something else) from a supposedly impenetrable safe belonging to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), crippled and living a life of solitude in his manor. However, it turns out that there’s another force coming to Gotham – a frightening man with a grotesque visage named Bane (Tom Hardy), hellbent on destroying Gotham from the bottom up. When these two forces make themselves known, the police are ill-equipped (and ill-motivated) to do anything about it, save for one man: John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former orphan turned police officer, who also knows a thing or two about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. Also, Wayne Enterprises seems to be going under and losing money by the day, having to be bailed out by alternative energy champion Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
Sounds like a lot? It is. Nolan has a lot of plates to spin, and it’s a frantic act to keep them spinning, lest they crash and spoil whatever goodwill he’s built up through the last two movies. Thankfully, each storyline leads to the next, keeping the film’s 165-minute running time seeming mercifully short. Nolan successfully melds two of his greatest casts – those from his Batman and Inception worlds – and turns in a product that isn’t just visually arresting (thanks to Wally Pfister’s steady cinematography and stunning IMAX visuals), but also full of terrific performances. Gordon-Levitt is experiencing a wonderful sort of Renaissance in his career, appearing in noteworthy films and giving just-as-noteworthy portrayals. His characterization of Blake, the hopeful man in a world of cynicism and doubt, is another feather in his already loaded cap. As the Catwoman (without that name ever being mentioned in the film), Hathaway provides the voice of the undercurrent of the 99% that we hear so much about these days – the people who are determined to bring down the richest of the rich. At one point, she sultrily snarls into Wayne’s ear, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne; you and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” And while she isn’t the film’s main villain (or any type of real villain at all), she certainly does hold her own against the male cast, especially Tom Hardy as Bane. Bane is a nightmare; he’s that guy who will speak with a kind, almost uncle-like tone to you while he’s ripping your throat out through your ear. Hardy’s performance, aided by a scary breathing apparatus and a spookily altered voice, relies much upon his physical prowess and his menacing glare, all of which lend to making one of the most memorable villains that Nolan’s Gotham has ever seen.
Nolan closes out his series with the ultimate real-world bang, with genuine tension and smarts filling the screen. The Dark Knight Rises is a larger than life fantasy crime drama set in reality, and it’s a worthy end to an outstanding series of films. The real-world grounding has always served this trilogy well, and I’m going to be sorry to see it never revisited (Nolan has said this is the end for his Batman series). While there are a lot of plot elements to follow, it’s easy to understand and chock-full of intrigue enough to be considered worthy to be the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Please see it in full 15-perforation/70mm IMAX where you can.