Note: Contains major spoilers
It’s fair to say that I have never anticipated a movie as much as this one. After the astonishing second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – “The Dark Knight” – I had no idea whether Nolan could meet the standard he himself established. But I’m overjoyed to report that “The Dark Knight Rises” is a masterpiece: a shattering, exhilarating, and challenging finale to the greatest superhero series of all time.
It has been eight years since Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) assumed responsibility for the crimes of district attorney Harvey Dent. Strict anti-crime laws have established peace in Gotham City. Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and idealistic rookie detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) protect the city…rendering Batman superfluous. Left alone to his own devices, Wayne abandons his business ventures and ignores the clean-energy ideas of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
When a mysterious masked terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), invades Gotham, Wayne dons the cape and cowl again…but this time, he may have encountered a foe he cannot defeat. And that’s saying nothing of the enigmatic cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), working for an agenda of her own.
It’s a multitude of plotlines – far more than in previous installments – but Nolan displays the brilliance of a true auteur. All threads coalesce as the film draws to an explosive conclusion, the fitting coda to a series deserving of a “Best Picture” Oscar.
Much ink has already been spilled regarding the politics of this film, so I’ll just state what everyone’s already suggesting: this film is a stark, glaring indictment of the “Occupy” subculture. More devastatingly, however, it is a savage screed against the vices of modern civilization. Gotham City, for the first time, becomes more than just another metropolis in Nolan’s world; rather, it is a microcosm of the West.
A climactic speech by Bane – exhorting the people of Gotham to take what is theirs – is perhaps the starkest example of this attitude. More than anything, Nolan attacks the drooling selfishness of humanity; in “The Dark Knight Rises”, base individualism is held up in all its naked horror. The two forces at work – Bane and Batman – stand outside this inner struggle as opposing figureheads. Bane believes society is ruined and must thrash itself to death; Batman holds out hope for a brighter dawn.
Even Batman himself is not immune from this peril. When Wayne first dons the Batsuit after his eight-year hiatus, he does so out of mere lust for catharsis. An oft-repeated mantra from this series – “I’m not a hero” – proves disturbingly apt. The resurgent Batman, at least at first, is a self-centered vigilante monster. He cloaks his intentions in lofty sentiments…but his true motivation is far darker. Bane, in a ruthlessly dramatic fight sequence, destroys these notions of self-gratifying arrogance.
The highest good in this epic trilogy is, without a doubt, self-sacrifice for the love of neighbor. When Miranda Tate is unmasked as Talia al Ghul (the daughter of the “Batman Begins” antagonist), she reveals the source of Bane’s strength: his love for her. That love – tainted and twisted though it may be – fuels Bane’s strength, and allows him to overcome Batman in their first encounter. When a broken Batman is subsequently cast into a dungeon, it is only through the willingness to sacrifice his own life that he ultimately breaks free. This altruism, Nolan warns, is rapidly disappearing from society…and without it, civilization dies.
Though this film borrows messianic elements, it is by no means a direct Christ-figure analogue…to interpret it thusly is to err. The true sacrifice in this film is not one of life, but rather one of desires. Wayne may live to see the credits roll…but Batman, both his alter-ego and his idol, is dead. This inversion reflects Nolan’s true screenwriting genius. It would’ve been easy to “kill Bruce Wayne and let Batman live on as a symbol.” But no – Wayne lives (albeit stripped of his money, possessions and title), and the self-aggrandizing Batman symbol perishes.
Here is the message of Nolan’s trilogy: “Hold onto ideals, but never let those principles or their application become sources of personal vainglory. Serve, love, and sacrifice oneself for those around you.” That age-old message, delivered with such cinematic creativity and power, is a true treasure.
Technically, “The Dark Knight Rises” is characterized by a glorious lack of 3D and a paucity of computer-generated effects. The film positively writhes with pitiless realism – a realism that would’ve been stripped away by big-budget excesses. Considerable capital obviously went into hiring thousands of extras (courageous police and greedy protestors), who tear the city apart in a final epic battle.
The acting is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Bale perfectly inhabits the role of a crumbling hero, and supporting performances are all Oscar-caliber. Anne Hathaway is a fantastic Selina Kyle/Catwoman – vastly superior to Michelle Pfeiffer – and Tom Hardy is a gruesomely menacing Bane. (It’s worth pointing out that Bane’s voice – obscured as it is by a heavy mask – sometimes renders his words unintelligible. This doesn’t happen in any pivotal scenes, however.)
From an objectionable-content standpoint, this film never reaches the murderous excesses of its predecessor. It’s still brutally violent – and should’ve probably received an R rating – but Bane isn’t as sadistic as Heath Ledger’s Joker. That being said, however, this is very much a 17-and-older movie…in tone, themes, and intended audience, if not in content per se. Younger viewers won’t understand the significance of the material on display, or find the emotional elements as resonant. There’s also an implied sex scene between Wayne and Miranda Tate – it makes perfect sense in context, given the overall decay of Wayne’s moral compass – but it’s worth a mention.
Is it better than “The Dark Knight”? That’s not exactly a fair comparison. “The Dark Knight” was a crime movie, just as “Batman Begins” was a fairly straightforward superhero flick. “The Dark Knight Rises,” on the other hand, is a human drama set against the backdrop of war. And make no mistake, this is indeed a war – building up to the kind of city-destroying conflict last seen in “The Avengers.”
That highlights yet another important point: after seeing “The Dark Knight Rises,” I don’t know how much tolerance I’ll have for Marvel’s goofy ensemble. The Batman trilogy is a sophisticated exploration of morality, society, and ethics…Thor, Iron Man and the gang look like “men in tights” next to Nolan’s masked sentinel.
This film succeeds on every level – visceral, intellectual, and emotional – and ranks among my top-three movies of all time. My impossibly high expectations were met and exceeded, and I can’t recommend this movie enough.
Bravo, Mr. Nolan. Bravo.
Ranking this a 10/10 – on par with “Inception,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Prometheus” – doesn’t do this film justice. Sublime.
Normalized Score: 9.2