After crafting an extremely entertaining, atmospheric origin story in “Batman Begins” (and single-handedly kick-staring the “gritty reboot” movement), Christopher Nolan returned to Gotham to create arguably the best superhero movie of all time in “The Dark Knight.” Nolan didn’t owe us anything more after that. He’d given us everything we’d ever wanted from a Batman movie.
Or so we thought. As it turns out, he hadn’t given us everything – not yet. Because there was something that no Batman film – no superhero film, even – had ever given us: closure.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Christopher Nolan loves, above all, to be a storyteller. He wows us with the epic scale of his action, and the boldness of his practical effects. “The Dark Knight Rises” in particular shows off a newfound confidence in combat scenes, sequences that could get a little muddled in his previous works. But what all his films have in common, right back to his early (low-budget) critical hits “Memento” and “Following,” is a desire to tell us good stories. And a good story means a beginning (where we learn who our hero is), a middle (where he is challenged), and an end (where our hero decides his fate). Maybe he won’t show you those beats in that proper order. Maybe there will be some plot holes along the way. Maybe he’ll stretch that story out across three sprawling films. But he’ll see it through to the end. The traditional superhero-movie technique of open endings isn’t a story – it’s a commercial consideration, and Nolan will have nothing to do with it.
Such fiscal machinations do, however, swarm at the surface of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight” drove the Caped Crusader into early retirement, one of Wayne Enterprise’s board members attempts to bankrupt Bruce Wayne and drive the now-reclusive billionaire from his father’s company. To do so, this weaselly Gordon Gekko type enlists the help of two mercenaries: the lithe cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a hulking masked bruiser called Bane (Tom Hardy). Kyle seeks only the means to escape her increasingly mounted debts and start a new crime-free life – Bane, to no one’s surprise, has ulterior motives, suggested by a sophisticated demeanor that belies his menacing frame.
The arrival of two new masked crazies in town is enough to stir Bruce Wayne out of his grief-stricken stupor and take the old bat pod out for a spin. But despite a few friends in high places – including old faces like Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and newcomers like a savvy young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a wealthy philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) – the Batman quickly finds out that a lot of rust has collected on that Batsuit.
When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, the Joker was a horrifying villain for a nation that had spent seven years waging the War on Terror. He represented the worst fears of what terrorism could produce: pure, unmotivated chaos and destruction. Bane is a different kind of villain for a new kind of fear. He positions himself as a populist, a Robin Hood for the nuclear age, encouraging the people of Gotham to literally tear down the rich and powerful. This is the nightmare version of Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, and Nolan makes clever allusions to the excess and pageantry of the French Revolution to remind us that humanity is perfectly capable of such collective madness.
But Bane merely talks a good game. He has his own agenda, and therein lies the great paranoia that makes “The Dark Knight Rises” resonate particularly strongly as yet another presidential election/circus approaches: the nagging feeling that for all the talk of mandates and grassroots campaigns and democracy and equality, someone, somewhere is pulling all the strings.
For Bruce Wayne, played with the usual solemn intensity by Christian Bale, the concern is a little less plebeian. This version of the Batman has always come with something of a time limit: the question (pondered by Bane himself at one of the film’s critical moments) was whether it would be Wayne’s body or spirit that gave out first. Plagued by the death of Rachel Dawes and the Joker’s lingering madness, coupled with extensive physical abuse and a populace resigned to its own fate, how can Batman continue to find the will to do what is necessary?
Surprisingly, Nolan’s answer echoes a theme that we have seen repeated several times in this year’s superhero blockbusters. The entire concept of “The Avengers” was built on the notion of teamwork. “The Amazing Spider-Man” contained a climactic scene in which average New Yorkers step up to assist Peter Parker at a moment of desperate need. After years of films showing heroic fantasies of single men standing up to armies of bad guys, Hollywood has started suggesting that even the best of us get by with a little help from our friends.
To that effect, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a glorious ensemble effort. Much like in “Inception” was two years ago, there is not a weak acting link to be found here – the franchise stalwarts deliver exactly what we would expect of them, while the new actors (particularly Gordon-Levitt, Hathaway and Hardy) are charming and confident. If this film pales in comparison to its immediate predecessor, it is only because there is not a singular arresting, off-the-charts performance on the level of Heath Ledger’s Joker. But The Joker was not just the villain of “The Dark Knight,” he was its catalyst – the entire movie was based on how every other character reacted to his madness, and why. The narrative started with him at its core and radiated outwards.
“The Dark Knight Rises” moves in the opposite direction. With Batman himself conspicuously absent from at least the first half hour of the film, we are presented with a kaleidoscopic view of the Caped Crusader: idol, criminal, traitor, victim, weapon. Rumors swirl and stories are told, but through his actions the Batman becomes something greater. A legend, indeed, Mr. Wayne.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars