Following on from the gothic, surreal funhouse of the Burton movies before the descent into cringeworthy camp in the form of Schumacher’s sequels, Nolan famously rebooted the Batman franchise in 2005 with the small but smart Batman Begins. The film was a more controlled, serious take on the bat-character, with a touch of kung-fu and Bond thrown in, and was a critical success on its release. It wasn’t until its sequel, however, that Nolan really let loose with the series, and The Dark Knight – a Heat-esq crime thriller which just happened to feature superheroes – was a huge phenomenon, lauded as the greatest comic book movie of all time with an Oscar winning performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker. The follow up movie, The Dark Knight Rises, rode out on a heap of hype and audiences wondered if Nolan could deliver an epic, final closer to his trilogy. The film was released to intense critical acclaim, standing as something of an ‘event movie,’ comparable to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, and it’s what everyone was talking about last summer. The ultimate comic book movie.The film begins 8 years after The Dark Knight – Batman, having taken the fall for the insane Harvey Dent and therefore saved Gotham City from a horrible, morale destroying truth, has become something of a tainted, forgotten legend, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) now a lonely, broken recluse, locked away with his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Gotham remains stable since the Joker’s defeat, with the Dent Act keeping most of its mob behind bars, and the city is almost peaceful. That is until Bane (Tom Hardy) comes to town. ‘Gotham’s reckoning,’ Bane seeks to destroy the city, carrying on the legacy of Begins’s League of Shadows. As Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and eager newcomer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uncover the escalating threat of Bane, Bruce must deal with sassy entrepreneur Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and cunning cat-burgler Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) as events unfold forcing him to don the cowl once more.There’s a lot of plot to cover in The Dark Knight Rises, the above being a rather whistle-stop summary, and the film struggles to find its footing at the start, coming across as too big, with too new many characters. This levels out as the film finds its rhythm and does however play into the film’s monolithic, operatic tone – if The Dark Knight took the superhero material and turned it real, Rises takes the material and elevates it, as Nolan raises the stakes from the previous movie to create a grand, apocalyptic comic-book epic, the likes of which haven’t been seen before. Nolan treats this material with such respect and his semi-serious tone, an obvious hit with the masses, works especially well in this final act; the sense of silliness treated with deadly seriousness feeling earned at this point of the saga. Nolan runs with the mythology of the character and turns essentially B-material into A-quality movie, drawing on real world political events to heighten the movie’s impact – if The Dark Knight was about the War on Terror, with Batman as the right and the Joker as the terrorists, then Rises is about the credit crunch, drawing on poverty and the anarchy of the downtrodden, as the mistakes of the rich come back to haunt them in the form of a revolting poor class. It’s a film about entitlement, wealth, and society – particularly the break-down of society – as Nolan turns Gotham into a modern day Gomorrah, with a Hobbesian look at what happens when people are freed from social restraint. It’s clever, especially for this kind of movie, and especially interesting is how Nolan blurs the line between the villains political idealism and the suspect morality of the good guys – do two wrongs make a right, essentially. Nolan ties everything together by pulling the rambling plot back to the small-scale of Begins – Rises feels like the official sequel to that movie, and the link to the past brings everything full circle. The three films tie together wonderfully in a thematic three-way which says a lot about Batman and the mythology of the character – if Begins was about fear, and Knight was about chaos, thenRises is about hope. It’s a strong note to end on.In terms of actual directing, this is probably the strongest in the series as a whole, with beautiful cinematography throughout – Nolan has never been a visual director, but scenes such as an American flag ripped and blowing in the wind, or the harsh, granite streets of Gotham draped in snow, really set the film apart. The action sequences are vastly improved here too, with Inception clearly having a positive impact on Nolan’s ability to stage a fight, and there are some stunning set pieces – the opening plane heist, Batman’s reapperance on the bike, and the visceral mid-film fight between the Caped Crusader and Bane, which is the most brutal moment in the film. That’s not to mention the powerful climax, which though rather by-the-numbers in some ways (ticking clock) is shot so well it’ll really have audiences on edge, and it’s hard not to get riled up during the great street battle and subsequent sky/road chase. Gotham itself, perhaps Nolan’s focus throughout all three of his movies – an odd mishmash of New York and Chicago with shadier politics – really feels like a living, breathing city, something both corrupt but also worth saving. Though Nolan never gives the city the gothic, Elfman-induced character of Burton’s movies, he does give it heart, and makes it real.As with most Nolan movies, the strength comes from the excellent cast. Christian Bale gives his best performance as Batman yet, bringing a sense of wounded, broken maturity to the role, this is Batman at his most vulnerable, and yet at his moral peak. You really get the sense the character would die for the people and Bale captures this need to do good – at the expense of the character’s own life – perfectly. Bale is also given more to do in this movie – there’s a great argument between him and Michael Caine for example, and he gets a lot of mileage out of the character’s fall, and subsequent rise, back to greatness. Bale’s Batman isn’t perhaps as interesting as Keaton’s was (mainly because Keaton’s Batman was, just beneath the surface, completely insane) but he’s a strong moral force within the movie and its rousing watching him stand up for what’s right. In some ways, however, Batman moves into the background in Rises, standing more as a symbol, with Gary Oldman’s weary yet wise Gordon and Levitt’s Blake actually working as the heart of the movie. Levitt, dashing in an unglamorous role and running with the movie’s theme of hope, is the light at the centre of the anarchy and really impresses in what could have been a throwaway part. Morgan Freeman is back as Fox and Cillian Murphy gets a cool cameo, and on the whole, the cast do very well. The weak link is perhaps Marion Cotillard, who was a fantastically unhinged, lively creature in Inception, yet is slightly bland here, tied into an unnecessary love-plot and later in the movie, forced into action scenes which she doesn’t look comfortable in.The most surprising performance in the film comes from Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle – Catwoman for all intents and purposes, though the film doesn’t refer to her as such. She’s perky and sexy and crucially, really funny and entertaining, bringing a tremendous amount of energy and sex-appeal into a fairly grim, testosterone-heavy franchise. It’s a very different performance to Michelle Pfeiffer’s deteriorating insanity in Batman Returnsbut it’s a welcome, confident take on the role, banishing the dreadful memories of Halle Berry forever. Hathaway gets all the best lines and seems to be having a great time, balancing a street-wise sense of villainous entitlement with a softer, sadder world-weariness and lacing it all together with a cocky, playful wit. It’s the little details that count and Hathaway really shines with these – in her first scene, watch her switch from scared maid to confident cat; she does it in a single flick of the eyes and it’s very impressive to watch.This leaves us with Bane. Tom Hardy was always going to have it tough following Heath Ledger’s Joker, and of course, Bane doesn’t come close to matching the clown’s ferocious, creative insanity. That doesn’t mean that Bane fails though; on the contrary, he’s an excellent villain and great final foil for Batman; Bane is a beast of passion, cut from the same cloth as Batman but working from an opposing side – Batman seeks to control, Bane seeks to free; standing as a kind of villainous messiah, leading the lost citizens of Gotham into a social anarchy which will ultimately destroy them all. Hardy is amazing in this role, having built a lot of muscle for part and coming across as a huge physical, threatening presence – Bane is intimidating and makes Batman look small and frail, possessing a simmering sense of absolute power. There’s a scene where Bane rests his hand on a character’s shoulder and the sheer strength and horror this implies is huge, rendered all the greater by simple subtlety of the act. Wearing a mask however, Hardy does wonders with his eyes, bringing out a constant calm fury, topped off with a Ian McKellen via Darth Vader voice, which is sure to become as iconic as the Ledger’s Joker laugh; there’s a great contrast with such a reserved, proper voice coming from such a brutish, beast of a man. Hardy stands as one of the most interesting actors of our generation and Bane is a wonderful villain.The film isn’t perfect and suffers from some issues. It’s more plotted than story-based and heavy on exposition, with a strange pace – Batman rises more than once for example and at times the film is too busy, with certain moments or characters needing more space to be clarified. The film hinges on the poverty of Gotham and though Nolan has certain characters make reference to the upcoming storm, we never really see the problems of the people, as unlike The Dark Knight, which focused more on the city, Rises focuses entirely on the big players (hence its operatic tone) meaning we don’t feel that we’re getting the full picture of what’s going on. These are small problems however, and the epic scale makes up for missing the minor details.
Rises isn’t as powerful, disturbing or intense as it’s predecessor but is an excellent follow-up and at times better directed, with more heart and passion. The climax in particular is outstanding as Nolan brings everything full circle for his Batman. It’s a big, ambitious movie, bursting to the brim with bat-goodness, and concludes the franchise in a beautiful, poignant way, tying up the greatest comic-book trilogy of all time.
All images owned by Legendary Pictures/Syncopy Films.