It’s as far-removed from Adam West as you’d imagine: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hobbling around Wayne Manor with a cane in the manner of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. A Batman harbouring not only physical injuries but psychological scars? Not only is there never a good day to get rid of a bomb; in today’s climate, and under Christopher Nolan’s austere direction, there’s never a good day to be a superhero.
Such brooding torment courses through the veins of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s epic conclusion to his transcendent Batman trilogy, one which, miraculously, rescued the Caped Crusader from self-parody in the wake of Batman and Robin. 2005’s Batman Begins was an admirable, if flawed, re-invention: cheesy exposition and Obi-Wan style ninja training (courtesy of Liam Neeson) competing with the gripping psychological re-evaluation of a much-loved character, an evaluation that would properly take flight in the electrifying Dark Knight (2008).
If Begins felt somewhat compromised, depth hamstrung by the need for clunky, clichÃ©d elements, The Dark Knight was a much more personal movie, in spite of its scope and budget. Nolan was finally able to paint his disturbing themes on a grand level, boosted immeasurably by Heath Ledger’s extraordinary performance as the anarchic Joker. So how does Rises measure up?
Somewhat disappointingly, it doesn’t, although that’s not to say that Rises is a bad film. Of course it isn’t; to suggest so is foolish. Nolan’s finale is more ambitious, and dares to say more profound things, than almost any summer movie of its type, and for that, the film deserves much acclaim. The problem is, it attempts to say too much and features too many characters, resulting in a bloated blow-out to the Batman trilogy.
To attempt to unpick the plot would not only require vast amounts of white space but would also spoil many of the surprises on offer – this is a movie where it’s best to know just the bare outline before going in. Eight years after Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) crimes, Wayne has retreated inside his mansion, only to be summoned back into action when terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy) threatens the now peaceful unity of Gotham City.
An assault on Wayne’s personal finances at the stock exchange forces his hand and he eventually dons the cape and cowl once more – but the danger this time proves more personal than he could ever have imagined. New faces include Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (she’s never referred to as Catwoman) – re-imagined as a thief looking out for number one whilst awaiting the day when the capitalist pigs will be overthrown; Marion Cotillard as Wayne’s new love interest, Miranda Tate; and Joseph Gordon Levitt as honest cop John Blake, harbouring his own desires that the Batman will once again return. Familiar ones include Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Michael Caine as perennially loyal butler Alfred.
The main issue runs thus. At the centre of The Dark Knight, there was an elemental, terrifying battle between chaos and control, embodied by the conflict between The Joker and Batman, which eventually spilled over tragically onto the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character. Rises, on the other hand, doesn’t have one central battle; it has about 10 going on at once. Not only does Wayne have to grapple with the re-emergence of his caped alter-ego and the encroaching threat of Bane (there’s two big conflicts for just one character); every other character has baggage too.
Bane for his part has his own personal reasons for wanting to bring Gotham to its knees (which won’t be spoiled here); and Kyle realises when everything starts going to pot that her worldview maybe isn’t the most appropriate. Meanwhile Blake has a personal connection to another aspect of Nolan’s world – the boy’s school in which he grew up, and which has stopped receiving funds from the Wayne Foundation; and Gordon is forced to deal with his own feelings of guilt when publicising Harvey Dent’s apparent decency.
In the midst of all the baggage, there’s a central plot device involving green energy and much more besides, but what truly resonates is Caine’s beautifully modulated performance as Alfred. It’s Caine’s finest, most heartbreaking work of the franchise, and some of the best work of his career, the devoted butler distraught at seeing his master commit to a symbol that might very well be his destruction. The actor brings tears to the eyes on more than one occasion.
The problem is there’s so much baggage to work through that vital character moments become arbitrary in the relentless march towards the next plot development or character revelation. One second, Caine’s Alfred is pouring his heart out; the very next scene, we’re onto a lot of heavy weather about stock markets. The viewer can’t luxuriate in the film’s strengths because it’s always having to move forward, with the characters explaining why the film is moving forward as it’s doing so.
Although the use of flashbacks is more tastefully managed than may be expected, Rises lacks the brisk confidence of The Dark Knight, burdened with the weight of story and character. Nestled down in the supporting cast for example is Full Metal Jacket’s Matthew Modine as a fellow cop determined to catch the Batman. Great as it is to see him back on the big screen, Modine’s storyline could easily be lifted out of the film, saving 10 to 15 minutes of unnecessary exposition.
That said, the film is tremendously well-acted across the board, not only by Caine but the whole cast. Bale effortlessly conveys the defeated sense of a superhero who has been hollowed out in the wake of public hostility, and when the movie has the audacity to cast him down in the pit (literally), Bale responds with an acutely perceptive, believable performance. Despite being hampered by a mask and a voice that sounds like Sean Connery with a sinus infection, Hardy is an effectively intimidating presence as Bane. If he lacks the intellectual frisson of Ledger’s Joker, his scary eyes and hulking frame make up for it (the 2009 film Bronson also demonstrated the power of Hardy’s peepers).
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Hathaway. She fits brilliantly into Nolan’s gritty world, less a comic-book character than an assured, quick-witted manipulator who experiences a crisis of conscience. It’s superb work from the actress (and, typically for Nolan, even the ‘ears’ on her costume have a logical explanation). Levitt has the hardest job, assaying the blandest, most ‘normal’ character so it’s a testament to his likeability that Blake is one of the film’s most memorable inhabitants, interesting precisely because of the lack of ostentatious additions. Excellent support comes from Oldman, Cotillard and Morgan Freeman.
As an experience, the movie never feels like a comic-book effort, and that is intended as the highest compliment. Movies like The Avengers occupy a fantastical universe and are brilliantly entertaining with it, but Nolan, along with the manifest efforts of the cast and crew, dares to transcend the genre, crafting not so much a superhero fantasy but an intense psychological crime drama featuring people who happen to wear masks. This is his greatest achievement with the trilogy, leaping beyond the page and crafting movies with a torturous, brooding identity of their own (although a last-minute revelation in this particular film smacks of studio compromise).
When it comes to imagining this world, one shouldn’t overlook the invaluable efforts of DP Wally Pfister; production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh; and composer Hans Zimmer. The latter provides an interesting contrast between the pounding vocal chant for Bane and the more tender material reflecting Batman’s essential humanity but the music does threaten to overtake the dialogue in many places – never a good sign in a film score.
So, a flawed conclusion to an incredibly brave and memorable franchise, one which overplays its hand and invites more exhausted admiration than air-punching. And yet, despite all the problems with The Dark Knight Rises, there’s something innately satisfying, and even optimistic, about a film which casts its central figure down whilst anticipating his rousing ascent from the ashes. In spite of all the doom and gloom, Nolan recognises the importance of heroes in this day and age, and also realises that a person needn’t wear a costume in order to be perceived as one. These are the tender human notes which eventually transcend the murk to linger in the mind of viewers.