OK, before I begin this, two quick announcements:
1. This is going to be Part 1 of 2. I’m splitting the review of this movie to discuss the specific points this movie brings up here and leave the larger themes of the overall trilogy for Part 2. Otherwise, this would get out of hand.
2. Discussion of this movie is impossible without spoiling it. Therefore, let this be the first/last/only SPOILERS AHEAD!! warning you will get. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it. That’s all you need to know.
This much seems to be true about Christopher Nolan: he likes to make the lives of his lead characters into total shit. From Memento’s Leonard Shelby and The Prestige’s Angeir and Borden through Inception’s Dom Cobb to obviously his Bruce Wayne, Nolan is building a resume of protagonists who struggle with major emotional, psychological and philosophical issues. All of which makes his selection to bring Batman back to life a bit obvious – even if it wasn’t when it was announced way back when.
Let’s remember that the Batman franchise had hit rock bottom following the infamous Batman & Robin. Various aborted attempts to resurrect it had failed – remember the Justice League movie or Wolfgang Petersen’s World’s Finest? Instead, they turned to a young director best known for psychological crime noir films to bring their biggest superhero franchise back to life. I doubt anyone could have predicted in their wildest dreams how successful it would turn out.
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. The Batman has not been seen on the streets of Gotham since the night he “murdered” Harvey Dent. Likewise, Bruce Wayne is a recluse in his mansion; becoming something of an urban legend amongst the socialites of Gotham, who compare him to Howard Hughes. Organized crime remains a shell of what it was thanks to the legacy of The Joker’s rampage and the work of Dent, The Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon, with most of the hardened criminals kept behind bars at the new Blackgate Prison in downtown Gotham.
Despite their long absences, enemies of Bruce Wayne and of The Batman remain who are targeting their weak points. Far away, a terrorist mastermind called Bane is slowly building an army using tactics borrowed from Bruce’s mentor, Ra’s Al Ghul. Meanwhile, bad investments by Bruce for a clean energy fusion project have left his hold on Wayne Enterprises in a tenuous position with a corporate takeover specialist circling around. And who is the beautiful maid who just broke open Bruce’s personal safe?
By now, Christian Bale inhabits the twin roles of Bruce Wayne and The Batman with comfort and ease. Just as Christopher Reeve was Superman to my generation, Bale’s performances will make him Batman for many for quite a long time. He broods and carries what seems to be the weight of the world on his shoulders. The Batman’s voice – grating to so many in The Dark Knight – sounds so much better here. It’s a solid performance that anchors the movie well.
Playing off Bale are the usual cast of characters – Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman – as well as newcomers like Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine and Anne Hathaway. The old guard continue to do quality work around Bale and each get a moment to shine – in this case, Michael Caine gets a few strong, emotional moments with Bale. The new guard handle themselves appropriately with Hathaway’s Selina Kyle the biggest addition. In many ways, her version of “Catwoman” (never called by that moniker) becomes the Irene Adler to The Batman’s Sherlock – she is as clever as he is and as capable, but has been forced by life to become a thief and a criminal. She’s out for herself but yet is compelled to help The Batman in his pursuit of Bane.
Speaking of Bane, let me tackle something right here: No, he is not The Joker. For anyone disappointed that the big, beefy and brutal mastermind is not as flamboyant as the Clown Prince of Crime, well, too bad. That’s not who he is in any version that has existed. Does that deny this movie from some of the fun of the last one? Yes. There is little humor in this movie. A comment here. A witty comeback there. This is a movie coated in greys and blacks – even the sun doesn’t seem to shine so brightly in Gotham. The gorgeous color palate of The Avengers is nowhere to be found here. Likewise the tone of the hero and the villain is not one that lends itself for a popcorn fare.
This version of Bane is, in many ways, the antithesis of The Batman. Both are born out of their experiences with the League of Shadows. Both are brilliant tacticians, capable fighters and impressive figureheads. Both find ways in which to expand their presence and their imprint on the minds of their opponents. But whereas The Batman uses those teachings to become a symbol of justice, Bane is someone who uses the tools given to him to forge an army of believers. He embraces the role of heir to Ra’s Al Ghul and seeks to accomplish that long-delayed triumph by bringing Gotham to its knees. And when he does, he basically recreates the Reign of Terror.
For those of you who may have slept through that day of history: the Reign of Terror (or “La Terreur”) was the period immediately after the French Revolution between 1793 and 1794 in which thousands upon thousands were executed for being “enemies of the revolution.” The aristocracy (most notably, Queen Marie Antoinette) and many of the clergy were sent to the guillotine on this charge. Unfortunately, as the most radical leaders of the Revolution began to seize the levers of power, the situation devolved into people using newly-created laws to remove personal enemies or seize more power for themselves. By the time Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, was himself executed, more than 40,000 had perished by guillotine or mob.
This is what Bane creates once he moves in on Gotham: he releases those imprisoned by Dent and unites them with the poor masses to create a vision of Gotham that is upside down. In a scene ripped right out of the Reign of Terror, the affluent and rich are forced to defend themselves in a court presided by Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow. By creating a city at war with itself – and under fear of a nuclear explosion unable to receive relief from the outside world – Bane levels the structures of Gotham. He makes the police, the rich and any of the former powerful into enemies and makes Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox and Detective Blake into leaders of the counter-revolution who must work in the shadows. Ultimately, this plan requires the elimination of the person most likely to oppose him: Bruce Wayne, The Batman.
Just as Nolan made The Dark Knight into a treatise on “The War on Terror”, he turns The Dark Knight Rises into an essay on the current “Great Recession”. There’s various instances where a character will comment on the bourgeois’ partying it up and how it’s disconnected from real life – even Bruce Wayne makes that comment before he loses it all. When Bane’s nuclear-enforced revolution happens, it’s no surprise that he splits Gotham’s society amongst class lines. But the link is tenuous at best and the theme doesn’t quite resonate like “government spying on its own citizens for their own good” did in The Dark Knight.
If any of that discussion on class warfare/economics is not to your liking, don’t let it detract you from the movie. Nolan’s far more interested in seeing how Bruce Wayne reacts to the challenge of Bane and how he forces himself out of the depression that has set over his life. In many ways, the ultimate theme of The Dark Knight Rises is responsibility. Bruce Wayne surrendered the responsibilities in all aspects of his life to the despair over his loss of Rachel Dawes and it takes him losing just about everything else he has in order to recover. It takes Detective Blake to remind him of why he was out there to begin with. It takes seeing Bane out there to force him into action.
But The Batman is not the only hero in this movie. If anything, Nolan does a great job of giving equal time to Gordon, Blake and Fox. If The Batman bears great responsibility for Gotham, he is not the only one. It takes more than one man to oppose Bane and the League of Shadows. It takes hundreds of unnamed police officers who refuse to surrender their charge to the criminals of Gotham once again. It takes Fox and Miranda Tate to figure out a way to stop the nuclear explosion from happening. The Batman bears his responsibility but so do the rest – and Bane’s campaign forces them all to come to terms with who they are and why they do what they do.
The Dark Knight Rises is a great conclusion to Nolan’s stewardship over the Batman. He managed to tell three stories that brought the focus back to the Caped Crusader, instead of relegating him to an “also starring” role while the villain was the main star. It took the comic book legend from fantasy to a pseudo-reality where we could believe a man, dressed in a costume, could fly and fight and overcome all obstacles. Most importantly, it serves as a great parable for our age about how one man – even if that man is wealthy beyond imagination – can rise up and change the world for the better.
Now what kind of man is that? I’ll save that up for Part 2.