To Live and Die in Gotham City
There are keenly-anticipated films, and then there are films with a genuine buzz around them, and then there are films people are desperately excited to see. And then there's The Dark Knight Rises.
The first breathlessly agitated articles about Christopher Nolan's final Batman movie started appearing nearly eighteen months ago – I should know, I wrote one of them myself. Even four months ago, respectable magazines were writing articles on the movie discussing the serious issue that some people were worried the antagonist's dialogue might be completely unintelligible. Even in a perfect world, this film would still have received virtually blanket media coverage on its opening weekend.
This, of course, is usually a recipe for crushing disappointment, as many people who went to one of the midnight showings of Prometheus would happily tell you (and, judging from what I've seen, would do so at great length). Nevertheless, some kind of minor miracle has been achieved, because The Dark Knight Rises is. . . satisfying. I know that sounds like damnation by the faintest of praise, but it really isn't. Thinking about this film the word I come back to time and time again is 'satisfying', and I think this is not something to be underestimated.
Ten years ago, a mysterious organisation calling itself the League of Shadows attempted to recruit vengeance-hungry orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to become one of its elite assassins. Wayne broke away from the League and transformed himself into the masked vigilante and defender of Gotham City, Batman, killing his former mentor.
Eight years ago, Batman's attempts to save Gotham were critically imperilled when the city's heroic DA was driven mad and went on a killing spree before ultimately dying. To protect the dead man's reputation and his work, Batman framed himself for the man's actions.
No one has seen Batman since that night, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled, embittered recluse. But Gotham is, it seems, a much more hopeful city. Dark forces are gathering, however – morally-ambiguous jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is amongst the least of them, but quick to catch Wayne's attention. Much, much more of a threat is the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), another former member of the League of Shadows, who's in town pursuing a machiavellian scheme of his own. Even if Batman returns to confront Bane, does he still have the ability to defeat him? And is Bane simply just following orders in expectation of getting a paycheck. . . ?
One can understand the reluctance of Christopher Nolan and his team to make this final return to the world of Batman, given their massive achievements with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the less-than-stellar record of many third installments in series. Just making a good movie would have been a significant success; making one as good as this is a stellar achievement.
The Dark Knight Rises shares the same virtues of Nolan's other movies: effortless technical grace and polish, a very intelligent script, strength in depth in the cast list, and the overall sense that while this may be a major studio production, that doesn't mean the film has to assume the audience is composed entirely of morons. One has to commend DC for giving Nolan the latitude to make the film he wanted to make (completely free of the stereoscopic scourge, as well), even if this means letting him do some slightly surprising things to the characters and setting.
This is not to say that Nolan cuts loose entirely from the existing Batman mythology, as many characters from the previous movies return, and a number of iconic scenes from the most famous Batman comics are brought – here it comes again – very satisfyingly to the screen. Impressively, he even manages to largely rehabilitate Catwoman, following the number done upon her reputation by Pitof and Halle Berry – although Anne Hathaway doesn't have quite the obvious intelligence or wit to completely nail the character.
The film's powerhouse performance and most memorable creation is, however, Tom Hardy's Bane. Following a possibly-dodgy start to his career playing the Picard clone in Nemesis, Hardy has been steadily popping up in recent films, always threatening to give a magnetic, movie-stealing performance. Here I would say that finally happens. Hardy's physical presence is imposing, but his vocal performance is even more remarkable, giving the character an almost-Shakespearean delivery without making him feel corny or hammy. I'd say there's quite a big difference between the comics Bane and Nolan and Hardy's version, but if anything the film-makers have improved on the original this time.
(As to whether there are any surprise appearances in this film from other notable Batman villains, either from the earlier movies or new to this one – well, the film-makers have decided to keep quiet about this, which seems to me to be an eminently sensible plan and an example I will be following.)
I could spend quite a long time going through all the things which are great about this movie, even just the performances: Michael Caine as Alfred, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop, Tom Conti in a cameo role I'd better not spoil. Hans Zimmer's score is rousing stuff, if perhaps a bit too fortissimo in places: some of the dialogue gets a little drowned out. Nolan also feels much more comfortable integrating comic relief into the story, something which occasionally felt a bit awkward in the past.
One of the most striking elements of this film which I do feel deserves a fuller mention is the level of its social commentary. All of the Nolan Batman films have had interesting things to say about the difference between law and justice and the real consequences of someone like Batman operating, but there's a long sequence towards the end of this film which seems to me to be saying very sharp and unusual things about current politics and economics. Throughout the film the people in the firing line are stockbrokers and bankers and businessmen, who are nevertheless not presented tremendously sympathetically. (This is clearly a film fully aware of the economic realities of life in 2012 and how this has shaped people's attitudes.) Bane's organisation basically presents itself as the militant wing of the Occupy movement, intent on bringing about some degree of social justice and redistribution of wealth – but, as this is Bane's organisation, we know that they are in the wrong. Even the 'morally flexible' Catwoman realises this. And yet the film refuses to offer easy answers or pat solutions: it's mature enough to suggest, as these films always have, that the world is a complex place which does not lend itself to such things.
Lots of stuff blows up, too, of course, orchestrated with Nolan's customary verve. Perhaps the great achievement of this series has been the way in which it has blended intelligent themes and characterisation with the demands of a blockbuster superhero movie (I notice a cliche developing: the hunt for a clean, renewable energy source is a crucial plot point here, as it was in The Avengers, and a couple of movies prior to that – and, while we're on the subject, watching The Dark Knight Rises back to back with The World is Not Enough might prove an illuminating experience in some respects).
I imagine one of the pleasures to be had when returning to this film will be to admire Nolan's legerdemain in setting up the conclusion. All the elements are there, in plain view (sometimes jarringly so), and yet come the end of the film he manages to arrange them in a manner which is both ingenious, quite moving, and – yet again – very satisfying as a genuine end to the story (suffice to say, Batman does something he's never done before). The real trick is that the film presents something which is very definitely a proper ending, but still makes you want to revisit this world and see what happens next to the characters: but it would be brave of a director to attempt to follow in Nolan's footsteps so closely, and brave of DC to let them try.
However, however, however. The Dark Knight Rises is cleverly written, strongly acted, flawlessly realised and directed with indisputable virtuosity – but for all of this it is still quite a difficult film to honestly connect with – for all of its many satisfactions, the overall impression I got was of a vast, intricate, high-powered, precision-tooled machine: a phenomenal piece of engineering but quite hard to engage with emotionally for an extended period of time.
I suppose this has been true to some degree of all the Christopher Nolan films that I've seen – perhaps the sheer scope of his imagination and ambition prevents them from having a genuine human centre. Even so, Christopher Nolan is still arguably the most exciting director working in the world today, and if he finds a way to invest his movies with authentic heart a place amongst the all-time greats is his to be had. The Dark Knight Rises is proof enough of that – Nolan has made a terrific film on so many levels, and one which deserves to be remembered for that and that alone.