*Caution: Minor, Veiled Spoilers*
Last night I was privileged to see Chris Nolan’s conclusion to his reboot of the Batman film franchise: the Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan has come out top of the heap in the last decade’s trend of adapting comic book franchises to film. Compared to when Tim Burton started the first Hollywood take on Batman, which started out over-the-top and rapidly deteriorated into idiotic, Nolan has approached Batman from the gritty, realistic and morally grayer direction which is really the character’s natural habitat.
In this chapter, Bruce Wayne has been a shut-in for years since the death of fallen hero Harvey Dent, and Gotham City is in relative peace. However, a burglary by one Selina Kyle, alias Catwoman, alerts him to something new in the air. Gotham is about to come under attack by the fanatic followers of Bane, a mysterious masked terrorist with an agenda hearkening back to the plot of Batman Begins.
Batman has to make a comeback, having to fend off the police (who still think he killed Harvey Dent) and negotiate the loyalty of Catwoman, who has her own agenda. Ultimately it comes down to a showdown between Bane and Batman, but Bane may turn out to be the Dark Knight’s match. The risks taken cost Wayne much in his health and his personal life as he prepares to face death in the fight for Gotham’s survival.
If it seems I’m hyping the epicness of the movie, it’s because the epicness is hard to overstate.
The story is incredibly suspenseful and heartwrending, as the personal cost of heroism and of generally giving a damn is shown in a high-stakes situation. Michael Caine’s performance reflects it best (but then again, he’s Michael Caine) but Christian Bale, who has been accused of being a rather wooden actor, is giving an above-average show of energy and emotion in this movie. The fact that Gary Oldman does a fantastic show of Commissioner Gordon’s stoutness of purpose, moral conflict and personal courage is, likewise, not a surprise since this is Gary Oldman, after all. Tom Hardy’s performance as Bane, while an occasional struggle to understand through that mask, is absolutely terrifying. Dry, cheerful villainy seems to be his strong point, because I was scared out of my wits by his polite discourse on his plans of destruction, which, filtered through that mask, made him sound like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader. Besides which, he’s about three times the size he was when last I saw him…
Catwoman’s character makes a neat middle-ground between them and it reinforces the theme of redemption and making choices in the fight against evil that has been one of the strongest ones in the entire trilogy. She also has genuine depth and power and isn’t just there for sex appeal (although there is no shortage of that), and she isn’t just used for the dull ‘temptation into darkness’ plots the character has driven in the past.
The action sequences are much improved upon. They’re a return to form, with Batman’s combat style going back to the attack-from-the-shadows, evasive and theatrical approach that was so thrilling in Batman Begins. The first time Batman appeared on the scene, I was genuinely startled, as in ‘Whoa! Batman just showed up!’ The Dark Knight lacked that somewhat and I was glad to see it return.
There are a few faults in the story, as anything with stakes as high as a final chapter has. Nolan’s been very good at establishing internal rules and guidelines for the universe that make sense (if sometimes only in movie-logic) and sticking to them. However one of the more intriguing plot points – exactly why Bane wears his mask – has a slightly contrived, take-our-word-for-it sense about it which is jarring. I feel like it would have been fine to stick to a version of his original backstory, wherein the character uses a strength-enhancing compound to rile himself up for a fight.
The period right before the climax drags on a little. Nevertheless some good groundwork is laid down for the climax and for the theme of confronting fear, brought back from Batman Begins to be settled at last. At one stage we are granted a view of Bane’s personal prison, a place described throughout the film as a dark, despair-ridden circle of hell, which turns out to be mostly boring rather than violent and quite well-lit to boot. I had to laugh because the mines of Remus, home and birthplace of Tom Hardy’s character Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis looked more like the place described than this did. On a related note, I feel that the theme of Batman as the nighttime guardian against the true darkness is undercut badly because the final battle takes place during the day. I can’t say more without spoiling, but some fine symbolic opportunities were missed as a result and Batman frankly looks absurd standing in the street in broad daylight
Bane’s plot of bringing about Gotham’s destruction is drawn out, partly to torture Batman, but several threads of his plan don’t seem to compute with one another all that well, so that I can’t tell what exactly he is trying to achieve in all this. That, of course, might be a problem at my end. It gets a little uncomfortable, though, since if you look at it from the right (actually, almost certainly the wrong angle) it looks like a vilification of popular resistance and class struggle. I feel Batman and V would not get on well.
Anyway, these issues aside, the movie was utterly first class. Hans Zimmer’s musical score (which I’m actually listening to as I write) carries its weight in the story. The themes of courage, choice, freedom and the meaning of heroism are explored and settled in a manner consistent with the way they’ve been carried through all three movies, and the ending can easily choke you up. It’s a long, emotionally demanding and exhilarating final journey for this version of a beloved character, with actors and music well matched to the task.