In 2005 Christopher Nolan and company added the word “reboot” into Hollywood’s lexicon. Prior to that movie, the idea of just starting from scratch with a franchise brand seemed ridiculous. I mean James Bond had been going straight without a reboot for 20 films! But since Batman Begins, everyone and their sidekick is getting a reboot. Even James Bond! With what is now known as The Dark Knight Trilogy, director Nolan took a character that studio wisdom deemed dead and reinvented him for the 21st century. The reboot gamble he took for the franchise then is ALMOST as daring as what he did with the franchise in 2012…when he killed it.
Rest assured, there will always be Batman movies. The character is even supposed to appear in 2015’s purported Justice League flick (think Avengers but with more capes and grimaces). However, it will not be Christian Bale’s Batman in that movie. In an era where franchises never seem to end, even ones with definitive final chapters get stretched into two or three more installments nowadays, Nolan proposed the impossible when he suggested ending his series at the height of its of popularity. That’s an even crazier notion when one realizes Batman has never had a definitive ending . . . anywhere. Even Frank Miller’s much celebrated Elseworlds Batman graphic novel/character denouement, The Dark Knight Returns, got a followup a few years ago. People just can’t let Batman go. But that’s exactly what Nolan did in his final Bat-flick, The Dark Knight Rises. So, how’d he do?
It’s been eight years since Harvey Dent died and the Caped Crusader took the blame for his crimes. In that time, Gotham has done the impossible: it cleaned itself up. Molded in the image of Dent, Gotham’s justice system has zero tolerance for any criminal activity and has become a happy police state. But all this idyllic peace has left Bruce Wayne (Bale) with none. Still mourning the death of his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes, Bruce has spent the last three years of his life as a Howard Hughes-like recluse in the shadows of Wayne Manor with only saddened father figure Alfred (Michael Caine) to keep him company.
But two strange forces pull Bruce out of his deep funk. The first literally knocks the self pity right out of him when she steals his mother’s pearls. Her name is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) aka “The Cat” Burglar (aka Catwoman for those unafraid of comic book noms de guerre) and she is a social climbing thief with the heart of a social warring revolutionary. The other masked figure pulling on the once and future Bat is a far more menacing supposed revolutionary. Bane (Tom Hardy) in truth is a rogue offshoot from Begins’s League of Shadows. He has come to Gotham to fulfill Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) dream of destroying the city, except he will do it as a self-proclaimed militant liberator. Bruce finds help from some old faces, like Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), as well as a few new ones, including rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). However, despite fixing up a bum knee and getting a really cool new heli-jet from Fox, Alfred rightly points out that Bruce is no longer physically or emotionally fit enough to be Batman. But as Bane prepares for a military coup of America’s greatest city, can the Dark Knight rise to the occasion?
The Dark Knight Rises is an incredibly ambitious film. If the last one intended to be a crime drama for the War on Terror years, this aims to be a social war epic from the David Lean School of Moviemaking. It tries to do so many things in three hours while remaining a Batman movie that it sometimes strains its intentions under its own gargantuan weight. Consider that this is the longest Batman movie ever made, but Bale is only in the cape for about 33 minutes (almost 1/5 of its running time). There are points where the movie can be messy as it gallops through its Second Act. Bane’s social revolution, with overt allusions to how Charles Dickens imagined a certain French one in A Tale of Two Cities, is sped through in a rush to get a decommissioned Batman back into Gotham City.
Still, for this reviewer the super-sized scope of Nolan’s vision and his grand ideas more than make up for several pacing issues. As luck would have it, the movie came out in the first summer after the Occupy Wall Street movement. Despite what pundits will say on either side, the film was written before the movement began and was neither intended as a defense nor condemnation of the event. However, it is not surprising Nolan was able to keep his finger on the cultural pulse in the four years between films. It’s no secret that the economy has been precariously weak since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the sense of social inequality and class injustice runs through the film as it does in our world. Like many Americans’ feelings about foreign policy over the last decade, there is an outrage from Gothamites, including hero cop John Blake, that they’ve been lied to. Bane uses these all-too-real issues as a rallying cry to turn Gotham upside down after he has neutralized the city’s entire police force. But for those who are quick to say Nolan is supporting a jack booted authoritarian rule over a rabid proletariat, please look a little closer. Bane is a false prophet who wraps himself up in revolutionary rhetoric to advance his own agenda. Modeled after the historical Robespierre of the French Revolution (1789-1799), who used fanaticism to turn social change into the Reign of Terror, Bane poses more a broad question about self-proclaimed populist leaders than he does of disenfranchised college kids. Until Occupiers line up around Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church with tanks, I’ll maintain the film’s political critics are missing the point.
Literary and historical allegories aside, Bane is an interesting villain in his own right. Everyone had the same reaction last summer. He’s not the Joker. And he’s not, but I doubt Nolan or Hardy wanted that. Likely knowing they couldn’t top Ledger’s manic iconography, they went for a different kind of threat. Bane is obviously the greatest physical challenge Batman has faced in any of his films. Fans of Bane’s most iconic comic book tale, Knightfall, will sit back with glee when a certain scene is recreated. However, Nolan made Bane more than his comic book sum for this movie. On the page, Bane is an intelligent brute. He can outwit Batman to a point and uses super-steroids to outfight him.
But here, Nolan is again channeling those historical implications to force us into another iconic Batman comic story, No Man’s Land. During that series, an earthquake wipes out most of Gotham and it is up to Batman to maintain order as the U.S. government abandons the city. In Rises, Nolan and writers David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan go for a slightly less implausible scenario by having a terrorist create the riotous apocalypse when he builds a nuclear weapon that will be detonated if the U.S. government steps foot on the island of Gotham. Bane is no longer a mere criminal adversary, but the third wave of social collapse in this trilogy: military takeover. These ideas may be rich, but they are held together by Hardy’s bravado performance. Very few actors would agree to work in a mask that covers 2/3 of their face and muffles their voice, but he does his damndest and makes it work…even if his voice is unintentionally hilarious. It almost let’s you move past Ledger’s Joker. Almost.
As entertaining as Bane is though, it is Hathaway’s perfect feline who steals the show. When she was announced for the role, there was a ton of skepticism aimed at the onetime Disney princess. Despite having a well-earned Oscar nomination for Rachel Getting Married, many Bat-fans saw her only as a girl meant for romantic comedies and family flicks. Not even the most disgruntled fanboy had a nit to pick after the picture dropped. Thanks to Jonathan Nolan’s urging, comic fans finally now have a Catwoman who isn’t evil or supernaturally psychotic. Much like the way the character has been written for the last 30 years, she is an incredibly selfish jewel thief with a reluctant heart of gold when all things Bat are concerned. She walks the thin line between good and evil throughout, but is probably the closest to a kindred spirit Bruce Wayne will ever meet. In one especially great scene, she plays the breathy femme fatale in the little black dress for an evil businessman, but turns into a hapless damsel in distress when the cops come rushing in. While the men start firing bullets at one another, the forgotten Selina lightly struts out of the bar. Unlike most female protagonists in this genre, she doesn’t need anyone to save her.
All the various plot strands could choke lesser movies, but this one is confidently anchored by Bale’s final turn as Batman. After three outings, he has become very comfortable in the role. Even audiences have, for the most part, stopped snickering at his gravely Bat-voice. But this is a special one for the actor and the archetype he has been exploring. In the first film, Batman was the centerpiece of the age old origin story and all the Campbellian flourishes it entails. In The Dark Knight, he was part of an ensemble in which the Joker and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) were equal coleads. With Rises, Bale is back at the center and explores the greatest taboo in comic book history. What if Bruce Wayne can overcome the death of his parents? What if Bruce can look past his pain and anger? Batman is still very much Gotham’s needed watchful guardian, but Nolan takes an honest look at what this lifestyle might do to a man. Physically it would wreak havoc on even the fittest body over enough time and the psychological scars could go even deeper. His city needs him, but Bruce Wayne does not. The whole narrative ultimately becomes about Bruce climbing out of the darkness and giving the construct of Batman up. He will save his city no matter the cost, but his arbitrary rules and absolutist anger will have to be put aside as he takes a more nuanced view of his goals and abilities. He may even give a murderess a free pass.
The Dark Knight Rises is a bold movie. It pulls heavily from comic book resources, but it figuratively and literally tries to make its title character grow beyond that mindset. It features a villain whose ultimate plan comes down to blowing up the city, but uses that convention to touch on much more intriguing ideas about populism, revolution, societal collapse and the place of order in inequality. It is about a guy who wears a metal mask to numb away pain fighting another dude dressed as a Bat. But don’t forget it’s about letting go of childhood trauma! It is many things…maybe too many things. Yet despite being a bit top-heavy, the movie does find the right balance to soar. When the Batman finally comes out of retirement and you see his cape flapping past his Bat-Pod while hordes of police cars chase him, there are chills you will not find in other larger scaled superhero flicks. Early in Begins, Bruce tells Alfred that he wanted to create a legend that would inspire people. Somehow, despite being a reboot of a series that had already run its long course once, this trilogy did birth a true cinematic legend. One that surpasses anything of its kind that has come before and stands alone on its rising platform.