Unpopular Opinion: The Dark Knight Rises Is The Last Great Superhero Film

Despite a mixed critical reception among comic book fans, The Dark Knight Rises remains one of the highlights of its genre.

Unpopular Opinions is our new original video series releasing every Wednesday afternoon on the Den of Geek Facebook page. Each week, Our writers go against the grain with their pop culture hot takes. 

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Read on after the video for more analysis! 

UnPop: The Dark Knight Rises

When Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was released in theaters in 2012, the critical reception was strong, if nothing like the zeitgeist-destroying thunder summoned by 2008’s The Dark Knight. A sprawling superhero epic that was unafraid to evoke Charles Dickens’ view of history, David Lean’s sense of grand cinematic sweep, and even modern fears of class warfare taken to the streets, it was more than a bit ambitious. The picture was rewarded with over $1 billion in grosses, yet fans to this day continue to argue over its quality.

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In the video above, we reconsider the closing chapter to Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and why it was the last great superhero movie (at least until Logan was released). Powered by the same careful eye for filmic iconography that Nolan infuses into all of his pictures, Rises is a visual triumph thanks to the pristine cinematography by Wally Pfister, which utilizes 35mm celluloid and 65mm IMAX cameras in equal measure. Additionally, after a haze of five years of superhero movie saturation and hegemony, wherein most pictures eagerly conform to the visual and storytelling rigidity of their “shared universes,” The Dark Knight Rises insistence to be a narrative departure from what came before, and stand alone as a story with true finality, casts its shadow even farther afield.

While it is a step down from The Dark Knight, no superhero movie until 2017’s Logan has been so willing to foresake formula and audience expectation. Rises channels Western fears about militant takeovers by force in gaudy superhero drag, and creates a villain whose operatic bravado and blatant demagoguery only seem more chilling and prescient after recent real world events.

Indeed, Bane is certainly the last memorable superhero movie villain who left a hell of an impact on pop culture, and he is complemented by Anne Hathaway’s against-type casting as Selina Kyle. Like the unconventional choice of Tom Hardy’s five foot nine inch frame as Bane, Hathaway immerses herself in a role that is slinky, closer to the comics than anything that came before, and intentionally more reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly than any typical superhero movie archetype.

But all of this is in service to a unique and supremely effective character arc for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne. More than anything, The Dark Knight Rises wants Bruce Wayne to let go of his childhood pain. In retrospect, it illustrates that Nolan and Bale’s Batman was not only grounded in verisimilitude (if not reality), but that he approached crime fighting with a far greater sense of big picture thinking than the comic book one is permitted. He sees the need for systematic and institutional change, and like a politician uses the Batman persona to campaign for social reform. Yet, it is all fueled by a childhood trauma that the movie would suggest has created an unhealthy paradigm in Bruce’s soul.

To live a healthy and happy life, Bruce must let go of Batman while achieving his goal of rescuing Gotham not just from crime, but from corruption and cynical disengagement. The film is not just about Batman rising out of a pit, but its hero outgrowing the childish notions of masked vigilantism and the anger that clouds it.

This is likely the real reason so many fans find the movie frustrating: it’s the story of a superhero learning it is better to give up the mask if he is to actually save his city. Unconventional? Sure. But also surprisingly human. And after a half-decade of dozens of superhero movies that are terrified of approaching anything resembling an ending (or true cathartic, thematic, resolution), it’s a beacon of light in the dark.

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