The eagerly anticipated finale to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Dark Knight Rises, opened in theaters this past weekend to high expectations and even higher hopes. There’s never been a third Batman film in a series before this (although would anyone have wanted a third Burton or Schumacher installment?), and the almost universal praise of Nolan’s first two entries meant the stakes were incredibly high this time around. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight was one of such nearly mythic proportions that it seemed almost impossible to top.
When the film opens, Bruce Wayne has gone into Howard Hughes-level seclusion, virtually unseen since the deaths of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent eight years prior. The “Harvey Dent Act” put into place after the death of Gotham’s hero district attorney has kept the streets clean of criminals, and this combined with the fact that Batman is blamed for Dent’s death has caused Bruce to hang up the cape and cowl. He’s grown a beard, hangs out in a robe, and walks with a limp thanks to the toll that his tenure as Batman took on his body. This is a Bruce Wayne alien to the traditional comic book or animated interpretations, one with real-life consequences tacked onto his night job. Movies don’t have the luxury of keeping a character running in perpetuity like comics do, so in this instance it’s nice to see some weight thrown into the situation. Batman may be a symbol, but Bruce is in fact human, and the Nolan films have done an excellent job of portraying this balance in the relatively short time they have been allotted.
Bruce’s seclusion is interrupted during one of the many parties Alfred has been throwing in the interim to keep the Wayne name alive in Gotham, when Selina Kyle–Catwoman–gains entry to both his private quarters and his safe, posing as the hired help. I should admit right here that while I typically have full confidence in Christopher Nolan’s decisions as a filmmaker, casting Anne Hathaway as Catwoman was the only real thing to give me pause leading up to this film’s release. Not that Hathaway isn’t a decent actress, because she is, but I just couldn’t picture her in the role. On top of that, Catwoman has been miscast and poorly written in prior big-screen adaptations not once but twice, so the inclusion of the character in general just made me nervous. So I’d like to just take a moment to say I was horribly wrong and Anne Hathaway throws more Catwoman into the first five minutes of her screentime than I ever could have thought possible. Okay, so to continue, she crack’s Bruce’s uncrackable safe, swipes his mother’s pearl necklace, and after a quick leg sweep is out the window. Re-enter the Batman.
Here is where I should probably stop discussing the plot. It’s so good that the temptation to just run through it all here is strong. Suffice it to say that The Dark Knight rises continues the escalation that has been in effect since the beginning of the trilogy. The themes of class warfare, social upheaval, and redistribution of wealth are ripped straight from the Occupy Movement headlines, and are especially fitting for a superhero film in which the hero also happens to be one of the wealthiest men in America. Gotham is endangered here on every conceivable level, and it’s very nearly too much for one film, taking place over the course of about half a year. Nolan holds it all together well though, and the result feels like a condensed version of a giant year-long comic book event along the lines of No Man’s Land or Knightfall.
Being Batman is a much more dangerous role here than it ever has been: in addition to Bruce’s shattered body, he now has almost the entire Gotham City police force after him in connection with Harvey Dent’s death, save for Commissioner Gordon and a young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His usual allies are disappearing as Alfred now refuses to stand by and watch him chase a death wish, and Lucius Fox spends much of the movie detained in one situation or another. And to top it all off there’s a new villain in town, one that in my opinion rivals Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. Tom Hardy throws himself into the role of Bane with such an incredible intensity, getting everything about the character absolutely right. If you’ve ever seen him in Bronson, this is a lot like that, only with pants. A lot of actors would insist on at least one maskless scene, and many comic book movies have suffered from this issue: masks coming off left and right for no other reason than to get the actor’s face on screen. Bane’s mask never comes off, and Hardy is more than up to the task of working through it, and the result is spectacular.
Also deserving of special mention is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of police officer John Blake, one of only a small handful of Gothamites who still believes in the Batman, and the first cop ever in the trilogy to actually make Commissioner Gordon’s job easier. Blake is a character invented for the film, which is usually the glaring weak spot in a comic book adaptation’s armor. He fits right in, though, and actually succeeds in being one of the film’s high points. More well-written cops are always a welcome addition to a good Batman story, and comic book fans who have read the excellent GCPD books will probably be particularly interested. It’s a shame that he arrived during the last part of the trilogy (ditto for Catwoman), but it’s a great character nonetheless.
I rewatched the first two movies in the series prior to seeing this one, and all things considered I think this is my favorite of the three, narrowly beating out The Dark Knight. It’s simply one of the best comic book films ever made, and one of the few times in cinematic history that a series has gone out at its peak. The script holds some of the best character moments in the franchise, in particular a scene near the end between Batman and Gordon, as well as pretty much everything Alfred says or does in the entire film. I don’t envy anyone tasked with planning the inevitable reboot in a few years, this will be an incredibly hard act to follow.