Photo by Ron Phillips

Batman movies shouldn’t be something that film snobs and teen boys anticipate with equally fevered anticipation. In theory, the release of a new Batman movie should be the same as the release of one of the many Marvel productions. Audiences enter a theater expecting nothing more than an intriguing character, some whizbang action, and a few laughs. Then Christopher Nolan went and changed everything. In Batman Begins and especially in The Dark Knight, Nolan proved to moviegoers what avid comic book readers have known to years: Batman ain’t your average superhero. The rich boy who essentially went insane and dressed up like a bat to beat on bad guys has much more going on psychologically than your average tights-wearing crime fighter. He’s a damaged soul fighting freaks different from him only because of a moral code and there are a wealth of elemental themes to explore in the iconic character and his gothic world. After Dark Knight announced to everyone that superhero movies are now for serious, the world waited for the director’s third and concluding chapter in the franchise. Well folks, The Dark Knight Rises is finally here and the good news is that it’s appropriately epic finale to what is sure to be remembered as the finest superhero series ever filmed. All of the flaws that have dogged the franchise since the beginning still apply, but the overall effect is nothing short of stunning. Hmmm, dramatic resonance and thematic complexity from a funny book, who knew? Well, Chris Nolan, I guess.

Photo by Ron Phillips

The film opens 8 years after the events of the Dark Knight, with Bruce Wayne now dependent on a cane and retired. Batman was considered a villain to lionize Harvey Dent and the civil hero’s passing effectively wiped out crime in Gotham (there is absolutely zero mention of The Joker, which is odd to say the least given that he turned the city into his personal anarchistic playground). However, there is trouble a brewin’ that will bring back the Dark Knight. First an attractive lady cat burglar (an excellent Anne Hathaway) steals Wayne’s mother’s necklace. When he meets her to retrieve it, she tells Bruce of a vicious monster named Bane (a terrifying Tom Hardy) who is building an underground army in the sewers. Bane busts out to cause trouble on Gotham’s equivalent of Wall Street and has plans to turn the city into a battleground of class warfare. Batman must come back. Fortunately he’s got his three father figures to provide moral support (Michael Caine’s Alfred, this time finally terrified for Bruce’s help; Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon, who is hospitalized by Bane’s soldiers; and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox who provides Batman with a new flying weapon) as well as the presence of two new characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard who shouldn’t be discussed because they’ve got some surprises up their sleeves familiar to fans of the comics. Batman’s first fight with Bane doesn’t end well. It’s clear this battle is going to be epic and final. Nolan wraps up his Batman tale this time in a way that’s both satisfyingly closed yet tantalizingly open like a good comic book (though hopefully this is the end. 4-peating the trick would be pushing it).

Nolan entered the Batman franchise as the indie director behind Memento with only a single studio project Insomnia under his belt. He had a distinct vision for Batman, but wasn’t entirely comfortable mounting grand blockbuster spectacle just yet. He now leaves the franchise as one of the finest filmmakers to ever shoot an explosion. The hype on The Dark Knight Rises is that it’s an epic and Nolan delivers on that promise. Shooting roughly half the film in Imax to be projected on 8-storey high screens, the physical spectacle of the film is remarkable. With minimal CGI, Nolan creates the grandest fights and battles Batman has ever received on a big screen and backs it with the same overpowering sound design and pounding Hans Zimmer score that made Dark Knight and Insomnia such immersive experiences. As a blockbuster, the film will set mouths agape. While nothing in the movie is on the scale of The Avengers’ New York wasteland finale, the fact that Nolan’s action scenes are clearly all done with real people provides a more tactile, visceral experience. Of course, Nolan isn’t merely interested scale and making things go boom. He’s also a pop-intellectual and takes cues from A Tale Of Two Cities (even quoting the book at one point) to provide a comic book movie with a backdrop of genuine civil unease that toyS with contemporary themes of class warfare and terrorism. His approach to superheroes-as-myth delves into questions about the nature of heroism, futile revenge, duality, and hiding behind both literal and figurative masks. All of the characters serve the demands of the popcorn narrative, while also embodying a distinct theme. It’s an undeniably impressive piece of writing from both Chris and his brother Jonathan Nolan and while some may claim the lofty themes aren’t fully explored, hey this is a Batman movie. The fact that material is there at all is uncommon and a happy bonus.

Photo by Ron Phillips

The returning and new cast members are all predictably fantastic. Bale’s gritty growl is still an occasional distraction, but more in check this time. After taking a back seat to costume theatrics in The Dark Knight, he also gets to spend far more time playing Bruce Wayne again and was always better suited to that damaged soul than the superhero. Anne Hathaway proves to be a suitable Catwoman for the Nolanverse, witty, sarcastic, hyper-intelligent, and capable of pulling off some acrobatic fights when called upon. She’s more of a slick burglar in skintight leather than a freaky supervillain, but that feels wholly appropriate and she’s a welcome addition to the world. Tom Hardy had the brutal task of not only replacing one of the most beloved villains in the history of film, but doing so with a less charismatic character and with his face covered in a mask for 99.9% of the running time. The good news is that Hardy is possibly the best actor of his generation (see Bronson for proof) and up to the task. His Bane might not be as flamboyant of a scene-stealer, but he’s a physical force and mental menace with a truly unique voice who is instantly reminiscent of the likes of Darth Vader. While it’s a shame that Batman didn’t get one last fight with the Joker before the series wrapped up, but is a noble substitute. I wish I could speak about two other new actors. That would just be unfair spoiler-wise. Rest assured they are good. Instead, I’ll just note that franchise stalwarts Oldman, Caine, and Freeman continue their always excellent work, with Caine in particular asked to become the emotional core of the film and doing so admirably.

Now, Nolan’s Batman movies might be the best the genre has to offer, but they’ve never been perfect. He has a tendency to be a little didactic in dialogue and verbalizes themes best left unsaid. That remains true here. The film also didn’t need to clock in at nearly 3 hours and would have really benefited from a few trims. And you, know, after the Joker transformed the franchise his presence is deeply missed. That tragedy was out of the filmmaker’s hands though, so nothing could be done. All these complaints are valid, yet minor quibbles. Considering everything that Nolan does right, the few missteps are easily forgiven. This is a rare third chapter of a trilogy that allows the franchise to end on a high note. Whether he truly had the whole series mapped out from the beginning or just whipped up this ending on demand, the filmmaker found a way to satisfyingly usher audiences out of his game-changing superhero franchise.

The door is left slightly open but god-willing that’s just a tribute to never-ending comic book narratives and there won’t actually be a fourth chapter. Even though more money could be milked from this cash cow, denying the series such a satisfying ending would be a disservice. There’s too much money to be made for Warner Brothers not to reboot the series in a few years anyways. So, the character will live on as he always has and at least The Dark Knight Trilogy was made to give Batman the movies he always deserved. No matter what happens next, these films will always exist to be cherished by comic book fans and rest on shelves next to timeless graphic novels like The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. They are classics now, permanently burned into pop culture infamy. Even though, I’m sure Nolan will continue to do great work, it’s rare for a filmmaker to touch the culture like he has with this trilogy and it’s an achievement that will continues to inspire and be admired for years to come.

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