[2 August 2012]
I think Batman Begins is a better movie than The Dark Knight. There, I said it, it’s out there. And now you’ll know exactly where I stand on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Dark Knight is a fantastic film, but it’s not exactly a Batman film. Really, Batman is just a side note to Heath Ledger’s masterful performance as the Joker. And Knight becomes, in its final twenty minutes, a tad overburdened with the bigger themes it’s trying to explore. So rather than a taut cinematic finale we’re treated to an expose on morality and justice in a chaotic world, most notably in that lumbering ferry scene that mostly serves to slows down the action.
But where The Dark Knight was all about The Joker, Batman Begins was all about Bruce Wayne. In Begins, we were treated to a complex hero struggling to overcome his fears and learning to use his rage at the murder of his parents into a force for good rather than vengeance. It was the very essence of the character of Batman, distilled into a perfectly scripted two hours and 20 minutes. It was possibly the finest origin story of any comic-book character we have yet seen, and likely will see again. The Dark Knight Rises flashes back much more to Begins than it does to Knight. It’s a good thing too, because the final installment in Nolan’s saga brings the focus back where it belongs: on the man behind the mask.
In the eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, when Batman went plummeting over the side of a building to save Police Commissioner Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) son from homicidal District Attorney-turned-Two-Faced Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Wayne has become Gotham’s most famous recluse. No one has seen the Batman since that fateful night, but no one really misses him, either, since he’s being blamed for Dent’s death while Dent is branded a hero.
Dent’s death galvanized the city into passing the Dent Act, which gave law enforcement an unprecedented amount of power in putting Gotham’s criminals behind bars. Batman’s original vision seems to have finally come true – the streets of Gotham are safe at last. “Pretty soon we’ll be hunting down parking violations,” jokes John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a newcomer to the Gotham Police Department.
But since peacetime would make for one boring superhero film, a new villain appears, the terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), with mysterious ties to Wayne’s past. Before long, Bane lays siege to the entire city, and Wayne has no choice but to come out of hiding and put on the cape and cowl one last time. Fortunately, on this outing he has a little help from jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), better known to us as Catwoman, although we never hear that name uttered at all the entire length of the film.
Kyle’s motivations are a bit of a stretch; she is searching for an object called “The Clean Slate” which magically erases one’s criminal records from any database on Earth. This is just one example of how this movie is much more given to typical comic-book suspension of disbelief than the last two, but since we’ve been treated to such verisimilitude previously, we can forgive Nolan this time around.
This installment also falls prey to many of the issues that usually encumber the third act of a trilogy – the introduction of a lot of new characters, a heightened sense of action and bigger-than-all-get out stakes (there’s definitely no concern over an anticlimactic denouement here). But Nolan rises to the occasion by keeping a relatively small focus trained on the characters he’s spent the last seven years building. Most notable, of course, is Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, who finally comes face to face with the realities of what Batman has done to his soul.
Bale actually spends very little time in this movie as Batman, so much so that when he does appear in the suit it’s almost a shock. Nolan allows Wayne to suffer much more in this film than in the last two combined, and a powerful third act struggle shows the depths of despair in which Bane plunges Batman. It is out of this despair that Wayne must rise, giving the film its title and completing our hero’s journey from overcoming fear to embracing it once again.
The ending in particular packs a powerful punch, and the emotional payoff is placed mostly on the shoulders of Michael Caine’s Alfred. As Bruce Wayne’s surrogate father and Batman’s accomplice, Caine’s love for Wayne and dislike of the Batman has become more and more the true heart of the trilogy. All of the characters, in fact, get loose ends tied up nicely, even the ones that we’ve only just met in this installment.
As a whole, Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has pushed the limits of what is possible in a superhero film, testing conventions and turning clichés on their head. To that end, The Dark Knight Rises is no disappointment, and Batman fans and novices alike will be satisfied with the conclusion of this excellent series. Now, one can only hope that Nolan will use his free time to make more original stories like Inception which, if I may dare to test the waters of what is acceptable to confess once again, is a better film than any Batman movie he’s made.