If DC has done anything right in bringing its wealth of comic book characters to the big screen, it did when they hired Christopher Nolan to reboot their aging Batman franchise. Granted, Joel Schumacher had ground the masked avenger series deep down under his splashy, costume designer turned director boot heels, but there was still life in the old cowl. Looking for an infusion of fresh blood, what the studio got instead was an auteur’s vision mapped out across three nearly flawless films. That’s right, the latest installment, the highly anticipated The Dark Knight Rises once again proves that the man who remade billionaire Bruce Wayne into a contemporary crime fighter with both feet firmly planted in reality has no equal. It’s a masterful end to a truly masterful trilogy.
When last we left poor Gotham City, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Christian Bale) was taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death, thereby ensuring the DA’s damaged legacy and legitimizing the rise of now Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman). After eight years in self-imposed exile, Alfred (Michael Caine) is starting to worry about his aging charge. All this changes when a super criminal named Bane (Thomas Hardy) escapes from a Eastern Bloc prison, bringing a highly respected Russian nuclear scientist along with him. Using its disenfranchised and its massive network of underground tunnels, this villain means to raise a rebel army and finish off the city once and for all. The weapon of choice? An atomic bomb. In the meantime, Wayne is trying to figure out a mischievous cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and the intentions of a well-meaning police officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) while plotting to save his empire with the help of old pal Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and the mysterious Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
Like the end to any great epic, The Dark Knight Rises challenges and then exceeds expectations. Not only does it address the needs of its complex and intricate narrative, but it anticipates fan reaction and demand and then schools them on their narrow, unnecessary perspective. Like a sensational dessert after an equally gourmet meal, this is pure positive indulgence, a statement of aesthetic purpose from a man whose made his entire career out of catering to the concerns of both art and commerce. With every success, Nolan has pushed the envelope even further, finding more and more meaningful dramatics in a story centering on an eccentric tycoon who dresses up like it’s Halloween to unleash unholy vengeance on a corrupt criminal establishment. Put the Bat in a trench coat and wry moustache and he’s Paul Kersey. Give him a Native American hat and some Zen kung-fu gobbledygook and he’s Billy Jack.
Even then, Nolan never lets the comic book conceit of his characters win. His Batman films remain firmly grounded in the truth of government ineptness, bureaucratic blockades, and lax law enforcement. His version of Gotham is a stinking sewer of unsolved misery, a place where crime doesn’t only pay, it thrives. This is the world that begat The Scarecrow, that allowed The Joker to run rampant. Now, with Bane, a man more creature than human being, we have the ultimate metropolitan menace. This hulking figure in the facial fright mask, this offspring of a penitentiary Hell, has no off switch. There’s no reason, no reluctance. Slowly, meticulously, and without compassion, he will bring the citizenry of this city to its knees, destroying millions in the process. Nolan never lets us forget the gravity of what’s involved here, building layer upon layer of conflict until both his heroes and villains can stand no more.
Make no mistake about it, this isn’t some overly long exercise in exposition. At nearly two hours and forty minutes, it’s a massive story, but one also moderated by several sensational action scenes. Bane’s mid-air escape is a marvel of practical stuntwork while Nolan shows once again why he’s a wizard at working car chases into unusual urban settings. We get a flying Bat vehicle which adds to the finale’s flash, and there’s other individual moments that make a lasting genre impression. But it’s the mid act fist fight between Batman and Bane that really grabs your attention. The brutality of the brawl, mixed with the sheer aggression of both parties, means that no one escapes unharmed. One is clearly the victor, but he is also setting himself for one helluva payback.
Of course, one requires actors who can sell this kind of subtle shift between the truth and funny book bravado, and Nolan collects quite a cast. Sure, the old stalwarts are great, but special attention needs to be paid to Oldman and Caine. Each one has played father to Bruce Wayne’s dour daddy issues, and each one gets a moment (or two) to illustrate how that’s affected them. Caine in fact finds the film’s heavy heart, unleashing a torrent of emotion that’s actually hard to watch at times. As for the newcomers, Hardy is excellent, Cotillard is compelling, and Gordon-Levitt offers focused loyalty. But it’s Ms. Hathaway who steals the show as Selina. She walks a fine line between droll and desperate, and the combination is electrifying. In fact, it’s safe to say that, all Oscars aside, The Dark Knight Rises offers some of the best performances of the entire series.
And yet it all boils down to expectations and the matching, meeting of same. There will be those who go into The Dark Knight Rises expecting Heath Ledger Part Two, and that’s not this film. There will also be those worn out from the one-two punch of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-man and feel that Nolan let his creative carte blanche overwhelm everything. Some will hate. Others will overdo the praise. But make no mistake about it – The Dark Knight Rises remains one of 2012’s very best. It symbolizes the sort of rare, refined accomplishment that can only come when a true artist taps into his obvious talents and delivers. Feel very, very sorry for the poor sod who will have to step in a few years from now and reboot this character and his continuing adventures. Nolan has set the bar incredibly high, and it’s hard imagining anyone having the ability to top it. Anyone.