The Dark Knight Rises | Movie review
With Christopher Nolan’s brainy spectacle, summer moviegoers get the comic-book movie they deserve.
What would happen, the man in the prologue asks, if he were to remove Bane’s mask? “It would be extremely painful,” Bane replies, “for you!”
As the Vader-voiced Tom Hardy utters that retort, his words and charisma muffled, you may wonder if you’re in for an IMAX-size hunk of cheese. It’s a false alarm: After a wobbly start, The Dark Knight Rises ascends in grand fashion, offering a respite from the digital murk and rote name-checking of the season’s other comic-book movies. Following Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s brainy approach to blockbusters is no longer novel. But to paraphrase Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon, it may be the approach summer moviegoers need.
Nolan says this is his last film in the franchise, and the cluttered first hour suggests he was determined to make every Batman movie in one. Having taken the fall for the death of Harvey Dent, the caped crusader has been in retirement for eight years, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) retreating into Howard Hughes–like reclusion. Master thief Selina Kyle (a game Anne Hathaway, whose character is never once referred to as Catwoman) disrupts his sabbatical, stealing a Wayne family heirloom and doing a half gainer out a window. Other forces weigh on our hero: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hothead cop quietly goads Bruce into grappling with his orphan past. Marion Cotillard pressures him on a clean-energy initiative. Relegated to the sidelines early, Michael Caine’s Alfred is nicely complicated here.
None of this roster is as galvanic as Heath Ledger’s Joker; at times Hardy’s Bane comes across as an omniscient, subterranean bodybuilder. But it’s thrilling to watch Nolan’s busy narrative coalesce. The Dark Knight courted contemporary parallels, with references to torture and the NSA. Predictions that Dark Knight Rises would focus on Occupy weren’t entirely off: Financial crisis, rigged markets, popular uprising, opportunity myths and a justice system stacked against the poor all figure in. The movie also mercifully confounds the second film’s rather neocon belief in the importance of false ideals.
Still, Rises registers as more biblical than political—The Passion of the Bat—as Bale’s hero self-resurrects and tests the limits of his fear, along with his willingness to fight for his flock of Gothamites. Nolan brings the strands together in a spectacular (if unwieldy) action finale that’s scarcely less convoluted than the climax of Inception.
The melee is too much to absorb in one viewing, frankly, but that may be a good problem to have. The most interesting achievement in this franchise has been the staging of comic-book dynamics in real urban space. Chicago doesn’t get to play Gotham this time, but it’s possible to rationalize that as an artistic choice: Rises has a more angular look than the previous installments, with narrower city canyons and a grit that doesn’t quite have a corollary downtown. Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles have somewhat awkwardly joined forces for the bulk of the task: While the Gotham Stock Exchange is located on actual Wall Street, an otherwise fluid chase sequence that begins there leaps to L.A. in a single cut. Bane’s master plan also requires Gotham to be surrounded by bridges—a dynamic it would be difficult to create here.
After the weightless, unconvincing 3-D spectacles of Marvel’s The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s a relief to see 2-D action genuinely choreographed in cities. (Although the aspect ratio shifts back and forth even more senselessly than in the last film, true IMAX remains a stunning format for this series.) The balancing of vehicular mayhem and character interest qualifies Rises as a legitimate ’70s throwback. Nolan makes clear he’s in touch with his cinematic heritage, including its lineage of vigilantes: Bane’s attack on a football stadium calls to mind Black Sunday, while a late Gordon-Levitt bit nods to Dirty Harry.
Should we feel lucky? By now, this franchise has acquired familiar conventions, and it’s easy to take those for granted. (When Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox shows Bruce the latest line of gadgets, it’s as if we’re watching Q in a Bond movie.) The new film can be choppy; keeping the story elements in proportion would be a near-impossible task. But there’s a rare level of craft on display—craft that Hollywood lately seems intent on abandoning. Like Gotham with Batman, we may not miss Nolan until he’s gone.