With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolans epic vision for Batman reaches its conclusion.
What a superhero really needs to operate is a city.
Beyond all of the gadgets, superpowers, and costumes, the superhero story is about urban exceptionalism writ large, and often very loudly. The superhero archetype has ultimately defined itself as one that exists inextricably within the machinery of city life. Most superheroes stick to keeping one city, the one they happen to live in, under their purview. "My city," they're often heard to say. It strikes a chord with an audience particularly one old enough to choose where they live. People don't always love where they live, but they will fight for it if they have to.
That's what Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman films really boils down to. These are films about a man and his city. It's probably intentional that the protagonist is so reactive in all three films. Every time another grand scheme by a crazy supervillain starts to go off without a hitch, Batman must find it within himself to struggle and rise up to save his city. Batman has never really been targeted in these films; Gotham City has. And so it goes that in The Dark Knight Rises, which picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is rendered helpless while the relative golden age of a crime free Gotham ends in acts of extreme terrorism. Batman's city, the most important thing to him, is carved up and torn to pieces by Bane (Tom Hardy), the hulking, menacing taskmaster with a Darth Vader-like breathing apparatus and the diction of Neville Chamberlain (only distorted, and with a much higher pitch). What follows is a nightmarish scenario that gives life to so many worst-case scenarios about urban living. Before long, the stock market, football stadium, and major infrastructure are all attacked and blown to hell, and violent uprisings by an increasingly disenfranchised lower class (and newly-freed prison population) are fomented to topple established order. Chaos rules in its stead, and Bane's monstrous plot starts to look like an appropriatedly angry hybrid of R'as Ghul's and The Joker's plans from the first two movies. Bane is in Gotham in order to destroy it, but he first chooses to destabilize it, and allowing extreme lawlessness to be the only law (the most fascinating moment occurs during the kangaroo court that's been set up in City Hall, where the "judge" notes that "Bane has no authority here," with Bane gleefully looking on from the sidelines). If Batman was fighting to save the soul of Gotham in The Dark Knight, this time out he's looking to repair the mangled, vivisected body.
The strength of The Dark Knight Rises really lies in the way it completes the context for this specific view of Batman. Themes (and if you're ever not sure what they are, just wait because one of the characters will explicitly tell you what they are in about two seconds) follow a throughline in these movies that remains constant through all the loudness and explosions. As pure spectacle, The Dark Knight Rises is an unqualified success. Everything is bigger and badder and even a bit more frightening than it was in the earlier installments. It's a monster of a plot (and at a nearly three hour running time, it better be) that takes a lot of twists and turns and lurches around, but always pays off whatever larger thematic elements it brings up. With much of the second act given over to Bane's rampaging through the city (and undermining the good done in Harvey Dent's name since his death – the spector of Harvey hangs over the events of this film about as much as that of R'as al Ghul), Batman continues the quest he's been on since the death of his parents in the first film. His ongoing lesson is that it takes more than simply being a rich guy's kid in order to become Batman, or any kind of savior. That's what Batman's personal struggle has been about under the helm of Christopher Nolan, and it comes to a type of culmination here. While Bruce Wayne is broken and battered, he needs to repair his outlook and his mind as much as his body before he can show up for the climax of the film. His personal crisis is handled by Nolan and actor Christian Bale with great intimacy and with immediacy. He's put through the ringer much worse in this movie than ever before, and his ideas on perseverence and heroism are solidified.
Along the way, Batman meets some new characters amidst all the chaos. Marion Cotillard is appropriately earnest as Miranda Tate, a business leader who shares a kinship of sort with Bruce Wayne, and who turns out to be an ally of sorts. In this vision of the Bat mythos, there is no such entity as Catwoman. There is simply a sexy cat burglar who wears leather, and wishes for Gotham's elite to fall on its ass, but feels pretty uneasy about it when she sees that what Bane has done to the city is a twisted version of her vision. Anne Hathaway is effortlessly irreverent and although her supposed soulfulness doesn't quite come across in the script, her screen presence is pretty remarkable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's trademark intensity serves him well as up and coming police officer John Blake, whose loyalty to Jim Gordon and to Batman end up inspiring them and pushing them forward, reciprocating what they had done for him spiritually.
Frankly speaking, this particular series of Batman films does feel like much more of a singluar vision that most superhero films adaptations, which rarely have any truly distinctive directorial touch. In this way, one has to at least respect the ambition of the Nolan Bat-films. This is a testament not only to Nolan's prowess, but to producer Emma Thomas' guiding hand with the franchise. The husband and wife duo kept a strong hand on the Bat-films since the second they got the assignment, and were able to hang on the whole time.
While the film is bloated by a preponderance of exposition, and the screenplay does get too cute for its own good far too often, especially in the ending, The Dark Knight Rises moves along and keeps itself pretty engaging the whole way. It pretty honestly puts to bed a lot of what Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, and their coterie of Batman movie series creators started in Batman Begins. Each installment does get bigger and more intense, but it all comes together nicely at the end. Bruce Wayne and Batman forge ahead with great determination to save their city from a variety of threats, ones that bring up images that are all too real as worst-case scenarios. A lot of what makes the threats in this series so palpable is the fact they they recall the very real fears of urban blight, terrorism, economic instability, lawlessness, nuclear annihilation, being lied to by our government, and disenfranchisement. Ultimately, the series of films is about a man and his city. But with Batman always reciting his manifesto, that the world needs a hero, and a symbol to inspire its people, it's really about all of us and all of our cities.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch
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