The Dark Knight Rises finally opened on the 20 July 2012, surrounded by much hype and expectation – it is the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy. Does Nolan succeed in bringing to close the story of Gotham just as brilliantly as he began it, just as brilliantly as he so carefully tread the path in the years since Batman Begins? Yes.
Batman Begins caught everyone by surprise; Nolan had created a dark, grimy, but most importantly, a realistic Gotham. This was a city we could all recognize – both literally, and figuratively. The landscapes Gotham were that of a city we know – not just as a place that exists in the real world, not just as a place that is intriguing and fascinating to us all – but as a place we all found chillingly familiar. Not only was it effectively visually New York City, it was better, worse, and weirder. It was every modern-day city. It was every underbelly, every dark-side, every wrong-side-of-the-tracks.
Within this place, Nolan created characters too that were chillingly real. Batman was no caped hero – he was a disturbed outlaw, a slightly schizophrenic billionaire with a penchant for gadgets. Alfred is no sweet old butler – he is a sad old man, full of regret and fear, guilt and a sense of failure. Jim Gordon is no shining beacon of the legal system – he is a hot-headed, single-minded man who has an unconventional take on justice and a dilemma within. The Joker was no white-faced-chemically-enhanced-super villain – he was a maniac, a psychopath, a sociopath. On the side of the bad guys, you’d get complex men with harrowing histories, out to destroy Gotham for no apparent reason except that they were destructive – simply. On the side of the good guys, you’d get more complex men with harrowing histories, who had a slightly unnerving conviction about how the end justified the means, about doing whatever it took for ‘justice’, any which way they had to. These were not your average comic book folk – these were more your graphic novel folk. This was Alan Moore’s Dark Knight. It was the emotionally unbalanced Batman for emotionally unbalanced grown-ups. Similarly, in the Dark Knight Rises, there are no coloured masks or flapping capes (except for Batman’s own) – there are twisted humans, navigating their way through a messy town, a crowded underbelly, and layers upon layers of dirt.
The Dark Knight Rises is more about Bruce Wayne than it is about Batman. Christian Bale once again rises to the challenge, portraying a deeply flawed, emotionally awkward Wayne, who is now even stranger and more removed from reality than ever before. He has decayed – both in body and spirit – allowing Gotham to flourish upon a lie that he and Gordon have agreed to uphold. Gordon is haunted by the events of the night of Harvey Dent’s death, and Batman’s apparent ‘disappearance’ – crushed by obligation, torn by conflict, he tries to keep his chin up. Gotham is seemingly re-born, risen from the ashes of Joker’s reign of terror. Yet somehow, this pseudo-peace will not last. A feeling of impending doom settles upon the city. As Selina Kyle sexily warns Bruce Wayne, ‘A storm is coming’. And she makes it sounds like a party.
Not entirely unknown to the powers that be in Gotham, there is disquiet, bubbling just beneath the surface of this newly forced clean-up. And thus, the Dark Knight Rises is also about civil unrest.
And who better to instigate this unrest than Bane? An outcast himself, misunderstood, weirdly brilliant, Bane is the crux of the Dark Knight Rises, as the Joker was the crux of the Dark Knight. He is what makes or breaks it. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is seared into our memories – does Tom Hardy compare? Tom Hardy is different, as is Bane. Where the Joker played mind-games, Bane does not – he engages in a more direct battle with the forces of Gotham. Where the Joker operated alone, double-crossing even his own henchmen and having no allies, Bane is a leader. He leads a group of people who trust him, remain with him to the end and believe in his cause. And, ultimately, that is what sets Bane apart from the Joker more than anything else: cause. Bane has a cause, a purpose – he has something that’s almost like a political agenda: to give the city ‘back to its people’. He has intention – to rid the city of corruption, to take back a world ruled by a decadent aristocracy and give it back to the masses. It is not mindless chaos, but an organised overthrowing of an existent order to be replaced by new order. And if there is a little anarchist, socialist, Marxist or communist in you – then you find yourself almost beginning to side with him. Almost.
The performance of Bane is restrictive to an actor – his personality must be implied almost entirely through voice, physique and body language. A suitably beefed-up Tom Hardy, who wears a mask through the entire film, portrays Bane as powerful – both physically and intellectually – and absolutely brutal. Every swing of Tom Hardy’s fist feels agonizing, and every step he takes is a massive stride. And finally, Tom Hardy does all kinds of weird and interesting things with inflection when Bane speaks – making you hear, attentively, every line of dialogue.
And so we come to perhaps the one flaw: Nolan has been criticized before for not being able to develop female characters well and so far it’s been true. There was a hope among Nolan fans that with Anne Hathaway reprising the role of Catwoman in the Dark Knight Rises, these haters might be proved wrong. Unfortunately, they are only proven right. While I support Nolan’s choice to play “Catwoman” simply as Selina Kyle, sexy, amoral cat burglar and to avoid giving us her origin story, all she is, is sexy. And that’s boring. There is a moral dilemma hinted at, but the film doesn’t really invest any time in exploring that further. There is also a ‘tough-girl trying to survive in a big, bad world, but she’s a good person underneath it’ dilemma hinted at, but that’s not really explored either, until she ultimately cops out to join the forces of Good. To the end, Selina Kyle remains somewhat one-dimensional: hot, confident, bad-ass. Anne Hathaway does justice, however limited the scope of her character, and is absolutely ravishing and likable.
The Dark Knight Rises is slower than the Dark Knight – it takes it’s time. It is patient, it makes you wait. It is subtle, it is nuanced, it is a real film, not just an action-flick. It’s for adults, not teenagers with a fetish for cool cars. It is a human story, not just spectacle, and even the spectacle is beautiful. It is clever, tight and stylish, driven by a typical Nolan-style plot – tightly wound and rapidly unfurling, twisting and unpredictable to the end – and character, never letting you down, never sentimental without good cause, never preachy but constantly championing the fundamental ideas of what it means to be good and that ‘good’ doesn’t mean you are flawless.
There are so many unsung heroes of this trilogy: Nolan’s long-time collaborating cinematographer Wally Pfister, Nolan’s brother and writer on the Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises, Jonathan Nolan. But I have always felt that the unsung hero of these creations is Nolan himself. It’s like we’ve been reeling with shock at how incredible it’s all been, we forgot to slap the Director on the back. Nolan constructed infallible plots, drew the absolute best out of all his actors, and he created a story, a place and people that were ultimately contributing to a superbly complex and devastating vision of Gotham that he shared with us: a Gotham that was very uncannily like our own world; on the verge of apocalypse, disaster, destruction, lines between good and bad blurred, where heroes fall from grace and outlaws save the day.
Thank you, Christopher Nolan.