Just don’t screw it up. That’s what I remember thinking back in 2005 when I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
As a fan of Memento I knew Nolan was capable of making a great movie, but mammoth studio productions have a way of undoing even the most skilled filmmakers (See: Ang Lee). I was ready to accept any Batman that rescued the caped crusader from the strained campiness and overstuffed production values which brought the franchise crashing down like a garish neon Hindenburg. Hell, I was ready to give the film a pass if only for returning us to a Batmobile that didn't appear to be powered by glow sticks.
What Mr. Nolan gave us didn’t just exceed my modest expectations. It didn’t merely wipe the slate clean of Mr. Freeze’s ice puns and Batgirl. Nolan, along with screenwriters David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan, rebuilt the superhero genre from the ground up. It told its story with conviction and psychological truth that had been absent from the genre until that point. Even the great pop art of Burton's Batman films featured slipshod storytelling and inch-deep characterization.
Nolan, simply put, gave the fans what they always wanted: a story that took its characters as seriously as they did. Now, with The Dark Knight Rises in place we can stand back and see the full scope of what Nolan has accomplished. The Dark Knight trilogy will surely stand as one of the definitive myths of its time.
Picking up the saga eight years down the road The Dark Knight Rises follows its grounded, realistic vision to its logical extension: a doctor pronouncing Bruce Wayne's battered body barely fit for walking, let alone action. Nolan gives Dark Knight Rises a pervading sense of Winter and emphasizes the frailty and aging of its characters. Things are coming to an end. It is no accident that Nolan chose the most physically imposing of Batman villains for this chapter.
We find our hero living in secluded retirement, having not donned the Batman persona since the night he took the rap for Harvey Dent’s crimes. While this fraud has allowed for Gotham to live on in relative peace, Master Bruce is having trouble adapting to life without the cape and cowl, and reliable old Alfred frets over whether his employer will ever move on with life or is destined to be a Howard Hughes-esque reclusive weirdo.
Two things appear on his radar – or sonar, as it were – that threaten the status quo. A beautiful, brazen cat-burglar with mysterious motives robs Wayne Manor right in front of Bruce's eyes and Commissioner Gordon is injured when he stumbles upon what appears to be a hidden military hideout in the sewers. Few believe Gordon’s report of a monstrous terrorist with fanatically devoted soldiers and the most unsettling face mask since Hannibal Lecter.
As the details of the story unfold the arc of the entire trilogy comes into focus. It is clear the Nolan has been telling one story this whole time and the cumulative power of story threads from the first two films extending into Dark Knight Rises is one of this film's main assets.
Also paying off in a big way is all the effort Nolan took placing Batman in a larger context than just “hero fights bad guys”. Over the three film the director and writers have given of us a portrait of corruption and systemic failure that, even if it doesn't exactly deserve comparison with The Wire, is still a helluva lot more than we had any reason to expect from Batman. Much of the rousing emotional impact of the final movement of Rises is a result.
Taken as a stand alone movie apart from the trilogy Dark Knight Rises is a step down from its immediate predecessor. Without the character of the Joker to galvanize the whole idea of Batman down to one riveting dynamic - and with so much deadly serious ground to cover - this final chapter finds fewer opportunities for genuine fun. When I say fun I don’t just mean Heath Ledger’s delivering classic line readings at a machine gun pace. I’m talking about flourishes that are just so friggin’ cool they cause you smack your armrest and laugh in appreciation. Stuff like that Batman dangling that corrupt cop upside down, three stories in the air in the pouring rain to interrogate him, or the Batpod hitting a brick wall at full speed only to flip off it like Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain and land softly on the sidewalk.
Dark Knight Rises's most reliable source of pleasure is Anne Hathaway’s standout performance as Selina Kyle. (If the film ever called her Catwoman I missed it) Hathaway and the filmmakers wisely steer far clear of Michelle Pfieffer’s landmark take on the character. Instead of the usual villainous showboating her Selina Kyle's wins us over with her wry wit and resourcefulness. She might be a plausible character outside the Batman universe, were it not for her prodigious acrobatic skills. The energy of the film picks up every time she is on screen.
The character of Bane isn’t such an unqualified success. He isn't as colorful as Joker or Scarecrow, and the script doesn't delve into his character as much as we hope. The character is nevertheless fascinating due almost entirely to Tom Hardy's performance, which works despite having the majority of his face swallowed up by a mask that looks like something out of Ridley Scott's Alien. In contrast to his image as a monstrous hulk Hardy gives Bane the voice of a droll English professor. He muses when we expect him to grunt. Even his punishing violence has a certain grace to it. This intelligence makes him an equal to Batman, and infinitely more interesting and threatening as a result.
I could go into more depth as to the minor shortcomings of the film. Scenes of Batman healing test the limits of the realism this trilogy has established (a realism that has always been a cosmetic, stylistic choice, not actual realism), and a final confrontation between Batman and Bane feels unsatisfying in that it doesn't build on what we have been shown about Batman being no match for Bane physically. But placed alongside the accomplishments of Dark Knight Rises these quibbles are quickly placed in their proper perspective. Nolan’s grasp may have occasionally been exceeded by his epic reach, but there is no denying that he has set the bar for the genre, and set it so high that it is unlikely any film will come close for a long, long time.
Verdict: Before the Dark Knight trilogy it would not have seemed possible that Nolan would have succeeded on this scale within the studio system. The Dark Knight Rises is far from flawless, but it is still thrillingy crafted as are few major Hollywood films, and it more than fulfills the daunting task of bringing this saga to a satisfying end. 8 out of 10
Grade for the whole Dark Knight Trilogy – 9 out of 10