Is Jonathan Crane (aka The Scarecrow) in it? Is the character of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) really Talia Al-Ghul? Does Bruce Wayne die at the end? Can director Christopher Nolan do what no director has in history and pull off the biggest, baddest, best last installment in a popular popcorn movie trilogy (”Spider-Man 3” was a letdown, as was ”The Godfather Part III”, and fan consensus still says ”The Empire Strikes Back” was superior to ”Return of the Jedi”).
Last Christmas, the signs looked good when Nolan previewed the opening scene, a daring mid-air plane heist by Bane and his henchmen. The sheer scale of the image on IMAX screens was jaw-dropping, and the character of Bane looked like he’d go down in history as one of the great movie bad guys (apart from those problems with his voice, which have been fixed – no matter what anyone associated with the film claims, it was a problem).
With the voice now understandable and just as disturbing coming through the metallic filter of his mask, it’s made Bane an almost perfect character. There have been few scarier movie villains since Darth Vader – with a bulked-up Tom Hardy under the sheepskin coat and mask, Bane is a battering ram of raw physicality. The sequence from the trailer of he and Batman slugging it out in what looks like the rain will leave you feeling as battered as the combatants. A gate slams shut, locking Batman in with Bane for their bout (it’s the centrepiece, not the climax), and you’ll already have the squirming sensation that the latter is a guy you don’t want to be locked in a room with.
It’s eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, and Batman has finally been able to disappear as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) wanted, the Dent Act having swept the criminal element off the streets of Gotham city. Even though he knows his alter ego was branded a traitor and killer, with only he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knowing the truth, he can finally rest.
But even though Alfred (Michael Caine) is glad his master’s left the cape and mask behind, there’s no rest for Bruce, who’s become a broken recluse. It might be a thinly veiled admission that The Joker was right all along – that Batman was the other side of the coin from the theatrical monsters he hunted, and that without him, Bruce Wayne has nothing.
In his absence, Wayne Enterprises has floundered despite the best efforts of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and its only chance to survive might be investing in the beautiful clean energy entrepreneur Miranda Tate (Marion Cottilard).
Two events occur in Bruce’s life that turn things around. The first is when daring cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) catches his eye even while she’s robbing him, giving him no idea until later that she had an ulterior motive. And the other is the appearance of a new masked madman named Bane (Tom Hardy), as violent as The Joker but even more dangerous because instead of anarchy and chaos, he has a definite plan. As he alludes to in the trailer, Gotham will be ‘ashes’.
With Gordon (Gary Oldman) in hospital after facing off against the underground army (literally) Bane has assembled, Batman has to come back. But in the titanic fistfight that marks the turning point of the second act, Bane breaks him all over again (in a huge nod to the comic books).
Bruce is thrown in a well-like prison to rot and Bane exacts his plan, starting with the explosive football stadium attack you’ve seen in the trailer. He appears to want a revolution, a sort of Crowley-esque ‘do as thou wilt’ law where anything goes, and it’s where the Batman universe again – maybe unwittingly – gets political.
There are scenes of thugs dragging the rich from their homes and looting their belongings, leaving force rather than privilege the only real power. When Selina feels uneasy at the looting, telling friend Jen (Juno Temple) that it’s someone’s home, Jen shrugs and say ‘now it’s everybody’s home’. It reminds you of the scene in Dr Zhivago when Yuri (Omar Sharif) comes home to his opulent home to find it full of squatting peasants after the Bolshevik revolution. And while the notion of overthrowing the rich is as old as currency itself, it’s hard to ignore connotations with the Occupy movements of the last year.
Nolan and his co-screenwriters (brother Jonathan and David Goyer) probably weren’t explicitly commenting on residual anger from the global financial crisis or the politics of communism, but the themes give the film more depth than most blockbusters.
”The Dark Knight Rises” cements the fact that Nolan might be the best ‘commercial’ film director working today. He’s not only completely comfortable and skilled with story and characters, he has a visual artists eye. Where ”Batman Begins”’ landscapes had shades of Tim Burton’s Gotham and The Dark Knight was about the dark thoroughfares of a large, modern city, ”The Dark Knight Rises” (shot in New York, LA and Pittsburgh) presents a much more open Gotham City, its bright white snow and stark, harsh lines part of the larger world – even the US President makes an appearance.
For the second time after The Dark Knight, the great thing about the film is that it feels like it exists in the real world rather than that of a comic book, a crime procedural on a Grand Guignol scale with larger than life characters.
It’s opened the scope of the Batman universe as surely as the jam-packed cast list. Other characters have such integral roles in the story it’s not completely about Batman anymore. Bale doesn’t even make an appearance as Wayne for a good 15 minutes, and we don’t see Batman for half an hour.
But the better the film, the more urgent the need to find fault becomes so you don’t feel like an ad quote-chasing studio shill. And just like he’s done with all his films, Nolan’s made it very hard. Bale’s growly voice in the Batman suit is still a bit silly, and even though it’s hard for the mythology to escape its comic book origins, all the League of Shadows allusions feel a little at odds with the realism that anchors the plot and visual palette.
But for sheer enjoyment at the movies, the best news might be that both Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister dislike 3D and love IMAX. As with the best effects and cinema technology, you forget after a minute that you’re watching such an enormous picture, but you feel the shake in the floor from every gun blast or fist impact and you’re completely drawn into the story because the world of it surrounds you on all sides.