7 years ago, as rising filmmaker Christopher Nolan unleashed upon us his singular, authoritative take on the Batman mythos with Batman Begins, who could anticipate that just three years later, his Joker-starring sequel The Dark Knight would engender such an enhanced expectation of the comic-book film – and indeed, the blockbuster – cementing its potential for equal footing with the very same crime-dramas-cum-Greek-tragedies that routinely earn murmurs of “Best Picture”. Four years on, Nolan returns with his deeply emotional swansong, The Dark Knight Rises, a viscerally thrilling, hard-nosed, exhausting and undoubtedly brilliant coda to the best superhero saga put to film.
From minute one, Nolan sets off like a dynamo, beginning with a thrilling, James Bond-inspired escape set-piece which introduces us to the villainous Bane (Tom Hardy), a mercenary who has arrived in Gotham with the intention of razing it both literally and economically. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), 8 years after his self-imposed exile of Batman, is a shell of what came before, reclusive and rarely catching the eye of anyone but trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine). As Wayne ponders coming out of retirement, a local thief, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), provides a missing link to Gotham’s new foe, and might have a more valuable use than mere larceny.
After Nolan’s stylistically and thematically electric The Dark Knight, expectations are inevitably ratcheted up to unimaginable levels for this curtain-raising instalment. The good news is that, for the most part, the director meets the challenge, crafting an entry that is not so much a better film than the previous one, but an extremely satisfying sum of the parts that he has meticulously assembled over these last 7 years.
Following Heath Ledger’s Joker is, frankly, a thankless task, yet Tom Hardy throws down the gauntlet with gusto, making the best of an admittedly less-interesting character who is nevertheless the most physically imposing of Batman’s foes to date. Keen-eared viewers will notice that much of his dialogue has been re-dubbed since the release of the infamous “prologue”, with inflexions and pitch changing entirely. Hardy voices his character with a ghoulish creepiness that only matches his physical intensity, though occasionally this does make his character difficult to understand. Nevertheless, while The Joker was invested in unpredictable chaos, Bane is a mastermind of his own, and though his plan is a tad less inventive, his up-close sense of terror is just as accomplished.
The other big new face, of course, is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, smartly never referred to as Catwoman throughout, though pitched with both the sexy playfulness and frenetic athleticism that has made her at once Batman’s foe and his ally. A proponent of Robin Hood politics, Nolan however ensures that her mindset is never forced down our throats didactically; he knows her function, and places her accordingly.
Perhaps the most impressive new face, however, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing John Blake, an idealistic young beat cop who believes in the process of justice and decries the lie that was perpetuated about Batman at the climax of The Dark Knight. Levitt, who impressed in Nolan’s Inception, is again a surprisingly impressive physical specimen despite his small stature; he runs the streets and prowls hallways with a shotgun that begets a burning, scarcely constrained intensity. The other main new face is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist who becomes involves with both the Wayne Foundation and Wayne himself. Cotillard is fine in the role, though her character feels a tad bland compared to the larger-than-life presences around her.
As for the returning characters, Morgan Freeman is as reliable as ever, and Gary Oldman, as the beleaguered Jim Gordon, is presented here at his most complex and conflicted. However, Michael Caine and Christian Bale are easily the most praiseworthy, for their chemistry as performers and characters builds to a crushing apex here. Alfred, wishing Bruce to find happiness following the events of the last film, is perhaps the most melancholic of all, helpless as he observes Bruce in a pit of his own despair, and then later, in a literal pit at the hands of Bane himself. This dynamic, which has pervaded all three of Nolan’s Batman films, comes to an emotionally shattering head in this final film.
And in many ways that characterises the brilliance of Nolan’s film; for all of its fancy gadgets and campy costumes, it is a thematically rich crime saga the likes of which are rarely seen. In the interest of being cyclical, The Dark Knight Rises returns to the themes of Nolan’s inaugural superhero outing, examining the interplay between class and justice, and most prominently, the means by which one can overcome fear and pain.
Over 164 minutes, Christopher Nolan has crafted a dense, dizzying spectacle that practically demands multiple viewings; there are so many stray strands, so many ideas packed into and between the scintillating action scenes that it is almost impossible to soak it all in on a first viewing. Of particular interest to many will be the film’s politics, which are themselves risky and unexpected for what many will perceive as a homogenised Hollywood blockbuster. Naturally, though, this subtext is exactly that, and never despoils the sheer majesty of the entertainment.
Like Nolan did with The Dark Knight, he again takes the comic book in another direction here, to a much darker place, in a film that might prove divisive by its sheer sombreness. There is only brief levity in this picture – there are no goofy cops this time, for instance – and an abundance of crushing, nerve-wracking anxiety for the majority of its runtime. There are no easy answers to Gotham’s problem, and much is left up in the air once it’s all said and done, but importantly, Nolan gives us among the most cathartic of climaxes for any big-budget Hollywood film, and surely the best ending that could have been imagined.
Nolan has smartly held back enough that fans poring over trailers are still in for some surprises. In the landscape of the blockbuster field, Nolan remains virtually unrivalled, and the film would do well to court Academy Award nominations across the board, specifically Best Picture. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded. And with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s masterful coda, he has done just that.
The Dark Knight Rises opens in cinemas on Friday.