It occurs to me that super-heroes don’t have cinematic trilogies. They get a clunky but promising origin tale followed by two sequels, the first of which turns out an instant hit and the second, a disaster. Sure enough, The Dark Knight Rises is, by a small margin, the lesser of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-Flicks, but it does serve as a riveting conclusion to a proper trilogy. Don’t expect the hero to stand by for his next adventure. This movie changes him, pays off the loose threads from the previous instalments, and effectively ends his story.
Seven years after the cover-up that rid the city of organised crime but forced Batman (Christian Bale) into retirement, Gotham remains a cesspool of greed and corruption, its new institutional sins echoing current financial and political headlines. Peace has given way to complacency, and Bruce Wayne now lives as a recluse with his makeshift father figure, Alfred (Michael Caine), imploring him to move on with his life. As always, their scenes together have the most to offer. My throat got lumpy on several occasions, and I flat out balled when the old butler reveals he would have rather Bruce never returned home in Batman Begins (2005).
We get new characters as well, most notably corporate philanthropist Miranda Tate, whom Marion Cotillard plays as a more sophisticated Bond girl, and the quick-witted Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman), portrayed by Anne Hathaway as a mix between Robin Hood and Black Widow from The Avengers (2012). She’s tremendous fun, and I like the clever way her night-vision goggles form tiny cat ears when she lifts them over her head. One woman serves as a love interest for Bruce Wayne, and the other for Batman, but both roles feature enough depth and reversals to ward off any complaint of Nolan’s work coming off like a bit of a boys club.
On the subject of supporting cast, The Dark Knight Rises also introduces John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a rookie cop who’s curiously given as much screen time as the titular character. I mention this without qualm, since Nolan and co-plotter David S. Goyer have always conceived Batman as more of an institution than a traditional super-hero. Besides, Gordon-Levitt has yet to give a performance I didn’t find compelling (in his adult years anyway). Here he gets plenty with which to work, portraying a frustrated idealist whose sense of justice extends beyond law and order. I love his heart-to-heart with Bruce, in which he explains how, as an orphan, he couldn’t help but figure out the caped crusader’s identity.
Despite all this, I find The Dark Knight Rises gets off to somewhat of a rough start, with the opening hour proving less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps I missed the comedy of Bruce Wayne’s outrageous playboy antics or the spectacle inherent to his Batman persona, which doesn’t resurface until the second act. Then again, even after our hero dons his rubber tights and cape, the first brawl with Bane (Tom Hardy), new leader of the League of Shadows, had me cringing. Following the inventive set pieces of The Dark Knight (2008), I guess I expected more than a silly fistfight with a masked behemoth.
This is not to say Bane makes for a boring antagonist. I dig how his garbled inflections suggest a sophisticated mind with an all too sinister sense of humour and the way his true motivations pay off one of the series’ most contentious moments. However, the villain doesn’t come into his own until the second half of the movie, when he achieves what neither Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) or the Joker could: turn the citizens of Gotham into willing savages. How he accomplishes this is the stuff of spoilers, of course. Suffice it to say that, from this point on, The Dark Knight Rises becomes nothing short of phenomenal.
I’d never have expected a super-hero flick to take such a bold direction. Like the previous film, The Dark Knight Rises moves us by involving the civilians, those to whom we can’t help but relate. As I watched John Blake, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) mount their resistance within the city, I started to wonder how I would fare in Bane’s apocalypse, whether I’d stand beside Batman and his followers or bow my head like Deputy Foley (Matthew Modine). Then I realised we face similar dilemmas every day.
For all its glorious melodrama, Nolan’s Batman trilogy remains a tale of morality. Its last chapter doesn’t just up the ante. It reassesses the established themes of heroism and inspiration, amending the question of what one man can give the world to what one man should leave behind. By the time the credits rolled, I felt I’d had enough, not because The Dark Knight Rises overstays its welcome but because it leaves the characters exactly where they belong. If you want more, you’ll just have to wait for the inevitable reboot.