So here we are. At long last the third coming of the Bale-Bat is upon us and we can finally decide for ourselves whether Nolan and company have given Batman the finale he deserves, or merely the film that Warner Brothers needs right now.
I don’t envy Christopher Nolan the weight of expectations placed on The Dark Knight Rises. Where do you take Batman after successfully realizing perhaps the most iconic iteration of Batman’s arch-nemesis… ever? How do you match, let alone surpass yourself with every audience member suddenly a critic out to judge not just whether the movie is good in and of itself, but if it’s good enough to follow on the heels of one of the most highly acclaimed, culturally impactful, and dearly beloved films of all time?
[WARNING: Major plot spoilers ahead.]
Nolan has certainly raised the stakes in the effort to up the ante this time around. Gotham has been increasingly imperilled throughout the trilogy: threatened by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, terrorized by the Joker in The Dark Knight, and now full-on occupied by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
But Nolan has also clearly given thought to what other defining pillars of the Batman mythos could be shaken in order to give the caped crusader his greatest challenge yet. What if Wayne Enterprises were to go broke, bankrupting Bruce Wayne? What if his most trusted ally and loyal servant, Alfred, were to leave? And what would it take for Bruce Wayne to decide he was finished being Batman?
This final instalment carefully weaves the events of the second film together with those of the first. As a generalization, the motivations of the continuing characters are carried over from The Dark Knight while the new characters are linked back to Batman Begins. This ties the trilogy tightly together rather than simply jamming a third film on the end. It also allows Nolan to take a certain amount of characterization for granted in regards to Bane, his army and Talia al Ghul that would otherwise have needed to be crammed into the monumental 2 & ¾ hours run time.
Where one might question how Bane is able to inspire loyalty so unswerving that his men go gladly to their deaths when ordered, his role as successor to Ra’s al Ghul (leader of the League of Shadows) quickly explains this for us. It’s also one of many demonstrations of Nolan’s knowledge of and respect for the source material (Batman: Bane of the Demon #1, March 1998). Similarly, Bruce’s broken back is straight out of Knightfall (Batman #497, July 1993), and Bane’s isolation of Gotham from the outside world smacks of the Road to No Man’s Land storyline which saw Gotham levelled by an earthquake and isolated from the rest of the country by the government (Batman #562, February 1999).
However the inspiration for the overall arc of the film came from a much more classical source: Charles Dickens. Keen fans of classical literature will have picked up on Commissioner Gordon’s direct quotation from A Tale of Two Cities as he gives Bruce Wayne’s eulogy. Christopher Nolan’s brother and writing partner Jonathan explains, “A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.”
Small nods such as Selina Kyle’s comment that, “the rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us” when she hears that Bruce has been allowed to keep Wayne Manor, or Bane’s snide insinuation that stock brokers are little more than thieves are obvious echoes of Dickens’ examination of class struggle. One could reasonably argue that it would not be inaccurate if this film were to be re-titled Occupy Gotham, which is almost unsettlingly prescient for a film written in 2008-2009. (Bane’s assertion that he intends to return Gotham “to the people” is reminiscent of the Occupy Movement, which didn’t begin until 2011.)
As well as happy accidents of social commentary, there are additional improvements upon the first two films. Despite the departure of James Newton Howard from the franchise, leaving Hans Zimmer to score the film on his own, the music has taken an interesting turn. Where using razor blades on violin strings and other tricks gave the Joker his eerie, unsettling theme, the incorporation of the ‘Rise’ chant and it’s rhythmic element into the music make for a more forceful and impactful soundtrack this time around.
The voices chanting “Deshi Basara” (literally, “Rise Up” in an ancient language which fans are still scrambling to identify) are one of the most interesting new elements in the music. And while one would expect them to belong to some lucky chorus recorded in a studio, they are actually owned by thousands upon thousands of everyday Batman fans. In order to achieve the deep, layered texture of a mighty host, Zimmer set up a website coaching visitors on how to pronounce the chant so they could record and submit their own voices. I think it’s a wonderful touch that the fans own that integral piece of the film. (Now it’s just a matter of time until we see Bat-symbol-shaped flash-mobs chanting ‘Deshi Basara’.)
Another integral change can be noted; the resolution of a longstanding pet-peeve of mine. At last Nolan has placed his cameras further than 3 feet away from the fight scenes. No longer will stuntmen and choreographers cry themselves to sleep as their hard work is lost outside of frame, no longer are Bat-fans denied being able to clearly make out their hero at work because finally you can actually see a fight and follow what’s going on. And not a movie too soon, considering Batman’s all-important, back-breaking encounter with Bane (pictured at left).
At best superior or at worst equally matched with previous villains, this is the first time we really feel like Batman is being physically challenged. In their first match, as Bane lets Batman land blow after blow without it having any effect, you begin to fear that this might finally be a fight Bruce can’t win.
Those who have seen Tom Hardy in Warrior will still be surprised at just how physically imposing he has become for this film. Hardy does a marvellous job given the constraints his mask place on his acting. I’ve always thought that it’s an actor’s greatest challenge to take his face away from him; think of how Hugo Weaving so effectively emoted as ‘V’ in V for Vendetta despite being caged behind an inert Guy Fawkes mask. While Hardy doesn’t quite reach those heights of brilliance, my only real criticism is that I feel Bane should have been at least a foot taller than Batman, and my only lingering question (specifically to Bat-aficionados) is, has anyone managed to spot Osito?
While purists may whinge that removing Bane’s dependency on the addictive steroid Venom and altering his back-story to justify the mask stray a little too far from the canon, I would argue it’s just another instance of Nolan putting his own stamp on the myth. And that’s what we’re really here for: Nolan’s interpretation.However, I am glad that Warner Brothers forced Nolan to re-record all of Bane’s lines after test audiences reported that his dialogue was all but unintelligible; I had enough trouble understanding the cleaned up version when I was in the theatre.
As it’s the third time out for Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman, not much needs to be said of their acting; all four turn in solid performances. Although it is worth observing that, in contrast to previous directors who have largely sidelined Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, Nolan has used those two and Lucius Fox to flesh out various aspects Batman in an effort to make sure he stays as interesting a character as his villains. As his closest advisors they frequently reflect or challenge various aspects of the caped crusader: Alfred the emotional heart, Lucius the technological brains, and Gordon the moral conscience of Batman.
If you’re wondering what Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is meant to reflect, the answer is Julie Newmar. Nolan purportedly directed Hathaway’s performance towards a darker update of the 1966 iteration of the character. Personally, I was extremely worried that the star of The Princess Diaries & The Devil Wears Prada would struggle to hit the right tone for this film and we would end up with another ridiculous, Halle-Berry-type Catwoman, but Hathaway does surprisingly well. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that she puts her own stamp on the character; there’s nothing new or fresh to see here. However, she didn’t distract or disrupt the film the way Katie Holmes did every time she came on screen, and that’s more than I expected.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s star continues to rise as he more than holds his own amongst the ensemble cast. Mark my words, here is a guy destined for the A-list. Although I was initially annoyed to see Tim Drake watered down to John Blake, I realized later it’s just another way Nolan has put his own twist on the canon. And where would Nolan have had time to fit in a character arch to take Blake all the way through to a Robin fighting side by side with Batman?
Although the film clocks in just 15 minutes shy of the 3 hour mark, the editing does occasionally feel somewhat rushed, and occasionally disjointed. There are approximately 5 months before the bomb goes off, then suddenly the news report shows “Day 83” of Gotham’s occupation, and before you know it Gordon is declaring, “The bomb goes off tomorrow”. All we’re given to signify this abrupt passage of time is a Tumbler driving through snow.
While this is forgivable considering just how much is crammed into such a long movie, there are other flaws that are a little more glaring. For instance, 3000 police officers stumbling up into the light after 5 months trapped underground, and every single one is clean-shaven? Or why doesn’t Bruce take Miranda Tate with him when he rescues Lucius Fox? There’s no good reason other than the plot requires her to stay with Bane for the big reveal that she’s actually Talia al Ghul.
And how does Bane know Batman’s secret identity? Yes, they both belonged to the League of Shadows at one time or other, but Bane was excommunicated before Bruce ever joined. In the comics Bane deduces Batman’s identity over the period of a year, but in the film he just seems to know.
And even if Bruce Wayne could rebuild his broken back in just a few months, I struggle to believe that being repeatedly dropped several stories from the lip of the prison’s entrance fail to aggravate the injury. Not to mention how garbage the guy spotting the climbers is at his job; why doesn’t he hold the rope so escapees only fall a few feet before lowering them safely back to the prison floor?
It’s interesting how plot holes like this have polarized the reaction amongst the hardcore fan-base. Those who dislike the movie seem to be seizing on these subtle flaws to invalidate the entire film, while those who enjoyed the film are defending it with near-religious zeal, refusing to acknowledge that is has any flaws at all.
As a hardcore Bat-fan I can understand some people’s need for this film to be the cinematic equivalent of Christ’s second coming, but it’s unfair to weigh the film down with that much expectation. It’s like thinking your ideal significant other will to do all the housework, raise the children and hold down a full time job so you can drink in the backyard everyday; you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment.
I would argue that the film should be evaluated for what it is: an ending. The last five minutes of the film are a high note few directors would be able to reach, and I’d certainly deem it the reward Batman deserves. But more importantly, it’s our chance to see what being Batman has taught Bruce Wayne. In the prison of Peña Dura, Bruce doesn’t merely learn to fear death as means to find the strength to escape, but to fear death because he has learned to value his own life.
We are told throughout the trilogy that the Batman is meant to be a symbol, and to the people of Gotham he symbolizes hope, justice, and the triumph of good over evil. But I think this is also an opportunity to reflect on what Batman can symbolize for each of us. Personally, I found my answer in the visual juxtaposition of a young Bruce Wayne tumbling into a dark well in Batman Begins contrasted against our seasoned hero rising, phoenix-like, up out of Peña Dura.
For us, I think the Batman should symbolize Thomas Wayne’s most important lesson to his son: the reason we fall is to learn to pick ourselves up. A paralyzing injury, the loss of a loved one, or any number of other challenges may take Batman out of the game temporarily, but nothing ever stops him from getting up again.
And it shouldn’t stop us.
- Christopher Nolan’s farewell letter to Batman
- Easter eggs and other surprises in The Dark Knight Rises
- 5 Films that inspired The Dark Knight Rises