‘The Dark Knight Rises’ brings trilogy to a satisfying close
By Ann Hornaday
Thursday, July 19, 2012
The chief question to be answered regarding “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan’s deliriously anticipated third and final installation of his Batman films, isn’t “Is it any good?” or even, as has been bandied about since it went into production, “Is it a Best Picture contender?”
The question, rather, is, does “The Dark Knight Rises” soar to the thematic and stylistic heights reached by its predecessor, the adored (some of us would argue overpraised) “The Dark Knight”? Does it clear a bar set by Nolan and his star, Christian Bale, who have infused the franchise with vigor, visual depth and solemnity (some of us would argue ludicrous self-seriousness) heretofore unseen in mere comic-book movies?
Most important, does “The Dark Knight Rises” achieve the impossible, which is to bring a cherished cinematic chapter to a close, yet manage to leave fans feeling not desolate but cheered? To that all-important question, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Nolan, together with the team he has been working with so profitably since 2005’s “Batman Begins,” has made a completely satisfying movie with “The Dark Knight Rises,” one steeped enough in self-contained mythology to reward hard-core fans while giving less invested viewers a rousing, adroitly executed piece of popcorn entertainment.
What’s more, Nolan has heroically resisted the siren call of 3-D, that odious gimmick that has done nothing more for cinema than separate people from their money for no added visual or narrative value. Instead, he has thrown in with IMAX, whose bold detail and boxy framing are just right for this big-shouldered production. “The Dark Knight Rises” looks terrific, from its handsome, uncluttered production design and subtle costumes to impressively staged stunts that unfold with taut lucidity.
In fact, “The Dark Knight Rises” starts off with just such a set piece, a nervy piece of mid-air showmanship in which the movie’s villain, a terrorist thug named Bane (Tom Hardy), hijacks a CIA plane. Masked and alarmingly well-muscled, Bane makes almost immediately for Gotham City, where Bruce Wayne (Bale) has been living in wounded seclusion for the past eight years, since he took the rap for killing a city hero named Harvey Dent.
Of course, there’s more to the story than that, a buried truth glancingly referred to in a weary speech delivered by police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is attending a charity event on the grounds of Wayne Manor. Also in attendance: a mysterious brunette named Selina Kyle, who slinks around the guests with the silky, feline assurance of a woman who knows she has at least seven or eight lives to go.
To Nolan’s everlasting credit, Selina Kyle is played by Anne Hathaway, who proves to be the breakout star of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Forget the gizmos, gimcracks and Bat-things that Wayne’s techno-wizard Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) introduces in the course of the movie. Hathaway is the sensational secret weapon of this production, a tart, leggy operator who can turn on a dime from damsel-in-distress to canny kitten-with-a-whip.
Hathaway infuses a welcome note of mischief and winking play to an enterprise that has too often been mired in its own sepulchral sense of gravitas. “The Dark Knight Rises” is never more enjoyable than when Bruce, Selina and their respective alter egos confront each other, whether in all-out battle or something far more ambiguous.
If Bruce’s encounters with Selina crackle with tantalizingly opaque desires, his meet-ups with Bane are far less fun -- it has been eight years, after all, and compared with Bane’s roid rage, Bruce isn’t much of a physical match, even behind the iconically contoured suit he wears as Batman. Nolan balances the visual finesse of “The Dark Knight Rises” with several scenes of brutal fights and sadistic torture -- interspersed with windy, expository speeches about Why I’m Doing This To You, a structural hazard of the genre.
It’s a shame that Hardy’s face is hidden behind a Hannibal Lecter-esque mask of matte-black grill work, thereby depriving viewers of two of the best lips in the business. The mask also renders Bane’s pronouncements borderline unintelligible: When Batman and Bane argue, it’s like listening to a Battle of the Synthesized Voice Boxes (“I see your Christopher Plummer, sir, and raise you one Darth Vader and a Clint Eastwood!”).
Nolan has taken the liberty of creating two brand-new characters for “The Dark Knight Rises”: a rookie police officer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a sultry Wayne Enterprises board member named Miranda Tate, played by Marion Cotillard.
In addition to being terrific -- indeed crucial -- additions to the proceedings, both hail from Nolan’s most recent film, “Inception,” which has inspired some of the most stunning visual and sonic effects of “The Dark Knight Rises,” including a flawlessly calibrated action sequence, ending at a Gotham City football game, that Nolan stages with scale, spectacle, grandeur and even a touch of wit that has been in such short supply in previous Batman films. Relieving Hans Zimmer’s basso profundo musical score with welcome rests of muffled silence, Nolan has created a less frenetic tableau than “The Dark Knight,” in which the chase scenes so often dissolved into incoherence.
“The Dark Knight Rises” features its share of incoherence, too -- mostly in the form of too-busy back stories and alternately Machiavellian and muddled motivations. With a running time of nearly three hours, Nolan’s valedictory indulges in flashbacks and explanatory montages that begin to feel like three films in one. Then there’s the topical dissonance that sets in -- through no fault of Nolan’s or his co-screenwriter and brother, Jonathan Nolan -- when a man named Bane turns out to be waging a war against capital rather than for it.
If “The Dark Knight Rises” intended to grind a political ax, of course, Bane would be laughing maniacally as he shipped jobs overseas and sent profits to Swiss bank accounts. Still, Nolan sneaks in some timely signifiers, including 9/11, CIA renditions, the race for sustainable energy and the recent financial meltdown. Hewing faithfully to Batman’s libertarian leanings, “The Dark Knight Rises” becomes an almost spiritual parable of anti-populism and unshakable faith in law, order and the morally superior wisdom of the One Percent.
But ultimately, like all the movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” is all about The One: If the Batman trilogy has celebrated anything, it has been the unfettered power of the individual over an ungrateful rabble, a vigilante ethic that may have gone underground in “The Dark Knight” but that has never been critically questioned. Viewers will have plenty of time to argue those philosophical implications now that Nolan’s trilogy has wrapped.
“The Dark Knight Rises” ends on a self-important note (not just quoting Dickens but erecting an actual monument, no less) that would be insufferable if Nolan and Bale hadn’t so clearly earned it. In addition to giving fans their fair share of entertainment value, they helped make comic-book movies safe for good actors, resulting not in great talent slumming but elevating the form. Arguably, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Fassbender, Mark Ruffalo and, most recently, Andrew Garfield owe some debt to Bale, whose brooding, tightly coiled psychological complexity found such a sympathetic outlet in Nolan’s densely composed style.
Like one of most hotly pursued MacGuffins of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan leaves a clean slate by the end of the movie, keeping a door open for Bale’s successors. A generous gesture, to be sure, but for now, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else with such a perfect scowl for the cowl.
Contains intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and profanity.