Up until last Friday morning, if you had asked me what my favourite movie trilogy was I would have said the Red Riding saga without missing a beat. With Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980 and 1983 Channel 4 managed to craft one of the tightest, most fascinating epics I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. But again, only up until last Friday morning, because I’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises and its quality by itself and as the final part of a series has cemented Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as one of the greatest of all time.
I loved Batman Begins when it first came out. Since then, I’ve recognized its flaws but the movie is still great in spite of them. When The Dark Knight hit cinemas in 2008, it wowed me unlike any movie before (my good friend Xander Harrington will attest to how I was left practically speechless until we left the cinema). Going into Rises, it seemed unlikely that Nolan would be able to top himself, especially considering the late Heath Ledger’s powerhouse performance as the Joker in TDK—as well as the fact that few final chapters in trilogies tend to be the strongest. But Jesus Christ, he did it. Christopher Nolan somehow did it.
Taking more than a few notes from Frank Miller’s landmark The Dark Knight Returns, Rises picks up a lengthy amount of time after The Dark Knight—eight years, in fact. Having become a pariah from taking the blame for Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s murders, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has effectively retired as the Batman, and in fact has barely left the house in the eight intervening years. Walking with the use of a cane from injuries sustained at the end of the last movie, Bruce has gone full out Howard Hughes, letting his beard grow and seeing no one except Alfred. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), tortured by guilt for agreeing to let Batman take the fall, is obliged to annually praise the man who tried to murder his son on Harvey Dent Day. Even Return of the Jedi had a happier opening than this.
But while Gotham City has been free of major crime for nearly a decade, the first winds of a catastrophic maelstrom have already started to blow. High-tech cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), better known as Catwoman, has nabbed Bruce’s fingerprints for the purposes of a corrupt businessman.And in the airspace above Uzbekistan, masked terrorist Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy) has kidnapped Russian nuclear physicist in a vertigo-inducing mid-air highjacking. Unsurprisingly, the two thefts are intertwined in maybe the most staggering plot executed in a (fairly) grounded superhero movie.
The trailers leading up to the film’s release have shown a lot of the movie, but it’s all pieced together in a gradually more and more astounding fashion. Some have complained about The Dark Knight’s lack of focus (a point with which I would disagree, but that’s for another day), but I can’t imagine the same criticisms applying here. Make no mistake, there is a lot going on in this movie, but screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have constructed it in such a way that every character arc and subplot feeds back into and enriches the main storyline. There’s a multitude of characters but you never really get lost among them. This is a spoiler free review, so unfortunately I can’t talk about the plot any further without spoiling some really big things, so from here on out I’m just going to be praising the film’s strengths, which is what I came here to do anyway, so it all works out.
As with his two previous Bat-flicks, Bale receives top billing and, with no psychopathic clown to overshadow him, it’s his movie to own. While some may take issue with his hoarse Bat-growl or the complexity of his costume (I love both unapologetically), there’s no doubt that Bale’s take on the Caped Crusader has greater depth than all of his predecessors combined. Here, we see Batman at his lowest as well as his highest, with Bruce’s actions elevating the Dark Knight beyond a man in a cape and cowl to what he originally intended it to be: a symbol, incapable of corruption or mortality. Without revealing more, events and decisions throughout the film remind me a lot of what Grant Morrison has been doing with the character over the past several years. We also see a lot more of Bruce outside of the suit, which ordinarily might irk me considering the movie is about Batman, but it affords the character a real opportunity to consider life outside of crimefighting—usually a cowardly or selfish route, but here both believable and maybe even ideal. It’s the single most human portrayal of Batman to date.
Rises introduces a few new major supporting characters, all of them important to the story and none of them getting lost in the shuffle—an accomplishment, it should be said. Batman’s major opponent here is Hardy’s Bane. While I doubt Hardy has given as iconic a performance as Ledger’s Joker I take very little issue with that considering The Dark Knight Rises is all about Batman. Regardless, he is remarkably intimidating as the rebreather-wearing Bane, who in spite of his monstrous appearance and the carnage he dishes out with terrifying abandon is surprisingly relaxed and even delighted in his demeanour. Bane is a true believer, as committed to his crusade as Batman is to his own, and could not be happier to face off with someone who might pose a challenge to him. For all the changes Bane underwent transitioning from comic to film—and believe me, there are quite a few—he nevertheless stays true to the character Chuck Nixon, Doug Moench and Graham Nolan created in 1993.
Anne Hathaway’s casting as Catwoman cocked a lot of eyebrows when it was first announced, but having seen and really enjoyed her performance in Rachel Getting Married I expected her to bring a lot of nuance to the role. I was not disappointed. Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is maybe the best mass media depiction of Catwoman we’ll ever see and certainly a Hell of a lot better than Michelle Pfeiffer’s crazy cat lady in Batman Returns. Her intelligence and slyness is evident in every sentence she utters and she plays off Bale well, both in and out of costume (and no, that is not innuendo).
Lastly and certainly not least is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as GCPD officer John Blake. In the last decade and a half, JGL has gone from sitcom co-star to indie film lead to featuring in some very high-profile pictures (he’s top billed in Rian Johnson’s upcoming sci fi thriller Looper). His role in Rises is perhaps the single most important after Bale’s. Introduced as a rookie cop, Blake quickly gains the attention of Jim Gordon and is assigned to a Batman-oriented task force. While Blake hasn’t shown up until this point, the Nolan brothers do a good job of making him feel like he’s been part of Gotham all along. He develops an interesting rapport with Bruce and, by extension, Batman as well, becoming a secondary protagonist and one of the Dark Knight’s strongest supporters in the mayhem that pervades the film.
Again, I won’t say much beyond the character basics but dear Lord, this movie is staggeringly well put together. The film’s final act features as close to all-out war that will ever be depicted in the Batman universe, with Bats and Bane front as centre as generals on either side. It’s a long movie, to be certain, but not a single minute of it feels wasted or unnecessary. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a final chapter bring everything full circle as well as this one, with maybe the exception of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. While The Dark Knight didn’t really touch on the events of Batman Begins, the Nolans reintroduce themes that pervade the first film and bring them to their natural climax. With all these revisitations Rises doesn’t stand on its own as well as Begins or The Dark Knight do but, seeing as it’s a concluding piece, I take no issue with that. The final few minutes alone were enough to make this my favourite in the series.
The Dark Knight Rises is amazing. I say that without any hyperbole. It’s an amazing film in and of itself and is perhaps the greatest final chapter in any series I can think of in any medium. It is an epic in the truest sense of the word and explores territory I never thought would be explored in a Batman film, let alone any superhero adaptation. Its characters are pushed to their limits in every conceivable way and the stakes grow incredibly high without succumbing to the scale-deprived escalation that many comic events (read: Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis’ Blackest Night) fall prey to. It is the fulfillment of everything that makes the character of Batman and his universe work and provides greater thematic and character resolution than I ever could have dreamed.