It’s difficult to write about The Dark Knight Rises after the shootings in Colorado at an advance screening of Christopher Nolan’s film.
The horrific events in Colorado show that a disturbed identification with film can create a path that leads to tragic consequence but the blame for the shootings cannot be laid at Nolan’s feet.
As the director explained in his response to the Aurora massacre: ”I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime.
“The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”
There are savage and brutal sequences in TDKR but the heart of Nolan’s film is hope. Elsewhere, debate has already begun about the link between violent images and violent acts but this isn’t the place for that argument. Instead, this is a consideration of whether TDKR is a great artwork and what the shared experience is.
Just over two months ago, Joss Whedon presented his cinematic take on Marvel’s Avengers to the world. Technicolour, glossy, effervescent and surprisingly funny, it proved to be the most accurate adaption of the pulpy, feel-good ‘action as entertainment’ side of comic books.
As good as it was, Whedon’s film only showed one shiny side of the coin. With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan shows the scarred, damaged and more textured side – embracing the fact that comics and film, as part of the media, not only reflect our world but also seek to explain it.
It’s a serious film, a thoughtful and painstakingly crafted take on the source material that is as far removed from the pop art 60s television series as Downfall is from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
As the third and final part of Nolan’s trilogy begins, it’s apparent early on that that the scope is wide and that the director intends to deliver a blockbuster with brains.
Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent has become the symbol of a heroic Gotham that has beaten its own demons and cast Batman in the role of villain. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon knows that a war was waged on the back of a lie and still grapples with his own part in concealing the truth.
Batman is gone, Bruce Wayne is living a hermit-like existence albeit in the grand surroundings of the rebuilt Wayne Manor and Dent is, of course, dead. Only Gordon remains as the public face of the battle against organised crime but as one of the city’s great and good notes “He’s a war hero in a time of peace”.
Peace is fragile and while the crime rate may have plummeted, there are indications that a class war may be coming.
The tension between the have and have-nots is sketched out through exchanges between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle early on. She has the vitality, skills and edge while he is near crippled, greying and lost. When she later warns him, with relish, that “there’s a storm coming” it’s as much a prediction about the state of Gotham as it is a pointer to the central dramatic thread.
That thread, for anyone who has been off-planet for the past year, centres on Bane, a physically powerful terrorist mastermind who is plotting Gotham’s reckoning. Carrying on the unfinished work of Rhas Al Ghul from Batman Begins and spouting revolutionary rhetoric that seeks to paint his destruction as liberation, Bane is a threat that creates the need for a Batman once again.
One bad guy to take down and a city to save is pretty standard superhero fare though. Nolan adds in the double-crossing,but compelling and alluring, Kyle/Catwoman. He factors in a boardroom battle, a “greed is good” business rival, the moral quandary over an energy source and the crumbling of a financial empire.
He introduces an idealistic young cop who has the detective skills to impress Gordon and pursues a hunch about Bruce Wayne and there’s a new dimension to Wayne’s relationship with Alfred.
In short, and without revealing the entire plot, TDKR rejects the simplistic and sets in motion a story that brings change and conflict to both the personal and the city as a whole.
If there was a flaw in The Dark Knight, and it’s entirely excusable, it was that Heath Ledger’s mesmeric performance left Batman somewhat in the shadows. In TDKR, central villain Bane is a hypnotic presence when on screen but the focus has shifted back to Wayne and Batman.
Bale plays his role superbly as a lost soul who finds a reason to return and, after being broken physically and mentally, rebuilds himself inside and out only to sacrifice himself again.
His is one of several superb performances that give the film its heart. Michael Caine brings something new to Alfred, the sage and wise butler who helped build and guide Batman now distraught and conflicted at the personal cost. Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon was a careful, thoughtful cop in the previous films but now harbours guilt and seems numbed by the fact that lies and failures have led to the lasting peace. Until the peace fails…
Of the new faces, Joseph Gordon Levitt proves the link between Gotham’s protector and those in need of most protection. His John Blake is the film’s moral compass, pointing to the city’s failings, demonstrating its ability to rise to a challenge and showing what secrets should be kept and which should never be hidden.
Anne Hathaway gives good smirk as Selina Kyle and takes Catwoman in a direction that’s new to film after Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry’s wildly different interpretations. Looking after number one but aware of the bigger picture, she’s smart and funny, worldly and capable and her fear of Bane underlines the menace of Batman’s newest adversary.
It couldn’t have been easy agreeing to follow Heath Ledger as the latest Bat-villain but Tom Hardy benefits from having an entirely different bad guy to embody. Physically imposing as the result of a punishing regime, Hardy cuts an impressive figure but he, like his character, is more than just muscle.
With a mask obscuring most of his face, and a distorted voice to boot, he doesn’t have a lot to work with. But Hardy achieves something special in that the evil, the intelligence, the curiosity and the anger are all communicated through his eyes. Intimidatingly smart and physically smart he may be but the defining aspect of the battle between Bane and Batman is undying conviction and Hardy sells it perfectly.
Hollywood has a rich history of great performances in flawed films though, and what makes TDKR is that every aspect boasts the same level of excellence.
Wally Pfister’s cinematography and well-chosen locations broaden the palette from the previous films. Whether it’s Gotham in snow (and later in pieces), a dusty and desolate prison, a packed stadium or a bustling stock exchange, each setting has its own feeling, creating a layered, convincing world the characters to inhabit.
Hans Zimmer’s score has moved from the scratchy, keening and foreboding tones of the previous film, where it heightened the tension as The Joker turned the screws. In TDKR it’s relentless percussion adds gravity and the sense that everything is marching to a brutal and definitive conclusion.
The special effects and props are never just for spectacle and the manner they are introduced as the believable, inevitable results of military engineering and imaginative use mean they bolster rather than deflect from the realistic tone that has served Nolan so well in the past.
These are all just parts though, and the sum of those parts is what matters. The Dark Knight Rises had expectations to meet and each element combines to produce a film that is deeply satisfying.
It isn’t perfect (Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate disappoints and even with a lengthy running time there are some strands that seem to be introduced and concluded too quickly) but it aims high and reaches its mark.
The brief appearances from one or two cast members from The Wire serve as a reminder of how the HBO drama forensically explored a city over five seasons. Nolan has built one over three films and not just as a backdrop for special effects. His Gotham has endured, overcome, been besieged and saved and it has been compelling viewing because he built it with care.
That big picture is balanced with the personal and Bruce Wayne has gone from fearful child to revenge-fixated youth, from disciple to leader and symbol, from trapped to free.
As the closing part of a trilogy it does what few films achieve. It builds on the previous two films and expands the scope before bringing every arc to an end. Nothing is left unexplained but there are no shortcuts or cheats. It aims for the epic and achieves it.
Nolan hits the mark in terms of delivering a spectacle that has broad appeal and lends itself to shared experience. That he has also made a valuable contribution to the history of an art form he so clearly reveres is what makes The Dark Knight Rises a blockbuster with brains and one that offers hope.