The Dark Knight Rises was earning dissenting critics death threats when almost no one had even seen it yet. No one should be proud of that, but it does serve as a rather extreme example of what’s riding on this film for a lot of Batman fans. For a lot of us, this just has to be the greatest superhero film ever made. But is it?
Honestly, that’s a question that isn’t worth asking, especially when the film Dark Knight Rises is most likely to be stacked up against (this year, anyway) is Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Fans will always lean toward one or the other, and rightly so. These are very different films, linked by nothing but scale, genre and fan anticipation. So instead of asking if The Dark Knight Rises is the best superhero movie of all time, let’s ask instead if it’s the best conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy we could have asked for.
Again, fans will be divided. Some will always prefer The Dark Knight, in part because it’s a more streamlined, subtler film with a tighter emotional core (plus, you know, The Joker). But as a conclusion to the trilogy that Nolan began seven years ago, The Dark Knight Rises is a work of staggering ambition, a brutal and powerful film that holds nothing back and gives a brilliant and definite ending to the best cinematic incarnation of Batman ever.
It’s been eight years since the last time Batman was seen, eight years since the night Harvey Dent died. Gotham’s elite, believing the lie that Batman was responsible for Dent’s murder, hold the fallen District Attorney up as an idol, and enact laws in his name that put hundreds of dangerous criminals behind bars. Gotham is quiet, peaceful, but there’s a storm coming…
(I won’t go further with a plot description than that. You know the setup.)
I tend to say this about a lot of big-budget movies I like, but the key word for The Dark Knight Rises really is AMBITION. Batman Begins was dark and gritty, and The Dark Knight was cleverly constructed and taut, but they both look dwarfed by what Nolan brings to bear on this film. If the last film was the battle for Gotham’s soul, this one is the battle for its body, for its very heartbeat. Here he takes Batman and the city that spawned him to their absolute limits under the thumb of Bane (Tom Hardy). It’s a sweeping vision – told through predictably magnificent visuals – of a city desolated, a hero broken, and an evil that seems insurmountable.
None of that could work without Bane. It’s Batman’s journey, but Bane’s at the center of the action, and Tom Hardy delivers a performance worthy of the task. His physical presence is terrifying, huge and violent and lumbering like a beast from the depths. His voice, a grandiose peal of eloquence, is such an odd juxtaposition with his body that it only makes him scarier. But the real things to watch are his eyes. He acts the entire film from behind a mask, but the eyes say it all. There will be inevitable comparisons between his work and Heath Ledger’s, of course, and while Ledger’s Joker is more compelling and more fun to watch, I am convinced that Ledger could not have done what Hardy achieved here.
But as I said, it’s Batman’s journey, and Christian Bale gives his best performance as The Dark Knight ever, made all the more powerful by the fact that he spends so much of the film outside of the costume. He’s playing a man who has to re-learn how to be the hero he once was, and all the frustration and vulnerability and rage that comes with that shows through in every scene. And then there’s Anne Hathaway, who presents a decidedly Nolan version of Catwoman: vulnerable but strong, dark but hopeful, sexy but powerful. Her performance is the most effortless in the film. She slinks through it with every ounce of talent she’s got. The supporting cast, led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman, are all predictably superb, and every one of them conveys a true personal journey even as we’re watching the titans clash.
But what makes The Dark Knight Rises so epic, so gobsmackingly huge, is that Nolan doesn’t rely on his titanic hero and villain to make the film. This is about more than a man in a cape and cowl and the masked monster he grapples with. This is about the power of the symbol of Batman, about what a little hope can do even when despair dominates it. This is every theme, every emotional point made in each of the previous films brought home to roost. Nolan’s not edging around it any more. He’s ending the journey of a hero. He knows it, his characters know it, and the result is a film painted with broad, primary brushstrokes of pain and determination and passion. By the end, Christopher Nolan’s left it all out there, right on the screen for you to see and judge, and even if you don’t like it, that means he’s earned your respect.
Lastly, this film proves what made this era of the Batman franchise so special. This is perhaps the first and only time in the history of superhero cinema that a filmmaker has taken a corporate-owned, world-renowned character and truly made it his own. Even if this isn’t the Batman you know or love, there is no doubt that this is Christopher Nolan’s Batman. He owns it, he earned it, and in this film he’s delivered to us a powerful last word. Is this the best conclusion we could have hoped for? It was for me. But even if it isn’t for you, recognize that Nolan’s journey from reviving a flailing franchise to telling a definitive, singular story in an age of constant sequel and prequel second-guessing is a remarkable achievement.