Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes to a satisfying close with The Dark Knight Rises. But sometimes, satisfying isn’t enough.
It’s enough for a very good film, to be sure. For much of its (unnecessarily hefty) running time, Rises is true to the tragic take that Nolan brought to the Batman legend. The movie opens eight years after the events in The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is so hobbled from the struggles of that film that he walks with a cane. To the dismay of his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine, still the heart of the series), Wayne refuses to leave his mansion, instead wallowing in the loss of his love, Rachel, at the hands of the Joker.
Gotham, meanwhile, has seen a resurgence. Thanks to Batman’s sacrificial heroics in The Dark Knight, most of the city’s notorious criminals have been locked up, while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) keeps a watchful eye on the streets. It’s a new age of prosperity, in which Batman isn’t even needed.
But trouble is brewing. In an echo of the threat from the first film, Batman Begins, a new villain has targeted Gotham for a “reckoning.” (This time it’s not because of the city’s rampant crime, but its decadence.) Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked mercenary with the bulk of a tank and the quickness of a tiger, unleashes a multi-faceted campaign on Gotham, hitting its stock exchange and busting open its prison, until he has taken over the city and subjected its citizens to a terrorizing social experiment.
It’s this element of class warfare that is the most intriguing aspect of The Dark Knight Rises. Without being too heavy-handed about it, Nolan taps into our current financial angst and gives it an apocalyptic shiver. When Gotham’s lowly citizens are driven to dragging the rich from their penthouses out onto the street – or when Bane and his thugs flee the stock exchange with traders strapped to their motorcycles as hostages – it’s like witnessing the Occupy movement gone French Revolution.
This notion of economic distress can also be found in the character of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who finds herself, at turns, assisting both Batman and Bane. Hathaway has a great entrance, posing as a caterer and swiping pearls from Wayne’s mansion; when caught, she offers a teasing “Oops.” Later, in a tete-a-tete with Wayne, she justifies her thievery from the rich by saying that she at least doesn’t “stand on the shoulders of those with less.”
Another strong addition to the cast is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a beat cop who has figured out Batman’s true identity and convinces him to come back and fight Bane. He does, but not wisely, as a brutal, mid-film face off between hero and villain leaves Batman … well, I really shouldn’t say.
I will say that this development is true to the spirit of the series, which has always emphasized Wayne’s stubbornness, rage and misplaced messiah complex over more traditional superhero character traits. And while I’m glad Rises doesn’t end at this point of dismay, the movie is weakened by how far it goes in the opposite direction in its last act. The final half hour replaces the Shakespearean tragedy of the series so far – especially that of the masterful Dark Knight – with a far more conventional narrative arc, not to mention an alarming amount of franchise care. From the way it handles the fate of Batman/Bruce Wayne to the way it sets up the promise of future installments, I’d be expecting a fourth film if Nolan hadn’t already announced he was done with the series.
This leaves Rises as the most compromised film of the trilogy, which is its most disappointing aspect. It was clear with Batman Begins – in which Nolan refused to give us the money shot of the bat suit until an hour in – that this was a filmmaker unconcerned with meeting the usual genre requirements. Rises spends a lot of time attending to such requirements in its final moments. There are other problems – the Imax footage is less elegant this time around; the gargantuan structure is less epic than cumbersome – but my main reservation about The Dark Knight Rises is that it’s a tragedy burdened by the (nearly fatal) flaw of hope.