In The Dark Knight Rises, someone tells Bruce Wayne that suffering builds character. When the title card finally flashes after an unremitting 164-minute running time, Wayne has built more character than any man should. Director Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman saga is powerful entertainment; by fusing the superhero genre with noir, Nolan raises the stakes to a massive degree. The battle for Gotham’s soul is downright apocalyptic, and the screenplay is at its best when it gives Batman an abyss into which he must fall. After he rises, though, Nolan’s film nearly stumbles with clunky exposition and an inconsistent ideology. His hope, I guess, is that diehard fans will be too satisfied to notice.
Eight years have passed since Batman (Christian Bale) took the fall for Harvey Dent’s death, and now Bruce Wayne lives in isolation. He’s shaken from his seclusion when one of his servants turns out to be Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who successfully steals Wayne’s fingerprints. The prints are part of a master plan: the fearsome Bane (Tom Hardy) is an anarcho-Marxist of sorts who wants to decimate Gotham from the ground up. His plan is ruthless. Under the guise of “restoring order,” he cuts off Gotham from any resources or infrastructure, so his henchmen have free reign to take anything they want. Inside a truck, a nuclear bomb also patrols the streets, and it may go off at any moment. Batman would save the city, except a bout with Bane leaves him indisposed. For a significant stretch, the caped crusader’s only hope is that he might perish quickly.
Nolan’s ambition and massive sense of scale can be jaw-dropping. This is never more apparent than when Bane becomes Gotham’s warlord; starting with a football stadium, the city literally explodes into chaos. Over an hour of The Dark Knight Rises was filmed with IMAX cameras, so the shock and awe approach is overwhelming. His fetishistic shots of architecture are gorgeous and imposing, as if he wants us to feel that Gotham is a high-tech prison. It is Nolan’s intent to leave us feeling hopeless, and for a while he succeeds. Batman is confident he can stop Bane, but in the movie’s best scene, Bane shatters both his body and spirit. The fight sequence has more dialogue than a typical one does and Hardy sells Bane with frightening determination. Relentless and severe, the scene is heartbreaking because Nolan forces us to watch the full, exhausting extent of Batman’s failure. Selina watches from a distance, and her frightened eyes mirror our experience.
Raw physicality is what drives the performances. Even Morgan Freeman, again reprising his role as tech guru Lucius Fox, has a moment where he must outrun terrifying danger. Still, Hardy steals the show with a riff on a character he’s played before. In Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Bronson, Hardy also played a muscle-bound madman with surprising reserves of intelligence. The only difference is that he trades a wispy moustache for a grotesque mask, one that obscures his mouth and distorts his speech. Hathaway has more fun with her role as Catwoman, adapting her voice and physique to what the situation requires. Her seamless transitions from a harrowed victim to a femme fatale are what define her performance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman are consummate professionals as two Gotham policemen, and their gruff realism helps the story plod along. But after three movies, Batman himself remains a thankless role; still, Bale obediently gives his role the proper diligence.
Nolan boasts that The Dark Knight Rises is the biggest film since the silent era, and he delivers on his promise with his climax. There are moments where thousands of extras fill the frame. It is all-out war when Gotham’s police duke it out with its prisoners and Batman confronts Bane once more. The set pieces and chase sequences are so sensational, in fact, that cracks begin to show when Nolan cuts away from the violence. Nolan has to wrap his story, and since he can’t build plot into set pieces, the director has no choice but to insert reams of detail-heavy, expository dialogue. The problem is not as bad as it was in Inception (for a fun night, watch Inception and drink whenever Ellen Page’s character asks a question), but Nolan struggles with finishing up every sub-plot. Expectations for the director could not be higher, so it makes sense that he’d overwrite an epically-scoped film instead of cutting back. Still, he and co-screenwriter Jonathon Nolan can’t quite stick the ending: it’s as if they’re shoving more dessert into our mouths when we’re already full.
With scenes at a stock exchange and Bane’s hatred of Gotham’s privileged, some bloggers have made hay about whether Nolan is trying to comment on the Occupy Wall Street movement. That argument is giving Nolan too much credit; he’s co-opting political rhetoric when it’s convenient, giving the illusion of depth. It’s a nifty trick, and while the ideas feel plausible from moment to moment, it doesn’t quite deserve the extra scrutiny. Nolan is a master of the grand gesture, and The Dark Knight Rises is utterly satisfying on those terms. Batman is heroic because of how he endures for us. Thanks to Nolan’s considerable craft, the empathy is immediate when pain and anguish befall him. This time, though, there’s just not much more to it.