The feeling I had after seeing The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX opening weekend could only have been described with awestruck superlatives, descriptive words like “awesomest”, “bestest”, and “whoa”. I thought that seeing it a second time would allow me some other adjectives, but I’m afraid I’m still at a loss. Rises is frankly the best superhero movie I’ve seen. I wanted to see if a second time to make sure I wasn’t just having a knee-jerk reaction, to make sure I had time to think it through. But I remain convinced for many reasons, and I’ll do my best to parse through those reasons here.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired as Batman and living in seclusion after he (SPOILER*) took the blame for the death of Harvey Dent and the murders that Dent actually committed. Gotham has vilified Batman, and Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) lives in torment over the lie he told to conceal the true nature of Harvey Dent’s death: Batman killed him to save Gordon’s family from being murdered by Dent. However, Gotham now exists free of organized crime, though there is evidence in the opening scenes that crime in Gotham has only taken on a new, more corporate visage. In the middle of this supposed peacetime in Gotham, the mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) enters the city and commits several acts of terrorism at the behest of a corrupt businessman named Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) with designs on taking over Wayne Enterprises. However, Bane may prove to be too much for Daggett to handle; he’s incredibly strong, with a mask that conceals the lower half of his face adding to his intimidation factor, and he possesses a passion that no amount of money can sway. There are other new players in town as well, all of whom inspire Wayne to don the cowl once more: Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an sly cat burglar out for herself and no one else; John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hardened young cop who wants Batman back in action; and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy billionaire whose interest in a clean energy project of Wayne Enterprises’ turns into interest in Wayne himself.
The movie takes on an epic scope, though it stays true to its characters and its themes. Rises could have easily gone off the rails, but director Christopher Nolan keeps it steady with handy editing and singularly great storytelling. This is simply the perfect story with which to end this trilogy. I’m aware of some criticism of Nolan’s style and of his and his brother’s storytelling, but I don’t agree with any of it. I enjoy his style; many directors frustrate me when they make a habit of cutting from shot to shot like they’re scared of including a shot longer than 2 seconds (see: Michael Bay), but Nolan turns this into an asset, telling stories with his editing rather than just trying to keep our attention. It helps that he aimed high with The Dark Knight Rises. The themes in this movie are weighty for any movie, let alone a movie in a genre treated as skeptically as the superhero genre. Superhero movies should aspire to be about more than just good vs. evil; Rises is hardly about good vs. evil at all. Instead, Nolan deconstructs our notions of society and the symbols that are the foundation of our society. As well as those macrothemes, Nolan gives us an intimate story of a man reinventing himself, a man rediscovering his purpose. This Bruce Wayne is a man learning how to move on with his life, as well as a man learning what it truly means to give up his life for others, which is always a welcome theme for me. The politics of the movie have been debated; personally, I think Nolan is showing us the dangers of one social class, upper or lower, ruling over the other. Maybe he wants us to see that we can’t be every man for himself, which could not be more appropriate than during an election year.
Interpret the movie how you will. None of that would matter if Nolan didn’t give us what every great superhero movies needs- awesome action. We get a great scenes involving the Batmobile as well as the Batcycle, and a new creation simply named The Bat. Apart from these vehicles, there are two major hand-to-hand combat scenes between Batman and Bane; I suppose two people punching one another could be boring, but Nolan builds each scene around his characters’ rise and fall, giving the scenes great resonance and effect. They’re two of the best scenes in the movie.
Actors always perform well in Christopher Nolan’s movies, and they love him, so it’s no surprise that The Dark Knight Rises showcases some great performances, though it was mildly surprising how much I admired them. I didn’t expect to find much new to interest me in the acting in this movie after Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, but I was pleasantly impressed. Much has been said of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne; he continues his solid acting here, giving Batman the emotional conclusion he deserves. However, the standout performances are mostly from newcomers to the series. Anne Hathaway gets Selina Kyle/Catwoman just right; she has an aloof and snarky manner held up by a shaky foundation that she just barely manages to hide. Joseph Gordon-Levitt never misses a beat as the hothead cop John Blake; he’s the moral center of the movie, holding everyone accountable to their roles. Blake is often the only one who sees what must be done, and he makes sure it gets done. Marion Cotillard is a good addition to the cast, though I’m waiting to see her in another role like her Oscar-winning performance in La Vie en Rose; this kind of fare is fine, but I’m holding out for finer dining. Tom Hardy is similarly effective, though his mask keeps his facial expressions from having much effect; it’s his voice that achieves the desired, eerie hold on us. The performance of the movie? Michael Caine’s, who has one scene that nearly had me in tears, I’m not ashamed to admit.
There have been great comic book movies (Spider-Man 2, The Avengers) and other great Batman movies, not the least of which came right before this one (The Dark Knight). But The Dark Knight Rises is the most ambitious of all of them and achieves near perfection in stunning fashion. I couldn’t imagine a better or stronger ending for Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece of a trilogy.
*FOR A MOVIE THAT CAME OUT FOUR YEARS AGO AND EVERY SELF-RESPECTING HUMAN BEING SHOULD HAVE SEEN.