Christopher Nolan’s directorial evolution has been one of escalating scale; here is a pop filmmaker who, increasingly, worships above all else at the altar of massiveness. Thus it’s no surprise that the capper of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is a summer blockbuster of grand inclinations in both form and content. This is a film whose thematic concerns are matched, blare by ominous blare and punch by thunderous punch, by its aesthetics in terms of sheer, unadulterated size: the booming intensity of Hans Zimmer’s portentously titanic score; the Nolan-signature cityscapes of twinkling skyscrapers and urban landscapes in desolate ruin; the physical weight and heft of Batman’s military-grade guns, gadgets, and all-terrain Batmobile (and, new to the crime-fighting fleet, his airborne Bat); and the bulging neck and shoulders of arch nemesis Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious masked fiend who shares Batman Begins‘s Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) desire to see Gotham City burn. There’s nothing small about the look and feel of Nolan’s cinema, which unabashedly strives for enormity in its interpretation of DC Comics’ signature icon, whom the director again casts as a figure of classic tragic heroism, a man compelled in equal measure by psychological compulsion and a noble sense of duty to sacrifice reputation, sanity, and safety to protect his home from a rising tide of apocalyptic annihilation.
In The Dark Knight Rises, evil takes the form of those intent on overturning societal dynamics, and if The Dark Knight was, at its political core, an allegory about America’s attempts to respond to volatile terrorists who ignore traditional Western rules of warfare, Nolan’s latest (written with brother Jonathan, from a story conceived with David S. Goyer) is rooted in the Occupy protest movements and their anti-capitalist ethos. Bane’s plot is a comic-booky one that involves turning a Wayne Industries clean-energy device into a nuclear bomb that he can then use to force class-war upheaval, freeing Gotham’s inmates and allowing them to throw the rich out into the streets and to set up “death or exile” tribunal courts (with Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow, hilariously, as judge and jury) for the dastardly metropolitan fat cats who for so long oppressed the working-class.
This scheme is a convoluted one that also necessitates a Stock Exchange robbery that bankrupts Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who, having retired his cape and cowl eight years prior, has become a Howard Hughes-ish hermit in self-imposed Wayne Manor exile with trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine). First stripped of his privilege and then broken in a showdown with Bane that nicely harkens back to the classic comic storyline in which the villain shatters the caped crusader’s back, Wayne is eventually forced to rebuild himself from the depths of failure—or, rather, from an ill-defined Middle Eastern prison pit where he must learn (cue Batman Begins parallels made plain by flashbacks) to overcome his “fear” and climb out of the shadows (as he did as a child) to save Gotham from anarchy.
Thus, like its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises proves a politically conservative animal, one in which Bane and his minions seek to upset socio-economic paradigms through culture war, and Batman and his army of police officers, given dignified treatment by Nolan in a near-silent pan across their ranks right before their clash with Bane’s “revolutionaries,” aim to uphold the established rich-on-top order. However, as befitting a script that’s overstuffed with narrative strands, from the push-pull between anti-Batman Deputy Commission Foley (Matthew Modine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and upstart officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to Wayne’s frayed relationship with Alfred and interactions with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and potential love interest Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the film muddles its political viewpoints, or at least compromises them in the spirit of not pressing any hot buttons too hard. As a result, Batman’s opposition to Bane also puts him on the side of the very working-class people Bane purports to champion (since the villain really aims to disintegrate them with a nuke). And jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, rages with righteous liberal anger against Wayne’s gilded lifestyle, but, naturally, also comes around to helping him reestablish the status quo after seeing, courtesy of Bane, that the end goal of tearing down the wealthy is cars-piled-in-the-streets chaos of a terrifying warlord variety—as well as after, naturally, she falls for irresistible trust-fund hunk Wayne.
Nolan’s ambitious thematic aspirations are mirrored by his mammoth centerpieces, which—from a breathtaking prologue involving Bane’s siege on an in-flight C.I.A. jet, to an earth-shattering bombing that decimates a football field mid-game, to a rampaging clash on the steps of City Hall that turns the proceedings into a superheroic version of Gangs of New York—are further enhanced by IMAX cinematography that, in the proper theater setting, expands the action’s dimensions to enveloping proportions. More welcome still, shooting over an hour of the 164-minute material in IMAX not only augments the aesthetic magnitude of The Dark Knight Rises, but compels Nolan to edit fisticuff sequences with less helter-skelter franticness, and his hand-to-hand combat scenes consequently boast a greater spatial lucidity and visual clarity than his previous efforts. Unfortunately, though, while Batman’s two mano-a-mano showdowns with Bane are thrillingly visceral, and its finale is a sustained piece of bare-knuckle tension, the film’s signature moments never rise to the pulse-pounding level of those in The Dark Knight, primarily because the story is too scattered—specifically in its superficial interest in the value and cost of “the truth,” via Alfred’s lie to Wayne about the dead Rachel’s matrimonial intentions, and Gordon’s cover-up of the facts about Harvey Dent’s death—to properly imbue them with requisite emotional and thematic import.
The film’s vastness also extends to its Nolan-trademarked preference for underlined expository declarations as well as his trilogy’s guiding motif of cleansing hellfire as a tool of reformation/destruction, with the tale building to a rollicking climax in which the true war is between order and disorder, both in terms of social structures and its hero’s heart, torn between a desire to complete his crime-fighting responsibilities and his deeper, darker vigilante impulses. Moreover, Nolan’s predilection for hugeness is embodied by Bane, an Eastern European-accented hulking mass of mayhem in a fur-collared coat and a chest harness whose voice-distorting mouth mask, resembling a muzzle, makes him a kindred baddie to Heath Ledger’s Joker, another anarchist likened to a dog freed from his leash. If the film suffers in comparison to The Dark Knight, it does so most greatly with regards to Hardy and Ledger, with the former a galvanic vision of zealotry who, no matter how charismatic, remains significantly less mesmeric than Ledger’s indelible Clown Prince of Crime. Opting for dour granite malevolence over capricious unhinged madness lends the action an overarching leadenness that’s at times enervating, and not adequately alleviated by a few choice moments of levity, including a choice one in which Batman learns how it feels when someone suddenly disappears out of sight.
If there’s any spryness to the behemoth that is The Dark Knight Rises, it comes courtesy of Hathaway, who—besides flashing considerable acrobatic fighting skills alongside Batman, especially in an expertly choreographed trip through the sewers in which she plays bait to Batman’s bludgeoning fists—has a twinkle in her eye and a slyness in her smile that suggests both untamable independence and nagging moral conflict. Alas, she’s barely given enough screen time to make a consistent impact, and the same holds for Batman himself, relegated for such long stretches to the sidelines that the film’s momentum, no matter how breakneck, seems slightly off-keel. Nonetheless, if there isn’t quite enough Batman in this last Nolan Batman effort, there’s more than enough superb acting to give it an assured air of pop grandiosity, especially whenever Caine (also criminally underused) or Oldman command the expansive frame. That’s also true, finally, of Gordon-Levitt, whose character’s dogged belief in Batman initially comes off as a pesky distraction, and yet gains in traction thanks to the actor’s subtly affecting gravity, culminating in a trilogy-defining portrait of inescapable pain and torment, and the way in which masks conceal, restrain, protect us from, and shield others from suffering the consequences of, that inextinguishable anguish—and in doing so, ultimately provide an imposing symbol of hope for transcendence out of the darkness.