The Dark Knight Rises shouldn’t work. It is a massively anticipated follow up to one of the most critically lauded films of all time, The Dark Knight, and running at 164 minutes, it has so much plot to get through that it should collapse under its own weight of expectation and storytelling. It is therefore, to the brilliant Christopher Nolan‘s credit, that he has managed to juggle all these elements without allowing one slip up.
For filmmakers, the danger with any film trilogy is allowing yourself to go too far and just throw in every element in your filmmaking arsenal to bring a story to its conclusion in the biggest, loudest way possible. Many have tried and failed. Most film trilogies of any real worth tend to follow the trend that goes something like this. The first film is a dry test run for ideas, techniques and characters, the second film is the capitalisation on those elements and pushing it to a point of near perfection and the third film is a mix of the first two, usually ending in disaster. Or put simply. First film: good, second film: great, third film: disaster.
The Godfather, Star Wars, Spider-Man, The Evil Dead are all film trilogies that stick to this rule and are all case in point of the filmmakers biting off too much. Fortunately for us, Christopher Nolan does not play by these rules and the law of diminishing returns isn’t a rule that the director pays much attention to.
The Dark Knight Rises is a film which satisfies all levels: the visceral, the intellectual and the emotional. The kind of blockbuster filmmaking scant few are making. When I go to the cinema, it is very rare to be engaged on all three levels simultaneously. And it is a feat that only some of the greatest films ever made have pulled off.
Sure, The Dark Knight Rises is not without its flaws, and its contrarian detractors will go on endlessly nitpicking the holes in the plot, how it doesn’t all really tie up and how the inconsistencies just place the focus on how overrated this whole franchise is. But they’re wrong. Plot holes aside, this has never really been a franchise which has had much time for plot. No, Nolan is far more interested in characters and how the world of Gotham reflects our own world.
The first act of The Dark Knight Rises is pretty much plotless but nonetheless engaging as we see a weakened, reclusive Bruce Wayne limp around the rebuilt Wayne Manor eight years after hanging up the cape and the cowl. There is no need for Batman, Gotham is a reformed city, the legacy of Harvey Dent has had a huge impact in making the city safe and most of the criminals that were once infecting the streets of Gotham are now safely behind bars. This opening segment is a slow burn, but still engrossing.
Christian Bale limps around the Manor, an eerie reflection of Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, world wearied and nothing left but lifelong loneliness and Alfred. Meanwhile, across Gotham there is a talented cat burglar by the name of Selina Kyle, who has become involved with the wrong people in order to find a way out of her life.
Gotham’s solace and Bruce Wayne/Batman’s reclusive life is about to be thrown into orbit though as a mysterious threat in the form of Bane plans his destruction of Gotham City. After 45 minutes of very strong character development, the scale and ambition increases exponentially as Bane’s plans come out in full force, Bruce re-dons the cowl and the fire rises.
The greatest pop culture has always been the pop culture that captures the zeitgeist and has something to say about our world at hand. Nolan tackles class warfare on both a grand and an intimate scale. One of the film’s key lines: “you’re gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us,” tells us about America’s gross miscalculation of market capitalism, which has left a too big a divide between the upper and the working classes. Wayne Enterprises maybe a place of philanthropy, but its big spending and oncoming bankruptcy could potentially destroy the future of Gotham.
And it’s Bane’s plans that leak out of this discrepancy. Bane, in fact, is not as much as a character as he is a symbol of violent anarchy. His revolution seeks to put Gotham back in the hands of its people but really, he only serves to keep the power for himself. He leads by fear and creates an uprising through brainwashing a sense of betrayal into his followers. His insistence that this is for the greater good is just a cover up for his own lust for power and domination.
The allusion collides on a grand scale during the film’s final 45 minutes. A searing action set piece that takes place in Gotham’s financial quarter as the uprising of convicts take on those who want to see Gotham thrive as opposed to destroyed. The symbol of Batman is ignited over a bridge, inspiring people into fighting for the greater good, to stand for what is right. For the citizens of Gotham, the symbol of Batman has been more a symbol of hope through the times of his absence, it is an enduring symbol that goes beyond Bruce Wayne and becomes emblematic of the hope that Gotham’s citizens need.
While the politics and the spectacle make for a much meatier film, Nolan doesn’t get lost in that aspect too much and never forgets his characters. The introduction of Selina Kyle is a particularly inspired one. While Bane is a physical match for Batman, Kyle is an intellectual one. Her moral compass is severely misguided but she is planning on seeking her own redemption, and on that route she may come to see what is ultimately worth saving. It is a role which could have fallen victim of ‘the one character too many syndrome’ but her character arc is a perfect click for the film’s themes and Anne Hathaway is stupendous in the role.
The rest of the amazing ensemble cast all provide stellar work too. Props to Tom Hardy especially for making Bane such a terrifying figure through a mask that covers most of his face. As good as he is though, it is still Anne Hathaway who steals the film away from everyone else. It is usually the actors playing the villains who thrive in this genre but Hathaway delivers a performance which clicks sublimely into Nolan’s world and gives believable motivation.
Beyond an amazing cast and ambitiously scaled set pieces, this is a film whose star is Christopher Nolan. This is the showcase of a tremendous amount of effort and hard work that has paid off. We knew this would be a huge audience hit, but I don’t think anyone would think it would be this kind of artistic success as well.
The Dark Knight Rises is a heroic film, epic on scale, big on ideas and full of heart.