#6 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
For a while, I maintained that this was the best of the Dark Knight trilogy. Watching it for the first time in a few years, I can certainly see why. The second half is pure spectacle filmmaking at an epic scale with an extended set piece that feels expansive and alive and huge all at once. However, that first hour or so is much messier, and I think that last half of the film, largely got me to ignore some of the niggling issues that frontend the film.
The Batman has been absent from Gotham City for eight years. In that time, Gotham has seen a period of peace and prosperity it has not experienced in a very long time. In order to create that sense of calm, though, Police Commissioner Gordon pumped up the idol of Harvey Dent who had become the psychopathic villain Two-Face, murdered several people, and threatened to kill Gordon’s son as the White Knight, blaming all of his crimes on Batman. Together with the Mayor and the City Council, they passed the Dent Act which allowed for aggressive anti-crime actions on the part of the police, resulting in a city without any serious organized crime at all. In this time, Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, has become a recluse, having spent several post-Batman years and half of his fortune pursuing a fusion reactor before suddenly shutting it down and closing himself off from the world.
In enters Bane, a member of the League of Shadows and a former acolyte of Ra’s Al Ghul, since excommunicated for his extreme methods. After the death of Ra’s Al Ghul, Bane took over the League of Shadows and will continue the man’s mission of burning Gotham to the ground, much like the League had done to Rome and London before it. The revolution he ignites is based heavily on the Jacobins of France during the French Revolution, which fits hand in hand with the overall movie’s ties to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. He speaks of equality, but he rules with an iron fist, establishing a Committee for Public Safety, so to speak, that summarily executes enemies of the revolution. In order to get there, though, Bane must take control of Gotham.
Now, the first half of the film is really setup for the giant spectacle that dominates the second half, and some of it is quite good and other elements end up going a bit too far. From beginning to end, I think Bane is great. He’s intimidating physically and he ends up with a great plan to acquire wealth and demean Batman at the same time. Stealing his fingerprints through Catwoman/Selina Kyle to fake reckless options trading that wipes out his position in Wayne Enterprises is wonderful. The chase out of the Stock Exchange, giving Bruce Wayne his first moment as Batman in eight years, is exciting and well filmed. That it leaves Wayne so destitute that he can’t pay his own power bill is…curious and a step too far. I get the point. The point is to take Wayne as low as possible both as Batman and as Wayne himself, but having his power shut off because of nonpayment roughly a day after his loses all his money feels weird at best and completely ignorant of how things work in the real world at worst.
Another very good thing that the first hour does is establish the overall thematic thrust of the film, and that’s around pain. Bruce is suffering from a leg injury. That’s good. He immediately gets cured well enough to fight as Batman again because of a gadget on his leg. That’s…less good. And yet, the idea runs through the rest of it very well. Wayne carries the pain of his loss of Rachel Dawes, from The Dark Knight (to the point that people misinterpret his receding from the world due to that loss, but that’s not the case). Gordon carries the pain of having to defend the man who tried to kill his son, while losing that son in a divorce at the same time. The city carries the scars of past trauma brought on by the Joker, but it manages to live on, just as Gordon does. And what do these people do with their pain? Well, more pain must come first.
Bane’s efforts to take the city end up feeling great. He has an inside man at Wayne Enterprises, also knows that Wayne is Batman because of his connection to the League of Shadows, and he uses the greed of Daggett, a wealthy executive who wants to absorb Wayne Enterprises, to prepare his plan of cutting off the city from the rest of the world. But first, he must take out the Batman. That the “every police officer” gets trapped in the sewars is…less good, though. It’s another step too far that didn’t quite need to be taken. However, this element of the plot is where Selena Kyle is useful.
Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle is really good. She can switch between woundedly scared and feminine to coyly vicious and feminine in an instant. She steals into Wayne Manor as a servant at a party and shows both sides to Bruce as she steals his mother’s pearls and his fingerprints, setting up the plot of the film. She’s a survivor with a chip on her shoulder, so she’s happy to watch as Bruce loses everything as the result of her actions. However she does still have a certain sense of justice so when Bane completely takes over and Gotham descends into a hellscape reminiscent of the French Terror, she’s bothered by it, but being a survivor she does little to stop or escape it.
The movie turns when Batman has his confrontation with Bane. Evoking the famous comics scenario of Bane breaking Batman’s back in the Knightfall run (pretty much the only time I was reading comics, by the way), Bane breaks Batman and sends him to a prison with hope, the worst punishment he can imagine. The visual image of Bruce needing to rise from the pit in order to overcome his pain and fear is great. That it takes him so much effort and that he has to essentially return to an earlier form of himself in order to do it is even better. There’s such rich imagery here.
The final confrontation between Batman, as a symbol of order, and Bane, as a symbol of chaos and fire, dominates the last half of the movie. The film leaves open some unimportant questions of how Bruce Wayne gets from India to Gotham in about three weeks, but considering the character’s history of running in the underworld, including in the Far East, that seems easily filled in by the audience, and once he’s there he leads an all out rebellion against the ruling Revolutionary government with an aim towards getting his hands on the nuclear bomb set to go off in twelve hours. Yeah, it’s very comic booky, but it’s handled with the right balance of seriousness that I think the movie sells the situation well.
And in terms of the final act, the spectacle of Batman leading an army in a war against Bane for control of Gotham and against a Jacobin Revolution is great. Batman the symbol leads those who had cowered away in fear to take to the streets, fulfilling the promise of Batman as a symbol established in the first movie (and re-explained to Blake, the cop who has figured out that Wayne is Batman in…another individual step that feels too far in the first half). The evocation of A Tale of Two Cities also helps provide the film a literary understructure that I appreciate. It’s not just random bad guys butting up against a protagonist we all know from pop culture. It’s a literary extension of the mythos.
I feel like this was a bit of a ramble, but I’m gonna stick with it. The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect movie. Its first half ends up taking a few ideas too far, which undermines them slightly, but not the overall story. What ends up carrying it all, though, is Nolan’s sheer command of everything outside the script. Performances are very good. The spectacle is great. The use of image and sound creates a large story that carries interesting ideas about pain and the efforts to deal with it. It’s an intelligent and rousing film that could have been a bit tighter, but, by the end, I don’t really care that much.