What is it about Batman? A super-rich, developmentally arrested man-child dresses up as a flying mammal and goes around beating up people in even sillier costumes, and we can’t get enough of him (I kid, I kid. Mostly). Of all the so-called ‘A-list’ superheroes, Batman seems to have the most frequently acclaimed graphic novels, movies, and even video games. For many, the jewels in the bat-crown are Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which arguably legitimised the comic book film boom of the previous decade, bringing the genre to a new level of popularity and critical recognition.
This is the legacy with which Nolan and company were confronted when trying to bring the series to completion in The Dark Knight Rises, and it is, perhaps, no coincidence that themes of legacy and living up to the past are prominent in not only the character of Bruce Wayne, but in the arcs of both his enemies and his allies. Even the name of the film is, likely, a necessary acknowledgement of past success, as well as a nod to some of the original comic book stories which influenced the film, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and, more circumspectly, Knightfall. Like in Returns, Bruce Wayne (played once again by Christian Bale) begins the story retired but dissatisfied, having never truly grown passed his need for Batman – though, thanks to his sacrifice at the end of The Dark Knight, the city of Gotham has not needed him for the past eight years.
Wayne is finally brought out of retirement by the appearance of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married) and mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy, Inception), ignoring the warnings of his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine, Inception). However, he is aided by new allies, policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception) and Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, Inception), as well as old friends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman,
Inception Invictus) and Comissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). In truth, the film struggles somewhat to move all these different pieces into place, resulting in a meandering, somewhat disappointing first act, but things pick up with Batman’s first fateful encounter with Bane, and it’s from here the story really begins to take off.
A trite observation: ‘hype’ is only one letter away from ‘hope’, and The Dark Knight Rises is easily one of the most hyped-up films of the year (the only other real contenders being The Avengers and The Hobbit). I certainly went into the cinema hoping it would live up to the heights of The Dark Knight, and in that first hour, I felt doubt slowly creep in. And yet, to a certain extent, I think that was part of the point. I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan made an deliberately underwhelming opening in order to make a statement about the impossible expectations the industry and the audience place on these kinds of films – that would be ridiculous. But I do think that the frustrating nature of opening first act is, at least partially, a calculated gamble, as our hopes for Batman’s triumphant return are left deliberately unfulfilled.
It’s a gamble which leaves the film on an uncertain footing to start, but which pays dividends once everything begins to fall into place (which does take just a little too long to happen). The lengthy establishment of the film’s many characters helps create an emotional core for the massive scale of the spectacle which follows, and provides a reason to care about the fate of Gotham beyond the involvement of Bruce Wayne. As for Wayne himself, it’s often said that he (together with his alter ego) is the least interesting thing about the stories he appears in, with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and The Dark Knight often cited as examples, but Rises clearly breaks with that supposed pattern by allowing him to grow beyond being simply the man behind the mask, by giving him a past that weighs down on him and a future that seems tragically out of reach.
Appropriately, for a film so concerned with legacy, the events of the previous entries in the series are central to the events of this one, with the personal and public legacies of Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent and Ra’s al Ghul, not to mention the Batman himself, playing key roles in the motivations of many characters. As a result, Rises serves much better as a conclusion to an on-going narrative than it does as a story in its own right. This is particularly remarkable in that, even though The Dark Knight felt substantially distinct from Batman Begins, the attempt to tie them together here doesn’t feel overly strained or artificial.
Nevertheless, there are flaws beyond the risky structure of the opening hour. While most of the large cast of characters earn their place, there are those which seem extraneous at times, most notably Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket), as additional the emphasis on Gotham’s police department over the ordinary citizen makes it feel as if an important perspective is missing. Furthermore, while Tom Hardy’s Bane is quite a unique screen presence as a villain, the different elements of his character don’t always cohere too well, and perhaps more light should have been shed on his motivations earlier, though the moment in which his true history is revealed was nonetheless effective.
Indeed, the ending is easily the best part of the film, something which couldn’t necessarily be said for either Batman Begins or The Dark Knight. Even based around a surprisingly overt gimmick with a prop that doesn’t look entirely convincing, the final act of The Dark Knight Rises manages to combine thrilling, if strangely old-fashioned, action sequences with the most emotional moments of the entire series. It’s a catharsis which comes not through the defeat of the villain, but the journey of the heroes. For despite the epic disaster-movie scale of the thing, it’s the characters which make it work, make the cumbersome plotting interesting, provide the stakes with meaning, and give voice to the themes.
Hope alone is not that interesting a concept artistically, no more than ‘good vs. evil’ is, really. It’s such a repeated element of these kind of stories that it’s hard to say anything new on the subject. But legacy and hope together, the burden of the past and the promise of the future, form a dichotomy right at home in the imagery and symbolism of the Batman mythos, where there are always two sides to every coin. For Bane, hope is an instrument of torture, and legacies are weapons. For Batman and his allies, legacies might sometimes be terrible weights to carry, but hope provides them with the strength to endure.
Arbitrary critic rating: 4 out of 5 mysterious symbols in the sky
- Always good seeing Scarecrow crop up (Cillian Murphy, Inception).
- An observation I didn’t manage to fit in above: Selina Kyle’s initial motivation is nothing less than to be free of her past, which strikes me as particularly significant in the context of the film’s themes. Also, in a typically Nolan-esque move, she is never once referred to as ‘Catwoman’.
- I haven’t really talked about the politics of the film, mainly because Bane’s assault on the rich and powerful of Gotham owes much, much more to the depiction of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities than it does to the Occupy movement.
- Attached to the front of the film was a teaser for Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel. There wasn’t much to go on, though I was intrigued by what I saw, which seemed more reminiscent of Nolan’s aesthetic than Snyder’s (Nolan is serving as producer and has a story credit). Nevertheless, while trailers regularly reuse music, the choice of one of the most distinctive soundtracks from one of the most successful films of the previous decade (The Fellowship of the Ring) was overly distracting.