Don’t be surprised if someone tells you they shed a few tears while watching The Dark Knight Rises. The final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s remarkable Batman trilogy ends with a strong emotional punch; it’s not an exaggeration to call the film’s climax an applause-worthy triumph.
TDKR is a bold, ambitious and engrossing epic. Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman myth and Batman’s relationship to the people of Gotham City is spectacularly deep and layered, and TDKR explores those depths and layers for all their worth.
This third installment delivers more of what made its predecessors, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, two of the best and most influential comic book movies of all time. Nolan’s characters, as far-fetched as many of them are, reside in a realistic world, and the film’s tone is moody, serious and decidedly non-fantastical, which makes it easy to become emotionally invested in its twisty story and the characters’ struggles. This emotional investment is especially important when the film, at times, starts to feel bloated and some plot developments feel too convenient to be believable.
Still, even with its flaws, TDKR is one hell of an entertaining movie. The complex plot is packed with clever twists and callbacks to the first two movies (and the DC Comics source material) plus many deep and intriguing thematic layers. TDKR has a lot to say about the power of truth, the corruption of justice and the pain that love and duty can bring. It’s rare thing for a comic book movie to leave you thinking more about its themes than its flashy cinematography or explosive action set pieces. TDKR aims to offer a lot more than well-choreographed ass kicking and impressive special effects.
This is the most suspenseful Batman movie ever made (which is saying a lot when you remember how unpredictable The Joker was in TDK). It’s also the biggest and most ambitious Batman movie ever made. Nolan and crew mostly succeed in crafting a long and layered epic that feels fresh, absorbing and exciting.
Nolan keeps the pace swift at first, and the third act is a suspenseful and gripping crescendo to a killer ending, delivering one surprising development after another. But some of the plotting, especially in the mid-section, feels forced, a little bloated and muddled. And a few early scenes featuring Batman’s new nemesis, the muzzled bruiser Bane (Tom Hardy), are a little groan worthy.
Bane is a credible threat to Batman and Gotham. With his unnerving voice and intimidating build, the wide-chested thug adds a real sense of tension and danger to the film, but he loses his edge when the script, at times, turns him into a calculating schemer instead of an imposing insurgent. We want to see Bane terrorizing Gotham, not hatching a ridiculous, overly complicated plot to ruin Bruce Wayne’s financial portfolio.
Bane’s introduction is a wild, pulse-pounding horror show, but some of his other early scenes are tedious and mechanical. But from the film’s mid-point to his final scene, Bane is a scary and mysterious badass with an intriguing backstory – not nearly as memorable and brilliant as Heath Ledger’s Joker, but more interesting and fun to watch than most other comic book movie villains.
Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne feels more fleshed out and relatable here than in the last Batfilm. He’s sad and broken but not quite ready to give up. You root for the guy, and the many blows and beatings he takes defending Gotham sting more than ever before. It’s a nice change of pace when compared to TDK, where Wayne was mostly portrayed as a stoic suit who only came alive when he donned the dark cowl. His rise from shut-in to suited-up hero in the first half of the film is fun to watch, and his journey in the second act feels rewarding.
We catch up with Bruce Wayne eight years after the events of TDK. He’s a gloomy, limping recluse who walks with a cane and no longer shows his face in public. Batman is retired, and the myth of “hero district attorney” Harvey Dent, and legislation that was passed in Dent’s name, has helped Gotham’s police force keep the criminal element locked up and the streets clean. It’s “peace time,” says Matthew Modine’s Deputy Police Commissioner Foley, but this peace is based on a lie, and the massive deception is eating away at the aging Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman).
While his fellow officers and Gotham residents celebrate a crime-free city, Gordon skulks anxiously, waiting for it all to fall apart. When things eventually do fall apart, it’s Wayne and Gordon who fall the hardest. The architects of this “peace,” who sacrificed much to benefit the greater good, are violently beaten down and put out of commission when a reckoning they couldn’t avoid finally hits. The joy comes in watching them wrestle with the hard truth, reflect, rebuild, and return to fight another day.
Wayne and Gordon aren’t the only returning characters put through the ringer during Bane’s “reckoning.” Wayne’s best friend and butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and Wayne Enterprises exec Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) are both scarred and shaken. It’s a testament to Caine’s performance — and to Nolan and crew’s commitment to writing strong, multi-dimensional characters — that Alfred’s small emotional arc resonates almost as strongly as Batman’s big struggle. And Freeman is a solid and generous presence here, reminding us that he’s an actor first and a movie star second.
TDKR makes room for some new cast members, most notably Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s noble cop John Blake. Hathaway is fun to watch as the sharp but troubled leather-clad cat burglar. Her Selina Kyle (She’s never referred to as “Catwoman”) is less of a sultry and freaky sex kitten like Michelle Pfeiffer was in Batman Returns. Hathaway’s Catwoman is more of a poised, sexy, ass-kicking grifter who can seemingly slip out of any tight spot unscathed. Hathaway and Bale have a natural chemistry – their flirting is much hotter and more believable than Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Returns.
Gordon-Levitt fully commits to the role of Blake. It’s another poised and sympathetic performance from the great young actor. It’s a bit puzzling at first when Blake is introduced and it’s made clear early on that we’ll be spending a lot of time following him around. But the character earns his place in the film and in the Dark Knight legend. Like Bruce Wayne, Blake is a layered, human hero that you want to root for.
TDKR isn’t going to please everyone. Despite the solid action, great acting, surprising moments, and emotional beats, there are too many plot holes, too many things that fall into place too easily, and too many elements that just don’t add up or make much sense at all when you really think about them. But Nolan’s final Batman film succeeds as a grand, unique and entertaining cinematic achievement. The Dark Knight trilogy ends with a strong and satisfying conclusion, but many Batfans will leave the theater wanting to see more.