There's a long and painful history of movie franchises flying off the rails with the third film (witness Godfather, Blade, Spider-Man, Superman, Alien, X-Men and Terminator just name a few). But with The Dark Knight Rises we get to revel in that rarest of achievements: a movie trilogy where the same uniform quality runs throughout all three films.
So, how did director Christopher Nolan and writing partners David Goyer and Jonathan Nolan pull this off? The answer is deceptively simple: they merely sustained the same creative team throughout all three films. This alone gives the series a clarity of vision, tonal continuity and a natural escalation of the stakes.
You can certainly get a feel for the film's epic scope and artistic qualities in the theatrical trailer:
The movie takes place eight years after the events depicted in The Dark Knight. Batman has all but vanished from Gotham City, having taken the fall for the crimes of white knight District Attorney Harvey Dent while he was under the guise of Two-Face. But his retirement hasn't been in vain. With sweeping powers granted to law enforcement courtesy of the Dent Act, the authorities have almost eliminated organized and violent crime in the city.
Feeling rudderless, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives a Howard Hughes-style existence away from the public eye. To make matters worse, Wayne Enterprises is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy after Bruce invested heavily in a sustainable energy project but backed out after discovering that the technology could be perverted into a weapon. Needless to say the project's originator, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), is less then impressed when she hears the news.
The situation gets even murkier when a physically imposing masked mercenary / terrorist calling himself Bane (Tom Hardy) appears in Gotham and begins to rally the city's homeless underground population to his anarchic cause. In a pivotal early encounter, Bane leaves police commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) wounded and bereft of an important document which reveals the awful truth about Harvey Dent.
Between Bane's brazen attack on the Gotham City Stock Exchange and a personal theft by cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), Batman feels compelled to leap back into action. Naturally, after eight years of sedentary retirement, the caped crusader is a tad rusty and Bruce's stalwart butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) quits after refusing to preside over what he believes is certain suicide.
Alfred's predictions prove to be painfully accurate. Bane manages to seize control of the entire city and handily bests Batman in their first encounter. As we share Bruce's agonizing recovery and rebirth we begin to learn more about Bane's motivations as well as his ties to our hero. Their open warfare over the heart and soul of Gotham City forms the centerpiece for the final act, which I firmly believe will leave no fan unfulfilled.
Honestly, The Dark Knight Rises is huge in every possible way. It may be hard to fathom but the conflict that's documented here actually makes the previous two films look humble in comparison. When we see Bane crack into Bruce Wayne's secret armory we know that the scale of the battle is going to be kicked up a notch. Nolan and his stunt team are certainly up to the challenge, giving us some impeccably staged vehicle chases and hand-to-hand skirmishes that resemble vicious but balletic street-fight.
All the previous Bat-trappings are in fine form here. Although the suit has been nicely streamlined, they still can't seem to match the lustrous-looking sable cape with the flat black costume. The cowl persists with the turned-in ears and concave neck but the brow sculpt is pretty badass. Add the fact that Christian Bale fills the suit with pure authoritah and such quibbles become superficial.
In addition to some hot "Tumbler" action, the Batpod also gets a workout in The Dark Knight Rises, often expertly guided by the fetching Selina Kyle. We also get to see "The Bat" a new Harrier-type aircraft designed by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) which features prominently in the film's tense finale. Finally, the Batcave gets pimped out with secret platforms bearing computers, gear and costumes cleverly rising out of their underwater concealment.
I don't often mention soundtracks, but Hans Zimmer's score really deserves special mention. The eerie ceremonial chant heard during Bruce's attempt to "rise" from his prison really gives the scene an off-balanced quality and adds to the already-palpable tension. The tonal strains and minimalist piano keys that accompany Bane's sacking of Gotham are also incredibly evocative. The percussive drive and brassy arrangements heard during the action sequences are transcendent. Zimmer even succeeds in making "The Star Spangled Banner" sound unnerving as the preamble to an ill-fated football game.
The script is monstrously self-aware. Although the film begins with a dozen random elements up in the air, each character, plot thread and motivation eventually falls into place. As soon as this happens (approximately a third of the way through the film) the story starts firing on all cylinders and it never slacks off until the end. I absolutely loved all the call-backs and cameos referencing the previous films (Batman Begins in particular), none of which I'll mention here for fear of revealing even the most innocuous revelation.
For long-time Bat-fans as well as folks who are only familiar with Nolan's take on the character, there are plenty of awesome little Easter Eggs to look out for. One particular sequence is a direct homage to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, perhaps the most influential Batman graphic novel of the modern age. Two cops are in hot pursuit of Bane's gang when our eponymous hero suddenly re-appears after an eight year absence. Upon spying the Dark Knight, the veteran cop turns to his rookie partner and says:
"Oh boy, you are in for a show tonight, son."
The jittery noob is even foolish enough to point his firearm at Batman, resulting in a classic dressing down that comes straight from source. It's a wonderful nod to the nearly single-handed renaissance that Frank Miller's work kicked off for this classic character.
The dialogue is a shade over-wrought at times, but if there's ever an appropriate place for melodrama, it's in a comic book film. If anything, many of the lines are particularly relevant. "No one cared who I was until I put on the mask," Bane says at one point, evoking shades of real-life urban terrorists. When Selina Kyle tells Bruce that "there's a storm coming" and "when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us" you can't help but wonder if this heralds a real-life paradigm shift.
Every member of the cast brings their "A" game. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is Christian Bale's best turn in the role. Even after three films, Bale and his writers manage to navigate Bruce Wayne through a considerable character arc. He begins the film as a physically wrecked recluse, segues into believing his own legend, gets reduced to rock bottom (literally) and then manages to claw his way back again. Throughout it all, Bale is supremely self assured and there's never a false step in his performance. He even had the foresight to moderate his oft-parodied Batman voice.
I still can't belive that Tom Hardy is the same guy who played Shinzon, the scrawny, pasty-faced Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis. Bulked up for his role as Bane, Hardy stalks through the film's environs like a scary, swaggering amalgam of Darth Vader, Sean Connery and Zangeif from Street Fighter. With half of his face obscured by a mask, Hardy really had to rely on his body language, his eyes and his voice, all of which are used in good measure. Just by taking Hardy's veddy propah English accent and filtering it through what sounds like an ancient phonograph player, it produces a really weird contrast to Bane's intimidating physical presence. At first, I was going to bitch about a couple of incomprehensible line readings, but in the end that'll probably just improve the film's repeat viewing appeal.
At the beginning of TDKR, Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon is like a veteran general who's usefulness comes into question after an unfortunate outbreak of peace. Eight years of concealing secrets clearly has him itching to prove himself on a street level. Even after sustaining a crippling injury, he isn't content to live vicariously through his younger contemporaries. It's a blast to watch him experience his own "rise" and lead the rebellion against Bane. Personally, I'd love to see an ongoing HBO series called Gotham P.D. which features James Gordon at the epicenter. Call me, Warner Brothers!
After the stunt casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, I didn't even blink when Anne Hathaway was tapped to play Selina Kyle / Catwoman. Once again, there's probably an entire legion of contrite fanboys out there who have egg on their face after watching Hathaway's acutely intelligent performance. In Nolan's quest to ground the Batman mythos in reality, not once is the name "Catwoman" ever evoked. Instead, Selina Kyle is merely a lithe, slinky, inhumanly gifted cat burglar who just so happens to dress up in stiletto high heels, cat-eared infrared goggles and Lulu Lemon bondage gear. Hathaway is absolutely terrific: moving effortlessly between cocky, self-serving, indignant, sultry and semi-noble.
The supporting cast is equally game. Michael Caine trumps all previous showings as Alfred Pennyworth, providing his best speeches of sagacity and some genuine heartbreak after he refuses to enable Bruce Wayne's death wish. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is genuinely earnest and stalwart as "new cop on the block" John Blake, a young, idealistic officer who puzzles out Batman's secret identity, inspires the Dark Knight's ascension and then serves diligently in the uprising against Bane.
Morgan Freeman doesn't get quite as much to do as Lucius Fox, but he still gets few cheeky scenes showing off his latest technological prodigy to an appreciative Bruce Wayne. It's a fantastic scene that harkens back to their first meeting in Batman Begins. Series newcomer Marion Cotillard exhibits a steely resolve and tremendous insight as Miranda Tate. Bat-fans will absolutely love the revelations that come part and parcel with this character.
Just like in Chris Nolan's Inception, there are plenty of armchair director nits to pick. There's a pretty glaring day-to-night continuity error that occurs just after Bane's assault on the Gotham Stock Exchange. Some folks are likely to grouse about the ease in which Bruce Wayne breaks back into Fortress Gotham. Comic book purists may also take umbrage with the changes to Bane's origins and his direct link to a previous Bat-villain.
I'd be prone to jump all over these things as well if not for the fact that everything else in The Dark Knight Rises is so goddamned good. It's a monumental piece of entertainment and an emotional powerhouse. Unlike most modern blockbusters, all of the major characters experience some sort of growth or development by the end of the film. The action sequences are exhilarating, not because it's a dazzling CGI spectacle, but because we're emotionally invested in every conflict. The risk seems genuine for all of the characters, even the ones we're supposed to boo and hiss.
I'm so happy with the success of Nolan's entire trilogy that a re-boot a few years down the road wouldn't even faze me. This series has always been about taking a realistic crime drama and populating it with exotic characters, like a remake of Heat with Batman, Bane and Catwoman standing in for Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer. I think it'd be awesome if another equally-gifted and visionary director explored a completely different facet of the character.
We could see Batman more as The World's Greatest Detective. We could get a deeper psychological analysis of the Caped Crusader and his Rogues Gallery of villains. Hell, if the producers are competent enough, we could even be treated to a lighter, primary-colored, fun depiction of the Dark Knight from a classic Dennis O'Neil / Neal Adams perspective.
I really welcome any future re-interpretations of this iconic character. As long as the producers can find another director with the same purity of vision and commitment to follow through.