In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
Throwing in multiple new characters, jamming in political commentary throughout, and hoping to bring The Dark Knight Trilogy to a satisfyingly yet bombastic close, director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises simultaneously triumphs and stumbles hard all at once.
Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, TDKR finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living in seclusion and having given up being Batman for nearly a decade. When cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) draws him out of retirement, Batman finds that the terrorist known only as Bane (Tom Hardy) has targeted Gotham City for destruction, forcing The Dark Knight into his final confrontation.
It’s clear that Nolan and company were under a massive amount of pressure to craft a worthy follow-up to the smash hit The Dark Knight, which practically achieved instant classic status upon its release. Rather than craft another entry into the never-ending saga of Batman, Nolan sought to bring his story to a close with a massive finale that tied back into the hero’s origins from Batman Begins. But so much of TDKR is designed to force Batman into his endgame that the film feels more like empty bombast and cheap shortcuts rather than organic narrative. Yes, this film hits some truly impactful emotional moments and manages to give Batman a thoughtful conclusion to his story in massive blockbuster fashion, but so much here falls apart when taken at anything greater than face value.
Strangely, The Dark Knight Rises vacillates between bleakly grounded and surreally cartoonish, often within the same scene. The entire film is ensconced in a bleak sense of nihilism and sobering sacrifice, with cinematographer Wally Pfister backing up Nolan’s dark vision with washed out grey skies and grimy streets. Nolan drains the joy out of so much here, with potentially fun fights and chases weighed down by the gravitas of Gotham’s nuclear reckoning, but so much of that gravitas is chased through campy performances and ridiculous plot developments. Giant bombs, identity-erasing deus ex machinas, exposition-delivering hallucination cameos, DIY spinal surgery, knee-fixing miracle braces, an entire city’s police department trapped underground, an inescapable yet conveniently escapable pit, late game identity reveals, and more are all here, pushing the audience’s suspension of disbelief as much as possible while making them accept the gravity of the narrative unfolding at the same time.
A sort of pop sociology informs many of the developments throughout TDKR, with Bane representing a demagogue who uses the rage of the underprivileged to destroy Gotham City during his mission of revenge against Batman. On the other end of the conflict is Batman, whose resilience and sacrifice to preserve and potentially improve Gotham finds him coming out of retirement to stop the uprising. However, linking the evil Bane with the dissatisfaction of the lower class posits worrisome commentary that feels as if the film deems the rich as inherently good and the poor as being in the wrong. While the battle between the 1% and the 99% was incredibly timely during its release in 2012, the message of The Dark Knight Rises seems to take an unpopular stance within that conflict. Even if Bruce Wayne is far more goodhearted and relatable than most of the world’s billionaires, there’s a sense of pro-fascism that makes you wonder whether Nolan knew what he was actually addressing, or if he was just blissfully ignorant.
Where TDKR succeeds most often is in its emotionality, which helps to propel the film past its pitfalls and larger failings within the scope of the trilogy as a whole. Batman’s central torment and struggle work well and end up being the true point of the film, not its social commentary. In all honesty, the choice to have Batman retire for eight years cheapens this trilogy as a whole, limiting Wayne’s time as a vigilante to little more than a year and undermining the symbolic power of Batman, while also being unlike anything a comic book Batman would do. This is clearly a decision made to put Wayne into a position of weaknesses that leads to rebirth and redemption, but there were so many other ways that this could have been done. Moving past this conceit, the physical and emotional breaking of Batman and his subsequent rebirth work great. Specifically, Wayne’s climactic rise from the pit and his passing of the mantle are spectacular, even if the clichéd nuclear sacrifice ending is too lazy to feel genuinely cathartic.
Beyond Wayne, three new characters share a large amount of the spotlight and are instrumental in the massive narrative of TDKR, both giving it greater depth and spreading its narrative too thin. As Sgt. John Blake, Joseph Gordon-Levitt works as an outsider being brought into the world of Batman. But even with JGL’s acting strength, this is a character that was created to express the film’s larger themes, rather than be a compelling and three-dimensional human being. Blake is all about Gotham’s need for a Batman and his supposed assumption of the mantle of Batman is a powerful conclusion to The Dark Knight Trilogy’s ideas concerning Batman. However, the character is simply not as emotionally resonant as Wayne and the ideas concerning the character’s future feel somewhat nonsensical when given further thought. Not only that, but Blake’s character is subjected to possibly the strangest, cheesiest, and most unnecessary fan service ever seen in a comic book film – the reveal that his real name is Robin (comic book codename of Batman’s sidekick). Couldn’t they have just named the character Dick Grayson or Tim Drake? Naming him John Blake is simply done to prevent audiences from guessing his fate and it’s a final example of Nolan refusing to use preexisting characters for the sake of new ones that lack an interesting identity.
As far as preexisting characters new to The Dark Knight Trilogy go, both Catwoman and Bane are worthy additions. Hathaway makes Catwoman into a believable foil for Wayne, both in and out of costume. A slinky and dangerous cat burglar, her antihero has enough murky morals and ethical dilemmas to make her far more well-rounded than most characters here. Hathaway turns in a strong performance as Selina, giving her a compelling life both in and out of the costume and taking part in some of the film’s best fights. However, she’s also forced out of the film’s second act while imprisoned (ludicrously) with male prisoners until their jail break by Bane. Temporarily pushing her out of the film fractures her storyline; however, Hathaway’s chemistry with Bale as both Wayne and Batman make up for the disservice.
Of all the characters in TDKR, Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane may be the most divisive, as well as the most memorable. Bulked up to massive proportions, wearing a monstrous mechanical mask, and speaking like an antiquated Irish gangster, Bane is by far the most cartoonish character in all of The Dark Knight Trilogy. That extremely heightened performance almost sticks out like a sore thumb against the series’ more grounded tone, but Hardy is so electrifying in the role that it doesn’t matter. One minute giving life to eloquent speeches concerning corruption and rebellion, the next crushing skulls with his bare hands, Bane is an intimidating physical and philosophical force. When backed up by composer Hans Zimmer’s chant-filled and terrifying theme for the character, Bane feels both immediate and mythic. Most impressively, Hardy’s performance must contend with a mask that covers his most of his face, including his mouth, so he conveys everything through his eyes and movements. That’s incredibly impressive, even if the way that his voice is elevated in the sound mix feels strange and overbearing. But that’s on Nolan and the producers compensating for Hardy’s muffled voice. As a demagogue come to break both Batman and Gotham, Bane is an outlandish foe, but was clearly a choice made to up the stakes of the series finale, even to the point of ridiculousness. Being a voice for the people who is secretly their doom is an intriguing concept that never quite gels due to the aforementioned fascist overtones, but worst of all, a last minute twist in the film does massive damage to the character of Bane.
Let’s talk about Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) for a moment. Everything with this character is either useless or just terrible. Her romance with Bruce? Pointless. Her last minute reveal as Talia al Ghul, the true mastermind? It deeply damages the character of Bane and is mostly a twist for twist’s sake. Her death scene? The literal worst. In a film where Batman so clearly is meant to be with Catwoman, Tate gets in the way and means little beyond a twist that never needed to exist.
In a film filled with performances that range from serviceable to interesting, Michael Caine as Alfred stands head and shoulders above the rest in The Dark Knight Rises. Given limited screentime due to being shuffled off the board for most of the film’s middle section and mostly used as a voice of reality speaking to Wayne, Caine pulls out a magnificent performance. Pleading for Bruce to find happiness and experiencing the worst of losses, Caine puts a massive amount of emotion into every scene. His breakdown at Wayne’s grave is heartbreaking in ways that this film truly needs in order to be satisfying. Sans Caine, the movie would fail in reaching emotional catharsis.
That catharsis is a complicated feeling here in TDKR, one that feels both earned and cheap. There were so many ways to continue this series, yet Nolan chose to finish it for good, likely at the behest of a hefty paycheck instead of the passion that fueled his previous entries into the series. And should a finale be the necessary next step, there were so many other ways to get to Batman’s end on screen. But here we see Nolan and company doing everything in their power to close the book on Batman, even when proper storytelling, exciting opportunities, and narrative logic are passed by. Like the idea of Batman within The Dark Knight Rises, the character of Batman will never truly die, but be reborn again and again. With such a definitive yet disjointed end to the character, it’s no surprise that DC Comics jumped at the chance to bring a new version of Batman to the big screen as soon as possible.
Best Batman Moment: On the hunt for Bane in Gotham’s sewers, Batman teams up with Catwoman to systematically take down his goons. Using stealth, surprise, and superior combat skills, they destroy a dozen of them in quick succession. That team up and the skill shown by the hero is one of the most comic book Batman-like things to ever happen in all of Nolan’s films.
When They Got Batman Wrong: Bruce Wayne retires from being Batman for eight years after only having been a vigilante for about one year total. And it’s all due to being sad over Rachel’s death. That alone undercuts so much of the character’s arc in the entire trilogy and has nothing to do with the obsessive nature of Batman that is inherent in almost every version of him in media. It’s this specific change to the character that gets the entire film off to a wrongheaded start and sabotages the power of the final chapter from the very beginning.
Comic Book Inspirations: The storyline of The Dark Knight Rises is a very clear amalgamation of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which sees an older Wayne return to being Batman after a decade-long retirement, and “Knightfall,” which sees the villain Bane systematically break down Batman before breaking his back and crippling him as the culmination of his plan to take over Gotham. This is not either story completely, but they are responsible for massive pieces of the narrative here.
Fun Fact: Many of the ideas concering revolution in Gotham were taken from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, with Bane taking inspiration from revolutionary Maximilian de Robespierre and knitting like Madame Defarge. The “far, batter thing that I do now” speech at the end makes the parallels obvious.