The strength and beauty of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films lie in the way they’re as grounded as genre movies can be in the toil of life just outside the theater doors. Yes, there’s something otherworldly and even a little goofy about a vigilante dressing up as a bat-like monster, but through Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and now The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has brought unprecedented weight and believability to what has to be considered the best superhero franchise ever filmed. He’s managed to make these movies feel universal in theme and harrowingly immediate in topic, from the urban decay of a city tearing itself apart to the spiritual cost of doing war with domestic terrorists. The films aren’t trying to specifically comment on any one movement or idea, but they can’t help but be infused with strands borrowed from the world they’re set in. These are modern, probing action movies that are less about battles and more about what it means to fight them.
Good example: This film introduces Selena Kyle, also known as Catwoman, but it does so without any of the mocking flair brought to the character by Michelle Pfeiffer and Tim Burton. Her character moniker isn’t even used. She’s instead cited as an accomplished cat burglar, and her preferred uniform includes a pair of goggles that, when tilted back on her head, resemble cat ears. Even Batman is often “The Batman,” a way to identify him as a concocted identity and not someone actually named Batman. These are little things that go a long way, and they’re what let Nolan play around with sci-fi and speculative fiction the way he does without giving up any purchase in the real world. Things are heightened, but never surreal.
That connection to our world is what shapes The Dark Knight Rises, a brooding, powerful, thoroughly enjoyable end to Nolan’s trilogy of Batman stories. The first film was about fear: as weapon, as distraction, as obstacle to be overcome. The second one was about consequence: When you conquer that fear and stand up to evil, you have to be prepared for the evil to fight back. The final installment is, broadly, about resolve. Nolan’s hero is pushed to learn how far he’s willing to go to save his city, with the stakes higher than ever. There’s a wide streak of desperation running through the film, from the way Batman/Bruce Wayne struggles to do the right thing to the way Wayne’s enemies attack him where it hurts most: his bank account. It’s a film rooted in class anxiety and barely repressed mutiny, and one that skillfully uses a host of outlandish characters in gripping and realistic ways. It’s about hard-fought wars and the fluid definition of victory, and even given Nolan’s impressive track record, it’s better and more nuanced than anyone could have expected.
What’s so astounding about the film isn’t just the way Nolan orchestrates chaos. Rather, it’s the manner with which he allows the story to breathe. The queasy freneticism of The Dark Knight has transformed into a more balanced approach to rhythm. Instead of breathlessly assembled montages of heroes and criminals hunting each other, we get actual scenes between people working things out, whether it’s Bruce (Christian Bale) and Alfred (Michael Caine) debating the merits of vigilantism or Batman doing his best to persuade uneasy allies to join his cause. The film picks up the story eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, during which time Batman has been absent from the night skies of Gotham, and Nolan doesn’t rush things to get him back in action. It takes more than just a revived signal to put him back on the streets: Bruce is forced to work through what he’s trying to accomplish and the promises he’s made to all those he’s loved and lost. Nolan reconnects with Bruce in ways not seen since the beginning of the series, and we witness his journey as a man, not merely a cipher. When the arrival of a new criminal presence and imposing villain — Bane (Tom Hardy) — pulls Bruce out of his cave, the decision feels hard-earned and not without consequence.
Some of these character moments are better than others, though. Nolan shares screenplay credit with his brother, Jonathan, and story credit with David S. Goyer, and though the story itself is more streamlined than The Dark Knight’s — Bane, stripped of the Joker’s wild machinations, just wants to destroy the city — it still suffers on occasion when its characters speak in mission statements. At one point, wealthy businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) chides Bruce, who has recently re-entered the public eye after years as a recluse, about the finer points of responsibility and duty: “You have to invest to restore balance to the world,” she says, and it’s possible “masks” are even mentioned, metaphorically. These aren’t inherently bad things to say or hear, but they’re written and delivered with the double-meaning intact, to make sure that even the audience members in the back row are aware that Bruce is now being presented with an anecdote that parallels his hidden personal struggles. It’s one thing to find meaning in one part of your life that can be applied to something else; it’s another when you’re told just how to do it.
Nolan’s on much firmer ground when he lets Batman go to war with the latest physical representation of his problem. The Scarecrow manufactured fear, while the Joker was the ultimate unpredictable reactionary. For the conclusion of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman has to face Bane, a living representation of the power and also the stunning calm of real evil. Bane, who suffered near-fatal injuries years before, wears a mask to stay alive, but he’s not a cartoon. Rather, he’s merely a fiendishly dedicated mercenary, brought to Gotham on another’s man dime to aid in the city’s downfall. The Dark Knight Rises is in many ways the most realistic of Nolan’s series, dealing plainly with the ease with which bad men can overrun the weak. Bane’s powerful and committed, but he’s also just a man.
The film’s entire look and feel underscore the way evil never shows up when you think it will. Instead of the amber-dipped light or bruised blues of the earlier movies, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister opt for a bright, almost ordinary approach relying on crisp lines, bright colors, and what feels like more daylight than the first two films combined. (About an hour of the film is presented in IMAX, and the compositions in the large-screen format are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.) Bane strolls through subterranean lairs or Gotham streets with equal calm, big as life, and his presence is so startling — and so honestly captured, as if he’s just a man running errands — that you’re barely aware of the film’s power to make you accept this monster as real. Similarly, the score from Hans Zimmer is much more restrained here than in the earlier films, relying on smaller movements instead of the constant pounding and fluttering of wings that drove previous installments. There are even some dazzling scenes where Nolan drops the score and almost all other sound entirely, letting the action play out in tense physical confrontations. The first time Batman and Bane come to blows, its near-silence is uncomfortable, unsettling; it’s almost too there to be tolerable.
As the tormented Dark Knight, Bale is better than he’s been since the series started. He’s allowed here to flesh out all three faces of his character: the charming, self-deprecating businessman; the grim, unforgiving hero; and the lonely, uncertain man who has to mediate between them. The subtle differences in tone and body language between the way he carries himself at a party versus when he’s alone with Alfred are wonderfully telling. Hardy makes a formidable Bane, conveying just the right mix of boredom and menace with only his eyes. Hathaway’s a great fit, too, lightening the mood without undoing it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also brings a solid presence to John Blake, a beat cop turned detective who works with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to fight corruption and try to keep Gotham’s ever-fragile peace from failing.
… All of which is honest and true, loyal both to the film and the way it’s made. But to read those paragraphs, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film is some kind of academic exercise, a way for Nolan to finish a final few equations on the board before walking away forever, leaving us with nothing but the memory of the way he broke and rebuilt the formula. The Dark Knight Rises is more than that, though, in quiet and weird and sad ways, in rousing and exciting ways, in beautiful and stupefying ones that sometimes don’t have anything to do with the marriage of plot and aesthetic and are solely about the skill with which you can be made to believe you’re flying through the air on electric wings. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story started seven years ago, one whose characters and ideas have woven together through three films to reach what feels like a grand but inevitable end. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense, expertly designed to remind you where we’ve been and have you cheer when you see where we’re going. Yes, there will always and forever be something slightly wacky about a story involving an angry vigilante in pointed rubber ears. But Nolan puts his heart and soul into it, anchoring these stories in a world just like our own, with men and women who bleed like we do. Nolan gave us the Batman we needed, and his epic feels destined to dwarf inevitable future attempts to start the series again with a new creative team. There have never been superhero movies quite like these — grand and moving, fantastical yet real, possessed of an author’s real voice — and who knows if we’ll see their likes again.