“We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and it is ashes... then you have my permission to die.”
And so it ends. The greatest comic-book film series of all time; defining, re-defining and transcending the limitations of its genre; setting a seemingly unsurpassable standard for all those around it. With a triumphant opening reboot in Batman Begins, and a seminal best-movie-of-all-time contender in The Dark Knight, acclaimed writer/director Christopher Nolan closes off his stunning trilogy with an epic final chapter.
His grand-scale The Dark Knight Rises is a largely satisfying conclusion to the saga, delivering on almost all counts, staying true to course for his take on the legend, and providing rousing action, palpable emotion, gritty gravitas and sufficient closure to be a fitting finale. Undeniably it has flaws – arguably more than its fair share – but they are eminently forgivable in the grand scheme of Nolan’s fantastic snapshot universe. Indeed, after The Dark Knight, it is understandable that expectations would be high, and that Nolan would struggle to equal, let alone surpass his own career-high achievement, but Rises is still an impressive end run that guarantees that his Batman saga will remain the defining interpretation of the greatest comic book character for quite some time to come.
“Remember when you left Gotham? Before all this, before Batman? You were gone seven years. Seven years I waited, hoping that you wouldn’t come back. Every year, I took a holiday. I went to Florence; there’s this café, on the banks of the Arno. Every fine evening, I’d sit there and order a Fernet Branca. I had this fantasy, that I would look across the tables and I’d see you there, with a wife and maybe a couple of kids. You wouldn’t say anything to me, nor me to you. But we’d both know that you’d made it, that you were happy. I never wanted you to come back to Gotham. I always knew there was nothing here for you, except pain and tragedy. And I wanted something more for you than that. I still do.”
Eight years have passed since Batman was last seen, on the run after taking the blame for a slew of murders that culminated in death of Gotham’s brightest flame – District Attorney Harvey Dent. His sacrifice gave the City hope, with the passing of the Dent act seeing crime rates fall and organised crime almost completely eradicated; keeping the people safe. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon has served his tour of duty and is ready to retire, burdened by the weight of guilt over his complicity in the cover-up and false accusations levied at Batman. He knew it was for the greater good, but at what cost?
Meanwhile Batman’s not the only one who has disappeared: Bruce Wayne has become a recluse; his billion-dollar company is on the brink of bankruptcy, and the social gatherings that he was always known for have not seen an appearance from him in years. Even his butler, Alfred, can’t seem to pull Bruce out of the depression that he has been in ever since the death of his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes.
When a cat-burglar named Selina Kyle gets into the mansion, however, it sets in motion a chain of events that sees Bruce slowly pulled out of retirement, increasingly obsessed with the trail of breadcrumbs that has been laid out for him to follow. Is there a grand plot brewing? Does it have something to do with a new villain who has appeared in Gotham? A mysterious man named Bane who was so psychotic; so powerful, that he was rumoured to have been disavowed by the League of Shadows? And, if so, will Batman even stand a chance at stopping him?
“We were in this together, and then you were gone. Now this evil rises. The Batman must come back.”
I almost wish that Christopher Nolan had set out to make a Batman trilogy. I know that’s not how things work with multi-million-dollar projects in Hollywood. I know that Casino Royale was never intended to have a direct sequel (Quantum of Solace) and that it’s only really establishing best-selling book series’ that stand a chance of being adapted into consecutive movies. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, the Twilight Saga – all with several stories planned out in advance – but without the established foundation of a successful book series upon which to found them, few multi-film franchises get greenlit from day one. Well, none actually (the closest we’ve had is Avengers Phase 1, and even that was not plotted in advance, but merely touted as a potential outcome contingent on the success of the preceding entries).
Of course filmmakers can anticipate making a follow-up; assume that their current project will have enough success to see a further chapter, but even those that make loose plans in advance seldom see those exact ideas make it through the years of production to the finished sequel. With Nolan, however, his success with Batman Begins was enough for me to hope that he would have plans for beyond The Dark Knight in advance of The Dark Knight.
As it was, Nolan – allegedly – wasn’t even committed to a third film until well after his second effort had broken half a dozen Box Office records and received near-universal critical and public acclaim; refusing to agree to it without finding a suitable script to round out his trilogy. Unfortunately, whilst I wholeheartedly endorse the notion of his staying on to complete his franchise (rather than taking the approach to re-casting the director that has seen the likes of the Mission: Impossible franchise and the Blade Trilogy be both hit and miss), I wish he would have planned it slightly better in advance.
“There’s a point, far out there when the structures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore – they’re shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead. One day you may face such a moment of crisis and, in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did, to plunge his hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean.”
In finding his perfect climax, Nolan has delivered in terms of scale and significance; breathtaking action and grand storytelling; bringing all of the key characters you could possibly hope for to life in this particular Batman Nolanverse. He’s reached the climax that he always wanted; ended his saga in the best way he could, and probably a better way than anybody could have rightly hoped for. However, in doing so, he’s skipped a couple of movies to get to his end-game, and crammed what amounts to about three or four entire, complete, movie-length stories into one single, admittedly-epic-length film. It’s a reverse-Hobbit scenario: Nolan’s made one movie, where he could have easily made three.
In crafting his narrative he sought to rely on some of the best stories out there, and managed to gel them together quite wonderfully, even if they would have arguably been treated with better respect had they been dealt with in separate films.
For starters, we have the obvious one: the Bane saga from the original Batman comics, primarily Knightfall, which saw a mysterious new criminal – Bane – unleash all of Batman’s deadliest opponents upon him; breaking them out of Blackgate Prison and Arkham Asylum and watching and waiting as Batman painstakingly rounded them all up again. Batman didn’t sleep; he didn’t eat; he worked tirelessly to apprehend them all. Then, when his job was done, Bane confronted him. Batman was already a broken man and didn’t stand a chance – breaking his spine was just the icing on the cake. Batman would disappear for years, confined to a wheelchair, his slow rehabilitation in Asia leading to an eventual return to take back Gotham.
“Now’s not the time for fear. That comes later.”
The second comic saga that incorporated into The Dark Knight Rises was No Man’s Land, and its precursor Batman: Legacy, which saw Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Assassins – and a resurgent Bane – attempting to destroy several leading cities across the globe, culminating in a return to Gotham for Contagion and No Man’s Land, which sees Gotham cut off from the rest of the world and turned into a desolate warzone.
Finally, perhaps most daringly, Nolan took the seminal 1986 comic book saga The Dark Knight Returns – written by Frank Miller (Sin City, 300 and Batman: Year One – which largely inspired Nolan’s first outing, Batman Begins) and recently adapted into its own largely faithful 2-part animated movie – and spliced in elements that he thought would work when bringing the late of a returning Batman to life. In The Dark Knight Returns, a 55-year old Bruce Wayne, who hasn’t donned the mask in over a decade, takes to the streets once more to tackle some old enemies as well as a new gang that is terrorising Gotham. The leader of the gang is a lot like Bane, and initially defeats Batman in a one-on-one fight, only to see a badly wounded Bat recover, apply braces to his damaged limbs, and return for an epic rematch.
Any single one of these stories would have made for an epic movie – and indeed adapting either Knightfall or, perhaps most famously The Dark Knight Returns, has proved to be a near-impossible task over the years – but combining them all into one big beast of a movie is arguably either a feat of utter genius or over-ambitious madness. Largely, the plan succeeds. Nolan manages to tie everything up remarkably neatly, drawing multiple overlapping storylines which seamlessly cross and intersect, and which come together for an epic all-action conclusion. He gives every character his moment; gives every hero his conclusion and (almost) every villain a satisfying end.
“You yourself fought the decadence of Gotham for years with all your strength, all your resources, all your moral authority, and the only victory you achieved was a lie. Now you understand Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.”
Look a little closer, however, and the strands start to unravel, in places where the predecessor stood up to considerably greater scrutiny. Sure, The Dark Knight had the massive advantage in being able to finish on an open-ended, Empire Strikes Back-style cliffhanger, and The Dark Knight Rises has the undesirable job of tying up all the loose ends in a satisfactory fashion (look at Return of the Jedi to see just how that can turn out), but it came so close to perfection, and would have arguably achieved it had they not tried to cram so much into one movie.
For example, it’s difficult to accept the fact that Batman, who has – in as far as these movies are concerned – only been in action for a matter of months (maximum: little over a year) would retire the cape, ostensibly to protect Gotham but also, secretly, because he’s lost his childhood sweetheart. The premise for this disappearance / retirement of Batman comes straight from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns but in that story, Batman had been working on the streets of Gotham for a number of decades and so it made sense for him to do so. Instead, even though he’d only been in action for about a year, he disappears for a whopping eight years have passed, returning only to almost immediately be broken and dispatched to the middle of the desert to spend a further period of several months – possibly even the best part of another year – recuperating.
I personally found that the return-from-the-dead narrative of Skyfall, for example, far easier to digest, allowing the material to evolve at a much more natural pace. Whilst we didn’t get the evocatively symbolic prison sequences where Wayne has to embrace fear in order to escape (did anybody else notice that it was only the rope that was preventing the escapees from leaping to that higher ledge, and that the solution would be to simply use the rope until you get to that point, and then take it off before making the leap?!), Batman’s return to Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises just feels too rushed. He goes from broken, to banished, to chatting to Catwoman on the snowy, wartorn streets of Gotham all in the space of about half an hour, and even the most efficient montages can’t help dispel the feeling that there’s been an unexplained passing of time somewhere in the mix.
“Bane? What do you know about him?”
“That you should be as afraid of him as I am.”
Funnily enough, the abbreviated timeline ‘feel’ to the production actually works in Nolan’s favour at one point in the film. After all, we don’t feel like Gotham has been under siege for a year, we feel like Gotham has been under siege for a couple of scenes. We don’t feel like Bruce Wayne has been locked away rotting in a prison pit for almost a year, we feel like – at most – it’s been a matter of weeks. It’s at this point where the question over just how much time has passed actually works to the film’s advantage as, since your mind is prepared to skip over the cracks and make the plot fit to whatever sits best. It’s only when you reflect on it, that the whole damn thing begins to crumble.
Other niggles raise their ugly heads – the strange Occupy-Wall Street allusions which don’t really know which side of the fence they are on; the previously non-existent relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle that suddenly springs to life in the finale; the contrived way in which John Blake discovers Batman’s identity; and that incongruous final shot of Batman behind the controls of The Bat when, as an audience, we later know that this was an actual impossibility – however, it’s the out-of-character story-arc involving Wayne’s ever-loyal butler Alfred that really frustrates. Because, well, he’s not so ever-loyal this time around.
Alfred – in the comics at least – stood by Wayne through everything. Good decisions, bad decisions, it didn’t matter. Sure, he’d use biting wit to lovingly nag at Wayne’s often self-destructive behaviour, but he would always be there to pick up the pieces; set his master’s broken bones; stitch him up and put him back together. It’s what Alfred does. Alfred does not give up and walk, hoping that the gesture will push Wayne into giving up the mantle of the Bat (Indeed, after spending eight years tolerating a reclusive Wayne hiding in the dusty side-rooms of Wayne manor, wouldn’t he have maybe even supported this new return-to-form?). Moreover, this massive sacrifice had zero effect; it did nothing; it just left Wayne alone (and seemingly not all that bothered either), and Alfred just wouldn’t have done such a thing for nothing.
“Come with me. Save yourself. You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.”
“Not everything. Not yet.”
Wait a minute. Did you think that I hated the film? I didn’t. I loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed almost every minutes of it. But this love came with my eyes wide open, not with a delusional, naive, putting-it-on-a-pedestal attitude that leaves some fans with the skewed view that this film is nothing short as flawless. It’s not flawless – far from it – but, even seeing all the problems that the script offers up, I still love the film for everything it gets right and for the fact that, as a whole, it works superbly.
Surprisingly, the criticisms – and the frustration that arises due to some of these ‘inconsistencies’ – are considerably less significant than the ensuing admiration that you should have for a master filmmaker like Christopher Nolan who, even with all these flaws evident upon closer inspection of his work, still manages to craft a polished, impressive, blockbuster epic of a movie which, on the face of it, is the perfect end to his Batman trilogy. Few filmmakers could have crafted such a problematic beast and yet still deliver where it’s important. The scale, the action, the emotion, the acting, the dialogue, the impact – it’s all there. It’s easy to look beyond the inconsistencies; to ignore the criticisms; to see past the flaws – the end result is such a grand, sweeping epic blockbuster actioner that you can’t help but be engaged, enthralled and entertained throughout.
I suppose that it’s no surprise really: even when he’s not firing on all cylinders, a masterful director like Christopher Nolan still produces movies which are a cut above the rest. Even if you look at the other big superhero movies released this year – Joss Whedon’s Avengers to Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man – you’ll find impressive features which still struggle to attain the same high standard that Nolan achieves even on an off day.
“The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed.”
The same sentiments can be assigned to almost all of the people who came together to bring this production to life: the cast, the composer, the DOP, the editor – basically everybody involved clearly put in one hell of an effort to bring this seminal trilogy to a suitably epic conclusion, and for the most part, the end result is stunning. The majority of them have also been working with him for the past 6 years now as well; the same crew he’s used not only the for the Batman Trilogy, but also Inception, which he made in-between.
Returning to the roles that they first assumed in Batman Begins, we have all the major players, allowing for a fantastic level of consistency and character development across the movies (indeed it was a shame that they didn’t pull in Katie Holmes for the sequel, The Dark Knight, as, whilst Maggie Gyllenhaul is easily the superior actress, re-casting the role is always a dangerous move, and, even though they just about pulled it off, there is still a nagging doubt as to whether Holmes’s return would have better grounded the character’s fate – and significance – across the movies).
Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman seems to come so naturally for him that you almost take his performance for granted, but his sizeable character-arc – from recluse to returning hero; from broken bat to... returning hero – demands a hell of a lot from him, and he delivers, note-perfect, in most every scene. Indeed it’s a shame that Bale won’t be returning as Batman for the Justice League movie (I do hope they don’t even consider using Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as it would be sacrilege to have anybody other than Bruce Wayne adopt the mantle) and it will be interesting to see where the actor goes from here.
“I do fear death. I fear dying here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.”
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has also shown us the defining portrayal of Police Commissioner James Gordon, here getting as much meat to sink his teeth into as he did with The Dark Knight, as his beleaguered, ageing cop stands as one of the last men who can help oppose Bane’s totalitarian regime. Similarly Michael Caine (Harry Brown) – despite his character of Alfred getting put through the scriptwriting ringer with an unlikely mid-film disappearance – gets some wonderful, truly touching moments, and makes the absolute most of them. As the tears well in his eyes, you find yourself struggling to hold them back too. And we can’t forget Morgan Freeman (Unforgiven) – completing the trio of returning supporting heavyweights – who has made Wayne’s armourer Lucius Fox a far more important part of the proceedings than one might have ever imagined possible.
Added to the mix we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s police officer John Blake, a bit of new blood; a fresh new face who sees more than the average cop and swiftly clocks on to the fact that there’s more going on than everybody else thinks. Ported over from Nolan’s Inception, Gordon-Levitt – who has enjoyed some decent screen presence this year, what with this and the impressive Looper – does largely well in this understatedly important role, leaving us with a stoic, memorable supporting performance that ties in well to the final twist.
Then there’s the mysterious Miranda Tate, played by Marion Cotillard, another Nolan collaborator from Inception, who has made a name for herself playing these sorts of enigmatic characters. Without treading too far into spoiler territory, her ultimate revelations should generally prove quite pleasing to comic book fans, even if she doesn’t quite have the presence to fully convince when it come to that final twist.
“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because 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.”
Anne Hathaway also makes for a decent enough Selina Kyle. It’s a tough role to pull off: not only do you have to face walking in the footsteps of that wonderfully sultry iconic performance from Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, but you also have to avoid making the same mistakes as the frequently over-the-top Halle Berry did in the horrendous Catwoman. Hathaway, for the most part, finds a nice balance to her portrayal of this strong and sexy femme fatale, even if she doesn’t quite pull of the chemistry required between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne.
Finally we have The Man himself: Tom Hardy. Facing even bigger shoes to fill – he not only had the tough task of pulling off a convincing Bane (after the wasted worthless impression sketched in Schumacher’s Batman & Robin) but also of following in the footsteps of Heath Ledger’s unforgettable portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight – Hardy takes to the role with the kind of impassioned, distinctive performance that is now expected from the man who has played such wonderfully rich and diverse characters across the likes of Bronson, Warrior, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Lawless and Inception, and one can only expect great things from him in the future, whether it be in the reboot of Mad Max, or playing Al Capone in an upcoming trilogy focussing on the life of the legendary gangster.
Sure, nobody was really going to top Ledger – the jury will always be out over whether or not his death further cemented his performance in the eyes of the public – but Hardy’s Bane is impressive in a different way, not only having a wonderful physical presence that genuinely leaves you believing that this guy could put down The Bat, but also exuding an undeniable charisma which comes to life in every gesture, every mannerism, every little touch (like the distinctive way he holds his coat) and that’s even before we get to the dialogue.
“Oh, you think darkness is your ally? But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, moulded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man. By then it was nothing to me but blinding. The shadows betray you, because they belong to me!”
When it comes to his famous, distinctive, speech pattern, I was concerned by the Preview attached to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; Bane’s speech was almost impossible to understand, so guttural and muffled, it was smothered in the extreme by background noises. Thankfully that all changed when it came to the finished product and now we can fully appreciate the wonderful drawl that Hardy has adopted for the role. He sounds like James Mason impersonating James Bond’s unforgettable nemesis, Auris Goldfinger using the vocal ‘enhancements’ of Darth Vader, and Ledger’s Joker may have been lovingly mimicked by fans after The Dark Knight, but I suspect people will revel in the far-from-dulcit tones of Hardy’s Bane for quite some time to come too. (Indeed, had they split this into two movies, one great benefit would have been more time for Bane’s development; he’s have had time for more than just impassioned speeches and punishing punches!)
Nolan is certainly a grand master when it comes to assembling an ensemble cast and bringing the best out of them in memorable, often iconic roles; the defining portrayals for many of these characters, but it doesn’t stop there. He brings back collaborator Hans Zimmer to craft another powerful score, having worked with the man on both this trilogy and also Inception, with spectacular results each and every time. Zimmer’s contribution is one of the single most important elements in the piece, driven and rousing, threatening and imposing; right from the opening aerial assault he cranks the tensions up and up until it is almost unbearable, and then twists some more. Indeed whilst the time-line is all over the place, Zimmer’s perfect accompaniment keeps you on track throughout, maintains a freight-train pace and simply doesn’t let up until the palpably emotional climax.
Once again championing the use of classic film over modern digital techniques, Nolan gives us arguably his career-best in terms of jaw-dropping set-pieces, pulling in long-term cinematographer Wally Pfisher to capture the sheer scale of his blockbuster. Taking the IMAX techniques he successfully adopted for half an hour of key action scenes in The Dark Knight and expanding the usage here to over an hour (Pfisher wanted to do it completely in IMAX, but dubbing was still a concern), he certainly manages to give us an epic finale to his Batman saga. From the sheer scale of the spectacular opening mid-air plane-to-plane escape (which made for one hell of a preview) to the magnificent return of Batman himself (which directly quotes Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns when the cop says “you’re in for a show, kid.”) complete with a grand police chase culminating with him taking to the skies in The Bat; from the rooftop fight alongside Catwoman and the through-the-sewers shadow-play assault on Bane’s Headquarters, right through to that epic first confrontation with Bane himself, a punishing, emotionally devastating fight that will leave you almost as battered and broken as our hero himself.
Then there’s Bane’s siege on Gotham, which escalates from a spectacular daylight attack on Wall Street and an underground raid on a secret weapons cache to all-out bomb-driven destruction that sees Gotham cut off at the knees; the bridges blown, the police buried and Bane wreaking havoc in that superbowl sequence just to get his message across.
Of course, as you would only expect, Nolan pulls out all of the stops for the grand finale; epic street battles – with a decent Batman vs Bane rematch at the centre of it all (the fight scenes in The Dark Knight Rises are easily the best in the trilogy) – a fleet of camo-coloured terrorist-driven tumblers tearing through the streets; the remainder of GCPD’s finest charging the street to reclaim the City; and Batman taking to The Bat once more to finish the job. Throw in a few thundering, futuristic articulated trucks and a ticking nuclear bomb, and this is certainly a fitting, grand finish to the saga.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
Honestly, you could pick holes in so many different aspects of Nolan’s closing chapter, but the overall portrait painted is nearly impossible to fault; it’s the absolute best finish anybody could have ever expected to what is surely the defining Batman interpretation – the greatest Batman trilogy that we will likely ever know. Superb performances; superior direction; excellent characters and characterisations; a sweeping, suitably complex narrative and epic action all come together to result in one stunning end result; one fabulous grand finale. Nobody does Big Budget Hollywood Blockbusters with both the sheer scale and unprecedented substance that Nolan manages to deliver, and the billion-dollar-grossing The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting climax to his greatest achievement: The Dark Knight Trilogy.