It’s been eight years since the events of the previous film, since Batman (Christian Bale) took the blame for the actions of the fallen District Attorney Harvey Dent (not to mention his death). Bruce Wayne has given up the mantle of the Bat and withdrawn into himself, worn down physically and emotionally. He spends much of his time holed up in his manor, while the city he once protected has rejected him. His company has seen better days, and is now steeply on a decline. All he has left for company is his butler and father figure Alfred (Michael Caine), who worries about how deeply Bruce has been battered by the events of the last few years.
Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows the truth of his innocence, but is obliged to maintain the facade of Batman as an outlaw, and he has his own issues to deal with, from political concerns and senior officers jockeying for his post to an arrogant belief in the city that major crime is a problem of the past.
Into the mix come two wild cards. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is a cat burglar with an agenda all her own. And Bane (Tom Hardy) is a ruthless anarchist who unleashes hell on the city, in a series of attacks meant to draw out and destroy the Dark Knight, which is only the beginning of what he has in mind.
The finale of the series is a harrowing journey into darkness. The film, scripted by Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, takes on themes that are very prevalent today: the conflict between rampant capitalism and rights of the people, the fear of terrorism, the role of justice in the world. It follows a hero who’s just a man, at his lowest point, and asks the question of what can bring him back. There are influences from some of the biggest Batman stories of the comics: The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall, and No Man’s Land are obvious ones. There are also shades of the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution underlying the story.
The production values of the film are, as before, well worth it. The cinematography is spectacular; there are camera shots throughout the film that will leave you breathless. The special effects serve the story, and not the other way around; explosions for instance, in this film, are done properly, unlike the wildly over-exaggerated garbage we’d see out of a hack like Michael Bay (yes, Michael Bay, you are a hack of the first order. You are a hack in a hack class all of your own). And the score by Hans Zimmer (this time on his own, without his collaborator for the first two films, James Newton Howard) brings back some of the previous themes but goes off in other strong directions. Nolan has chosen his crew well, once again.
The cast itself is splendid in their roles. Marion Cotillard is a newcomer as Miranda Tate, a tycoon with an energy device that may be the salvation of Wayne Enterprises. Cotillard is a gifted French actress who you might recall from Inception, another Nolan film. She plays the role with sublety and nuance, and fits very well into the tapestry of the film. Another Inception veteran is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing John Blake, an inherently decent Gotham Police officer. There is a curious quality to his nature, and a basic integrity to him. He becomes the audience point of view character, the everyman we can relate to, who steps up to do right just because it’s the right thing.
The returning veteran players inhabit their roles once more perfectly. Gary Oldman as Gordon is as good as ever; Oldman is one of the great character actors of our time, and as Batman’s one time ally, we see a man who’s deeply unhappy at having to publicly be against the Batman early on, and then finds himself confronting the worst possible crisis of his life. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, the Wayne executive and father figure to Bruce who’s provided much of the Bat tech in the past. There continues to be a wise strength in his portrayal of the character. And Michael Caine is very much the heart of the film, a foster father to Bruce Wayne, the guiding conscience, the Horatio to Bruce’s Hamlet.
Tom Hardy is another Inception veteran, and in that film, he completely stole the movie from the star, Leonardo DiCaprio (admittedly not that hard to do). He plays the monstrous Bane just as I’d expect him to be: a clever and brutal man, hidden behind a strange mask, a ferocious force of nature, and utterly nihilistic. Bane first appeared in the comics in the aforementioned Knightfall story, and has appeared in film, in the cinematic abomination that was Batman & Robin, where the character was a brainless idiot who happened to be nothing more than muscle for the two primary villains. For that and many other Bat-reasons, Joel Schumacher has more than earned his place in the seventh circle of Hell. This Bane is a decisive, bold leader, intelligent and sadistic, willing to do anything to achieve his objectives.
Anne Hathaway plays Catwoman, though she’s never once called that through the film. It’s probably impossible to outdo Michelle Pfeiffer’s take on the character, so Hathaway doesn’t even try, instead playing the character closer to the comic book version, a woman who's straddling the line between hero and villain. She brings a strong energy to the role, and her character draws Bruce out of the darkness he has descended into. She's got the look of the character just right, and gives the character just the right dramatic touches in terms of personality.
Christian Bale gives arguably his best performance of the trilogy in this film. His Batman has become brooding and withdrawn, consumed by losses in his life and the rejection of the people he once vowed to protect. The character is at the lowest ebb, and has to find his way out of despair and back to himself; he has to reinvest himself in his mission, to once again be the hero to a city that doesn't deserve him. Bale has an intensity and a drive as an actor that makes him fascinating to watch, and he inhabits the dual role of Bruce Wayne the tycoon and Batman the driven vigilante perfectly. In each of these films he’s understood the basic truth: the real man is the one driven by his own tragedy to wage war on crime, to seek justice, and the facade or mask is the carefree socialite.
Nolan has given us three outstanding, spectacular adaptations in this trilogy. The Dark Knight Rises is exhilarating, demanding, and rewarding, and not only is it a great comic adaptation and thrilling action film, it's also one of the best films of the year. It makes us care about the characters, surprises us in unexpected ways, and makes us ask ourselves questions. It makes us think, because it’s a film with depth.
Something that can never be suggested of Joel Schumacher, who, rumour has it, still wants to make his (self described) masterpiece Batman & Robin & Batgirl: More Bat Nipple Costumes, All The Time.