Click on the audio player below to listen to Slate's Spoiler Special podcast on Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises after you've seen the movie.
As the sleek, silver DC comics logo loomed into view at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Brothers), the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful and influential Batman trilogy, I closed my eyes and made a quick prayer to the gods of cinema: Please let me experience this movie on its own terms, far from the portentous hype and strategically leaked advance footage and disturbing stories of fanboy-on-critic death threats. Nolan’s is a film franchise whose marketing campaign precedes it everywhere, like a solemn-faced servant trumpeting the arrival of his master.
The middle chapter of the series, The Dark Knight (2008), definitively established Nolan as the reigning auteur of the big-budget comic-book adaptation. He wasn’t in it for the fast-food tie-ins; he was making art. While I wasn’t completely convinced by The Dark Knight’s aspirations to what Woody Allen once called “total heaviosity,” as an object the film seduced me. Nolan’s camera (wielded by his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister) turned the skyscrapers of Chicago into forbidding slabs of obsidian, the war-on-terror allegories were timely (if imprecise), and Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker—his last, for which he won a posthumous Oscar—was extraordinary: funny and terrifying and weirdly sexy all at once. I still think often of that shot of Ledger sticking his head out a car window at dawn and laughing aloud at the sheer joy of being young, alive, and evil.
The Dark Knight Rises deepens the series’ commitment to heaviosity, as well as to that peculiar brand of romantic cynicism specific to Nolan. Set eight years after the end of the last installment, in a Gotham City blighted by corruption and decadence, the film murkily references both the post-9/11 security state and the financial crisis. “There’s a storm coming,” Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman warns Batman’s depressive alter ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). She’s a Robin Hood-style freelance thief, he’s a reclusive old-money billionaire, and the implication is unmistakable: it’s time to occupy Wayne Manor. In one scene, we’re even given a hasty glimpse of what out-and-out class war might look like (tip for the 1 percent: When you’re trying to flee a revolution, don’t wear your fur coat).
The Dark Knight Rises bursts at the seams with the kind of urgent, vague political references that fall just short of being ideas. We are witness to secret black-ops prisons, Kafkaesque kangaroo courts, and a terrorist incident at a crowded football stadium that’s staged with the visual imagination Nolan is justly famed for. It’s clear the director and his brother Jonathan (a frequent collaborator with whom he co-wrote the screenplay) want us not just to enjoy the ambient mayhem, but to think about … stuff. Violence, justice, revenge, the human condition, and whatnot. Exactly what conclusions we should be drawing from this 164-minute cogitation on social issues is never clear, but maybe that’s of a piece with the moral ambiguity of Bale’s Batman, who’s always split the difference between idealist hero and nihilist vigilante.
One highly unambiguous element here is the film’s disappointingly uncomplex villain, the bald, hulking, pitiless arch-terrorist Bane, as played by Tom Hardy. Hardy obviously put an enormous amount of work into preparing for the role, bulking up his body and developing a strange, swooping voice that promises to give rise to a thousand late-summer Bane impersonations. But the choice to clamp a leather-and-metal mask over 60 percent of Hardy’s face for the entire movie means that, for all practical purposes, the actor’s diligent iron-pumping was in vain. Since we can’t tell whether the person producing that sound actually resides in that body or not, Nolan might as well have cast an already-huge body double and just had Hardy dub in the voice. Most of all, though, the mask is a mistake because we never get a good look at Bane’s face. With nothing to work with but a pair of darting eyes, Hardy can’t endow Bane with motivation enough to make him more than a generic bogeyman (though a series of flashbacks late in the film do provide him with a heart-tugging back story).
After being introduced to the bloodthirsty Bane in an extended aerial action sequence worthy of a Bond film, we revisit Bruce Wayne, holed up in his mansion in the care of longtime servant Alfred (Michael Caine, giving the most affecting performance in this emotionally chilly film). Now that the Batman has been disgraced by the crimes falsely attributed to him at the end of the last movie, Bruce shuns both crime-fighting and most human society, devoting his time to philanthropic endeavors like serving on the board of a foundation that’s developing a nuclear-powered clean energy source. Just as the brooding Bruce is starting to warm to fellow board member Miranda Tate (a more-luscious-than-ever Marion Cotillard), all hell breaks loose in Gotham—or rather, Gotham is turned into a kind of hell, as Bane and his army empty the prisons, provoke civil unrest through random acts of terror, and hijack the clean-energy machine for use as a doomsday weapon.
Bane’s army operates out of a secret lair in the Gotham sewers, resulting in a failed police raid that traps most of the city’s lawkeeping forces underground. The only honest cops left standing are the weary Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a new character, Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a rookie with an against-all-odds faith in the return of the Dark Knight. Slinking around the periphery of the story (and providing the movie with its rare, much-needed infusions of wit) is Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, a skilled safecracker who doubles as a formidable feline villain-dispatcher (though her character is never called “Catwoman” by name).
At over two hours and 40 minutes long, with repeated scenes of bone-crunching violence and a maddeningly unrelenting percussive score by Hans Zimmer, The Dark Knight Rises is something of an ordeal to sit through. But Nolan provides moments of jaw-dropping spectacle: that football-game set piece, for example, or a somber scene in which we see Gotham from far above as dozens of Bane’s randomly planted bombs explode throughout the city. Too much of this film takes place in dimly lit, cramped spaces where sweaty men threaten each other in whispers: the Gotham sewer, the underground prison to which Bruce Wayne is exiled for a long and dreary stretch in the second half. As Nolan proved in those crazy street-folding scenes in Inception, he’s a whiz at staging visually inventive action on a grand, topographic scale. Now that the Dark Knight series is over (and the character no doubt being readied for a steampunk-themed reboot), I hope Nolan’s next project will lift his imagination out of the bat-cave and into the world.
Read an essay on Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and the rise of darkness in American culture.