(Christopher Nolan, 2012, USA/UK)
After a sojourn through audience’s collective subconscious in Inception, a pet project that met mind-bending ingenuity with blockbusting enigma, Christopher Nolan returns to consciously cap off his Dark Knight trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, lacing together loose threads from the two previous instalments whilst delivering a swansong that is pleasing in its bombast and customary in its stuffiness.
Extending the narrative interim between this chapter and The Dark Knight (2008) to eight years, catching up with a greying, hobbling Bruce Wayne still reeling from his and Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman, on fine form) sculpted deception regarding the truth behind Harvey Dent’s deadly plummet from grace, The Dark Knight Rises maintains its predecessor’s subdued attitude and monotonous plotting yet murkily subjects it to the ripened adage of bigger standing for better. The finale rises to the occasion and then some, rounding out the trilogy with a bang and a whimper, an inward look and a soaring superficiality, yet rarely bucks the blueprints laid down by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, remaining in constant dialogue with what came before through its ceaseless forward momentum, blurring subplots and stubborn flaws.
Where The Dark Knight was effectively about the sacrifices necessary to maintain control, The Dark Knight Rises depicts the effects of such sacrifices on both the characters and Gotham’s civilisation, a populace thumbed into compliance by a lie that threatens to undo Gordon’s fruitful post-Joker clean up. It is with the appearance of slinky, archetypal femme fatale Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, relishing every moment) – a skilled cat burglar-for-hire befitted with a mischievous twang on Hans Zimmer’s score, that rouses Wayne out of the shadows of his modernised manor back into the light of day. Similarly posing a threat, though arguably more imposing, is the swelling arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking brute whose distinctively wheezing voice is muzzled by a clawing mask, and whose megalomaniacal antagonism strikes at the heart of a Gotham on the seemingly straight and narrow. An agent of destruction who, like Wayne, studied under Ra’s Al Ghul’s sketchy organisation The League of Shadows, Bane provokes Wayne to don the Batman suit once again and watch as he goes about sinking Gotham into ashes, picking up where Al Ghul’s curtailed plot in Batman Begins (2005) left off.
As crowded as The Dark Knight was – its messages imbuing each scene with a breathless velocity and brought together in a gloomy addendum as Batman rode off into an unidentified distance – its successor feels even more hectic, peopled with old and new characters who have their own pathways, established in a first reel that is jaggedly imbalanced and dogged by a heavy-handed use of expositional dialogue that the film frequently slows down to accommodate. His long gestating proclivity for sleek ingenuity apparently sated by Inception – the closest he may get to helming a Bond outing, Nolan’s presence feels strangely aloof here, on autopilot as he goes about ticking the relevant curtain closing boxes whilst seemingly letting the relevant elements work on their own accord and allowing his iconographic behemoth to play out for itself, unmediated in a pile of bitty editing techniques. Not only does he carry across a few tricks from Inception – namely a silken, flashback-esque approach to the visual delineations of memory and dream (which is shabbily overused here), he also never quite manages to usurp the script’s holey narrative and structural inconsistencies, as well as a daftness that parts one and two somewhat successfully married with smart storytelling; the pejorative effects of an inconsistently paced and convoluted organisation that takes no prisoners.
Swarming over the other female character in Nolan’s rather sexless Gotham – Marion Cotillard’s ostensibly underwritten Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate, is Hathaway’s Kyle (or ‘Catwoman’, though this is never acknowledged), who impresses by being as playful as possible within the icy climate that Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister effectively sustain. Equally impressive is Hardy, bringing an oppressive significance to a rather uninteresting villain that, once his echoingly memorable vocals are established, merely descends into a browbeating, muscle-clad adversary for a physically vulnerable Batman, their crunching scraps highlighting the caped crusader’s rarely seen frailty. Previously seen in a series of choppy edits, Batman’s scuffles here are focused on from a distance, Nolan wisely highlighting Wayne’s impending age and susceptibility in the face of an unstoppable opponent. On a vastly dissimilar hand to The Dark Knight, whose Joker worked as a foe on an entirely cerebral level – the wiry yang to Batman’s growling yin (“You complete me!”, he says), Bane tests Wayne on a physically superior level, constantly batting him down yet goading him to rise back up. If The Joker used his brain in a battle of wits, Bane throws about his brawn in teasing abandon.
Embedding his yarn with yet more of a realistic footing, Nolan loosely entangles within the overarching drama comments on the current economical crisis in relation to the grey area between an eventually lawless Gotham’s lower and upper classes, though it’s vague political messages rarely gel as well the film thinks it does. Gotham is seen as a guarded haven of thugs and criminals as well as a weak civilisation whose foundations are constantly threatened, easily manipulated by heroes, villains, politicians and policemen when the threat of chaos descends, and there is fun to be had with exploring the people at war with themselves. Yet the protagonists are always outsiders looking into the disorder, unable to fully detail the hysteria of Bane’s surreptitious plans no matter how much they are affected by his cataclysmic attacks.
Though at first spoiled by erratic pacing and opaque dialogue, Nolan’s flair for spectacle nominally outshines the film’s inherent problems, with numerous chases and punch ups acting as the prelude to a dizzying battle that diverts the attention before a final montage – which panders to aficionados – robs whatever intricacies the trilogy built up. Shutting down a critically and financially prosperous trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is filmmaking en masse, monumental in stature and far-reaching in scope, and though it takes frequent (and frustrating) missteps, it is nevertheless a bracing end to a franchise trailblazer that warranted the wobbly legs it gallantly stood upon.