After seven years and two films that have pushed Batman ever deeper into the dark, the director Christopher Nolan has completed his postmodern, post-Sept. 11 epic of ambivalent good versus multidimensional evil with a burst of light. As the title promises, day breaks in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the grave and satisfying finish to Mr. Nolan’s operatic bat-trilogy. His timing couldn’t be better. As the country enters its latest electoral brawl off screen, Batman (Christian Bale) hurtles into a parallel battle that booms with puppet-master anarchy, anti-government rhetoric and soundtrack drums of doom, entering the fray as another lone avenger and emerging as a defender of, well, what?
Truth, justice and the American way? No — and not only because that doctrine belongs to Superman, who was bequeathed that weighty motto on the radio in August 1942, eight months after the United States entered World War II and three years after Batman, Bob Kane’s comic creation, hit. Times change; superheroes and villains too. The enemy is now elusive and the home front as divided as the face of Harvey Dent, a vanquished Batman foe. The politics of partisanship rule and grass-roots movements have sprung up on the right and the left to occupy streets and legislative seats. It can look ugly, but as they like to say — and Dent says in “The Dark Knight,” the second part of the trilogy — the night is darkest before the dawn.
The legacy of Dent, an activist district attorney turned murderous lunatic, looms over this one, the literal and metaphysical personification of good intentions gone disastrously wrong. (He looms even more in Imax, which is the way to see the film.) Eight years later in story time, Batman, having taken the fall for Dent’s death, and mourning the woman both men loved, has retreated into the shadows. Dent has been enshrined as a martyr, held up as an immaculate defender of law-and-order absolutism. Gotham City is quiet and so too is life at Wayne Manor, where its master hobbles about with a cane while a prowler makes off with family jewels (the intensely serious Mr. Nolan isn’t wholly humorless) and Gotham sneers about the playboy who’s mutated into a Howard Hughes recluse.
Batman has always been a head case, of course: the billionaire orphan, a k a Bruce Wayne, who for assorted reasons — like witnessing the murder of his parents when he was a child — fights crime disguised as a big bat. Bruce’s initial metamorphosis, in “Batman Begins,” exacts a high price: by the end of the second film, along with losing the girl and being branded a vigilante, Bruce-Batman rides virtually alone, save for Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the Wayne family butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), a fussy uncle with a remarkable skill set. It’s central to where Mr. Nolan wants to take “The Dark Knight Rises” that Batman will be picking up new acquaintances, including a beat cop, John Blake (a charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and a philanthropist, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
Mr. Nolan again sets his machine purring with two set pieces that initiate one of the story’s many dualities, in this case between large spectacle and humanizing intimacies: one, an outlandishly choreographed blowout that introduces a heavy, Bane (Tom Hardy); the other, a quieter cat-and-bat duet between Bruce and a burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). After checking in with his personal armorer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce-Batman swoops into an intrigue that circles back to the first film and brings the series to a politically resonant conclusion that fans and op-ed bloviators will argue over long after this one leaves theaters. Once again, like his two-faced opponents and the country he’s come to represent, Batman begins, feared as a vigilante, revered as a hero.
Informed by Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s resuscitation of the character in the 1980s, Mr. Nolan’s Bruce-Batman has oscillated between seemingly opposite poles, even as he’s always come out a superhero. He is savior and destroyer, human and beast, the ultimate radical individualist and people’s protector. Yet as the series evolved, this binary opposition — echoed by Dent’s rived face — has grown progressively messier, less discrete. Much of the complexity has been directly written into the franchise’s overarching, seemingly blunt story of good versus evil. It’s an old, familiar tale that Mr. Nolan, in between juggling the cool bat toys, demure kisses, hard punches and loud bangs, has layered with open and barely veiled references to terrorism, the surveillance state and vengeance as a moral imperative.
In “The Dark Knight Rises” Mr. Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan, further muddies the good-and-evil divide with Bane. A swaggering, overmuscled brute with a scar running down his back like a zipper and headgear that obscures his face and turns his cultivated voice into a strangulated wheeze, Bane comes at Batman and Gotham hard. Fortified by armed true believers, Bane first beats Batman in a punishingly visceral, intimate fist-to-foot fight and then commandeers the city with a massive assault that leaves it crippled and — because of the explosions, the dust, the panic and the sweeping aerial shots of a very real-looking New York City — invokes the Sept 11 attacks. It’s unsettling enough that some may find it tough going.
Watching a city collapse should be difficult, maybe especially in a comic-book movie. The specter of Sept. 11 and its aftermath haunt American movies often through their absence though also in action films, which adopt torture as an ineluctable necessity. Mr. Nolan, for his part, has been engaging Sept. 11 in his blockbuster behemoths, specifically in a vision of Batman who stands between right and wrong, principles and their perversions, because he himself incarnates both extremes.
Mr. Nolan has also taken the duality that made the first film into an existential drama and expanded that concept to encompass questions about power, the state and whether change is best effected from inside the system or outside it. Gordon believes in its structures; Bane wants to burn it all down. And Batman? Well, he needs to work it out.
So will viewers, explicitly given the grim, unsettling vision of a lawless city in which the structures of civil society have fallen, structures that Batman has fought outside of. In a formally bravura, disturbingly visceral sequence that clarifies the stakes, Bane stands before a prison and, in a film with several references to the brutal excesses of the French Revolution — including the suitably titled “A Tale of Two Cities” — delivers an apocalyptic speech worthy of Robespierre. Invoking myths of opportunism, Bane promises the Gotham citizenry that courts will be convened, spoils enjoyed. “Do as you please,” he says, as Mr. Nolan cuts to a well-heeled city stretch where women in furs and men in silk robes are attacked in what looks like a paroxysm of revolutionary bloodlust.
If this image of violent revolt resonates strongly, it’s due to Mr. Nolan’s kinetic filmmaking in a scene that pulses with realism and to the primal fear that the people could at any moment, as in the French Revolution, become the mob that drags the rest of us into chaos. Yet little is what it first seems in “The Dark Knight Rises,” whether masked men or raging rhetoric. Mr. Nolan isn’t overtly siding with or taking aim at any group (the wily Bane only talks a good people’s revolution), but as he has done before, he is suggesting a third way. Like Steven Soderbergh in “Contagion,” a science-fiction freak-out in which the heroes are government workers, Mr. Nolan doesn’t advocate burning down the world, but fixing it.
He also, it may be a relief to know, wants to entertain you. He does, for the most part effortlessly, in a Dark Knight saga that is at once lighter and darker than its antecedents. It’s also believable and preposterous, effective as a closing chapter and somewhat of a letdown if only because Mr. Nolan, who continues to refine his cinematic technique, hasn’t surmounted “The Dark Knight” or coaxed forth another performance as mesmerizingly vital as Heath Ledger’s Joker in that film. The ferocious, perversely uglified Mr. Hardy, unencumbered by Bane’s facial appliance, might have been able to dominate this one the way Mr. Ledger did the last, but that sort of monstrous, bigger-than-life turn would have been antithetical to this movie’s gestalt. The accomplished Mr. Bale continues to keep Batman at a remove with a tight performance that jibes with Mr. Nolan’s head-over-heart filmmaking.
After repeatedly sending Batman down Gotham’s mean streets, Mr. Nolan ends by taking him somewhere new. That’s precisely the point of a late sequence in which he shifts between a multitude of characters and as many locations without losing you, his narrative thread or momentum. His playfulness with the scenes-within-scenes in his last movie, “Inception,” has paid off here. The action interludes are more visually coherent than in his previous Batman films and, as in “Inception,” the controlled fragmentation works on a pleasurable, purely cinematic level. But it also serves Mr. Nolan’s larger meaning in “The Dark Knight Rises” and becomes his final say on superheroes and their uses because, as Gotham rages and all seems lost, the action shifts from a lone figure to a group, and hope springs not from one but many.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Violence.
The Dark Knight Rises
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by Hans Zimmer; production design by Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh; costumes by Lindy Hemming; produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Charles Rove; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
WITH: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle), Tom Hardy (Bane), Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox).
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