Director Christopher Nolan’s challenge in making his third Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” was simple enough – how do you top the untoppable?
It’s a question that hovers over Rises like a shadow in the twilight. Success breeds its own set of challenges, and the challenge for Nolan, who directed what many consider to be the definitive film of the decade, the masterwork of its genre, and the greatest visceral cinematic experience in years, was to somehow finish his story in a third film and meet expectations.
Rises is not “The Dark Knight,” though some of the movements Nolan has given the franchise over the course of three films were distinctly from “The Dark Knight,” including the course laid in the third movie. Which is fine and good, and it works well. Surprisingly though, Rises pays more deference to the first “Batman Begins,” which creates its own sort of trouble. When wrapping something up, the tendency to get cyclical comes into play, and it does with Nolan, though it leaves the feeling things may be wrapped up too nicely.
Which is a small criticism for a good movie. Rises is certainly that, and it certainly takes grander and bolder steps in ways than “The Dark Knight.” The terrorism allegory that existed throughout “The Dark Knight” lifted the movie into the realm of the political, but Rises is easily the most political “superhero movie” (though the term superhero doesn’t quite fit with Nolan’s flicks) ever made. If the security and surveillance dilemma, the question of moral authority, the absoluteness of warfare against terrorism and Michael Caine’s “we burned the forest” speech didn’t spur the indignation of those on the left side of the debate in the war on terrorism, Rises certainly will.
Villain Bane is a mercenary, but a different kind. His main”outward” goal it return Gotham city to “the people,” by means of eliminating the police department, all the rich folk and basic authority for some nuclear-fueled anarchy. He has the wealthy dragged into the streets from their swanky hotels, their mansions robbed and ransacked, and put on trial. All under a populist mantra straight from the Occupy movement. It’s hard to watch Cillian Murphy (The Sandman) holding court and not think of the sidewalk justice at its worst. It’s a story out of Orwell, Koestler or Milosz.
But before Bane undoes civil society, we get treated to Batman, which is an old and degenerative Batman (Christian Bale). He’s hobbled after years of street fights, walks with a cane, and has been out of the public spotlight for years, seemingly accepting of a hobbit life and no normalcy. That changes when he hosts a fundraiser in the name of the late Harvey Dent, and Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) makes her first appearance. In a film series full of heavies, it’s hard to imagine the petite Hathaway as imposing. It’s a hard buy, one anyone short of Gina Carrano would fail at, though Hatahaway gives the best performance of her career. She’s terrific, and fits the narrative well. She shows her face, Batman spurs into action, and the plot begins to move, though slowly. The movie, like Nolan’s last film “Inception” develops as you go along.
Back is Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, who maintains his important role in the series and is the biggest human link between Batman and the audience. Give the man an Oscar. Michael Caine returns as the fatherly Alfred, though he’s about had enough with his middle-aged ward.
Another welcome addition is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars as a young, orphaned, but brilliant beat cop who captures Gordon’s eye. Gordon-Levitt, in a film full of beaten up and weary characters, becomes the moral, upbeat center of the movie in an important role.
There’s also the assorted veteran actors that Nolan always employs. There was Rutger Hauer in Begins, Eric Roberts and Michael Jai White in “The Dark Knight,” Tom Berenger in “Inception” and many other welcome and familiar faces, the most noticeable in Rises being Matthew Modine as a top-notch but bureaucratically cowardly cop.
So how does this Bat rank? I’d give it a strong third. “The Dark Knight” was a definitive cinematic experience. “Batman Begins” was very good, though it was obvious it was written in part as a Batman version of the first “Spider-Man” movie. But the focus on Christian Bale and his performance, as well as Oldman and Liam Neeson, lift Begins to No. 2 in my opinion. I liked Rises enough, but it didn’t render emotionally as much as the first two. Rises suffered from overdoses of exposition at times, not to mention the fact it was wrapped a bit too tightly for my taste.
Still, it’s worth a look and perhaps the best comic book three-quell ever made.