Release Date: 20 July 2012
12A | 164 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Ultimately, it’s all about exit strategies.
For Gotham City’s grim-eyed guardian this invariably involves the use of rappelling guns, miniature smoke grenades or some equally timely slice of Bat-tech. Christopher Nolan favours a different solution. Faced with the Curse of the Threes – the ancient jinx that sabotages quality control in the final chapter of any big screen superhero trilogy, from Superman to Spider-Man to The X-Men – he plucks something altogether more potent from his utility belt. He arms himself with the power of myth.
The epic, nerve-jangling endgame of Nolan’s Batman saga, The Dark Knight Rises arrives loaded with a sense of its own mythic significance. We’re eight years on from the Joker’s chaos and Gotham is a changed world, its white-collar crime-lords defanged by new police powers in the aftermath of Harvey Dent’s death. The Bat-signal is a rusted relic, Bruce Wayne a crippled recluse, a solitary figure first glimpsed haunting the ramparts of his mansion like some billionaire Hamlet. The notion of Batman abandoning his all-consuming crusade is a hard sell, but it’s the first hint that Nolan’s not afraid to challenge the immutable truths of the DC universe. As the broken Bruce Wayne, the unshakably icy Christian Bale actually delivers his warmest performance yet.
Naturally, this retirement doesn’t last long. An impressively Bondian opening sequence clues us in that there’s a fist of conspiracy closing around the heart of Gotham, one that stretches from sewer to stock exchange to boardroom. Soon Batman is back in the fray, facing a battle on many, frequently treacherous fronts.
Knowing that any single villain would be eclipsed by the memory of Heath Ledger’s ghoul-faced anarchist, the film deploys two very different members of the Dark Knight’s rogue’s gallery. As Selina Kyle – the film never refers to her as Catwoman, but she’s called The Cat in a newspaper headline – Anne Hathaway injects a slinky, impish mischief, a welcome note of flamboyance that pricks the otherwise remorselessly sombre tone (the movie seriously misses her when she’s removed from the action for a while). All inkpool eyes, lips and attitude, she mixes the moxie of classic Hollywood heroines with a perfect fusion of the character’s earlier incarnations: Julie Newmar’s purring ‘60s saucepot, Michelle Pfeiffer’s empowered ‘90s dominatrix, the impoverished burglar of Batman Year One. Catwoman’s not so much a villainess as a surrogate Robin here, teaming with Batman in a partnership that feels part-driven by a mutual love of parading around in fetish gear. Maybe they wear corduroy in the bedroom?
Tom Hardy makes Bane a camo-trousered meat-locker of a man. This is Nolan’s unflaggingly grounded universe, of course, so the film strips away the Lucha Libre high-weirdness of the comic book original, leaving us with a steroidal bullyboy who, for all his throwaway rumbling of Batman’s secret identity, never quite convinces as an intellectual match for the Dark Knight. Hardy plays it with an amusing Bond villain plumminess, but the bullet-mouthed mask he wears forces him to rely on expansive gestures and glints of calculating malevolence in the eyes. Compared to Heath Ledger’s mesmeric, infinitely watchable Joker it’s like trying to avoid the gaze of a hard man in a Walthamstow boozer.
Bane’s triumph is the sheer physicality of the character. His opening bout with Batman plays like a cage fight – there’s no music, no need for music, only a savage symphony of grunts and cracking bone and the relentless rush of water over rusted grilles. It’s brutal, vicious, real, Nolan’s ultimate grounding of the superhero. The moment that Bane smashes and splinters the mask is actually profoundly shocking – and you sense the certainties of big screen Batman splintering too…
As Gotham falls to Bane, Nolan switches to blockbuster mode. Yes, the dread cliche “Get me the president on the line!” is heard, but unlike the dispassionate city-smashing of a Michael Bay flick this film never flinches from the human realities of a widescreen urban disaster zone. For all its impressive scale and staging, its marshalling of armies of extras and fleets of military transport, the film fixes on the heroic in the ordinary man, from Gary Oldman’s wounded Gordon to idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, surprisingly convincing as an action star). In one of the more resonant scenes, remnants of the police charge against Bane’s men, armed only with batons against guns.
It’s in this final act that the movie finds its true power. Superheroes are unique among myths in that their stories have beginnings but so rarely have endings – only endless, ever-cycling middles. Nolan’s out to challenge that, and it’s this mission that electrifies every last frame. This is the Norse myth of Ragnarok, the fall of the gods, played out in a wintry Gotham. And it’s High Noon, True Grit, Gran Torino – every frontier myth of the old, bruised gunfighter returning to town for one last stand. Ultimately it’s the Hollywood clout and creative vision of Christopher Nolan going mano a mano with the eternal, unchanging legend of Batman.
Who wins? We couldn’t possibly say. But, as exit strategies go, it’s a good one.