Boiling over with layers of social commentary, “The Dark Knight Rises” takes comic book lore to places it’s rarely been, and delivers the goods with an emotionally exhausting, but ultimately satisfying, conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
In the nearly three-hour conclusion, we find a Gotham that has returned to a state of perceived peace and prosperity – unfortunately, it is all built on the lie concocted by Batman (Christian Bale) and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) about the corruption and ultimate death of Harvey Dent. A social uprising is bubbling just under the surface of the social decadence, and the film’s chief antagonist (and terrorist), Bane (Tom Hardy), arrives on the scene to set the wheels in motion.
Bane proves to be Batman’s greatest challenge; forced out of retirement after eight years (Batman hasn’t been seen since the night of Dent’s death, for which he took the blame), the film’s protagonist gets the beating of a lifetime early in the film during Bane’s rise of terror, leaving him literally broken. All truly seems lost in Gotham.
Nolan publicly asserted that Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was the inspiration for the story; in it we are shown two distinctively different Gothams: that of the rich, including Bruce Wayne, and that of the poor. At times, Nolan’s efforts to illustrate this divide are almost too heavy to handle, too bleak to imagine, but this is the director’s way of forcing us to consider this divide in our own world.
The truly terrifying Bane incites anarchy by turning society on its head. He blows up a football stadium for starters, and that’s probably no coincidence — professional sports is one of society’s most decadent amusements, with athletes becoming millionaires who are worshiped by the common man. In another of Nolan’s most obvious metaphors, Bane manages to trap virtually the entire Gotham police force underground. The officers survive only because food and water are rationed to them, lowered down by ropes. The point is almost too obvious: When a society’s symbol of order suddenly becomes the trapped lower class, living beneath the surface, invisible, and surviving on the scraps of the privileged above, what happens? That’s right: chaos. Left to its own devices, Gotham tears itself apart.
One metaphor in particular stuck with me: In the film, we are shown a prison in which the only possible escape is by climbing to the top of a stories-tall brick shaft. This means of escape has been successfully completed only once in history, in spite of countless attempts. Bane notes, “There can be no true despair without hope.” The hope, of course, is the sunlight shining in through the top of tunnel – providing the slim but ongoing hope that one might escape this “hell on earth,” as it is called. This resonates as a metaphor for being in the lower class Nolan visits in this story, where an illusion of escape, of rising to the top of society, can always be seen or dreamed about but virtually never attained. The rich just keep getting richer, and escaping the prison is perhaps akin to winning the lottery.
While “The Dark Knight Rises” is indeed bleak, and ultimately even apocalyptic, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as beat cop John Blake serves as its moral conscience and ongoing ray of hope. Levitt embraces the role of the young man who still views Batman as a symbol of that hope.
On the other side of the coin is the me-first Selina Kyle, played in gritty fashion by Anne Hathaway. Kyle is a true 99-percenter’s idol who steals from the rich and gives to herself. Kyle is a foil to Bruce Wayne for much of the film, making off with his mother’s pearls (which Mrs. Wayne wore on the night of her murder) early in the story, and at one point boosting his sports car for, well, sport.
Kyle ultimately proves herself a worthy warrior, as she ends up as a reluctant ally to Batman. She also provides some of the film’s best moments, delivering her sarcastic dialogue with cunning and humor, and kicking some on-screen ass at seemingly every turn.
And this is by far Bale’s best turn as Wayne/Batman. Honestly, he appears on screen as Bruce Wayne far more than he does Batman. This gives Bale, an Oscar winner, a chance to better engage the audience in a Batman film that, for possibly the first time ever, is more about the protagonist than about the villain(s). Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker completely dominated the second film in the trilogy, there is no force like that at work here. In some ways, that makes “The Dark Knight Rises” less satisfying than its predecessor, but let’s face it: There was no topping that performance.
Instead, what Nolan has provided is an epic finish to a Batman story, which is something else we’ve not seen before — a true finish that pays no mind to the prospect of a lucrative sequel. As he has since “Batman Begins” (which is referenced often in “The Dark Knight Rises”), Nolan questions what would truly happen if a guy dressed up as a bat and went out at night fighting hardened criminals. The answer to that question is that he ends up physically crippled, spiritually broken or perhaps worse.
And that’s where the slim ray of hope comes in. The down-and-out Wayne, who ends up financially bankrupt and beaten down in every way, refuses to surrender the city he has fought so long to save. True, his resolve is born of anger over his parents’ death, but it is resolve nevertheless. That he is able to rally and make one final stand offers a measure of inspiration in a film that otherwise teems with pain, despair and suffering.
I feel truly sorry for the director who is tapped to re-boot the Bat-franchise. The bar has been set so high that, much like the freedom at the top of the inescapable prison in this film, it may never be reached again. But in the meantime, we have been given arguably the best comic book-based trilogy ever brought to the screen. Thank you, Mr. Nolan.