The first thing I noticed about The Dark Knight Rises is the sparsity of sound. Don’t get me wrong, the movie’s climactic moments were set to Hans Zimmer’s resounding score that was reminiscent of his earlier work with Christopher Nolan in Inception. But in its almost three-hour run, there are long stretches of conversations and fight sequences that were left musically unaccompanied, further emphasizing the hollowness that echoed through the halls of the Wayne Mansion, the labyrinthine passages of Gotham’s sewers and the prison pit from where the city’s next maniacal supervillain came from. This is a world that had not seen The Batman for close to a decade, and Nolan magnifies that emptiness of Gotham sans its notorious superhero in the absence of any affecting music.
Ever since Batman Begins, realism was the biggest defining characteristic of Nolan’s take on The Caped Crusader, a huge departure from the campy interpretations of the films that came before it. He was set out to radically reinvent Batman by transplanting him in a more believable world while at the same time expanding the gravitas of his mythology. It was a tough job to take on, but it was one he did admirably. It was no secret that Gotham was a stand-in for New York, but what a highly stylized, dazzling city of glass and steel it was. His movies hit the sweet spot of having substance that made you think about the ethical implications of being a superhero and having allegorical references to contemporary, post-9/11 issues, while at the same time having gigantic setpieces that blew up magnificently, especially in IMAX theaters.
The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding film in his trilogy, is an epic farewell that lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors. It is thought-provoking, alluring, sophisticated, unsettling. Though it lacks the effervescent performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the slow, steady build-up of this movie and the dizzying twists and reveals at the film’s third act makes it an immensely satisfying cinematic experience. We all know that this trilogy has already transcended into something more than just a comic book movie, but the elegance and grandiosity of this movie cements its legacy.
The Dark Knight left us with Bruce Wayne deciding to retire Batman because of the inherent contradiction of existing beyond the law as a superhero, i.e. in the context of legality, his actions are no different from those of a criminal. Thus, in order to preserve faith in public institutions and the law, he decided to take the fall for the death of Harvey Dent so his image as Gotham’s White Knight would not be tainted. Eight years later, Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s plan seemingly succeeded: the Dent act has successfully purged the streets of Gotham from the menace of organized crime, ushering in an age of peace for the city.
But the sins of Gotham can not be easily cleaned away and a new threat festers in the deep underground where the city’s waste resides. It’s quite a crude analogy to make, but it does deliver the point — it is in the murky subterranean where Gotham’s laws do not exist that it is most vulnerable. And this masked villain’s alternative imagination of Gotham is precisely one where its law enforcement is sequestered in the tunnels underground and a populist regime takes over. It is more refined than Joker’s anarcho-nihilistic vision, but perhaps it is also less seductive than Joker’s unbridled chaos.
Tom Hardy’s Bane speaks with a theatrical voice that is very similar to Darth Vader had he done a bit of Shakespeare in the Park. At first it may come off as laughable, and the scenes between Batman and Bane may be difficult to understand, but it is a mild annoyance that doesn’t change the overall effect of the film. There is a dissonance with Bane’s fluency and his extremely muscular frame, one in a series of many upended expectations. He has the physical attributes of a thug albeit an especially powerful one, but all his actions have the intentionality and orchestration of a mad genius. Similar to the Joker and the Scarecrow, he wields fear in order to herd the people of Gotham like cows being sent to a slaughterhouse. In this instance, it is the danger of anonymity, that anyone has the power to blow up Gotham, that helps him lead his revolution against the city’s traditional sources of authority.
It is the crippling threat of Bane that brings Batman out from hiding. But the beguiling cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) also encourages Bruce Wayne to stop living like a hermit. Nolan’s deployment of Catwoman as the embodiment of the Occupy spirit is a refreshing take on the femme fatale that always had a prickly relationship with Batman. The added dimension of class warfare in addition to the tenuous relationship they both have with the law brings a complexity and depth to what could have simply been a cutesy, banter-filled, witty affair. But we all know that Nolan is much more sophisticated than that, and Hathaway’s performance is nuanced and graceful.
Perhaps fittingly, mortality is an important theme in this final movie. Bruce Wayne has always wanted Batman to die because he doesn’t want Gotham to even need a masked vigilante to keep her safe. He has always had an endgame in mind. So when he is called out of retirement by people like John Blake (another strong supporting role by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Alfred fears not just for his master’s death but his actual willingness to die. Similarly, Christopher Nolan also has an endgame and he has made it known that this would be his final Batman movie, although perhaps not for us since an inevitable Batman reboot will come out eventually. I am pleased to say that he has serenely laid the Bat to rest in this magnificent finale.