An atomic supervillain conquers Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s impressive, oppressive ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

September 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 23, 2014

Pity poor billionaire Bruce Wayne. At the start of The Dark Knight Rises, the 2012 blockbuster feature film based on DC Comics’s popular characters, the former bon vivant is a recluse with a limp and slightly shaggy facial hair. The troubled metropolis of Gotham has cleaned up its act in the eight years since the death of district attorney Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight.

But Wayne (Christian Bale) keeps to himself, either unwilling or unable to move on after the Joker killed the love of his life, Rachel Dawes. And Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, Batman, whom most Gothamites unfairly blame for Dent’s death, hasn’t been seen since that the prosecutor’s demise.

The eponymous dark knight will be needed, however, because a new menace is approaching. The chief villain of British director Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie is Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious masked man whose ruthlessness, strength and intelligence are only matched by his (and Nolan’s) ardor for labyrinthine plots. The Dark Knight Rises’s fast-paced beginning introduces Bane through an impressive midair hijacking in which he captures nuclear physicist Leonid Pavel and kills the CIA crew that had taken Pavel into custody. Bane also leaves behind one of his minions, noting that the authorities will expect a certain number of bodies in the wreckage. The henchmen obeys willingly, thereby enhancing the caper’s already ominous air.

There are a few other new characters (or new to Nolan’s Batverse, anyway). One is the impossibly limber Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive thief whom we first see flirting with a local congressman. Moments later, she spars — verbally and otherwise — with the reclusive Wayne while attempting to steal his late mother’s string of pearls. Wayne is understandably captivated by the cat burglar, whom even casual fans will recognize as Catwoman despite the word not being uttered onscreen.

The hero also becomes involved with the very rich, very persistent and very environmentally minded Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who wants Wayne Enterprises to activate the ecologically sustainable nuclear reactor that Wayne had mothballed for fear that it could be weaponized.

Bane engineers a dramatic stock market heist that draws Batman out of retirement and strips Wayne of all his holdings in Wayne Enterprises, which leaves him destitute. The protagonist’s problems only get worse. After various circumstances conspire to break his connections with his faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), and his trusted Wayne Enterprises president, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the caped crusader is battered and captured by the physically superior Bane.

This leaves Gotham City defenseless. The villain sets off explosives that cut off roads in and out of the city; they also trap the massive police force that had been hunting for what they thought was Bane’s underground lair. The fiend then displays the nuclear reactor that he and Pavel have converted into a bomb and warns the world that the device will be detonated at the first sign of outside interference with Bane’s exercise in turning control of Gotham over to its residents. American authorities, who recognize the radiation signature of the altered reactor, are helpless to respond.

Here the narrative splits. In one strand, Gothamites experience what Bane styles as a people’s revolution. Over a long grim winter, the city is subjected to looting, the redistribution of property (mainly at the point of guns, knives or fists), and kangaroo courts that freely condemn suspects to death, without appeal. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a Nolan Batmovie mainstay, organizes an underground resistance movement that works to locate the nuclear device. He’s aided by new character John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a detective whose Sherlock Holmesian leaps of logic allow him to identify Wayne as Batman and to anticipate (if only partially) the threat that Bane represents.

The other storyline shows Wayne as he slowly recovers from his beating and devises a way to escape the remote and ancient prison where Bane has placed him. The character is unable to rise to the challenge until he embraces the will to live — a message that Nolan and his fellow screenwriters, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, convey with a minimum of mawkishness.

This sets the stage for a rapidly moving extended climax that features a wild melee between Bane’s thugs and Batman’s allies; a personal showdown between the principal figures themselves; vigorous attempts by Gordon, Blake and Catwoman to avert atomic destruction and/or preserve innocent civilian lives; and a double-cross that serves to explain some of the mysterious matters raised by the previous proceedings. The denouement features a poignant sacrifice and a resolution for some of the key characters.

The Dark Knight Rises is a complicated movie, much like previous Nolan outings, including MementoInception and The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, much like Bruce Wayne himself, it’s an easier film to admire than it is to love. Nolan’s story is full of suffering and sacrifice, and as spectacular as it is, the movie’s copious action inflicts a heavy cost on the movie’s many victims. (There is one copout, when Nolan shows some lifeless but unbloodied bodies that have just been mowed down by a machine gun.)

I also felt ambivalent about the ending, which brings Wayne’s arc to a definitive close while opening the possibility for sequels with a new set of characters. The ending felt — well, a bit too clever. I also was bothered for some reason that Nolan’s Batman mythos includes relatively little Batman: Most of his action spans the first and second movies (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) and the period in between, which seems relatively short compared to the eight-year hibernation between The Dark Knight and the trilogy series finale. There’s no reason for this to be troubling, but it just seems like a short period for a legend whose activities have spawned thousands and thousands of comic books, not to mention other forms of story-telling.

The upshot is that Batman and action-adventure aficionados must see — and surely by this point have seen — The Dark Knight Rises. Casual film viewers, however, can comfortably avoid it.

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