"It is always darkest before the dawn;" a quote attributed to Theologan Thomas Fuller, and one that is highly appropriate to Christopher Nolan's final directorial contribution to the Batman legacy, The Dark Knight Rises. This movie is dark from the outset. Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), is a broken, battered shadow of his former self, living the life of a recluse still in mourning over the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall, seen only in photographs in the newly constructed, shrine/mausoleum like Wayne Manor). In Batman's absence, however, Gotham City has enjoyed years of peace and prosperity due to The Harvey Dent Act, an act that was spun from a lie about Dent's true nature; a fact that has tortured the soul of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). However, an encounter with jewel thief Selina Kyle (a/k/a "Catwoman", though never referred as such in the film, played by the alluring and capable Anne Hathaway) leads to the dire warning that a storm is coming...not from Westeros, but in the form of the mercenary known only as "Bane" (Tom Hardy) who wants nothing more than to destroy the capitalist infrastructure...and Batman.
This reads like something out of the typical super-hero comics. But consider that the super-heroic tales spun out of the pages of DC and Marvel Comics, among other publishers, are our modern mythology as much as Homer's tales ever were. Nolan gets this. From the opening frames of Batman Begins, a respect for the material as opposed to quirky view of Tim Burton or the outright derisive mockery of Joel Schumacher's films. And as such, the mythological nature of the trilogy have been built on archetypes.
Themes of duality are present here as well, most especially encapsulated in the form of Hathaway's Kyle, whose allegiances continually shift with the mercurial nature of the animal she embodies, while Bane, is presented as an intelligent, eloquently methodical brute of a man (with vocal intonations which sound like a mix of Sean Connery and Liam Neeson spoken through Darth Vader's respirator) whose civilized bearing is a precise facade; a thin veneer that seems ready to crack at any moment. In fact, his gentlemanly presentation is a mockery of the notion in the face of all Gothamites who are not in on the joke. Comparing Hardy's "Bane" to Heath Ledger's "Joker" does an "apples and oranges" disservice to both the character and the actor. Bane, as presented here, is the Anti-Batman. He is everything that Batman was at the point of Begins with none of the notions of morality or justice. Only vengeance. However, Christopher Nolan is not interested in giving any character the two dimensional shrift, and surprisingly infuses Bane with a heart. It is in his pain that we see his similarity with Wayne, and the grey area of good and evil blur again wherein the hero sees his reflection in the villain. When Hardy is on screen, his presence is arresting and apprehensive, because one never expects to know what he will do or say next. This villain can believably take Batman down.
Admittedly, I had reservations about Hathaway as the erstwhile Catwoman. I have to say I was wrong. She takes the role to places I did not suspect she could. From the days of Adam West and Julie Newmar, Catwoman has been presented as the woman who could "complete" Batman. In this film, she showcases why that is the case more adroitly than any of her predecesors in the role. Kyle in this film is at turns callous and mercenary, caring and doubtful, competant yet unsure of her figurative footing. Her performance is such that every little movement is infused with feline grace. Her character complex enough that she, unlike Halle Berry's version, could carry her own film.
But mid-way through watching The Dark Knight Rises, it suddenly hit me. Nolan hasn't been giving us films about "Batman", but instead of Bruce Wayne. It is Bruce Wayne who follows Joseph Campbell's template of "The Hero's Journey", a journey with the overarching theme set up in the first film: "Why do we fall"? The answer to that question, for Bruce Wayne, is masterfully realized in this film. Whether intentionally or by happenstance, Christian Bale has evinced this journey with varying degrees of success per film (he was overshadowed by Ledger in the previous outing, but if one pays close attention to the Bruce Wayne scenes, one can pick up on the weariness of being Batman setting in).
The supporting players bring the necessary weight and gravitas to their roles. Oldman's Gordon is a man conflicted, and it shows with every step he takes. Thankfully, Morgan Freeman's "Lucius Fox" is given much more to do. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the newcomer in the universe as officer "John Blake", a cop who is as fresh and idealistic as Bruce was in Begins, and he, like Marion Cotillard, as "Miranda Tate", are more than what they seem and a couple of surprise and welcome cameos complete a well cast ensemble. But the true soul of the film likes in Michael Caine's "Alfred J. Pennyworth", butler and surrogate father. The pseudo father/son relationship between Wayne and Alfred has never been more beautifully presented as it is here. And anyone who is familiar with the steps of "The Hero's Journey" (or have seen Star Wars, Harry Potter, or even read their Bulfinch mythology), knows the hero has to face the demons alone; and the precursor to that event is heartrending. Caine has few scenes, but I dare anyone to remain dry eyed to any one of them.
The cinematography brings an epicness of scope that was missing from the first two films. Gotham City is a sprawling megaopolis (with buildings taken from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York superimposed). The special effects is phenomenal and, in a couple of instances, breathtaking. The mood is heightened by composer Hans Zimmer, this time bereft of the more romantic stylings of James Newton Howard (though there are a few moments when Newton's "Rachel" theme is in evidence). Though he rehashes the original themes, he does so with orchestrations that fill them with despair and, alternatively, with hope.
The story is a mash-up of Occupy Wall Street meets "A Tale of Two Cities" with a bit of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" thrown in...yet that is simply the backdrop. The story is about falling and rising, especially in the face of overwhelming adversity (which in one scene in particular, the fall is brutal and jarring). This film is more of a direct sequel to Begins in both tone and pacing. The middle seems to stall for the more action oriented, but in truth the middle sequence provides the heart of the film. At a running time of almost three hours, the film seems to breeze through. Even the quiet moments are powerful in their drama. And Nolan plays fast and lose with audience expectations regarding the comic book lore. With enough twist and turns to shatter presumptions but leaving enough clues to realize the answers have been present throughout the film. The film races to a nail biting, pulse pounding finish. Some moments are cliched, some broadcast before hand, and at least one instance towards the climax where the cheese is inadvertently poured on thick, but the conclusion of the film is a powerful one...followed by an epilogue that is full of hope. There are endings, and there are new beginnings. The film brings all three together full circle in a neat and, dare I say, satisfying manner.
The Dark Knight Rises is one of those trilogies that does what few have done...get better with each successive outing. While some would think that The Dark Knight is superior to this one due to Ledger's performance, I would have to disagree. This film has an organic flow that its predecessor lacks. There is not to say the film doesn't have it's faults, nor that there are one or two loose ends that could have been tied up, but the truth is that those loose ends imply a greater story to be told. The character's lives (those that survive, anyway) continue. The Nolanverse Batman ends with The Dark Knight Rises...but rest assured, Batman will rise yet again.