“No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.”
This early line in the movie does not come from our cowled hero Batman, but from his looming nemesis Bane. Masks play a very important role in this movie and this idea is woven deeply into this thematically rich film. Nolan doesn't just want to make a movie about masked men beating on each other. He wants this movie to be ABOUT something. And with his final time up to the plate, he hits a home run.
The Dark Knight Rises is set 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight. This adds a nice level of symmetry since in Batman Begins Bruce began his journey and returned 7 years later and The Dark Knight took place a year after that. In fact, The Dark Knight has surpassed Batman Begins so much in the minds of fanboys and the public at large that it will come as a shock to many how tied the narrative is to the first movie of the trilogy. Batman Begins was a sprawling epic about justice. The Dark Knight was a tense crime thriller about heroism. The Dark Knight Rises feels very much like a combination of both films in one.
At the start of the film, Gotham has had an extended time of prosperity because of the Dent Act, which gave law enforcement broad tools to put away members of organized crime. This was only possible because of the lie perpetrated at the end of The Dark Knight where Batman took the blame for all of Harvey Dent's crimes so that the dead DA could serve as a symbol of justice to give people hope. I hated that The Dark Knight ended with the heroes embraced a lie, even if I understood why they did it. But at the beginning of the movie, that lie weighs heavily on the souls who made it. Jim Gordon is vigilante against evil, even though everyone around him is complacent. Bruce is a recluse who has squandered the Wayne fortune and hides from the world. It is only when he is robbed by the alluring cat burglar, Selina Kyle (played with elegant grace by the wonderful Anne Hathaway) that he begins to become interested in the world again. There he encounters allies in the form of stalwart beat cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) and enemies embodied by the monstrous Bane (Tom Hardy). Along the way he even develops a love connection with business partner Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). As Batman reenters the world of crime fighting, he is a man with too little to live for, too little preparation, and too powerful enemies. This is the fight of Batman's life, and one that he may not survive.
Once again returning to themes, Nolan is completely focused on having the actions of his characters resonate beyond the summer movie season. He wants to tap into the meaning of heroes and villains as well as what it takes for community to survive. In that sense, Gotham City is more of a character in this final movie than in any other. He does not shy away from showing us the very worst that humanity can sink to. This partially a story of mobs vs. men. The villain wants people to lose their individuality and become a faceless instrument of destruction. The mob is the mask people wear to hurt others. Batman calls on individuals like Gordon, Kyle, and Black. Batman uses his mask as a symbol of one man, one individual, standing up to the forces of evil. Humanity, according to Nolan, makes the choice to become either good or evil. This movie is about the fight for Gotham's soul.
As a director, Nolan has lost none of his flair. I found the opening scene as riveting as the bank robbery scene from The Dark Knight. He is often critiqued that his characters are cold, but in this story I would say that they are more stoic. And when the stoicism breaks, like in the first act with Alfred, Nolan shows he can tear at the heart. And he proves this time and again throughout the movie, especially in the last act. He can tug at the heartstrings without devolving into simple sentimentality. The action is strong and is used to reveal character. And Nolan builds the tension to the boiling point.
If there is one criticism people tend to have about this movie is the length. The middle act does feel a bit long, but that is not really the problem. Without giving much away, there is a lengthy period of screen time without Bruce Wayne. While this helps build up the other characters, you cannot abandon your main character for so long. The Matrix Revolutions had the same problem, where we lost Neo for long periods of time in second act.
I would like take some time and talk about the performances. Christian Bale is the best he's ever been as Bruce. He is tired but determined. He has to play the arrogant playboy less which is good because that was always the weakest part of his interpretation of Batman. In this movie you feel the aches in his body as he scrounges his last ounces of strength to go on. I was surprised by how large a role Joseph Gordon-Leavitt had, but he fills the screen with his earnest charisma. Irony is easy, sincerity is difficult, but he pulls it off wonderfully. Oldman and Freeman are fantastic as ever. Anne Hathaway was a wonderful addition to this cast. She plays a cipher who can shape shift form situation to situation and effortlessly adapt to any role, be it seductress, damsel in distress, or hard-nosed fighter. She never goes too far into the cat persona (she is never called Catwoman in the movie), thus grounding her in a strong emotional reality. She is a con artist who gets caught up in her own game. She is someone who wants to steal redemption but needs to realize that it can only be earned.
But I have to make special note about Tom Hardy as Bane. I am about to commit comic book movie heresy, but I will go so far as to say that his performance is better Heath Ledger's as the Joker. Ledger was darkly comic. But there is no comedy in Bane. And the degree of difficulty for Hardy is much higher than Ledger, because an actor's greatest tool, facial expression, is stolen from Bane at the outset. He must reveal his character with a only body language and voice (and even the latter is garbled). And despite all of this Hardy gives us one of the most terrifying screen villains I have ever seen. He is Darth Vader. Not the Darth Vader from the action figures and movie posters. He is that primal evil that children like myself recognized when we first saw Star Wars. He is the stuff of nightmares. He is a monster. Everything Hardy does from his walk, his posture, and his cadence conveys the absolute confidence of someone beyond fear because they have become fear. In one scene Bane has someone barking orders at him. But then the monster places the back of his hand on the barking man's shoulder. All of the power in that moment shifts inexorably toward the terrifying Hulk. Like Ra's Al Ghul from Batman Begins Bane is a physical threat. Like the Joker from The Dark Knight, Bane draws out the bestial side of Gotham's citizens. Hardy deserves immense recognition for his achievement
But all of this quality comes from Christopher Nolan himself. He has brought us to the end of his Batman trilogy. This is a movie that says something profound about the human condition and society. This is a Batman movie, but that is not what the movie is ABOUT. Batman is only a mask that Nolan uses to bring to us his vision of humanity: who we are, how we can fall, and what we can be inspired to become.
5 out of 5 stars.