They’re all orphans. We’re all orphans. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is the orphan of murdered parents. So is the child of R’as Al Ghul. Idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) – yup, his parents are dead too. Even Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been orphaned in a way by his family who moved to the safety of another city. In the later half of the film, Gotham – itself a character in Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy – whose bridges have been destroyed and tunnels blocked, becomes orphaned by the rest of the nation. Then, of course, there is Gotham’s downtrodden citizenry, orphaned by the elite. And what, pray tell, do these orphans do? They get angry. They rise up.
It’s fitting to have this Dickensian theme of orphans running through Nolan’s tale, as he closes out the film with a quote from Dickens’ classic opus on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. But unlike Dickens, Nolan lives in a world of Al Qaeda, and it’s terrorism and fear that act as the impetus to revolution in Gotham.
Eight years following the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is hobbled, disheartened and reclusive in his opulent manor. The streets of Gotham are clean thanks to Commissioner Gordon and the Dent Act (itself a piece of corrupt subterfuge) but there’s an economic crisis brewing. A cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, who brings a welcome slinky theatricality to her pivotal role) absconds with Bruce’s mother’s pearls. But he’s got even more lady problems with Miranda Tate (Nolan muse Marion Cotillard) who looks to take a controlling interest in the crumbling Wayne Enterprises. Meanwhile, a master terrorist named Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy) orchestrates a daring mid-flight kidnapping of a nuclear physicist. These events set the wheels in motion, and from there it’s full tilt towards an explosive climax where all parties mentioned play an integral part that isn’t always made clear until that key turn of the screw.
Christopher Nolan, like all great modern directors, has a variety of influences, but he might be the only director who constantly tells us what he wants to do in the future. The opening kidnap sequence is a masterpiece of Bondian-infused spectacle, making this the second film in a row (following Inception) where Nolan reminds us of his childhood dream to direct a James Bond film. Then just moments later, there are some off-handed remarks describing Bruce Wayne as a Howard Hughes-like lunatic where Nolan reminds us of his long put-off pet project involving the infamous billionaire. These references (which include his almost constant nods to Hitchcock and Fritz Lang), along with Nolan’s refusal to succumb to the genre conventions (at least not completely) and his unique psychological spin on character development are what make his blockbusters far more complex and enjoyable than anything else out there.
Another refreshing Nolan trait is his desire to always up the ante from a both a technical and holistic standpoint. Eventually this is going to have to reach some kind of ceiling, but it hasn’t yet. Unlike James Cameron (who is obsessed with improving technology to the point of sacrificing story and character), Nolan never loses sight of his plots and motives. From a holistic standpoint, the set designs and special effects are more stunning than ever. They look so detailed, complete, real and expansive in the HD widescreen of IMAX, it’s hard to imagine this film ever looking dated. Meanwhile, his entourage, including cinematographer Wally Pfister and composer Hans Zimmer, yet again improve upon their already celebrated skills to deliver shots and pulse-pounding notes that will take your breath away. Zimmer’s score is so definitive, it alone raises the epic hand-to-hand combat between Batman and Bane to a level where it would be easy to classify it as one of the greatest fight scenes ever put on film.
Yes – there are plot holes and leaps of logic that could span and fill all of Gotham harbor. A certain suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite of a comic book film. The leaps of logic are familiar to anyone who has sat through a Nolan film. But these will only bother those who refuse to go along for the ride. Fans of the series and fans of Nolan already know this and accept this and will overlook it because we want to. We want to have faith in Nolan. We want him to tell the story his way. We pay him to do it. It’s our tacit agreement with him as an artist. And we forgive him when he gets a little bit carried away with the logic. Nolan has always demanded of us to be a willing audience. We are his accomplices. And we gladly prod him along and inspire him to up his game every single time he lures us into a darkened theater.
The beauty of a Nolan production (in this case, a fantastically cohesive trilogy) is that everything always comes full circle. The motifs are strung throughout – witness Bane’s terrorist act that invokes a French-style peasant revolution in Gotham by way of Al Qaeda if they were run by the WWF - Dickens would be proud. He continues to hold up a mirror to our post 9-11 world of terrorism, Arab Springs and Occupy Wall Street movements. There’s not a character arc or plot strand from this film or the first two that he doesn’t bring to some kind of conclusion here – spare for the glaringly obvious one of “What happened to the Joker?” If one insists on complaining, the ending is almost too tidy in its ambitions - Nolan seems to want to please everyone. And damn it, he just about pulls it off.
Batman Begins was a near great film thanks to the novel way in which Nolan approached stale, generic material. The Dark Knight was a near great film thanks to the way a singular performance (Heath Ledger’s Joker) lifted a comic book movie to the level of a great crime saga. The Dark Knight Rises is a near great film because of its keen sense of bringing everything full circle despite all of the baggage it comes with and the lofty expectations put upon it. In the end, Nolan reminds us of his British roots, and much like Michael Caine raises his glass of sherry at the cafe, I raise my glass to Nolan and all involved for a job well done. Sometimes near great will do just fine.
Lest we not forget, much like Dickens’ characters, we are too often orphaned by Hollywood and become inhabitants of two cities – one where we enjoy a Nolan summer blockbuster – and one where we suffer through the stifling mediocrity of everything else.
Rejoice…or revolt (with your pocket books), citizens. The silver screen is ours.
Written by David H. Schleicher