The Dark Knight Rises is very nearly the thunderous finale that Christopher Nolan’s unprecedented superhero trilogy needed after the pitch-black nihilism that Heath Ledger’s Joker brought to The Dark Knight.
Bleak and apocalyptic, the third and final chapter is nevertheless more hopeful than the second, without the same sense of oppressive sadism.
Better still, the moral ambiguities of The Dark Knight are gratifyingly clarified. The Dark Knight Rises brings Batman’s personal story to a satisfying finale, albeit much telescoped by the trilogy format.
The completed trilogy is a work of towering ambition and immense achievement. The whole story arc is as much about the fate of Bruce Wayne’s soul as the fate of Gotham City — and both are very much in question.
Nolan orchestrates his symphony of spectacle, action, doom, hope, destruction and resistance with verve and boldness, making for an overwhelming, enthralling climax.
Yet something crucial is missing — a major omission that lingers over the whole trilogy, a question raised ever more insistently in all three films, and at best left unanswered, if not answered negatively.
That question is: Is Gotham City worth saving? Are its citizens fundamentally selfish and ruthless, or is there good in them? Offered a choice between darkness and light, which will they choose?
In Batman Begins, when Ra’s al Ghul judged that Gotham was irredeemably corrupt, Batman (Christian Bale) pressed for more time. In The Dark Knight, the Joker set out to prove that when the chips are down, ordinary people will eat each other — an experiment that ended on an inconclusive grace note.
Now Bane (Warrior’s Tom Hardy), a pumped-up juggernaut in a respirator face mask, recapitulates both Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker. Like Ra’s, he comes to destroy Gotham for its sins, and like the Joker he wants Batman to witness the people of Gotham destroying everything Batman fought to save.
In this battle, whether or not Gotham is destroyed or saved is not entirely the issue. The issue is who is right: Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker and Bane or Batman? Will the people of Gotham eat each other, or will they finally vindicate Batman’s hopes for them?
To the extent that The Dark Knight Rises addresses this question, the answer isn’t encouraging.
When the movie opens, it seems Gotham has been saved — though Bruce Wayne is again “truly lost,” as he was at the start of Batman Begins. Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent and the disappearance of Batman, Bruce is a recluse in his rebuilt ancestral home, diminished emotionally and physically after hanging up the cape and cowl.
Yet Gotham City is peaceful and prosperous. But has its peace been purchased through deception and injustice? Have the wealthy prospered at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged?
A slinky cat burglar named Selina Kyle, never quite called Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, and, yes, she pulls it off), rouses Bruce from his lethargy.
“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” she warns him, a harbinger of Occupy Wall Street social unrest. “When it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
Bane puts Gotham to its most extreme trial yet: an exercise in Lord of the Flies sociology, enforced by an army backed with powerful hardware.
Bane presents himself as a sort of radical liberator and urges the citizens of Gotham to take back their city, or something, though he’s obviously a terrorist and openly threatens to destroy the city.
If there is good in Gotham, now’s the time for it. With the police sidelined, convicts running loose and Bane’s army making the rules, we expect chaos and lawlessness. Fine. But is that all there is?
The title tells us that the Dark Knight rises, but what about his city? Can Gotham rise to the occasion? Are ordinary Gothamites capable of heroism? Or are uniformed heroes (bearing bat symbols or police shields) with weapons on their belts our only hope?
The shadow of 9/11 has always lain over this franchise. The finale needed a United 93 moment: Civilians banding together to spit in the eye of terror and say, “Not this time.” At least it needed to show us Gothamites heroically rising to the occasion in other ways — caring for and protecting one another, sheltering strangers from the hordes; that sort of thing. (We do see a decent but mopey priest in street clothes who runs a boys’ home and does his best to care for his charges.)
In the end, alas, the only active civilians who aren’t in Batman’s own circle are Bane’s hordes. To be fair, perhaps these are only the fanatical disciples he brought with him and the convicts liberated from prison.
Perhaps the ordinary citizens of Gotham simply keep their heads down and weather the storm. Nolan doesn’t show us even that.
In the end, as my friend Jeff Overstreet put it, Nolan insists that “we have to hope for men with good hearts and big guns.”
Not to mention good hearts and big wallets.
Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises is the story of uniformed heroes, above all Batman and a rookie cop named John Blake (Inception’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the film’s best supporting character. On that level, it’s an engrossing story.
No big-screen superhero more clearly has feet of clay than Bale’s Dark Knight. His butler Alfred (Michael Caine) has always worried over him, but as Bruce’s debilitating tendencies lurch from the paralyzing to the self-destructive, Alfred’s anxiety becomes truly poignant.
Harvey Dent’s fatalistic line from The Dark Knight — “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” — hangs over the threequel. Dent himself lived just a little too long and became a villain, though in the eyes of the public he died a hero.
Batman, too, went more than a few steps down the road of villainy, brutally beating criminals for information (and notably failing) and selling the people of Gotham a lie meant to bolster their spirits.
“Why do we fall, Bruce?” Thomas Wayne asked his son so long ago. In this film he falls again and again and again — though the title is The Dark Knight Rises for a reason.
Steven D. Greydanus is the
Register’s film critic.
He blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Much intense action violence, including fatalities and crippling injuries; a non-marital bedroom scene (nothing explicit); some cursing. Might be too much for younger teens.