When we are talking about the sequel to a commercial and artistic masterpiece, by an almost universally acclaimed director, carried by a hype machine without parallel, is it surprising that a really good film can still be a bit disappointing? One does not just expect a tightly scripted story, impressive action sequences, compelling characters and a few twists and turns (all of which are lavishly supplied here). One perhaps expects an extra layer, a unifying idea, something that goes against the grain. I did not find it in The Dark Knight Rises. There is even a moment in the film when I felt the exact opposite: that I had seen this many times before. It was during a scene where Bruce Wayne rises to an impossible challenge, cheered on by a crowd and by Hans Zimmer‘s musical crescendo. But that moment is certainly not exemplary of the movie. For the most part, Christopher Nolan’s directing is still in a league of its own. And even though some of the recurring characters disappoint, there is more than enough fresh blood with Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake and especially Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, who adds some much needed levity and sensuality to the proceedings.
Perhaps the biggest asset of The Dark Knight Rises is its script. It is another tour de force by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, based on a story co-written with David S. Goyer. It quite brilliantly uses the first half hour of the film to show us a Gotham eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, introducing or reacquainting us with all the characters, and connecting them to the various strains of the story. This is all done so effortlessly, you hardly notice that Nolan has quickly set up a structure which allows him to let the story unfold over the next two hours. He has even made room for a significant twist, an ending that is open to debate and – heaven help us – a doorway to a spin-off.
Christian Bale is dependable as he reprises his role as Bruce Wayne and Batman (consistently called ‘the Batman’ by everyone in the film). His familiar supporting cast of characters Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) “move around the screen with clear reluctance” (Carlos Boyero, El País). The same cannot be said of Tom Hardy, who embodies the physical menace that is Bane. Especially his haughty, disembodied voice – coming from behind a gruesome mask – haunts the scenes he is in. Like a voice from the skies, it passes its inescapable judgment. Another great addition to the ensemble is Selina Kyle, “played with sensuality, cynicism and style by Anne Hathaway” (Carlos Boyero, El País). In a twist of Nolanesque superhero realism, she is not referred to as Catwoman and what appear to be pointy ears are actually night vision goggles flipped up on her head. Nevertheless, there are clear parallels with earlier incarnations of the character, especially the brilliant schizophrenic played by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The masked ball scene with its innuendo on costumes and disguises is an unmistakable echo of that 1992 film. The difference is that Hathaway’s version is more domesticated, less kinky than Pfeiffer’s, in keeping with Nolan’s preference to have his characters grounded in reality. There is still the dynamic of the fun, outgoing, morally ambiguous Selina who challenges the principles of the reclusive, grave Bruce. But unlike the doomed romance in Burton’s version, here we see two people who may have a real connection and understanding of each other.
In terms of story, Nolan and Goyer seem to have been inspired by the Occupy movement. Selina Kyle represents the moderate version, with her contempt for the rich and entitled. Bane’s ingenious master plan shows the darker side of the same reasoning, which culminates in vigilantism and public tribunals. During the second part of the movie, when Bane’s plan comes to fruition and Batman has gone missing, it comes down to Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake to keep hope afloat with some honest, old-fashioned police work. It is a refreshing variation in a genre where cops are usually just in the way or after the wrong guy.
The Dark Knight Rises is a great movie. The fatigue in some of the characters is more than compensated by the new additions. Its considerable running time does not feel too long thanks to the structure of the script and the twists towards the end. It has everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, and then some. But still, this is Christopher Nolan, completing the trilogy that may end up defining his career. And I did not see the brilliance, the originality, that thing that gets you talking. But perhaps I have come to expect too much.