“Bruce...don’t be afraid.”
These are the last words of Thomas Wayne to a young Bruce in Batman Begins as he lay dying, after being robbed and murdered in a dark Gotham alleyway. As I watched all three films in Christopher Nolan’s wildly popular Batman franchise this past week, the thematic current of fear began to form in my mind as I watched the trilogy play out. As the second act of The Dark Knight Rises comes to a close with Bruce climbing his way out of a daunting pit, I realized that perhaps the actions of Batman and Bruce Wayne were steered by this yearning to heed the words of his dying father. In this way and many many others, Nolan gives us a more than satisfying conclusion to his Dark Knight legend.
When the story begins, Gotham has been safe for the eight years since the conclusion of The Dark Knight. Batman has not been seen nor heard from after taking the blame for Two-Face’s killings, and Bruce Wayne has become an injured hermit, holed up in his rebuilt Wayne Manor. The film begins with Commissioner Gordon’s speech on “Dent Day”, where he almost divulges the truth of what happened the night Two-Face/Harvey Dent died, and how Batman did not commit the murders.
I appreciated that they brought this moral failing to the forefront of the conversation; although it is not until later that Gotham city finds out that Dent was the one who turned, it sets the table for one of the themes of the film: although Gotham is “safe,” its safety was built on a foundation of lies, and the “Dent Act” was mere political subterfuge by Gordon, et al, to keep criminals off the streets that Harvey Dent had put away while he was still alive. So underneath the current of safety in the city, perhaps even a greater evil than the Joker lies in waiting—its own citizens. It’s upon this shaky foundation that the villain Bane is able to emerge, and exploit the city, breaking Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the entire city down to their lowest possible state.
Of course, the question that was on everybody’s mind after the success of The Dark Knight was, could Rises possibly be as good as its predecessor without the explosive presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker? My answer is a decisive yes and no. The Joker was never going to be topped as a villain in this franchise, but after going back and watching TDK last week, the movie had several gaping weak spots for me that I thought Rises improved upon.
For instance, TDK has some moments of bad acting by almost everyone except Ledger and Bale. Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, even the great Gary Oldman could have been better coached by Nolan in spots, and a lot of the extras in the film should have been forced to take an acting class or two. Contrast that to Rises, which is very well acted across the board (except for one noticeable glare, which I will get to in a little bit). Bale shines here, and is given much more to do than in the previous film. Hathaway is much better as Catwoman than I expected, and really gives a controlled, even performance. Joseph-Gordon Levitt is also a standout, and inserts an emotional presence into the film that is perhaps more relatable for the audience than any other character in this series, as the everyman policeman Robert Blake.
Because the Joker gave us the most entertaining moments of the series that couldn’t be recreated, I think Nolan and company smartly went a completely different direction with Bane. As an expelled member of the League of Shadows, of which Bruce was also once a member, Bane knows how Bruce/Batman functions as well as anyone, and can exploit his weaknesses. The Joker brought chaos into Gotham and Batman’s world, but he never had the ability to understand Batman in a way that could permanently bring him down for good; whereas Bane, although not as cunning, had the power to break Batman’s body and soul—first by breaking his back in a brutal fistfight, then by taking him to a foreign prison to rot as Bruce watches Bane destroy Gotham from the inside.
This film is by no means perfect. Certain plot points seem slightly half-baked in order to make the story work out the way Nolan wanted, rather than letting them develop organically. The character Miranda Tate in particular fits this bill, and her not unexpected turn as Talia-al-Ghul at the end seemed unearned, and perhaps even unbelievable. This is the second film in a row for Nolan that he failed to direct Marion Cotillard to a good performance as the antagonist.
Also, Selina Kyle and Bruce ending up together at the end seemed little more than an assurance to the audience that Bruce was happy. Their relationship was not established in a way that made this believable to me, other than a head-scratching kiss right in the middle of a countdown to a nuclear weapon’s detonation. But overall, for a 167-minute film, the dense story all fit together very well, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout the runtime.
A lot of people have talked about Alfred’s interactions with Bruce as being the most emotionally charged moments in the film. Michael Caine does give his best performance in the series here. Others have mentioned the last twenty minutes or so being the primary source of the gut-punching (and no doubt that it was gut-punching). For me, though, the most emotional moments in the film came when Bruce is in the prison. This is where he finally begins to understand what it means to carry out his father’s dying wishes that he not be afraid. This is where, thematically, the film ties up the series the best.
Until this point in the series Bruce doesn’t realize that his advantages have, to some degree, been holding him back: his enormous wealth and privilege, his superior physical form, a plethora of resources at his complete disposal, and his harbored anger concerning his parents’ death. Only after all of those things were taken from him, could he begin to fully repair his soul. Only after he has gone as low as he can go, was Batman able to Rise.
Epilogue: Although I’m sad about Nolan’s Batman franchise being done, I’m excited to see where the director will take his career from here. Between the Batman films and Inception, it seems like he is keen on making “big” films, and their success both critically and financially is undeniable. But with all their success, his smallest commercial film, Memento, is still the filmmaker’s masterpiece. I doubt very strongly he will return to that degree of art-house filmmaking, but I’d like to see him try his hand at something smaller, and perhaps even something more personal. I’d like to see him go fresh with some of the actors he uses. Regardless, he is still the only filmmaker whose movies I will see on opening day, every time, no questions asked; and I feel lucky to be right in his target audience during his run as a filmmaker.