You’ve Got Bale: The Dark Knight Rises Reviewed

Spoiler-free! Mat Colegate hails Christopher Nolan's final Batman flick

So at last, after seven years, comes the conclusion of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. A series of films that have achieved the unenviable task of smashing box office records while still keeping the comic book fans on board, without feeling as if Nolan was selling short his artistic vision or pandering to any particular audience. Of course this is one of the many facets that makes Batman such a great and lasting figure, one who has been adapted into countless media around the world over a period of seventy years: his adaptability.

An advantage of using a character defined by so many of the comic world’s great and good is that there is a practically limitless set of storytelling tools to work with. Gothic melodrama? Batman thrives in it. Tough crime stories? He can uppercut his way through those. Immense clashes between good and evil? Go on, send him into space, he can take it. It is to Nolan’s credit that this final part of the trilogy manages to incorporate all of the above approaches (okay, SPOILER ALERT, not the space one) throw in a grab bag more, twist them toward his vision and still be, unmistakably, a Batman film, made by a director with a clear eye on what he wants and doesn’t want from the source material.

I must confess to going into the cinema with a few, haunting misgivings. Nolan’s last movie was the unbearably self-important Inception (2010), which spent so much of its running time trying to impress you with supposedly complex twists and turns that the viewer ended up not just confused, but simply not caring. Confounded as to why any of the action mattered. This did not bode well from a director known for an uncompromising approach to his material. His original decision not to tamper with the voice of Bane (a decision later rescinded), one of The Dark Knight Rises‘ pivotal characters and apparently marred by unintelligibility in early cuts, seemed to bear this out. This was Nolan’s ride, and if you didn’t like it then you could go and cry about it, dweeb. This hardened the arteries a little, as well as hinting at a directorly resistance-to-good-advice.

Nolan is undoubtedly committed to the idea that these films represent his personal vision of the Batman. However you could set a Batman story in a petting zoo, but if you have Catwoman in it, however you play it, you are not simply dealing with your ideas but those of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, her creators. You want Bane in your story? Well that’s Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and Graham Nolan’s sandpit, mate. How does someone so committed to his ideal cope with so many invisible – and perhaps unwanted – collaborators? The great names forever associated with Batman and his supporting cast of cackling lunatics, merciless criminals and devoted friends: Neal Adams, Norm Breyfogle, Alan Grant, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, even dear Adam West. A litany that, following the screening I attended, I wanted to charge down the street yelling at the top of my lungs like an overexcited Argentinean football commentator because, by God, he’s done it. This is the Ultimate Batman Movie. A loving tribute to the character’s complex past as well as a fearless exploration of his present and future.

Nolan’s insistence on working closely with a tight stable of actors has worked wonders, with everyone giving intelligent, memorable performances. Tom Hardy, who plays Batman’s ideologically driven nemesis Bane, has to be singled out. His is a phenomenal performance. Clad throughout in a mask that covers nearly his entire face, Hardy brings utter malevolence to the role almost entirely through sheer terrifying physical presence (there is going to be some seriously gritty flash fiction written about him). The merest twitch of an eyebrow signalling the world of hatred and pain that has bred him, Bane is the standout character here, which is even more remarkable when you consider that Hardy added his dialogue after the film had finished shooting. Anne Hathaway also has to receive praise for her portrayal of Selina Kyle. Her ability to go from coquettish seductress to absolutely the most dangerous person in the room is a perfect reflection of the comic book persona.

Another worry I had was that after the nigh on relentlessly grim nature of 2008’s The Dark Knight, this follow-up would simply be, well, not very much fun. The bleak tone of the trailers seemed to bear this out, what with shots of a miserable looking Bruce Wayne sulking in a hole and mass death and destruction being rained down upon Gotham City. A case of misdirection, perhaps? Because one of the things that serves to elevate this picture above those preceding it is its lightness of touch. A big part of this comes down to the introduction of expert thief Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, although she is never referred to by her alter ego). In the comics she, along with Bruce Wayne’s manservant Alfred and Police Commissioner James Gordon, is one of the Batman mythos’ main humanising elements and this approach has been adopted by Nolan with warm, believable results. The film isn’t a laugh riot by any standards, but Kyle’s sass and self-assuredness dovetail nicely with Batman’s driven, dour nature as well as highlighting his need to believe that people, no matter how sunk into the mire, can change themselves for the better. The dynamic between the two buoys a good percentage of The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, the relationships between all the main characters are near perfectly observed and ground the film in human emotion when all around them is sinking into chaos.

And oh, what chaos! I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible so I shall try only to refer to things witnessed during the trailer, but the fulfilment of Bane’s vision for Gotham is a masterpiece of elegantly wrought destruction. Bridges collapse, social order is reduced to rubble and the high and mighty come crashing down screaming. In fact, it’s hard not to sympathise with some of Bane’s stated aims in light of recent scandals. I’m certainly finding it very hard not to take some pleasure in imagining his hulking menace bought to bear upon some of the participants in the Barclays controversy. Go on, Bane, squeeeeeeze Bob Diamond. Squeeeeeeze him. Yes, well, you remember what I said about the flash fiction.

This being a Christopher Nolan feature it is incredibly tightly strung. His brother Jonathan co-wrote the script as he did for the previous outing, each remarkable for the efficiency of their plotting. A lot happens but every element introduced is referred back to. Occasionally the viewer may feel a little bewildered by the unravelling of the vast conspiracy at the film’s heart, but Nolan’s assured direction ensures you’re never lost for long. There is always a firm guiding hand and an aversion to flab that seems almost pathological. In this the director reminds me of one of comics’ greatest creators, Alan Moore, with his insistence on all the elements clicking together. The last hour is a triumph of efficient storytelling, balancing a vast cast of characters across a wide setting with skill and grace. Everyone gets a moment to shine and, while this approach may leave the film a little long (just shy of three hours), it is a superb evocation of the importance of Batman’s supporting cast, one of the greatest in all fiction. Events spiral around each other, twists coming from all angles while always keeping that essential feel of predestination. Nolan signposts each one just enough, so the viewer’s reaction is a surprised gasp rather than a groan at the introduction of yet another piece of misdirection. (Having said that, there is one particular plot turn that avid Batman readers will see coming a mile off. It still rocks, mind).

Christopher Nolan, along with his chosen collaborators and actors, has succeeded in creating a film that covers all the bases: a summertime blockbuster packed with retina-fizzing action that is still grounded in believable human emotion. A comic nerd’s wet dream as well as an undoubtedly enormous box office hit. A superhero movie with brains and balls. It is, to borrow the title of the lovingly battered graphic novel I can see from my desk, which has been a treasured companion of mine for over twenty years, the culmination of one of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. I can think of few higher compliments.

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