(SFX Magazine, Future Publishing)
We’ve seen many superhero series begin on the big screen. Until this year, though, we hadn’t seen one with a proper ending. That we get one in The Dark Knight Rises testifies to the strength of Christopher Nolan’s serious, mythic interpretation of Batman, which built a distinct, separate version of the character rather than just carrying the DC brand.
From the start, Nolan placed Bruce Wayne in unexpected situations, often drawn from non-spandex parts of cinema. In Batman Begins, we saw him sword-fight on a frozen lake with mentor Liam Neeson (who cameos in Rises like an evil Ben Kenobi). Wayne was given a love-interest, only for her to be killed off halfway through his war on terror. Then the hero himself took a dive, scapegoating himself for a supervillain. By the end of The Dark Knight, Nolan had claimed the right to take his Batman anywhere he pleased.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan chooses to lift an old arc from the comics – the Knightfall story from 1993, in which muscleman Bane broke the Bat – and do his characteristically ornate overbuilding. We get glib from-the-headlines imagery (the villain, for no very convincing reason, promotes his murderous takeover as an “Occupy Gotham” revolution). We get earnest mythmaking (the Gilliamesque “pit” plotline in the second half is absurd on any literal level, and hardly seems in the same world as the rest of the film). As usual in Batman movies, we get a hero who’s far less interesting in costume than out; two costumed adversaries who have all the fun he doesn’t; and two other characters whose arcs end in fan-baiting punchlines, sharing names with long-running Batman stars while being barely recognisable as them.
Of course, Anne Hathaway steals the film on her little cat feet. Forget the disastrous Halle Berry Catwoman; it’s abundantly obvious that Hathaway’s Selina Kyle could carry the picture single-handed. She has us at her first faux-naif “Oops!” when she’s caught cat-burgling; she follows up by kicking Wayne’s stick away. Other gem moments include her shooting up a bar, then switching into a screaming damsel in distress for the cops; her eye-rolling at callow Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s offer of police protection; and her killer comebacks that’d impress the Joker. (“Do those heels make it hard to walk?” STAB! “I don’t know, do they?”)
She cheers up Bale’s mansion-mothballed Bruce, and the trilogy to boot; if only Nolan had given her even freer rein. Imagine if Selina had been dropped into the pit scenes to comment on the ritualised macho environment. We’re also left to imagine her interactions with Bane, whom she hardly meets on screen. By the last battle, she’s being draped over Batman’s massive bikes, where she looks as comfortable as a cat in a lake; her balletic body is the only vehicle she needs.
Bane, played by Tom Hardy, is a highly enjoyable but shallow heavy, with a Predator mask and a voice like a plummy version of Michael Wisher’s original Davros. He’s at his best stomping through stock exchanges, snapping minions’ necks, and playing the great dictator (“Courts will be convened! Spoils will be enjoyed!”). However, once he’s conquered Gotham, he can only take a back seat to other characters, including a turn from Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. The final revelations about Bane’s history are clever, but perversely useless; the character doesn’t become any more interesting or convincing if you rewatch his scenes knowing the twists.
In contrast, the audience already has a huge investment in the relation between Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred, whose decorum cracks as he sees the stunted Bruce bury himself in the Batsuit again. It’s a tremendously moving performance, cementing Caine as the definitive screen Bat butler. But it still feels wrong for Alfred to leave the action so early and completely, leaving the betrayal/redemption arcs to less weighty characters. It’s satisfying to see Catwoman going good(ish), but it’s by the numbers plotting, not moving us as Alfred would.
As usual for a summer tentpole, we remember Dark Knight Returns for its bombast: the airplane heist over the greenery of Scotland; the “Bat” chopper in action, swooping over the streets while Gotham’s cops gawp like grade-school kids; the earthquake-meets-9/11 detonation of the football field; and Bane’s and Batman’s last slugfest, mimicked by hundreds of unmasked fighters around them. The film ends with ticking countdowns and a fundamentally silly resolution, as if Nolan had opted to troll us by heading into cheesy comic-strip territory at the eleventh house. Some fans say the end is ambiguous in an Inception way, but that’s not supported on repeat viewing, where it looks conventional and clumsy. But it’s the worst misstep in a hugely enjoyable summer epic.