I had to watch The Dark Knight Rises twice to figure out what I wanted to say about it. Granted, the first time was in IMAX, which makes it difficult to focus on anything other than visuals. I enjoyed it more on a regular screen but still can’t shake the feeling that there’s not too much to say. Christopher Nolan’s film wears its big ideas – social inequality, populist revolutions, liberty versus security, the masks we wear – rather heavily. It’s all laid out in expository fashion but lacks emotional resonance or any real connection to the characters’ lives.
That’s not the say the film isn’t darkly thrilling fun. I like it more than The Dark Knight, which suffers in the second half from too many villains (I don’t think the Joker and Two-Face should’ve been crammed into the same film) and confusing editing (I can never keep track of the Joker’s men, actual hostages, and Batman on the different floors of that abandoned building). Nolan has the same editing problem at the end of Inception, too, when we’re toggling among several dream layers. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan streamlines the villains and editing, making the film more cohesive.
Speaking of villains, Tom Hardy’s Bane measures up quite well against Heath Ledger’s Joker, the new standard of Batman villains. I actually think Bane’s a more effective antagonist than the Joker because we know more about his history and motivation. Bane’s real motivation isn’t all the anarchist socio-political jargon he spouts, but something much simpler, more easily identified with – loyalty. Hardy makes Bane a compelling screen presence, using his outsize physicality to compensate for the fact that we essentially never see his face.
Anne Hathaway manages to be less annoying than I was afraid she would be, although Selina Kyle/Catwoman doesn’t really add much to the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake brings youthful heroism and optimistic faith, in nice contrast to Commissioner Gordon’s world-weary dedication. By the way, have I just watched 10 Things I Hate About You too many times, or is Jo Go-Lev starting to look like Heath Ledger?
Christian Bale usually cedes attention to other flashier performers in whatever movie he’s in (with the exception of The Fighter and, presumably, American Psycho, which I haven’t seen). He’s reliably grim and tormented as Bruce Wayne/Batman, although my favorite scenes are the ones in which he adopts the persona of frivolous playboy billionaire – the public, rather than private, Bruce. Bale gets to have fun in these scenes, hinting at the serious depths beneath the callow exterior. He only gets once chance at this in The Dark Knight Rises, at a charity shindig where he spars playfully with Selina Kyle. The best example is in The Dark Knight, when Bruce crashes Rachel and Harvey’s dinner date. From behind the entitled rich kid mask, Bruce watches Harvey closely, impressed by his strength of character. Bale plays it as though Bruce is falling for Harvey, and that makes his grief over Harvey’s ultimate fate feel real and heartbreaking.
While Nolan’s Big Ideas may not resonate emotionally in The Dark Knight Rises, the physical reality of the film’s characters and environment is tactile and visceral. We feel the weight of Batman’s broken body; we feel that a whole city is truly at stake (unlike in The Avengers); we feel the impact of every punch in Batman’s bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat – no tricks, no gadgets – with Bane. Perhaps that’s the trilogy’s greatest achievement – bringing a superhero out of the realm of the magical and miraculous into vulnerable, visceral reality.