The force of geek expectation for this Batman finale was already so strong it needed no hyping. You'll find no spoilers here: only the set-up is fair game for a story kept so tightly under wraps by the credited writers, Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David Goyer.
It is eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, when Batman took the fall for the corrupted ex-district attorney Harvey Dent, fled into hiding and allowed tough new laws to pass which put pretty much all of Gotham’s organised criminals behind bars.
Gotham seemingly at peace, Batman effectively retired, Bruce Wayne at a loss.
The millionaire orphan, still played with intensity by Christian Bale, lost his loved one, Rachel as well and now he languishes out of the public eye, with aching joints and no sense of purpose. Even Wayne Enterprises philanthropic endeavours have gone to pot.
Butler Alfred is as droopy eyed and concerned as ever, the emotional crux of this story set up by Michael Caine delivering some rousing dialogue about how he sees Bruce Wayne almost looking for his own destruction. Does he seek a reason to don the cape again, serving Gotham one last time to find oblivion?
Gotham’s oblivion has a name. He is a mercenary called Bane, a hulking, masked brute of mysterious origin who arrives in town (after a gratuitously IMAX-designed prologue sequence) with an underground army intent on………what exactly?
Fetish and latex
Throw into the mix a new catalyst, one Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway). She is a cat burglar, who can disable a room of assailants with swanky moves, has seriously dangerous connections and the chutzpah to rob Wayne manor when we first meet her. Flashing into your imagination should be Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and, umm, Halle Berry. This is the Nolan-verse though, so she's an ambiguous character who plays all ends against each other, and whose relationship to Wayne/Batman is complicated.
Fetish fans should note that Nolan has always been less interested in latex on the human body than the fetishisation of cars and military hardware. That said, there is a great one liner about stilettos. And actually, Anne Hathaway does a great job with the character. She kicks butt convincingly, is sexy, funny and her Selena chicanes in and out of the story just about the right amount - for a new arrival.
Anchoring all of this, you still have actors of the calibre of Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in roles that in previous Batman films you’d have to hit IMDB to find out who played them. They are joined by newcomers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, and Marion Cotillard as Miranda. Levitt's honest cop in particular is a strong addition to the story. Both are superbly woven into the narrative.
Like Requiem for a Dream for superheroes
What they all help achieve is a film that holds its nerve and builds on the tension and brooding atmosphere of the second chapter. Yes, it does take its time but it is setting up character and plot payoffs for a final act that is stronger than The Dark Knight's. And if you thought the last one was bleak, well this is like Requiem for a Dream, for superheroes.
That’s not to say you can take your eyes off it. The action sequences are panoramic and make great use of thousands of extras – Nolan likes his practical effects and old school epic film-making. However, one quibble that remains is that certain action sequences seem muddled; it is hard to figure out exactly what is happening in the space it is happening in. Another is the use of a particular explosive McGuffin, but these are quibbles that are quickly overshadowed by narrative goodies.
The Dark Knight Rises is peculiar, in that it is a tale of revolutionary terrorists that features the city almost as a character, with explicit nods to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities including an quote line. That doesn't make it is some sort of sociology text but, for me, it shows that Nolan's trilogy has nods to influences outside comic books. Just like he used Michael Mann's Heat as a template for The Dark Knight. He also shows things happening to an American city which obviously nod to anxieties about terrorism. This doesn't make him a genius but adds to the texture.
At the same time, it has the tech, the vehicles, the fight scenes and the booming Hans Zimmer score to keep you involved through the 164 minute run time. As with all the director’s other films, it retains his usual interests; stories within stories, doubles, call-backs and the type of sleight of hand which his magicians from The Prestige would enjoy.
The Joker still remains the best villain in the Batman canon in my view, with his sense of anarchy and the charisma of Heath Ledger. I’m not sold yet on this Bane. He is a curious villain, he looks a thug who can punch through walls (and Batman) but he talks like a Russian aristocrat with the robotic modulation of his mask. After complaints from viewers of the early trailers, it seems they have cleaned up his voice. Not only does Hardy have to do the accent but he talks through the mask as well. You still can’t make every word. At times it is like the voice comes separately to the man. Tom Hardy remains an extraordinary presence, his gestures and physical menace serve as an immovable object for Batman. Perhaps this particular villain is less important in this chapter, he’s there as a cipher to shape Wayne’s ultimate journey.
From today people will be rushing to see the movie. They'll be seeing a genre film you have to pay attention to until the last frame, with a mythology built on smart storytelling. Hurrah for all of that.
The Dark Knight Rises is out 20 July 2012
[TDKR has one hour of IMAX-specific footage which was not seen at the time of this review]