Occupy Gotham

Holy war on terror, Batman! Seven years after the game-changing Batman Begins, four years after The Dark Knight and 10 months after Occupy Wall Street began comes The Dark Knight Rises—perhaps the single most well-produced endorsement for the status quo posing as mainstream entertainment since Sarah Palin’s RNC speech.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers
Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Holy war on terror, Batman! Seven years after the game-changing Batman Begins, four years after The Dark Knight and 10 months after Occupy Wall Street began comes The Dark Knight Rises—perhaps the single most well-produced endorsement for the status quo posing as mainstream entertainment since Sarah Palin’s RNC speech.

Conservative overtones and all, this finale to director Christopher Nolan’s three-part superhero saga is nevertheless a powerful, poignant, almost operatic specimen of anti-escapist pop cinema.

Did I say “anti-escapist”? Boy howdy. On top of being a sensational double-barrel offering to one’s inner geek, The Dark Knight Rises also serves as an uncomfortable reminder that the bleakest phase in the modern world’s majestic collapse may be still to come.

The screenplay, co-written with characteristic intelligence by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, audaciously plunders current events wholesale and often plays like a grim simulation of apocalyptic worst-case scenarios.

The viewer must be prepared for all-too-realistic scenes involving class warfare, mob rule, a terrorized 1 Percent, a castrated police force, the shattering of infrastructure and a rising warlord’s blueprint for converting a decadent Western metropolis into a barbaric failed state. And this is even before the atom bomb.

Christian Bale has matured considerably as an actor since his last outing as the Caped Crusader. He reprises his role as the haunted billionaire Bruce Wayne, who begins the film in what appears to be the early stages of Howard Hughes syndrome.

It’s been eight peaceful years since his alter ego took the bullet for Harvey Two-Face’s crimes, and Wayne has spent those years retired completely from both public life and the life of unappreciated masked vigilantism. Meanwhile, he’s let his body, his spirit and Wayne Enterprises fall apart while finding plenty of time, it seems, to luxuriate in the kind of reclusive self-pity that only money can buy.

But deep within the bowels of the city, the League of Shadows is resurgent, led this time not by Ra’s al Ghul but by a muzzled mercenary known only as Bane (Tom Hardy). This guy is a real piece of work, a muscle-bound mass-murderer strutting around in paramilitary fatigues like a fearsome juggernaut. We’re not surprised when we learn that Bane, practically a case study in purely distilled evil, comes from a prison known as “Hell on Earth.”

When Bane and his true-believing triggermen unleash themselves on Gothamites, we get some of the most spectacular sequences of set-piece destruction ever shot. The earth-shaking blasts punctuated by truly suspenseful silences make for a visceral, harrowing spectacle.

The Dark Knight Rises also gives Wayne a playmate named Selena Kyle, a femme fatale by day who, by night, doubles as a burglar nicknamed The Cat. Played by Anne Hathaway as an oversexed, spring-loaded mantrap, she’s one of those impossibly beautiful petty criminals who, wouldn’t ya know it, just happens to be mixed up with the very baddies Batman needs to take down…before it’s too late (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Competing for Wayne’s affections is a co-worker played by Marion Cotillard who plans to greenwash Wayne Enterprises with a cold fusion device that’s supposed to supply Gotham with sustainable energy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a cop who represents a younger version of Commissioner Jim Gordon’s sympathetic old-school crusader, before Gordon sold out his values to save Gotham.

Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman—just saying their names aloud is like uttering an incantation of dramaturgical greatness—return as the faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, the morally uncompromising scientist Lucius Fox and the morally compromised Gordon, respectively.

And as the latest beneficiary of Nolan’s work-release program for washed-up ’80s stars (remember Eric Roberts in the last film?), Matthew Modine plays a snarky deputy commissioner—and quite well, I might add, even if his character’s essential function in Nolan’s plot is to be stubbornly wrongheaded about every damn thing the Batman-Gordon unit tries to accomplish.

The film does not quite equal the iconic genre-transcending revelation of Batman Begins, a film so seamlessly executed and so effortlessly enjoyable that viewers now take it for granted. But it is solidly superior to The Dark Knight, which, for all the inexplicable praise heaped upon it, is actually a fairly clunky and conventional sequel.

The Dark Knight Rises is the much-needed antidote to its predecessor. Though laced with perhaps too many expository flashbacks spackling up the plot holes, the film is better paced, more narratively taut, contains less gratuitous morlizing and, for my money, features a stronger villain.

Yes, you read that correctly. At the risk of sounding profane, let it be known that Hardy’s commanding, controlled performance as Bane makes Heath Ledger’s squirrelly Joker look like a rug rat kicking down sandcastles.

With his prophet-like diction, peremptory swagger and fondness for poetic speechmaking, Bane reminds me not a little of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. There you’ll find another tall, cold, hairless agent of systematic human slaughter on a mission to inflict as much physical and emotional suffering as possible while he lives.

What I admire most about Nolan’s Batman trilogy is his restraint. He does not employ 20 shots from 20 angles when one or two will do, nor does he pad the frame with superfluous special effects and CGI extrusions.

Nolan instead adopts a less-is-more approach that respects the patience and sophistication of filmgoers, who have grown accustomed to seeing anything the F/X department can serve up but so rarely see thoughtfully developed characters in an intricately patterned story. His Dark Knight films feel like more like adult crime dramas than a fantasy-lover’s novelty items, even if they have a man at their center who dresses up like an oversized, militarized bat.

Now that Batman’s story has come to a close, serious cinephiles owe Nolan a debt of gratitude for rescuing the character from the ignoble scrapheap of mediocre camp to which Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher once condemned him. The impotent imaginations of those two filmmakers, whose combined celluloid output remains rather less impressive than any given Nolan film, were simply too limiting for Batman and his world.

So thank you, Mr. Nolan, for not allowing Batman & Robin to be the last word, and for helping the Dark Knight get his groove back.