Let’s just make a deal: I’ll try not to reveal anything too dramatic if you’ll just consider yourself spoiler alerted.
In the past eight years, Gotham has become a safer city with little organized crime and no costumed vigilantes. Batman, suspected in the murder of beloved district attorney Harvey Dent, is just a legend now and, thanks to the aggressively crime-fighting Dent Act, Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has helped to clean the streets and fill the jails. But Gordon doesn’t feel so hot about the bargain he made with Batman, one that has made Dent a hero and ignores his violent end as the revenge-seeking Two Face.
What nobody seems to notice is that in roughly the same time that Batman has been out of action, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has also been hiding himself away. Bruce, like Gatsby, watches from the balcony as a lavish fundraiser takes place at his mansion. Despite Alfred’s (Michael Caine) wishes that he would move on with life, Bruce continues to mourn Rachel (his love interest last played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), who was killed by the Joker in the last movie, and, perhaps a little bit, mourn Batman, a role that gave him purpose. Perhaps he was just waiting for the right girl: At the party, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) appears to be a maid bringing Bruce dinner, but she turns out to be a cat burglar who makes off with both Bruce’s mother’s pearls and Bruce’s fingerprints. As we see her story unfold, she is but a small part in a larger plan laid out by Bane (Tom Hardy), a new criminal in town. Concerned about Bane’s plot ― particularly after Gordon has a run-in with some of his men ― and intrigued (including in the winky-wink nudgy-nudge sense) by Selina, Wayne considers putting the cowl on once again.
Also weaved throughout the story is the tale of John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police officer turned detective who doesn’t buy the official story on Harvey Dent or Batman. He becomes tangled in the investigation after a boy from the same orphaned boys home he grew up in is found dead near the sewers, a place he starts to think Bane may be hiding.
And high above the Gotham streets still works Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), head of Wayne Enterprises and the head of the Wayne Enterprises shell companies that make all the cool weapons Batman arms himself with. He informs Bruce that Wayne Enterprises isn’t doing so hot, particularly since it sunk a big chunk of its assets into a sustainable energy project with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
Money is important to this movie. Part of Bane’s plan involves shooting up and then taking hostages at a Wall Street-like trading floor. When the cops arrive, a banker runs out to meet them and tell them to shut down certain communications to help secure the trades. We’re not here to protect your money, the police officer in charge informs him. It’s everybody’s money, the banker says by way of explaining that it’s the whole system, not just one person’s accounts, that’s potentially at risk. My money’s under my mattress, another cop responds.
This exchange underlines the way the movie, at least in its first half, talks about money and ideas of wealth and fairness. Gordon and the mythology of Dent have made Gotham safer, more prosperous. But there is still inequity in this world, even if the lack of organized crime has left a cleaner city. That beat cop helping to keep the streets safe is still struggling to pay his bills. The one-percenters like Bruce Wayne still hold outsized power. In particular, Bruce Wayne may be comfortably wasting away in his mansion but his inattention to his finances has led to a dropoff of charitable giving. He wallowed in grief and so the boys home lost out on funds and had to kick out older teens, boys like the one John Blake found dead.
Economic inequalities play a role in Bane’s plans as well. He has built an army of henchmen who are true believers, dedicated to a cause that is, at least on its surface, about violent revolution. As the story unfolds, we start to suspect that violence is not just the tool Bane plans to use to bring about his world view but may also be his goal for its own sake.
You know, just a little light socioeconomic commentary for your superhero movie.
If that all sounds too dark (particularly considering this movie’s connection to real-world violence), let me say that the silver lining is the movie’s final third. Sure, it’s violent and dark too, but its ruling principle is that everybody and anybody can be a hero. That is, Bruce explains at one point in the movie, the reason for the mask and the Batman. Batman isn’t just one man, he’s an idea ― one that Bruce temporarily thought could be replaced by the lie about Harvey Dent. But in the final act, others step up to serve as potential heroes as well, others try selflessly to save the city and the day.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman is no primary-colored Marvel affair. It’s always been a darker world that gives you more to think about. In the end, this movie is one that starts to fray at the edges a bit as you turn it over in your mind. Some of the characters’ motivations seem to make sense at first but start to seem a little not-so-well-developed as you consider them. There are a few moments when people simply act as they do because the movie requires them to do so for the story to go forward. Like many a large comic book my-freeze-ray-will-destroy-the-world plot, this one leaves you wondering about a lot of whys and a few hows when you look back on the story after the pounding score and the epic battle scenes are over.
Not surprisingly, not all of the performances hit the perfect note. Miranda Tate may be an important character, but we get almost nothing substantive from Marion Cotillard. She just fills the space where a person should be without bringing any personality to the role. Anne Hathaway is more of a mixed bag. I went in skeptical about her presence and left more relieved than impressed. She is able to keep Selina ― who is never, thankfully, called Catwoman ― this side of cartoony.
Gordon-Levitt and Oldman, on the other hand, are great. My guess is that the movie will probably get at least one acting Oscar nomination in addition to its likely “best movie” nomination. Either of these men ― and/or Michael Caine, who, sure, can toss out this sort of performance in his sleep but is still highly watchable ― would be a good pick. Even Bale actually fades a little in comparison to Oldman and Gordon-Levitt. In a lot of ways it’s their story, their journey.
(An Academy Awards predictions aside: The Dark Knight Rises, an Oscar? I think yes. Call it the Scent of a Woman effect. Like Al Pacino, who won the Oscar for his performance in that movie after not winning it for The Godfather movies, Dog Day Afternoon, et. al, I’ll bet The Dark Knight Rises get least one Oscar nomination, in large part to retroactively celebrate to the greatness of The Dark Knight, a superior movie. After all, it was that movie — according to conventional wisdom — that got the Academy to change the Best Movie category from exactly containing five nominations to now including up to 10.)
The Dark Knight Rises is nearly three hours long, but it’s worth the investment. Where something like The Avengers is very comic-booky, The Dark Knight Rises feels very graphic novel, examining real-world issues, injecting real emotion into story and character, and occasionally leaving you feeling not so much scared as deeply disturbed at the core of your being. Like I said, just a little light superhero fun for your action movie summer. B+
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language. Directed by Christopher Nolan with a screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan and a story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, The Dark Knight Rises is two hours and 44 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.