Back in 2008, I wrote that The Dark Knight was a game changer, a superhero film that expanded the definition of the genre. It was grim, serious, and not averse to slowing things down for the sake of making a thematic point. It was, at the time, an incredibly brave departure from the silliness that then defined the early superhero blockbuster. The Dark Knight Rises takes things a little bit further. Even in this era of serious superhero movies, The Dark Knight Rises stands out for being exceptionally dark and complex. It leaves Batman in the corners of the narrative and instead delves into matters of life and death.
It has been eight years since the events of the last movie. Since then, Gotham City has been rid of organized crime, thanks largely to a law made in the memory of Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still mourning the death of Rachel Dawes, and has given up on being the Batman. He spends his days locked up in the manor, refusing to meet anyone. But a great threat has arrived in Gotham: the dangerous mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) and his army of devoted followers. Bane lays out a plot that leaves Bruce Wayne broken in more ways than one, and leaves Gotham City hanging in the balance.
It’s kind of amazing how this picture has so little Batman in it. People are ostensibly in this to see a man dressed as a bat beating up bad guys ninja-style, and while there is some of that, it only makes up a small percentage of the film’s lengthy runtime. In some ways, it feels like the movie has outgrown its hero, largely forgoing the easily digestible action that takes place within the batsuit. Much of the script is given over to speeches, the characters verbalizing the thematic elements that they represent. It can get a little clunky at times, with the movie having a tendency to overexplain its points. But in every instance, the filmmaking and the performances turn it all into compelling cinema.
The film just feels large. It bears a thematic weight to it that presses down on the audience. It largely eschews big action scenes in favor of depictions of big ideas. Bane’s reign over Gotham City feels like a sociological experiment played out on screen. Bruce Wayne’s journey as a character dives into a philosophical thicket that questions his own motivations. And the movie as a whole explores the very idea of justice, its characters standing in for the often-opposing ideals that make attaining justice so complicated. It questions the concept, putting into the context of a society of uneven wealth, oppressive policing, and big white lies. It all feels counter-intuitive for a superhero blockbuster to be doing all this, but it just manages to pull it off with aplomb.
It just commits to it, playing big philosophical arguments with as much bombast as the action sequences. Nolan and Pfister masterfully control the shadows, while Zimmer lays down a severe sense of dread in his score. Performances are as excellent as they’ve always been. Bale still sounds kind of ridiculous when he does the Batman voice, but he somehow lets all the emotion through anyway. Tom Hardy is fantastic as Bane, presenting an entirely different kind of menace from Ledger’s Joker. Hardy brings a strange assuredness to the role, an utter belief in his character’s actions. There’s no trace of psychosis behind his violence, which is all the more terrifying. As usual, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine bring all sorts of gravity to the movie. The cast as a whole is phenomenal, often turning moments of awkward exposition into profound declarations of being.
The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t fit the usual definition of fun in a movie. It doesn’t have as many big action sequences as The Dark Knight. It tortures its characters to an uncomfortable extreme. And it doesn’t even have a lot of Batman in it. Paradoxically, this is why it is good. It is courageous blockbuster cinema, ignoring all the common wisdom about what people want to see in their popcorn movies. There are bits and pieces of this film worth quibbling over: its tendency to have its characters give speeches, even at death, the weird return of a character that doesn’t quite fit with the film’s general milieu, occasionally spotty writing that basically gives away its themes, and a late action sequence that struggles to make logical sense. But in the end, those remain simply quibbles in the face of a much grander achievement. The film takes away the comfort of easy enjoyment, and invites its audience into a darker world, where the questions are a little more difficult.