The last installment of the Batman trilogy may not be looked at simply as a film for a while. The slaughter on opening night will likely be associated with the film for many a viewer and non-viewer. The real violence in Colorado that night has also made the film both a target and an example of violence in films, and has bent the loftier discussions of the film and its meaning in that one direction.
The relationship between images of violence and violence in society will be a subject of conversation as long as there is film, and the chicken-and-egg tension (is the film a reflection of or catalyst to social violence?) will always be fodder for columnists and thesis-writers in both the and sociology camps.
But The Dark Knight Rises is first and foremost a film, and more specifically, the final installment of an intelligently conceived reboot. It’s finely acted, perhaps more structurally sound (though too long by 20 minutes), and richer and deeper and in some ways more frightening than its predecessors.
How many acting Oscar winners and nominees can YOU put in a film? We have the central trio of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, Oscar for The Fighter), Alfred (Michael Caine, double Oscar winner for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules), and the inestimable Morgan Freeman as Fox (surprisingly, just one for Million Dollar Baby). Then there is Marion Cotillard (Oscar for one of the great film performances of all time in La Vie en Rose). And don’t forget Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon (nominated for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Anne Hathaway (nominee for Rachel Getting Married). Thomas Hardy as Bane either introduces the viewer to a future Oscar winner or reminds us again of what a powerful performer and presence he is. Lastly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is growing into a solid and authoritative screen presence and making us forget he was ever on television when he was younger. He’s the heart of the film (a great concept, clever and thoughtful at once) and the maturing actor carries it on his ever-widening acting shoulders.
The film resembles Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in one big way: It reaches farther than it can grasp, but its reach is breathtaking. Writer/director Christopher Nolan connects the film to the previous two narratively and emotionally, and then expands its scope nearly to the breaking point. Nolan continues the story of parental loss and isolation, and brings it to a satisfying but slightly facile conclusion. But it’s a conclusion that ultimately keeps the film a personal story of Wayne and his alter ego to the end, while using the issues and surrounding socio-political world created here to comment on our own society without turning the film into a screed. What is frightening is not the violence so much as the possibility that the film is a prophecy of where we’re going. As a society, we’re poised somewhere between Paris in 1789 and either 1917 Russia or 1933 America. Nolan doesn’t seem to take sides in the film, but acknowledges the greed of the rich, the class envy of the not-so-rich, the dangers of anger fueled by equal parts inequity and entitlement, and the folly of those who think that a “real people’s revolution” won’t quickly devolve into a dictatorship. What occurs in Nolan’s world is acceptable to us as viewers because we don’t live in Gotham, and this is something of a superhero movie, but the societal and governmental breakdown demonstrated is a little too close for comfort at times.
Technically, the film is as stunning to look at as the others, and the action scenes are less confusing and more clearly edited. The second half of the film wanders and begins to lose the first half’s energy, and may well be the film’s biggest weakness. For those who complain about the film’s villain Bane (Hardy), well, it’s hard to imagine how best to follow up Heath Ledger’s Joker. Nolan evidently didn’t want to repeat the issue of chaos while bringing the series to a conclusion, so he opts for “pure evil,” as Bane is called. Nolan pulls a 180 from the Joker to Bane. The Joker was external, crazy, a Fauvist nightmare motivated by an insane anarchy. Bane is brutal, far less demonstrative, crude, and monochromatic, and as played by Hardy (a physical beast here), he functions well as a one-on-one worthy opponent of “the Batman.” (I love it that they keep the “the,” unlike Facebook.) Batman could have snapped the Joker in two; it’s all he can do to stand his ground with Bane.
When the dust clears over the opening night tragedy, The Dark Knight Rises will merit and receive many second looks. As a rewarding and enjoyable conclusion to a powerful, well-reconceived trilogy, it’s a strong example of how to expand on and conclude what precedes it. As a possible prophecy about what is occurring and what may occur in society, culture and government, it’s scarier than the bloodiest horror movie.