It’s difficult to think sensibly about director Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Despite the sometime jumbled action sequences, they get under your skin in a truly unsettling way. The villains are charismatic, the setting is often unbearably bleak, the plots play on powerful contemporary fears, and the hero’s vigilantism is genuinely disconcerting (and, indeed, acknowledged to be, even within the movies themselves). Furthermore, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and now, closing out the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises all feature just enough intellectual provocation to capture the imagination and more than enough visceral triggers to send that imagination into overdrive. I certainly don’t love the movies, but I’m sort of in awe of them. Rarely do you see a summer popcorn flick that delves quite so deeply and persistently into the unconscious.
At the outset of The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has set aside Batman’s cape for nearly a decade in the wake of the disastrous events of The Dark Knight, which ended with Batman taking the blame for murdering Harvey Dent. Meanwhile, Wayne Enterprises is facing financial hardship, Selina “Catwoman” Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is sneaking around Wayne Manor at the behest of a mysterious employer, and the even more mysterious Bane (Tom Hardy)—who may have ties to the League of Shadows, formerly led by Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins—has infiltrated Gotham. Bruce’s devoted butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and Wayne board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) both try to push Bruce into taking a stronger hand with his company, but when things get dire, he chooses instead to reestablish Batman’s presence in Gotham, track down Selina, and confront Bane directly.
Heath Ledger’s immediately iconic Joker, from The Dark Knight, is impossible to top, but Bane is still a frightening villain in his own right—physically imposing, to say the least, as well as canny and darkly funny in his dealings with the agents and businessmen who so foolishly underestimate him. His everpresent mask somehow looks intimidatingly alien rather than silly, and his deep, somewhat mechanical-sounding rasp sounds downright nightmarish (plus, thanks to some relatively last-minute sound adjustments, it’s intelligible, which is, you know, a nice bonus). In one of the set pieces of the film, Bane seizes control of Gotham (a Manhattan–esque island city) in a show of force so disturbing that even glimpses of it in the widely seen previews couldn’t spoil the horrifying dramatic effect. That scene might not be as stomach-churning as the Joker’s nihilistic pranks, but the sight of the explosive collapse of that football field—cheers turning to shrieks—will haunt me all the same.
In any case, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises draws together threads from The Dark Knight as well as Batman Begins, knitting them together in the kind of story in which every seemingly throw-away detail has significance and virtually every character, every fleeting subplot, is connected to all the rest. That kind of narrative can feel contrived, but here it feels appropriately mythic—which is not to say that the narrative doesn’t have problems. Thematically, the second act is a jumble, and the numerous timeline skips are abrupt and disorienting. A pivotal rock climb is suitably dramatic but utterly nonsensical, and the treatment of spinal cord injuries may be even more absurd.
Still, it’s nice to see Bale’s Batman reclaim center stage after being overshadowed by the bad guys in The Dark Knight. Bale is a talented actor, and he brings real pathos to the idea that Bruce Wayne is a man who truly does want to do right by Gotham. Rises brings his arc to a lovely close—with some surprisingly entertaining counterpoint from Catwoman, playing what turns out to be the Han Solo role. I admit I had been skeptical of Hathaway’s casting, but she makes a delightful Selina, not wildly sexy (though her leather bodysuit gives her near Barbie doll proportions) but quippy and clever, wounded but far too smart and resilient to be anybody’s vulnerable little plaything. Nolan’s universe is always in danger of becoming too dour, and Hathaway effortlessly keeps Rises from tipping that way with her sharp performance and crackly rapport with Bale.
Like Nolan’s previous Batman movies, The Dark Knight Rises is so affecting on such a visceral level that the temptation is to make more of it than it truly is, but I’m not sure whether Rises “says” anything, exactly. Bane’s appropriation of Occupy rhetoric is provocative, but his people look more like mujahideen militants, and the fabled “1 percent” of Gotham are so corrupt (and, in some cases, responsible for recruiting Bane in the first place) that any political message you want to draw out of the film is going to be internally contradicted in one way or another. Wayne Industries’ alarming technologies function mainly as MacGuffins, and Bruce’s problematic sense of noblesse oblige is both validated and undercut at various points. But in a way, the largely incoherent politics of Rises are part of what make the movie feel so bitingly contemporary and such a fitting conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy. Audience members tend to see what they want in the inkblots, and the pricked fears—of terrorism and chaos, powerlessness and futility—are intensely felt and poignantly relevant, no matter what your politics.