As The Dark Knight Rises brings a close to Christopher Nolan’s staggeringly ambitious Batman trilogy, it’s worth remembering that director chose The Scarecrow as his first villain—not necessarily the most popular among the comic’s gallery of rogues, but the one who set the tone for entire series. With his crude potato-sack mask and fear-inducing toxins, The Scarecrow, a “psychopharmacologist” at an insane asylum, acts as a conjurer of nightmares, capable of turning his patients’ most terrifying anxieties against them. He’s an illusionist who relies on his victims to complete the illusion; without that unwitting collaboration, he has no power at all.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan expands on a comprehensive nightmare of the early 21st century, again playing The Scarecrow to the many millions whose anxieties complete the illusion. He’s made a horror trilogy in the guise of summertime action-adventure, a mind-blowing pulp allegory for America’s worst-case scenario: Terrorist networks, the surveillance state, loose nukes, kangaroo courts, all-out class warfare, the grim threat of fascism on one end and anarchy on the other. And at its center is an all-too-human hero whose courage and integrity masks a crippling uncertainty over whether he can beat back the darkness.
Though it introduces another round of new characters, including two antagonists in Bane and Catwoman, The Dark Knight Rises impresses most in the way it integrates the mythology of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight into a larger whole. Where the previous two might have seemed like separate but related units, the third reveals a master plan that goes beyond just another expensive mission for our caped crusader. In those early encounters with Ra’s al Ghul and his League Of Shadows in Batman Begins and the chaos stoked by The Joker in The Dark Knight, Nolan was laying the groundwork for a titanic struggle between good and evil, both in Gotham City and within the soul of its tormented vigilante.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight left off, the film finds Gotham enjoying a tenuous peace based on Harvey Dent’s moral ideals rather than the ugly truth of his demise. Meanwhile, the hero Gotham deserves has retreated from public view and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), has gone Howard Hughes in his estate, resigned to the margins while others mismanage his company and his city. But in the underground tunnel system, a powerful new villain emerges in Bane (Tom Hardy), a bulked-out mercenary in a gas mask who may look and speak like a professional wrestler, but who carries out a thoroughly considered plan to isolate Gotham and impose his own sadistic vision of government upon it.
Those few in Wayne’s inner circle—Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), his loyal but disillusioned butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and his company and gadget man Fox (Morgan Freeman)—are alone in understanding the real Batman, but several new characters of mysterious intent enter the picture, too. Two women make semi-romantic overtures with questionable motives: Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy board member who takes a keen interest in heading up Wayne’s super-secret clean-energy project, and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an acrobatic cat burglar first seen robbing the reclusive billionaire right in front of his face. And while most of Gotham buys into the Dent legend, go-getting young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has faith in Batman’s decency and takes on a larger role once Bane puts his plan into action.
There are a few creaks and groans as Nolan’s gargantuan plot machine works up to speed, but because The Dark Knight Rises has been conceived less as a standalone movie than the conclusion to a story in progress, there’s a pleasing continuity and momentum to it. Still, paying off threads from the two earlier Batman films while handling a host of new developments takes some expository heavy-lifting, which Nolan wisely breaks up with eye-catching spectacle like the opening sequence, a plane-hijacking that recalls the zero-gravity dynamic of Inception. Once Nolan gets all the pieces into place and Bane’s master plan begins to unfold, The Dark Knight Rises plunges headlong into the abyss, as seemingly every grim, paranoid post-9/11 fantasy comes to pass.
While Heath Ledger’s Joker set an impossible bar for colorful super-villainy, Nolan draws a sharp contrast between the Joker’s code-free nihilism and the fascist order Bane threatens on Gotham. Where the Joker preys on our fears of random, irrational acts of terror, Bane has an all-consuming, dictatorial agenda that’s more stable and permanent, a New World Order that’s been planned out with the precision of a military coup. Even his voice, projected muddily though that steel mask, has the authority of a prison-camp megaphone. He’s stronger than Batman, physically and mentally, which makes the “rising” part of The Dark Knight Rises an agonizing struggle to a hugely satisfying payoff.
Though Bane’s sing-song voice gives his pronouncements a funny lilt, he doesn’t have any of the Joker’s deranged wit, and Nolan isn’t interested in undercutting his seriousness for the sake of a breezier entertainment. (Having The Dark Knight Rises released the same summer as The Avengers is as close as genre fans get to a balanced diet.) For that he turns to Selina Kyle, whom Hathaway plays with a sexy irreverence that never crosses into out-and-out camp. She’s the most dynamic character in The Dark Knight Rises, a cloud of shifting allegiances who handles herself with a sleight-of-hand that’s both verbal and physical—and more dexterous than the titans doing battle. Batman and Bane go to war over Gotham, but she’s the true lynchpin of the movie, forced to decide whether she has a real stake in this world or whether she can continue to scam off its dysfunction.
True to the director of Memento and The Prestige, Nolan lays down twist after twist as the trilogy draws to a close, but the true greatness of The Dark Knight Rises is how beautifully it’s integrated with the other two movies. Handling that mythology—to say nothing of the heavy freight of fanboy expectation—is superheroic in its own right, but the miracle of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is the way it imprints those myths with the dread-soaked tenor of the times. There’s a catchall quality to the politics of it—the Occupy movement could be viewed here as unifying force or order-upending menace—but Nolan seems content to let his popular entertainment double as a Rorschach test. At a time when Hollywood seems incapable of doing anything that isn’t a grand-scale fantasy, Nolan has hijacked the form to bring it down to earth.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Dark Knight Rises' Spoiler Space.