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Editor’s Note: This review may contain possible spoilers for the movie.
One of the things most commonly said about superheroes is that they are the mythological figures of our time. It’s an understandable comparison, but it fails to take into account one key element. While superheroes are designed to keep coming back every month for another adventure, myths have endings. If a superhero is to rightfully take his place among the pantheon of myth, his story needs a conclusion. How does a superhero’s story end? That’s the question Christopher Nolan tries to answer in The Dark Knight Rises, the blood, sweat and tear-soaked conclusion to his successful Batman trilogy. This is a shockingly ambitious picture of nearly operatic proportions; massive in scope, rich in character, relentless in its action and earnest in its emotion. It may be the most remarkable piece of pop cinema to grace multiplexes in years.
The film picks up eight years after the events of the series’ previous installment, The Dark Knight. Gotham City has seemingly become a safer place, a result of the fiction created by Batman and Commissioner Gordon at the end of the last film. Batman has retired and Bruce Wayne, once again played by Christian Bale, has become an enigmatic recluse. But when Tom Hardy’s monstrous Bane, a frightening mercenary with a mysterious link to Batman, begins reigning terror upon the city, Wayne decides that it’s time to once again don the cape and cowl. It’s a classic mythological trope; the legendary hero dusting off his boots for one last hurrah. But is this a return to glory or a suicide run? That’s the question concerning Alfred, Wayne’s ever loyal but long-suffering butler. His pleas for Bruce’s self-preservation stand as some of the film’s most heartbreaking and powerful moments, a testament to the always reliable skill of Michael Caine. We understand his concerns when Batman finally confronts Bane and the two engage in an unforgivingly brutal form of pugilism. This is vicious and visceral stuff, the type of cinematic brawl that rattles your bones and shocks you to the core. (Potential spoilers ahead).
Bane aims to break Batman in every way imaginable; physically, spiritually, financially. Most importantly, he wants him to watch his city burn. He orchestrates a plan that cuts off Gotham City from the outside world, in a literally explosive fashion, transforming it into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Bane installs himself as the city’s warlord and, like so many despots, drapes his tyranny in proclamations of freedom. In the wake of this, we see the people of Gotham turn to turmoil and civil unrest, teeming with rage over power, privilege, security and truth. In an era of Occupy movements, Tea Party protests, and pervasive disillusionment, we understand what we see. Here is a society at war with itself. It delivers on the threats of The Joker in the previous film, “When the chips are down, these civilized people? They’ll eat each other.” The film’s second act is a masterful exercise in tension building, disturbing and disheartening, as Bane and his soldiers gradually extinguish every possible beacon of light. The series has used the classic adage of “it’s always darkest before the dawn” before and this film pushes it to the breaking point.
But the dawn is coming. Into this Sturm und Drang rides our hero, upon an airborne mechanical steed, aided by allies old and new – Gary Oldman’s resilient and reliable Commissioner Gordon, Anne Hathaway’s ambiguous and alluring Catwoman, and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s pure-hearted rookie cop, John Blake. The film’s final, climatic battle is epic, go-big-or-go-home filmmaking, as heroes, villains, soldiers, police, tanks and jets wage war across the city to determine the fate of Gotham’s soul. This is drama and action on a scale that is breathtaking and dares comparison to the likes of D.W. Griffith and David Lean. Amidst the spectacle and commotion, Nolan never loses sight of his characters and it’s in them that the film finds its powerful conclusion, one of genuine, hard-won emotional payoffs. It’s an ending that plays to all of the series’ recurrent themes and ideas; heroism and sacrifice, symbols and legends, hope and salvation.
At a time when studio heads want audiences to believe that “good enough” is an acceptable goal, here is a film that pulses with so much thought, heart, grandeur and awe that it bleeds out the edges. It’s an inspired, stubborn behemoth that swings for the fences and refuses to compromise; an action film of ideas and ideals; a pulp parable about the lies we tell, the truths we seek, and the faith we require. The Dark Knight Rises is the film that audiences deserve and the one they need right now.