It may not be a proper summer here in the UK, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from unleashing its seasonal blockbusters on the world. ‘Blockbuster’ is usually a byword for mindless popcorn-fuelled fun. Not so for Christopher Nolan, the British director behind the last three Batman films. Whether reversing time in Memento or bending reality in Inception, Nolan is not about to let you leave your brain on autopilot. He doesn’t, in fact, expect anything unusual and he’s not going to treat you like an idiot. Taking the same stance as Aaron Sorkin’s latest TV show The Newsroom, Nolan thinks his audience shouldn’t be spoon-fed or patronised. Since comic book adaptations are as popular and ubiquitous now as cowboy films used to be, it’s easy to forget how good some of their stories and characters can be.
The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) arrives in cinemas with great expectations. At the end of The Dark Knight (TDK), Batman is a hated figure – blamed for the murder of Gotham City’s ‘shining white knight’, the district attorney Harvey Dent who, unbeknownst to the public, had become the more diabolical Two-Face. Batman’s decision to vanish into the shadows allows the city to clamp down on crime out of outrage at his actions. TDKR reveals Gotham eight years later to be a city where the cops have little reason to fear criminals. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne has pulled out of public life. A Howard Hughes-type recluse, he limps around his near empty mansion, haunted by his past pain and lack of real purpose.
Enter Bane, a towering column of calculated rage and cunning, not to mention having the worst mumble since Marlon Brando stuffed tissues into his cheeks for The Godfather (as an interesting aside, TDK was the first film to depose The Godfather from IMDB’s best film of all time list). Heath Ledger’s searing insanity as The Joker in TDK was always going to be a tough act to follow. Tom Hardy’s Bane lacks the verbal skills – instead he has brute strength and terror- something even Batman struggles with. The quick-witted banter is left up to new arrival Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. She brings some much needed spice to what are often pretty harrowing scenes.
Bane unleashes a series of crippling attacks on Gotham City, all the while espousing his revolutionary challenges. What makes his ideology so beguiling is that it’s not far off from being a more militarised version of the Occupy Movement. Scenes of the 99% holding the 1% to account are certainly intriguing, if a little unsettling. Nolan has tapped into the disgruntled zeitgeist to slightly fudge the lines between right and wrong. What if the anger held towards the rich is followed to its logical conclusion with kangaroo courts in public halls? Seen in this light, Batman is an unfortunate defender of billionaire playboys like Bruce Wayne.
Like Batman’s use of the theatrical, Nolan’s film is filled with misdirection, twists and escalating tension. While the first act drags in parts, the middle and final acts recapture TDK’s unrelenting tension. But the Joker’s flair and wit is sadly missed since Bane’s brute is far too similar to Batman. Both are dark, brooding sacks of strength that bark and snarl at each other. Thank goodness for Catwoman and Michael Caine’s Alfred, the butler.
Despite the many grey areas which exist around Batman, he still remains remarkably black and white when it comes to doing the right thing. He’s like some poster boy for public servants – steadfastly committed to serving his city. While many of the characters have motives as murky as Bane’s voice, Batman rumbles forward with unstoppable idealism. For all the conflict around him and in him, he’s unshakable in his resolve – like so many of those old cowboys. The ‘dark knight’ is an apt term for him. Superhero films all tap into the idea of the single figure capable of saving us – a lone figure more righteous, more brave, more willing to sacrifice than we are. The redemptive icon is a powerful one. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Each instalment of Nolan’s Batman has felt like the return of the adults to a room filled with excited teens and twenty-somethings. While I enjoyed Thor and Avengers Assemble immensely, they were hardly ambitious visions or explorations of more mature matters. I think that even the directors would admit to that. I think Kenneth Brannagh (Thor) and Joss Whedon (Avengers) would confess to a certain superficiality in exchange for cracking one-liners, pure entertainment and some good-old fashioned pantomime villains. When TDKR raises themes of failure, grief and disappointment, they are examined through a filter more familiar to adults than kids. Of course, there are more than enough fight scenes, explosions, gadgets and beautiful women to keep any summer blockbuster fan happy. Batman has always been the Goth James Bond.
TDKR is a film of epic ambitions. It does not surpass TDK but it’s much better than Batman Begins. New characters like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop John Blake set up possible directions for future films. Its message about the caustic nature of lies is much needed. As Alfred says, “Let’s not try to outsmart the truth, let it have its day”. The truth will, after all, set you free.