The most striking thing about the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is it looks like a real film. In an era when shooting a Hollywood blockbuster on actual film and not filming in 3D is a novelty, The Dark Knight Rises stands out for looking like something tangible as opposed to a hyperactive virtual world created on a computer. Even the elements of the film created with CGI have a photorealistic tactile quality to them; further validating Nolan’s decision to resist digital filmmaking. Not that Nolan isn’t a technical innovator as demonstrated by the film’s impressive scenes shot in IMAX and the visceral sound design where every bullet, grind of metal and kick to the head sounds like a mini symphony.
The Dark Knight Rises is a fine piece of cinema that successfully mixes outlandish comic book scenarios with a gritty realism that gives the proceedings an alarming plausibility. Curiously, it doesn’t deliver the adrenalin rush moments that were present throughout Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). It’s a much bigger film in scope with more at stake, bigger set pieces, grander themes and a far more complex narrative, but the results offer a different level of engagement than a mythical origins story or a showdown between two extreme personalities with more in common than one of them would like to think. The Dark Knight Rises is a tonally different film that successfully establishes a scenario of complete despair where much of the action seems futile. Within this bleak context the biggest spark of life is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (better known as Catwoman in the original comics) who is not only involved in the film’s most exciting fight sequences, but becomes an ethically dubious anti-hero in a film exploring complex ethical terrain.
Similar to The Amazing Spider-Man, this is a film where the superhero persona takes a background to the ‘real life’ persona of the protagonist. While Peter Parker learning to reconcile his identity as Spider-Man is a coming-of-age narrative, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) coming to terms with what Batman stands for becomes a story of the old guard making way for the next generation. Wayne begins the film as a physically and psychologically damaged man and spends a good deal of the film grappling with how useful Batman is to his own sense of self and to the community of Gotham City. Characters from the previous films and important new characters express a variety of opinions, contributing to the film’s intriguing exploration of individualism versus social cohesion and truth versus myth.
The political arena that unfolds offers an enticing range of arguments about how to interpret the downfall of Gotham City, which is overtly linked to various recent American crises such as domestic and international terrorism, the global financial crisis and the Occupy movement. On the one hand, The Dark Knight Rises could be read as a hysterical conservative vision of socialism. The film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) is identified early in the film as a super terrorist with quasi-fundamentalist religious zeal. His plans to obliterate the rule of law, undermine the financial sector and return Gotham to the people results in a nightmarish scenario that plays upon every fear perpetrated by plutocrats who feel that their powerbase may be threatened. Bane and his followers are a disturbing fusion of fundamentalist terrorism with a perverse version of a people’s revolution.
And yet, the film is not that simple. The oppressive collectivism that Bane offers is one of mob rule that exploits the simmering hatred and resentment that is the result of the Zero Tolerance approach to crime initiated by the late Harvey Dent. Furthermore, Dent has been given near sainthood status, his psychotic and homicidal behaviour suppressed in order to maintain his myth. He is presented as a visionary leader despite having ended up as the Gotham equivalent of a war criminal. When a population places unquestioning faith in the false prophet that is a charismatic leader guilty of vast sins, the resulting order will eventually be undermined. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane is the figure that does the undoing. He is not an external threat, but the product of a civilisation that is sick to the core.
Furthermore, this is not a film where a lone individual defends the population against a socialist-style enemy. Bruce Wayne does not act alone in The Dark Knight Rises and the intertwining storylines within the film exist to facilitate an ensemble of characters working together to fight back, using brains, brawn and the ideal of Batman. The most interesting character in the film is Selina Kyle who is able to undermine Wayne physically and intellectually, as well as challenge his life of material privilege in a world of inequality. While Hathaway’s Kyle possesses the same moral uncertainty that the character does in the comics she is still a sympathetic character in the film. Her anti-one percent attitude is represented as markedly different to Bane’s exploitive manipulation of a population’s discontent and pandering to criminality. If anything The Dark Knight Rises could be regarded as a warning for how radicals with dreams of puritanical world domination get what they want by manipulating the corporate and financial sectors, and hijacking technology.
The Dark Knight Rises is about an older generation accepting their mistakes and maintaining as much dignity as possible while facing the consequences. The ‘rise’ of the title becomes a literal plot point that also serves as a symbolic rebirth where Wayne re-enters a new world where the people deserve the truth instead of faith in symbols. If Batman Begins was an independence story about a city rejecting the rule of an exploitive criminal class and The Dark Knight was a war film about sacrificing liberty to combat an unimaginable threat, then The Dark Knight Rises is a film about the need to return to a more civilised time now that the war (or perceived war) is over. Otherwise, that civilisation will turn against itself and reproduce the destructive elements that it was once fighting against in the first place. The time of symbolism and individualism is over and the generation that identifies with such notions need to clean up any mess they have left behind and then move on. Gotham is No City for Old Costumed Vigilante Men as a new dawn approaches.