Chatting with my local comic shop owner last week, I found he was excited but apprehensive about “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“I just want to see it break the third-film curse,” he said.
Ah, the third-film curse. It has plagued superhero movies all the way back to 1983’s “Superman III,” when some bozo producer said, “Hey, you know what a Superman movie really needs? Richard Pryor!”
Since then, most superhero series sputtered out with the third movie, often due to a change in creative teams or a noticeably reduced budget (“X-Men: The Last Stand” suffers on both counts) or a greedy studio forcing the filmmaker to cram in more characters and subplots than the script could bear (“Spider-Man 3”).
With the massive, and somewhat surprising, success of “The Dark Knight,” the second film in his revived Batman saga, director Christopher Nolan earned the autonomy to make whatever movie he wanted. With “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan confidently shatters the third-film curse like a freight train plowing through balsa wood.
This mature and bravura mix of psychology and adventure is not merely a magnificent capstone to his trilogy, but the best of the three films. I should point out, though, that I am among the 27 people on Earth who liked “Batman Begins” more than “Dark Knight” (overlong and overwrought).
Between Batman films, Nolan cemented his reputation as today’s most imaginative and ambitious crafter of pop films with the mind-bending “Inception.” “Rises” reflects the scale of that picture, already evident in “Dark Knight,” and Nolan also carries over several members of “Inception’s” supporting cast, including Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to either bedevil or protect Gotham City.
“Rises” opens eight years after the cataclysmic finale of “Dark Knight,” when Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent’s killing streak to protect the district attorney’s reputation (a clever inversion of the ending to “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). Now hated by the public, Batman has disappeared. Yet Gotham now enjoys a low crime rate, thanks largely to stalwart Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, giving another fine, understated performance).
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) also has become a recluse, his body shattered by years of leaping off rooftops in a rubber suit. Loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) cajoles Bruce to rejoin the world, but it takes a thief Bruce catches in his bedroom stealing his mother’s pearls to perk up those old bat instincts.
The thief is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), also known as Catwoman in the comic books. But even though Selina wears a slinky black cat suit and a strange electronic device on her head that looks like cat ears, I don’t believe her nom du crime is mentioned in the film. Maybe I missed it.
What truly convinces Bruce Wayne that Gotham needs Batman again is the arrival of Bane (Hardy), a hulking and malevolent terrorist wreaking random acts of mayhem throughout the city. Bane wears a something that looks like a tarantula-inspired CPAP mask and speaks with an amplified, distorted voice that sounds like a Cockney Darth Vader.
Nolan understands a trilogy is not merely three films in a row, but three parts of a continuing story. The first portion of “Rises” is laden with references to “Dark Knight,” but it turns out much of the story also flows directly from “Batman Begins,” starting with the revelation that Bane and Batman were trained by the same mentor, Rha’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson). Curiously, every major character from the earlier films is name-checked except the Joker, perhaps out of respect for Heath Ledger.
Even though the film is nearly three hours long, the pace never gets too slow, and Nolan has an instinct for the right moment to liven things up with an awe-inspiring action sequence. As with “The Dark Night” and the last “Mission: Impossible” movie, the action sequences were filmed in the IMAX format, so seek out an IMAX theater for the maximum impact.
Unlike just about every other action filmmaker working today, Nolan knows CGI works best when it is hidden, and he uses practical effects and flesh-and-blood stunt teams whenever possible. Too many superhero movies, including “The Amazing Spider-Man,” devolve into a videogame at the end with one CGI character pounding away at another in a digitally enhanced cityscape. The climax of “Rises” features actual actors battling on actual streets.
The plot is complicated but relatively easy to follow, even as it embraces a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) attempt to invent a cold fusion energy source and a wealthy and beautiful philanthropist (Cotillard) somehow tied to both of these plot threads. Gordon-Levitt appears as a young beat cop who still believes in the Batman. I had an early inkling where Nolan was going with this character, and I was right.
The script, which Nolan co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan, is brutal to Bruce Wayne. One by one, the key traits that define his identity are stripped from him. In a reckless moment when he is certain he can’t lose anything else, he loses more than he can imagine. Nolan bravely keeps Batman off the screen for nearly half the running time. It makes the story more compelling, although it may hurt him at the box office.
“Rises” also is a brazenly political film for a summer superhero movie. It invests heavily in the hot issue of wealth iniquity in America today. But just as “Dark Knight” supposedly was a commentary the war on terror, Nolan argues both sides of the coin without making a point. Selina tells Bruce a reckoning is coming for billionaires like him and “how you can live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” But after that rallying cry for the 99 percent, Bane changes tactics and becomes the Tea Party’s worst nightmare, a terrorist assuming control of the Occupy movement.
“Rises” paints a terrifying picture of what a modern, socioeconomic revolt would look like in the streets of America’s cities. Like a latter-day Robespierre, Bane rallies the peasants to destroy the rich. First they storm a prison, just to make clear the connection to the French Revolution.
This summer has given us two of the best superhero movies yet, this one and “Marvel’s The Avengers.” The films couldn’t be more dissimilar. “The Avengers” is the ultimate blockbuster thrill ride. “Dark Knight Rises,” though epic in appearance, is a dark and personal story rooted deeply in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and all its symbolism. The word “rises” in the title is significant.
Make no mistake, “Dark Knight Rises” is a lot of movie, with a lot of a characters and a lot of subplots, including a “Papillon”-style prison escape drama. But Nolan never loses his grip on the weighty material, and all the various characters and subplots mesh, not just within this film, but with the preceding films. This is unprecedented feat of sustained cinematic storytelling.