Some things are just required.
Early on in the imposing finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, when one character tells another that the caped crusader must return from exile, there is grave doubt that he will. The blunt response: “He must.”
He does – Batman is back, an underdog as never before, in a high-budget thriller with depth, inventive storytelling and superbly crafted action. There is resolution and, even more important, there is room for sequels.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan had ambitious aims for the franchise he revived.
It’s not only packed with high-toned classical and contemporary cultural allusions, but manages to wear its popcorn inspirations on its sleeve. On the latter front, there are touches of Rocky, as well as Die Hard, but never far are echoes of 9/11 and the U.S. financial collapse of recent years. (The villain is named Bane, which intended or not, brings to mind this year’s Republican candidate for president and his infamous corporate alma mater.)
Stylistically, Nolan’s tone is both epic and human – this is a film ultimately about fear and how it is overcome. The message – “rising from the darkness” – is adroitly and powerfully addressed: Bruce Wayne must rebound from personal loss; Gotham must emerge from a terrorist attack.
Not to say it’s all weighty. Catwoman is the source of a few adroit inside jokes. She is played, surprisingly, with panache and a seemingly 16-inch waist, by Anne Hathaway. “A girl’s gotta eat,” is how Catwoman justifies her life as a burglar, if not her tiny figure.
It all begins at Wayne Manor, where there are no strange happenings. Indeed, there are no happening at all: A brooding Bruce Wayne – Christian Bale again, to the manner born in this role – is hobbled and humbled, in ways physical, emotional and financial. The war on crime was won by the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, and Wayne is uneasily retired as a crime fighter.
Money doesn’t sleep, though, and peace doesn’t last. Gotham City is overrun by thugs, led by Bane – a primal brute who sounds like Sean Connery and is built like the Hulk (an instantly classic turn by Englishman Tom Hardy) who pledges to liberate the city (under the threat of major explosives) and release the oppressed. On the surface this is Bastille-storming and palace revolt.
The bulk of the thumping, high-octane action doesn’t take place on the surface at all, but in Gotham’s sewers, which provide Nolan’s film with a perfect noir setting. When the bombs detonate from below, the city collapses under its own weight – “structures are shackles,” Bane mumbles through his creepy muzzle.
Michael Caine again stands out as the soulful butler of Wayne Manor, Alfred Pennyworth.
This is a sequel that succeeds, meeting expectations built ridiculously high by fan culture and savvy marketing. In the end, Nolan’s Dark Knight rises to the occasion.