To make a film about a character like Batman is to reckon with the notion that all of the good stories have been told.
70 years of publishing history—not to mention comics, novels, cartoons and video games—swirls through the Caped Crusader's cloak. With all of that comes a fan base that can quote Bruce Wayne's various sagas chapter and verse. The Dark Knight Rises triumphs by working what those diehards crave to see on the silver screen into an intense, super-sized action drama that's not afraid to grapple with ideology.
Dark Knight Rises starts eight years after Nolan's last Bat-film and finds a reclusive Bruce Wayne brooding in his ancestral home after the events of The Dark Knight. The Batsuit has lain unworn for almost a decade and it seems like Wayne's sacrifices might actually have won Gotham City new hope for its future.
But then mercenary terrorist Bane comes to Gotham with destruction in mind, shattering economic, political and architectural infrastructures to cripple the once crime-ridden metropolis. As a diminished Bruce Wayne gears himself up to take down a foe that appears to be stronger and more zealous than Batman, he's also tracking down a larcenous femme fatale targeting Gotham's wealthy power brokers.
Nolan—working off of a screenplay from his brother Jonathan based on a story by David Goyer—lays down heavy fan service references as if he knows that part of his audience wants movies made from nothing but source material. The air of finality from The Dark Knight Returns, the lyricism of Birth of the Demon and the hopelessness of Knightfall all get woven in the movie to excellent effect. Flashbacks to the first two Bat-movies let Nolan mine the twisty recursive tropes of monthly superhero comics while revealing a larger vision that lays in wait for audiences to discover.
But for all the fan service and reverence in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan also folds in a few plot beats that might rile hardcore Bat-fans. Unlike Burton and Schumacher, Nolan has always seated his take on Batman in a world that tries to mirror the one we live in. So, his Batman doesn't quite have the dysfunctional psychology to make him see a war on crime as never-ending. He's not immune to emotional yearnings either, like so many iterations before him. In fact, one of the movie's recurring ideas is a tug-of-war between what Bruce Wayne owes himself and the price Batman pays for safeguarding a city.
Nolan also gets some depth from exploring ideas that Batman has struggled with in comic form. Batman needs a recipe of social stratification, fatalism and moral relativism to even exist at all. Certain moments in the film poke at questions that follow these givens. What does it mean when a billionaire decides to fight crime? Isn't Batman just upholding a status quo that is itself unfair? Is there another kind of justice that can be achieved without wearing a cape and a mask? The destruction that happens in Gotham feels like a direct consequence of those questions, making Bruce Wayne an even more tragic figure than before.
That tragedy seems to live inside of Bale's face. The film's lead seems paradoxically confident playing Batman at his lowest ebb. You'll believe that he's broken and ready to sacrifice himself one more time. As strategic strongman Bane, Tom Hardy brings dark, rumbling amusement and a white-hot fervor. He's not going to make anybody forget about Heath Ledger's Joker. Nevertheless, Hardy makes Bane into a hypnotic menace using frightening muscularity and snarling detachment as raw materials. And I liked his weird accent, too.
Yet, it's Anne Hathaway who steals every scene she's in. Her turn as Catwoman adds a subversive, mischievous glee to Gotham's dour gloom and she seems like she's having an immense amount of fun. A callback to the campy 1960s Batman? Maybe, but even if it isn't, Hathaway's performance adds just the right touch of balance to Hardy and Bale's burning machismo.
The camerawork feels like an evolution from Nolan's previous outings with the DC Comics icon. The action stays away from the obfuscating quick cuts so common in superhero movies. There's grinding physical and psychological pain in this film and Nolan lets the camera linger long enough to make sure your eyes won't miss it.
A major character in The Dark Knight Rises has a line about structures becoming shackles. It's hard not to read that as meta-commentary. What makes this film so enjoyable is the sense you get of Nolan playing with the space between formula and freedom. He knows what the fans know and teases them with that telepathic link, pulling them all the while into taut metaphorical reflections on human nature. You're not only getting the Passion of the Bat. You also get chilling scenes of class warfare, economic collapse and shoddy due process. The Dark Knight Rises finishes an operatic cycle of myth-making where a familiar story becomes re-imagined for new times and layered with increased resonance.