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Many critics and cinema-goers have wondered whether or not The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, was really, in its essence, a superhero film. The key ingredients were all there on a superficial level – the costume, the techno toys, the cackling baddie bent on citywide destruction – but Nolan had stirred and synthesised them in new ways to craft a lucid, sinewy crime epic closer to Michael Mann’s Heat and Coppola’s second Godfather film than anything Marvel Studios has yet produced.The Dark Knight Rises, the third and emphatically final film in his Batman trilogy, goes even further: for the most part, this is a superhero film without a superhero. Batman here is less a character than a symbol, then a cipher, and later an icon, and swathes of the film pass without its notional hero appearing on screen in full, Caped Crusading regalia. (With a running time of two and three quarter hours, it’s fair to say The Dark Knight Rises is a film that can be divided into swathes.)Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is living a Howard Hughes-like existence in his Manor, “holed up with eight-inch nails and peeing into jars,” as a Gotham congressman indelicately puts it. Thanks to draconian laws passed in the wake of the Joker’s spree, the city’s streets have been cleaned up, and the need for a costumed crimefighter is no longer too pressing. In fact, Bruce is only spurred back into action when a cat burglar called Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) infiltrates Wayne Manor and swipes his late mother’s necklace (Nolan’s script, co-authored with his brother Jonathan, never lowers itself to using the C-word: Catwoman). But it’s Bane (Tom Hardy), a gas-masked, ox-built revolutionary who paints himself as “Gotham’s reckoning”, who is the far greater threat. Nolan introduces his villain in a thrillingly ambitious opening sequence: here, Bane and his cronies are extracted from central Asia on a CIA plane which is plucked out of the sky and demolished piece by piece – with no visible use of computer graphics – by a second, larger aircraft. Like all of the action sequences in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan shoots the scene with a minimum of artifice and visual fuss, which imbues inherently far-fetched scenarios with a chilling plausibility.Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker was disguised as a bank robber in The Dark Knight, Nolan fools us into thinking his big bad guy is a footsoldier before revealing his true face, but this time the trick has a deeper, thematic significance. Bane issues a call to arms to the recession-struck citizens of Gotham, to rise up against businesses and institutions that grew fat at their expense: in this film, the everyman is the most dangerous, powerful figure of them all.Fortunately, one of those everymen is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a beat cop whose integrity impresses Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and who becomes a key figure in the fightback against Bane’s weaponised masses. The Dark Knight Rises is Blake’s story as much as it is Bruce Wayne’s, and while to say more would spoil the fun, Gordon-Levitt’s character arc is perhaps the juiciest and most compellingly-plotted of the entire trilogy.Themes and imagery from the first two films are interwoven effortlessly, with an enormous African bottleneck dungeon recalling the well down which a young Bruce plummeted in Nolan’s Batman Begins. But Nolan makes the most of his broadened palette and spiralled budget. I spotted riffs on sequences from Lang’s Metropolis and Eisenstein’s October and there are extensive borrowings from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in the film’s second and third act. At one point, Gotham’s Blackgate Prison is stormed like the Bastille, with Bane a kind of steroid-pumped, morally curdled Ernest Defarge. (It’s worth noting that Hardy’s hollow, Vader-ish voice has been cleaned up following early test screenings: he is often inscrutable but seldom unintelligible.)The scope here is unashamedly novelistic, and although the plotting of the film’s first act is arguably muddled, Nolan’s sheer formal audacity means the stakes feel skin-pricklingly high at all times: if he is prepared to go this far, I found myself often wondering, just how far is he prepared to go? Well, the answer is further than any other superhero film I can think of: after a breathless, bravura final act, a nuclear payload of catharsis brings The Dark Knight Rises, and Nolan’s trilogy, to a ferociously satisfying close.
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