There are lots of reasons why Batman deserves to be the superhero of choice among adults who generally prefer another kind of movie. The character’s origin story focuses not on the acquisition of magical powers, but on the psychological damage he suffered from seeing his parents murdered on the street as a child. He relies solely on his wits, his physical prowess and the latest technology to fight crime. And apart from a brief detour into TV-series camp in the 1960s, Batman’s story (which was first told in 1939) has mostly been one of moral complexity and painful choices — just like real life.
Despite that rich history, no one has explored the character on film like British-American director Christopher Nolan, whose much-loved Dark Night trilogy comes to an end with his sprawling and somber epic, The Dark Knight Rises. As a filmmaker, Nolan’s own origin story involves a few strong-minded and fiercely independent movies like the widely acclaimed Memento. It now appears the director has been holding out on us since those early days. The Dark Knight Rises may be the first art film crafted expressly for the multiplex. It certainly has its flaws, especially in the final third. But it makes the first two entries in Nolan’s trilogy look downright conventional in comparison. There’s no denying its mastery of tone or the depth of its tortured soul. It’s a dazzling end to the series by any reasonable measure.
The Dark Knight Rises doesn't seem likely to please anyone looking for light summer fare. It would have better suited the holiday season, where serious films briefly become the norm. After an opening sequence that recalls the best of the James Bond movies, the story picks eight years after the end of The Dark Night. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a hopeless recluse after taking the fall for the murder of Harvey Dent, and Wayne’s existential woes have only deepened. He gradually finds his way back to life and his Batman persona, but the movie has many other things on its mind and takes its own sweet time restoring Batman to former glory.
It’s impossible not to miss Heath Ledger and his brilliant turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, especially since brutish villain Bane (Tom Hardy) hardly compares. Standing in for the late actor as a looming presence is the entire city of Gotham. The Dark Knight Rises was shot in a number of cities, but the results tie Batman’s fictional home to the real world of Manhattan as never before. This sets the stage for thematic elements clearly intended to conjure both the 9/11 attacks and the Occupy Wall Street movement, bringing Batman that much closer to verisimilitude.
Like so many heavily plotted movies, The Dark Knight Rises eventually gets tangled in the intricacies of its own story. A major plot twist lacks the proper set-up to fully ring true, and the movie’s politics are muddled and troubling. But none of this keeps the film from getting to the heart of what makes Batman such as enduring character. You have to feel sorry for whoever hopes to improve on Nolan’s trilogy with the next Batman movie. The Dark Knight Rises will be a tough act to follow.