The third movie in a trilogy often becomes an embarrassing mush. Along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, think of Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III. The only good that came out of that movie was that Sophia Coppola moved behind the camera, and has become a fine director. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an exception, because of its strong source material and Peter Jackson’s filming it as one huge movie.
The good news is that The Dark Knight Rises is another exception to the “3rd Times the Harm” rule. It is a fitting conclusion for the series.
The movie begins with an action sequence even more thrilling than the bank robbery in The Dark Knight. A CIA agent (Aiden Gillen) and his crew of paramilitary operatives take custody from a local warlord of a rogue nuclear physicist, Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul) as well as three hooded men who supposedly work with a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy). While in flight, the CIA’s plane is literally hi-jacked by Bane’s operatives in order to get Dr. Pavel, for whom Bane has plans.
In Gotham City, it has been 8 years since Batman rode off into the dark after taking the blame for the crimes that Harvey “Two-Face” Dent committed. In that time Gotham has been freed from much of the crime that had plagued it, thanks to draconian laws passed in Dent’s name that have filled the city’s jail. Every year the anniversary of Dent’s death is a time for celebrating the DA’s supposed sacrifice, including a gala garden party held on the grounds of the rebuilt Wayne manor (after it was destroyed in Batman Begins by Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Shadows).
In those 8 years, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes’ figure, a hermit locked away in his mansion, mourning his lost love, Rachel Dawes. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has paid a price as well; his family deserted him as a consequence of his covering up of Dent’s crimes. He’s asked to give a speech at the garden party about the real Harvey Dent. Gordon pulls out notes which tell the truth, but thinks better of it. A business colleague of Wayne’s, Miranda Tate (Marion Cottilard), tries to meet with him during the party, but Alfred (Michael Caine) rebuffs her efforts.
Inside Wayne Manor, Alfred directs one of the catering staff to take a food tray to a locked wing of the mansion, unaware that she’s Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a burglar known as the Cat-woman. Wayne interrupts her as she’s taking an heirloom necklace from the safe. His previous adventures have taken a toll on his body, and Selena is able to escape, picking up a congressman on her way out. Afterward, Wayne finds fingerprint dust on the safe. Apart from the necklace, Selina has stolen his prints.
When the body of a youth is washed out of a storm drain, policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recognizes the boy as a former resident of the orphanage where Blake was raised. After talking with Blake by the smashed Batman signal on the roof of police headquarters, Gordon promotes Blake to his assistant. Selina meets her contacts to give him Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for her fee, but she finds she’s being double-crossed. She pulls her own double-cross and brings Gordon and the police racing to the scene. The hoods escape into the sewers. While following them, Gordon is captured by Bane, who’s living beneath the city with his gang. Gordon manages to escape, but is shot in the process. Blake has figured out Batman’s identity, and he barges in on Wayne, forcing Wayne to return to the world of the living.
Christopher Nolan had always viewed his Batman movies as a trilogy, and that vision has paid off in a final chapter that is not only strong in itself but also wraps up themes and pays off moments from the first movie. The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (based on a story developed by Nolan and Batman Begins co-writer David Goyer) expands on The Dark Knight to create a fully-rendered world. Nolan had decided, after the death of Heath Ledger, to not mention The Joker in this movie. Rises is so full on its own that you won’t even notice the omission.
As with the previous movies, the acting is sterling. Bale, Oldman and Caine layer onto their characters the regrets and pain accrued in the previous two movies. The new characters, and the actors playing them, blend seamlessly into the Batman world. It helps that Hardy, Cottilard, and Gordon-Levitt worked with Nolan on the twisty, fascinating Inception. Hardy embraces the anarchy of Bane, an erudite ‘roid rager extraordinaire. Gordon-Levitt has the thankless task of playing a straight arrow, but he pulls it off beautifully and believably. Cottilard offers a possible salvation for Bale’s Wayne, both on a business level as well as emotionally.
The opposite side of Cottilard’s coin is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. Catwoman has been both fascinating and frustrating in previous incarnations. You have the campy purr-formances of Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt in the 1960’s Batman series and movie (Julie Newmar originated the role, and was the best of the three). In 1992’s Batman Returns, Michelle Pfieffer was mesmerizing. 2004’s Catwoman expanded on the character’s backstory from Batman Returns, but the film was an embarrassing mess. Now Nolan has raised the bar for the character, just as he did with Batman in Batman Begins. There’s a depth we’ve not seen before, and Hathaway embodies it beautifully. (She has said she’d be interested in doing a spin-off for the character, if Nolan would be involved; here’s hoping that will happen.)
The movie runs 12 minutes longer than The Dark Knight, but if anything you’ll be sad to see it end.
I’ve kept any mention of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado until now because I don’t want to give any greater place to the madman who perpetrated that horrible crime. Christian Bale showed a grace beyond what we often see when he and his wife quietly visited with the victims, first responders, doctors and nurses a few days after the shootings. My prayers are with the many that were injured, and the families of those who lost loved ones. But I choose to end by remembering three men: Jon Blunk was a security guard who’d served 8 years in the Navy, and was in the process of re-enlisting, hoping to become a SEAL. He was 25 years old. Alex Teves, 24, had served as a mentor at the University of Arizona near his hometown of Phoenix as well as at the University of Colorado. Matt McQuinn, 27, had just moved to Colorado from Ohio with his girlfriend. All three men gave their lives to save others, using their bodies as shields. The Dark Knight Rises extols the virtue of heroes taking a stand to protect others from evil. Jon, Alex, and Matt showed the reality of such heroism in their sacrificial act.
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13