The shadow of Harvey Dent looms large over The Dark Knight Rises. He was, after all, the hero Gotham needed, though he lived long enough to become the villain. The lie that was told to protect his legacy has damaged two men, though it brought a sustained period of peace to their city. In a story that echoes the vestiges of the Book of Judges, and strains to make a few allusions to Jesus Christ, Christopher Nolan has brought his Dark Knight Trilogy to a fine, if somewhat exhausting, conclusion.
The fall of Gotham is precipitated by a terrorist known as Bane (Tom Hardy). He’s a cold villain, calculating and vicious. His intentions for the city have their root in a long struggle, one the Batman has had to face before. But the Batman (Christian Bale) isn’t ready for this. He’s been asleep for too long, broken from his battle with the Joker. Now, eight years later, Bruce Wayne finds he is unable to hide away as danger once again comes knocking. And, as before, he’s never more at home with himself as when he gets to wear a mask.
This is the first Nolan film I’ve seen where all the essential Nolan ingredients are present, but they never quite fit together. This is a giant movie, and it requires giant characters to rise to the occasion. Bane just can’t rise to Nolan’s own established level of villainy. He has a solid grip on evil and brutality, but he doesn’t have any depth. He gets a decent back story, but instead of injecting a sense of self into his being, it just skirts around the peripherals. Bane is more of a cipher than a character; a metaphor for an idea. It works pretty well for the most part, and shows in stark reality how evil and terror can evolve from noble-minded memes. Bane might even recognize that, but he isn’t out to philosophize. The grief of the one percent is merely an opportunity to tear down a shining city on a hill.
The thing is, though, that Gotham is not a shining city on a hill. It still could be, one day. This film finally brings Gotham to the tipping point, to a place where it has the chance to become the place Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, always believed it could be.
Which brings me to the shadow of Harvey Dent. Despite the effort to protect Dent’s legacy, the city has languished in a state of apathy, even if it has enjoyed a period of peace. Wayne looked to Dent as a man who could be the symbol of goodness, benevolence and justice without a mask. The problem here is that no one in this story can really fill that void.
Except for one man—I’ll get to him in a minute.
The film doesn’t feel as solid as it should. It ties everything up and pays a lot of attention to things that dazzle, but not enough attention to things that inspire. Like the men in uniform, for instance. For two films, the Gotham police force has been infected with corruption. Here, at last, the police have embraced righteousness. What they lack is courage and conviction, and one supporting character, Officer Foley (Matthew Modine), serves as an anchor for their development. The plot draws him a nice arc, but Nolan doesn’t execute it as well as the character deserves.
And then there’s Alfred (Michael Caine). Wayne’s moral compass. The man who said he would never give up on him. Never. Well…let me just say that the story loses one more ingredient that could have made a good thing a whole lot better.
This is a big movie, though. Even without some of the essentials, the stakes climb high enough to compensate. Almost. There are times when things get a little too cluttered to let anyone savor the meticulous work that went into this film. The action sequences are full of bombast, but only a handful really hit that sweet spot where action and meaning combine to make something special (and even then, it’s something we’ve seen before, and that film did it better).
The film’s strengths do their best to prop up this unsteady giant, and one of them rests on the shoulders of a rookie cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Blake emerges as a singular ray of hope for Gotham, and for the film. He’s devoted himself to protecting the innocent, and he does it without wearing a mask. He’s the man they all wanted Harvey Dent to be in the last picture. He’s someone who cares for orphans; who looks after the least of these. This is the hero that Gotham deserves, the one that it needs. The film recognizes that, and pays it off well.
I haven’t even mentioned Selina Kyle yet. The movie never stoops to call her Catwoman, so neither will I. Anne Hathaway lifts Kyle above a script that doesn’t give her much to work with. What it does provide, though, Hathaway uses to its fullest extent. Kyle is a mixed up mess of clever deceit with a twisted sense of moral conviction. Which makes her a good foil for the Batman, who’s just as twisted, even if he happens to be on our side.
You read the book of Judges and you’ll notice a pattern. The people of Israel would fall into corruption and under oppression, and God would raise a judge to restore peace. After a while, the people would return once more to corruption, and the whole cycle would start all over again. Nolan’s trilogy is the story of a judge. This chapter is about a world in transition that is only starting its long hard climb out of hell and to the light. In that way, it doesn’t feel so much like an end, and perhaps that is the point. Nolan likes to stick the titles of his Batman movies on the ends of the films because their conclusions always clinch the title’s meaning. At the end, the dark knight does rise, and in some ways—in good ways—it feels like it’s only the beginning.