The horrific events of Aurora, Colorado have overshadowed the release of the most recent instalment of the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight Rises. It is unfortunate that these films seem unable to avoid tragedy, as it leaves a sad mark on what should be an enjoyable experience.
Christopher Nolan is at the helm, having assumed both directing, and with brother Jonathan, writing duties. Nolan is an intelligent filmmaker, with an impressive catalogue of well-scripted and slickly filmed neo-noir thrillers to his name. From Memento to Inception he has consistently shown an ability to not just entertain, but to innovate. He has certainly rescued Batman from the doldrums of some truly cringe-worthy films of the 90’s. Those films harked back to the pantomime of the TV series of the 1960’s, starring Adam West, and were little more than cartoonish advertisements for action figures. Nolan’s two previous excursions into Batman territory, 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s The Dark Knight gave a depth to the character that had long been absent from the big screen.
The film takes place some years after the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is dead, but the tough laws he initiated before his transformation into the maniacal Two-Face have seen most of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals behind bars. Batman, having taken the rap for Dent’s death, has disappeared, leaving the protection of the city in the capable hands of the police, including the ever-reliable Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the enthusiastic Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt). Bruce Wayne too, has faded from the public view, having become a recluse as he mourns the loss of his lover, Rachel Dawes at the hands of Dent. It seems he has contented himself to shuffle about Wayne Manor, wallowing in self-pity as his business empire crumbles in the wake of a misguided energy investment, spearheaded by Wayne Enterprises board member, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
Christian Bale has proven himself more than capable of portraying the dual role of the Batman and Bruce Wayne. He is in essence, a character actor with leading man good looks. He possesses an emotive quality that carries the role of damaged billionaire playboy with aplomb, and his performance here is not entirely removed from his depiction of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho a decade ago. Meanwhile, his Olympian physique and a voice that could curdle milk ensure that he imbues the caped crusader with plenty of action hero credibility. But with no Joker or Two-Face to attract his attentions, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is in desperate need of a worthy foe to give him a renewed purpose.
Enter British actor Tom Hardy as Bane, an ultraviolent mercenary intent on bringing anarchy to Gotham City. Hardy is an impressive actor, and a star on the rise. Like Bale, his action-hero physique belies an ability to deliver intelligent and thoughtful performances (see Inception or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). His performance is charismatic and one hopes should dispel all memory of pro-wrestler Robert Swenson’s regrettable outing in 1997’s Batman and Robin. Hardy is however, hindered at times by a rather grotesque costume that has drawn some deserved criticism for the manner in which it muffles his voice (a puzzlingly toffish English accent).
Bane proves a more than worthy adversary. A brazen attack on the stock exchange bankrupts Bruce Wayne and forces him to relinquish control of Wayne Enterprises. Then with some assistance from the traitorous Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), he beats the Batman to within an inch of his life and banishes him to a hellish prison.
After watching him beaten physically and mentally, the most interesting element of the film comes from seeing Batman rebuild himself and earning the mantle he created. Nolan understands that the character is more than just an action hero. He is a man consumed by fears and driven by a singular desire to do right by the city his father built. A city that, thanks to Bane, finds itself isolated and cowering under a nuclear threat.
There is no question that this film will prove a financial success. The challenge for Nolan will be whether he can penetrate the collective consciousness in the same fashion as The Dark Night. That film, buoyed by a wave of sentimentality following the death of Heath Ledger, was forgiven for some of its weaker points. And so captivating was Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker that few care to remember the plodding sub-plot following Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face.
The Dark Knight Rises is instead a much more complete film. Nolan has long understood that Batman is no solitary avenger. The supporting cast has always been as important to the success of the character (and the films). Indeed, Hathaway’s contradictory Catwoman has the same level of depth and complexity as the lead (and puts Halle Berry to shame). Nolan has shown the confidence to allow his actors to show off their abilities and let characters grow. Gary Oldman’s transformation of Commissioner Gordon into a guerilla crimefighter is electrifying.
The film also provides a refreshing antidote to 2012’s other superhero blockbuster, the melodramatic The Avengers. With the massive success of the cartoonish Marvel comics films over the last few years, it is encouraging to see that the superhero format still allows for stories that focus on character and setting over spectacle and campish one-liners. Nolan is producing an upcoming reboot of the Superman franchise, directed by Zach Snyder. Snyder has previously delivered what was perhaps the most sophisticated superhero film to date, The Watchmen, the visual style of which was largely informed by Nolan’s Batman films. Early previews suggest that it will adopt a similar tone and, whilst we will have to wait until 2013 to find out whether this duo can bring their same deft touch to The Man of Steel, the signs are promising.
Watch the The Man of Steel trailer here.
**** (4 stars)