Movie Review: A Tale of Two Gothams

Pathos and politics mix in The Dark Knight Rises, an appropriately explosive finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.


Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham sits in an uneasy state of peace. With Batman taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes, Dent has become a martyr, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has used the Dent Act to clean up the streets. Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired his cape and Bat-gadgets, becoming a Howard Hughes-style recluse. He’s snapped back into action by the attentions of wily cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and the machinations of the terrorist known as Bane (Tom Hardy). When Bane proves to be a match for Bruce/Batman both physically and intellectually, Bruce must redouble his efforts and form a new plan of attack if he is to save Gotham from descending into chaos.

When Christopher Nolan re-booted the Batman series with Batman Begins, he eschewed both Tim Burton‘s gothic shadows as well as Joel Schumacher‘s gaudy eye candy for a grittier, more realistic approach to the character. The Dark Knight further went into an exploration of what makes a hero or a villain, while focusing less on the action, buoyed by a searingly brilliant turn by Heath Ledger as the Joker. For The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan continues in the same direction; his focus is squarely on the psyches of his characters and not on the superheroics that have come to define the character’s previous incarnations.  

Bruce Wayne’s summer wardrobe.

Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, hasn’t made a “comic book movie.” Instead, he’s made a movie that happens to have its roots in a comic book. Unlike the Marvel films, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy focuses so much on the mundane that it’s easy to forget that comics were involved at all. This is both an asset and a fault. Nolan’s focus on the earthbound portions of the setting grants the film a sometimes-unsettling realism, but it also serves to dampen the film’s spirit. After all, few people go to superhero films to be reminded of the real world. This approach works better with Batman, a hero with no supernatural abilities or mystic powers, than it would with other heroes, however.  

There is decidedly less action in the film than one might expect, especially at a running time of nearly three hours. When the sequences show up, they proceed at a quick pace, a clipped rhythm that doesn’t feel rushed, but also doesn’t linger on any one fight for too long. Action isn’t Nolan’s strong suit, but the pieces here are more refined and much more solid than the previous films in the trilogy. And unlike previous Batman films, both Nolan’s and other’s, there is much less focus on the exotic gadgetry associated with the character. All of this changes at about the 2-hour mark, however, when the film switches into overdrive and begins to resemble a more typical action film. Nolan deserves a grand commendation, though, for refusing to film in 3D, focusing instead on pure composition and structure rather than on gimmickry.  

Faster, pussycat…well, you know the rest.

While it’s refreshing to see the film focus so much on the earthly aspects of the characters, Nolan’s love of realism only goes so far. The dialogue often feels inorganic, even occasionally unrefined, with far too many detours into clunky exposition. Some of the cast can make the script work, some can’t, and the film thrives entirely based on who’s on screen. The script isn’t helped by Hans Zimmer‘s relentlessly thunderous score, which more often than not threatens to overwhelm the entire film, dialogue and all. Zimmer’s constant barrage of staccato strings and bass-heavy drums serves to dull the film’s impact to the point where the negative space of silence is a very welcome thing.
But who is the Batman? Once again, it’s Christian Bale, who has always made a better Bruce Wayne than he did a Batman. Luckily, he actually spends relatively little time in the mask, since the film is much more about Bruce’s personal struggle and his fight to resolve what the symbol of Batman means to him and to the world. Having publicly and internally demonized Batman at the end of the previous film, Bruce has to turn Batman, and himself, back into a symbol of hope for the people of Gotham. Bane’s physical power means that Bruce has to re-train himself on virtually every level, and Bale does a good job of showing Bruce’s struggles without overdramatizing. He’s less impressive in the Batman suit, if only because he’s still using that ridiculous, deep, raspy voice. It’s understandable in that context of the film, but would it be too much to think that Wayne Enterprises at some point made a voice-altering device that could be disguised as a tooth?  

Seriously, that voice is REALLY annoying.

Speaking of voice-altering, that brings us to Bane, the film’s antagonist. While studio executives reportedly pushed to have the Riddler as the film’s villain, Nolan wisely went in a direction far removed from the previous villains in the trilogy. Bane is Batman’s equal in both the physical and mental arenas. He’s better at tactics than the Joker, who isn’t even alluded to once throughout the film, out of respect for Heath Ledger, and his intelligence is much more focused and purposeful. He’s not trying to teach Batman or anyone else a lesson as much as he is simply trying to destroy people on all levels. He’s a tremendously more straightforward menace than the Joker, but that doesn’t make him any easier to deal with.

It was a curious decision to cast Tom Hardy in the role, since Bane spends the entire film behind a mask that resembles Darth Vader‘s faceplate in the arms of an alien facehugger. With 30 extra pounds of beef on his frame, a shaved head and half of his face obscured, he’s unrecognizable. There’s an intentional disconnect between Bane’s brutish appearance and his learned voice, but it could easily have been achieved using Tom Hardy in voice over and a more physical actor in the role. As it is, Hardy’s voice is too often rendered unintelligible by the mask’s filter.  

Bane. Capitol.

Anne Hathaway more than makes up for this, however, with her absolutely hypnotic Selina Kyle (who is never once called Catwoman during the film). Unlike Michelle Pfeiffer‘s vengeful wallflower, Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is a struggling member of the lower classes, targeting those people who can afford it and who, in her mind, don’t deserve the luxury of wealth while the majority of people suffer. However, she’s also not in the habit of giving her spoils away; her home is full of her pilfered goods. It’s clear that Selina steals because she doesn’t know anything else, and her character arc deals with her need to do what she has to do weighed against the need to do what’s right. Hathaway is perfect on all levels, a sexy, cynical and confident demeanor masking a vulnerable, even hopeful heart. Her scenes with Bale crackle with energy, even if Hathaway has to provide most of it. Bane may be Batman’s mental and physical equal, but Selina Kyle is his match in charisma and personal magnetism. She’s also amazing at high kicks in stiletto heels.

Kitty in the city.

The film’s supporting cast is huge, almost unnecessarily so. Gary Oldman is as stable a force as ever as Gordon, a healthy dose of practicality and rationality in the midst of the chaos, this time joined by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as idealistic cop John Blake. Gordon-Levitt is a good partner for Oldman, his “hot-headed” energy a compliment to Oldman’s steadiness. Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, an ostensible love interest for Bruce who never really has much chemistry with him. Cotillard is excellent, and she’s a good foil for Bale, but their connection never feels truly genuine. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, Batman’s high-tech guru, and Freeman looks as if he’s grateful to be playing a role light on gravitas. Other characters return as well, mostly as cameos, such as Nestor “no, his eyelashes are really just very thick and dark” Carbonell as Mayor Garcia and a host of others that shouldn’t be spoiled. It’s a case of sequel bloat that Nolan never truly addresses, but it eases up around the half-way mark.

It’s tempting to read a lot of current politics into the film, especially into Bane’s plan to give the city “back” to the people by fomenting a violent rebellion against Gotham’s richest 1%. However, the story was developed long before the Occupy Movement took public prominence. It’s almost impossible to ignore it, however, given the film’s focus on class struggle and Nolan’s desire to give the film a very real sense of verisimilitude. It’s telling that Bane’s first target in Gotham is the stock exchange, where the only hostages he takes are businessmen and traders, not the ordinary workers that keep the place running.

Nolan isn’t trying to make a film about current politics or really about any politics at all, besides the politics of being human. The film is about perception and reality, about the masks people wear both literally and figuratively. Bane’s ostensible concern for the common person is really just a ruse to get Gotham to destroy itself by letting people’s inner natures take hold. Bruce has to reclaim the Batman as a symbol of hope and courage for the world, but to do so he has to also change himself so that the mask amplifies his inner nature instead of hides it. The whole plot of the film centers on how Harvey Dent’s crimes were covered up to protect his name and nature, a decision which ultimately causes more problems than it solves and is, in the end, more destructive than constructive.


Nolan brings the Dark Knight trilogy to an ultimately satisfying and logical end. Both he and Christian Bale have stated that they would not return for a fourth film, and if DC wants to include Batman in the rumored Justice League movie, they’ll need to reboot the character anyway. Nolan’s Batman isn’t a comic book character as much as he is a character period. He would feel distinctly out of place among Superman, Wonder Woman and all the rest. Nolan’s trilogy isn’t about good and evil as much as it as about the fluid nature of heroism and the struggle to find out where each of us sits on its axis. If you’re looking for escapism, this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for gritty, realistic drama, broken up by admittedly thrilling, occasionally absurd battles and some latex bodysuits, this is the one.

Rating: 7 out of 10 / B

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and occasional vigilante. <a href="; title="imageimage

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