Where the Batman movies are concerned, I tend toward the contrarian. I’m one of the few people who prefer Tim Burton’s garish Art Deco caricatures to Christopher Nolan’s broody, self-serious approach. And now I’m also one of the few people — or so I suspect, based on the initial run of reviews — who think that Nolan’s final installment, The Dark Knight Rises, outclasses the two films that preceded it.
The finale’s strengths will be overshadowed, inevitably and appropriately, by the massacre at the film’s midnight premiere in Aurora, Colo. (Between Heath Ledger’s untimely death and now this larger horror, Nolan’s movies have been as death-haunted as their hero.) But they were probably destined to be overshadowed in any case by the absurdly inflated cult that grew up around 2008’s The Dark Knight, which simultaneously overrated that film and raised expectations for The Dark Knight Rises far beyond anything that a superhero movie could meet.
Drop those expectations down a notch, though — below the level of the Godfather saga, let’s say, to cite one of the implausible comparisons that Nolan fanboys sometimes make — and you’ll find that Rises has a coherence and confidence that make it outstrip its much-praised predecessor.
There is no performance here that matches Ledger’s turn as the Joker, to be sure. But The Dark Knight was really two films stitched together: a two-hour movie that pitted Batman against the Joker, and then what should have been a sequel — about the corruption, after a grisly mutilation, of the heroic D.A. Harvey Dent — that was instead shoved into a rushed and unconvincing final act. And for all its self-conscious grittiness, the last Batman movie never quite lived up to its much-touted promise of a “world without rules”; it let the Joker talk a good game about making the citizens of Gotham “eat each other” without allowing him to vindicate that boast.
Rises, on the other hand, has a more linear, less unwieldy plot, and it pushes the limits of its comic-book universe a little more than The Dark Knight ever did. The Dark Knight was a movie about terrorism; Rises is a movie about revolution. The Joker was content to play games with Gotham and its caped defender, but Rises actually brings the city to its knees.
The origins of the revolution lie in the moral compromises that closed out the last movie, when Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s sins, turning Dent into a law-and-order martyr and laying the foundation for a vast expansion of police powers that have made the city safe. But a safe metropolis can still be an unhappy one, and as Rises opens, Gotham has become a city divided between haves and have-nots, plagued by unemployment and presided over by a smug and increasingly out-of-touch ruling class. Leaders such as Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) are being eased into retirement, idealistic young cops like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake are being ignored by their self-satisfied superiors, and Bruce Wayne himself (Christian Bale, still growly and withdrawn) is skulking in his mansion while his company circles the financial drain.
Enter Bane, a masked and muscled mercenary (played by the British actor Tom Hardy, basically just providing a charismatic voice-over, since we never see his face) who’s hired by one of Wayne’s corporate rivals but then turns out to have a bigger sort of hostile takeover in mind. His emergence coaxes Wayne back into the Batsuit, but the billionaire vigilante has lost a step, and he finds himself powerless to prevent Bane from turning the city upside down — first with an assault on the stock exchange, and then with a playbook straight out of the French Revolution, complete with emptied prisons, ransacked penthouses, and show trials for the richest 1 percent.
The fact that Bane himself turns out to have essentially non-ideological and even nihilistic motives doesn’t change the political resonance of these plot developments. If the way The Dark Knight portrayed its Gotham version of the war on terrorism sometimes felt like an implicit defense of George W. Bush, then the way that Rises evokes and then critiques a phenomenon like Occupy Wall Street feels even more explicitly right-wing.
But not stupidly right-wing: The movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the existing order’s corruptions, and it seems to endorse the judgments that its most charismatic character, Anne Hathaway’s lithe and sexy cat burglar (the word “Catwoman” is never uttered, but we know who she’s supposed to be), passes on the rich people she’s stealing from. The movie’s critique of revolution isn’t any kind of Ayn Rand–style paean to the rich and successful, and The Dark Knight Rises never pretends that the order its hero is defending expresses any sort of cosmic justice. All it suggests is that even a compromised order is usually preferable to a revolution, and that even an imperfect civilization can be worth dying to defend.
I don’t want to overpraise this film, as too many people overpraised The Dark Knight. It’s an imperfect vehicle for its self-consciously important themes, and it doesn’t quite transcend what seems to be the inherent two-dimensionality of the superhero genre. But if you like what Nolan has been doing within the genre’s confines, I think there’s a case that you should like this movie most of all.