Batman is gone. Bruce Wayne is scarce. The Joker is old news, and Gotham is safe. As an obnoxious congressman tells his deputy, the once-admired police commissioner Jim Gordon has outlived his usefulness to the mayor. “A war hero,” he sneers. “This is peacetime.”
It’s the end of a trilogy all right. As such, The Dark Knight Rises, which first released 10 years ago on Saturday, was a massive and messy finale for Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. “It tests the weight a superhero movie can bear,” wrote the late Roger Ebert in his review. To Nolan’s credit, he added the weight gradually. His first entry, Batman Begins, set the bleak but just barely hopeful tone. This Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale, is a vengeful crime fighter trained in martial arts by the League of Shadows, until he defects, determined to protect his hometown from the League and its leader, Ra’s al Ghul.
It wasn’t the first superhero movie to take its source material (and itself) a bit more seriously—Stephen Norrington’s Blade and Ang Lee’s Hulk come to mind—but Batman Begins was a critical breakthrough for capeshit and a critical rehabilitation of Batman in particular. It was a thinking man’s superhero movie. The sequel now overshadows Batman Begins with its impossibly long cape, so to speak; The Dark Knight set a new and enduring standard for comic book adaptations and immortalized Heath Ledger in his intense turn as the Joker. Every supposedly serious superhero movie of the next decade and a half (and counting) would be judged against Nolan’s second installment.
So of course the final movie in this trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, suffers, as much as any other comic book movie suffers, from comparison. The Dark Knight Rises was decently reviewed upon release but with time it’s developed a slight, but unmistakable, air of disfavor. This isn’t X-Men: The Last Stand or Blade: Trinity or anything so abysmal; The Dark Knight Rises isn’t bad, it’s just rather meandering in its midlife crisis portrayal of the retired Bruce Wayne, and it’s sorely lacking the ideological conflict in earlier movies. It’s a bit less thoughtful. It’s a bit less Nolan. It’s a lot less Batman. It is, in fairness, a story in large part about the beleaguered hero’s dereliction. In the eight years since Batman thwarted the Joker and killed Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has been reduced to self-pity, holed up in Wayne Manor. The record-low crime rates and whitewashed legacy of Harvey Dent lull Gotham into complacency—and then along comes Bane.
The decisive figure in this movie’s reputation isn’t Batman, but Bane. He’s everything right with the film. He succeeded Ledger’s Joker—a tough break at the time—with Tom Hardy largely basing his performance on Irish brawler Bartley Gorman (as opposed to the lucha libre caricature in the comics). Hardy’s Bane has one crucial thing going for him: He’s cool. His mask? Cool. That midair plane hijacking at the beginning of the movie? Cool. “Do you feel in charge?” Very cool. The back-breaking fisticuffs in the sewers? Sensational. The pit? Fight me. His plot to bankrupt Bruce by shooting up the stock exchange? Admittedly stupid. His intention to blow up Gotham with a neutron bomb? See previous.
Yes, he loses steam in the last half-hour of the movie, and even then at least he gets some clever last words. Bane is by far the coolest thing about The Dark Knight Rises. This despite the early complaints from theatergoers who couldn’t hear what he was saying through his mechanical mask. Bane heaves and creaks and beats the shit out of people. It’s incredible to watch even his most casual violence, such as him decking three security guards with a bike helmet hurled with utterly disproportionate force. He’s the only villain in these movies who steps to this swole and brutal Batman with a physical advantage. He trivializes the Batman who spent the earlier movies cracking ribs and smashing jaws. The Joker trivialized Batman, too—You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with!—but Bane trivialized Batman on Batman’s own physical terms. Thematically, Bane doesn’t work quite like the earlier villains. His inconsistency with Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker is, in fact, the smartest decision a director could’ve made at this point in this series. Nolan’s alternative, I suppose, would’ve been summoning yet another main villain trying to “well, actually” Batman to death with trolley problems and hypocrisy charges. It’s refreshing, then, to see Bane show up with no convictions of his own, only muscles and tenor and a fable about despair.
But that’s also the problem with Bane. He’s a simple-minded proxy for the late Ra’s al Ghul, and rather unlike Ra’s and the Joker, Bane doesn’t particularly care about Batman. Bane and Batman tangle in the sewers beneath Wayne Enterprises. They have a heart-to-heart in the far-flung pit where Bane, once imprisoned himself, now imprisons Bruce. There’s otherwise not much to say about their relationship or their opposition to one another. It’s a physical contest and not much else. This might be fine in some other series but, in the previous movies, Nolan sold us a character drama. Bane is a bit too much of a meathead for that; an eloquent meathead but a meathead nonetheless. Nolan also sold us thrillers. There’s rich intrigue in Ra’s al Ghul’s conquest of Gotham in Batman Begins. Likewise there’s a great deal of suspense in the Joker’s plot to ruin Gotham by turning various factions against one another in The Dark Knight. In contrast, in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane takes Gotham by brute force. There’s some minor intrigue in the discovery of Bane’s operation beneath Wayne Tower and in the unmasking of Bruce’s lover, Miranda Tate, as Talia al Ghul. The particulars of Bane and Talia’s plot are more convoluted than intriguing, and the flowchart, from the CIA plane hijacking in Uzbekistan to the nuclear ransom of Gotham, is shockingly straightforward.
There’s also the vapidness in Bane’s revolutionary theater. He raids the NYSE—sorry, I mean the Gotham Stock Exchange—and bloviates against the carceral state on the steps of a downtown prison. This all feels a bit ironically detached given Bane’s very apparent indifference to human suffering and human affairs. Nolan discouraged the common comparison to Occupy Wall Street, saying he wrote The Dark Knight Rises a couple of years before the occupation of Zuccotti Park. His main inspirations, he added, were the Reign of Terror and A Tale of Two Cities. Either way, Bane’s siege gives Gotham a bit more political texture in keeping with the municipal drama of the previous two movies. Unfortunately, Bane’s siege, especially in comparison to the Joker’s killing spree (and certainly compared to the French Revolution), feels a bit pointless. It’s the avowed endgame for the League’s plot to destroy Gotham, sure enough, but now it’s so far removed from the character (Ra’s al Ghul) and the conditions (lawlessness) that consigned the city to this fate back in Batman Begins.
Rewatching The Dark Knight Rises a decade later, I get the sense that Nolan didn’t care to resolve Batman so much as he hoped to resolve Gotham. This is why The Dark Knight Rises strands Batman in northern India for a solid 45 minutes and mostly follows Gordon and the detective, John Blake, and the catburglar, Selina Kyle, with Blake never adopting his canonical alter ego, Robin, and Kyle never adopting her canonical alter ego, Catwoman. These are real people reclaiming their city from the delusions of comic book writers. In a sense, Nolan made the movie we’re often saying we want to see: a less credulous, more humanistic depiction of the sort of society that lives or dies by the whims of superheroes and supervillains. The Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises is a gray place, no longer the pitch-black nightmare of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but not yet drawn into natural sunlight. It still needs heroes. It could do without capes.