Name another director who is on this kind of a run:
Batman Begins (2005)
The Prestige (2006)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
That’s 5 in a row—it would be 7 if Insomnia in 2002 had been more impressive because Memento (2000) is perhaps the best one of all. Even so, 6 highly impressive and critically-acclaimed films out of 8 (I never saw his 1998 debut Following) to start a career is not bad at all.
Each of these films bear particular Nolan trademarks: dark films that are loaded with imagery and gravitas. His movies usually sound great and they always are visually stunning. He delivers exceptionally powerful performances from his actors and crafts stories that are complex but accessible. But that’s not what I love the most about a Christopher Nolan movie. What I love the most about a Christopher Nolan movie is its mythology. Each one exists in its own world, with its own rules and, more important of all, its own truths. And, of course, the greatest example of the Christopher Nolan mythology is his now-finished trilogy of Batman movies: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and the just-released conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises.
The mythology of Batman existed long before the first Nolan film, but Nolan skews it, recreating it as a darker, more brooding and infinitely more serious superhero story than we’re used to. And that’s why it works. Batman Begins told of Batman’s beginnings in a somber and aggressively disturbing way. In The Dark Knight Batman finds a purpose and even love, but any glimmers of hope for a light-filled life are destroyed as both his girlfriend and his legacy are murdered. And now, in the final chapter of the Nolan Batman saga, The Dark Knight Rises asks our hero to again come out of the darkness to fight a powerful villain, even though we all know it probably won’t end well.
And that’s the thing…do we need it to end well? Nolan’s Batman—and its mythology—is so seductive because of its darkness, because it has, at its center, a hero who is not only conflicted, but genuinely tortured within himself. No other superhero is quite as desperate or lonely as Batman is and that’s strangely part of his charm. There’s no Iron Man winking at the camera here. None of Spider-Man’s “I just want to help out” innocence or Superman’s “aww shucks” rescues here. It’s serious business to be Batman and if you’re not on board with it, you just won’t appreciate it.
But there sure is a whole lot to appreciate here. While Dark Knight Rises doesn’t come anywhere near the overall excellence that its predecessor The Dark Knight achieved, it does work even better on the meta-level, giving us much more to chew on, thematically and philosophically, even morally, which makes it a richer, albeit less perfect film.
Possibly the best thing Nolan does here is he creates enough space between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises so the two feel sufficiently distinct from one another. There can be no equaling Heath Ledger’s brilliance as the villainous Joker in The Dark Knight (for which Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), so Nolan goes the opposite way for the villain here, casting the hulking, imposing brute force of nature Tom Hardy as Bane, the disfigured ex-con hell bent on revenge against a society that wronged him. The Joker was interested in power and money, Bane is interested in the exact opposite. He wants to forge a revolution against those in power, starting with the banks and the stock brokers. It makes for a telling reflection of our times, inevitably bringing comparisons to the Occupy movement, but, to be honest, I found it more reminiscent of the Russian revolution scenes from Dr. Zhivago. Either way, the “revolution” scenes here are impressively done, and Hardy is able to make a common thug chilling and alluring, even though it is a real shame to have to keep those lips covered. There were difficulties understanding all of Bane’s lines, considering he speaks through a mouthpiece, ala Darth Vader, but what we can hear is so delightfully sinister—with a hint of smirk—that I longed for more.
More, however, would prove to be this movie’s undoing. Understanding some of Bane’s lines was not the only problem I had with the sound during The Dark Knight Rises. The drenching, overpowering and endlessly booming score (by the normally brilliant Hans Zimmer) crushes everything in this movie. It drowns dialogue and becomes so incessantly brain-pounding that I wondered if I had wandered into a bad theatre or was sitting right under the speakers. But when I heard others complaining about the same thing, I realized that a disastrously wrong choice had been made, ruining for me what could have otherwise been the movie experience of the year.
It’s doubly disappointing when you realize how true Nolan stayed to the mythology he had worked so hard and done so well to build up over the previous two films. He had done everything right, including having four Oscar winners in the cast (Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman) and at least one, possibly three future winners (the energizing Anne Hathaway, the solid Gary Oldman and the refreshing Tom Hardy), making it even more shocking that it could all go so wrong so easily. Such a simple thing done badly can make all the great work disappear. Now you know why you sit through all those seemingly boring categories at the Oscars: they really do matter.
So it’s hard for me to know what to tell you here. The movie itself is another in the Nolan catalog of not-perfect but visually and thematically-brilliant movies that is a well-made and stirring finale (?) for one of Hollywood’s greatest heroes. But even Batman can’t save this movie from a score that overreaches in the worst ways. Composer Hans Zimmer needs to get in touch with his alter-ego: Subtle-Man.