The Dark Knight Rises is grim, grand and massive. It’s the perfect conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s superhero franchise. I think it deserves Oscar recognition in multiple categories. Now, don’t get carried away because I said that. I know what I’m saying. I don’t claim the film to be multilayered or subtle or perched on realism. It doesn’t aspire to achieve any of these. But what it is set out to do, it couldn’t have been done better. The most brilliant aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is the high degree of parallelism- there are several primary characters in so many threads of events that run together simultaneously.
Batman Begins took us through the heart and soul of Bruce Wayne. We knew by the end of it, why he does what he does. The other characters in the series including, and especially, The Joker were strongly characterized. But we never knew why they are the way they are. Character development was absent in the commercially compromised The Dark Knight. In the Dark Knight Rises, the origins of every character are known. Nolan split The Dark Knight into good and bad; like a logician would. Scenes of ‘the people of Gotham’ planted on two ships and forced to choose between the lives of others and that of their own came off to me as a simplistic exercise in moral science. The act of Batman making the selfless choice of playing scapegoat to Harvey Dent’s criminal activities rings false. Particularly because this happens not long after he selfishly chose to rescue his girlfriend over ‘the shining example of justice.’ Even with all these flaws, The Dark Knight still emerged as a successful film. The Dark Knight Rises is the perfect antithesis to both, the central theme of fear in Batman Begins and that one thing that The Dark Knight had to say - “People deserve more than the truth. They deserve their faith to be rewarded.” And I don’t believe I’ve come across another film-maker letting the audience see him take diametrically opposite standpoints on a subject and defend them both with equal conviction.
Let me finish with all the lighter aspects of the film before I get into the underlying themes. I shall begin with Bane, the chief selling point of The Dark Knight Rises. This big, menacing and evil brute might not possess the distinct characterization or the charisma that The Joker had but he is fear inducing with his imposing presence each time he makes his way into the narrative. He has his own vision of Project Mayhem. One could easily jump to the conclusion that he has nothing to lose. But quite a few shots show him sitting with his back arched down and his head hung low, indicating that he’s pained in some way by this plan of mass destruction. That faint ray of hope in his life is revealed only at the very end. Bane is played by the beefed-up Tom Hardy who lends his body to the role, serving as the perfect canvas on which the character must be sketched. The character, however, belongs to Film-maker Christopher Nolan. Using his technical crew, he creates a fully fleshed-out character. The introductory shots of Bane are from behind, forcing your eyes to trace the lining of his upper back. It makes the 198-pound Hardy look broader than he really is. Consider the showstopper fight sequence in the sewer. The sets might have been scaled down to blow up this 5’9-er, as might have been Christian Bale’s stunt double. The lighting makes you take note of every cut on Bane’s chiselled mass. The absence of Zimmer’s inflated and momentous score is precisely what makes this fight sequence raw and gritty. The music in Bruce Wayne’s life stops. The coolest character here is Selina Kyle, a struggling kleptomaniac who charms the audience with her bag of tricks. Anne Hathaway takes a star-making turn here lacing her lines with comic wit. There’s Blake, an idealistic young cop who still has his faith in basic, elemental good. His long speech to Bruce Wayne about how he intuited Batman’s true identity could’ve easily come across as a load of bullshit. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his finest acting moment yet, finds the right balance of earnestness and conviction. Scarecrow makes a re-appearance here as comic relief, exiling dirty capitalists for the sheer pleasure of it. The wisest character in The Dark Knight Rises is a self-aware, unnamed doctor locked up in Bane’s pit. All his scenes are shot from a single chosen angle and you see him guide Wayne with great words of advice as he prepares to rediscover light. He’s learnt so much of the human condition in prison from watching people try and fail repeatedly. He’s a physical embodiment of Nolan’s voice and your key to the film’s philosophical core.
Bruce Wayne has trust issues. We saw that at the end of The Dark Knight. We see it again here when he refuses to go public about the self-sustaining clean energy project he’s invested in out of fear of it being turned into a nuclear weapon.
In a moment of crisis, before an impending doom, Blake asks a bickering old man- “Do you really want to let these people die without hope?” This is a question lurking inside Nolan’s head- “Do you want all these people to leave the theatre without hope?” You couldn’t end a movie on a gloomy note after preaching about rewarding people’s faith. The climax is not just intentionally ambiguous, it’s perfectly ambiguous. If you want the truth, you take the truth. If you want the hopeful ending, you take it. Nolan once again touches upon the handling of the truth. Do people need to be trusted with the truth? Or do you reward their faith and not let the truth ‘have its day’? Nolan examines both sides of the coin with such grit that you couldn’t possibly choose one over the other. And by the end of the film, you’ll know that he remains just as ambivalent.
More than the wrecked state of his body, Bruce Wayne is crippled by his mental recovery. He slowly recovering from his grief- we even see him engaging in an affair with Miranda Tate, he’s overcome his fears and he’s not nearly as angry as he once was. The drive to fight is lost. Bane gives him back that fear and anger, both of which set back in after months of torture, not of his body but of his soul, in prison. And along with that fear of death, comes the survival of the spirit. Bane is not just the cause for Bruce Wayne to get back in the game; he is Bruce Wayne’s only hope of being able to resurrect his Batman avatar.
Bruce Wayne loses all his money, ends up imprisoned and comes face to face with defeat, and despair. Then he performs the most impossible feat of all- escape Bane’s prison. His final attempt at that is a heavy dose of adrenaline; a heart-racing, heart-pounding moment that is guaranteed to have you at the edge of your seat. Nolan believes that the fear of death is the most powerful impulse of the spirit. Everything that happens in Bane’s pit stands testimony to Tyler Durden’s greatest quote “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” which Bane reiterates with “Victory has defeated you.” Nolan also has a thing or two to say about the mind-body dichotomy. He even briefly revisits grief through Miranda Tate’s motivation- she forgives her father only after he’s gone.
I like how Ra’s Al ghul makes a cameo appearance here. Bruce Wayne lets his restless mind fill in the blanks of an incomplete story- a brilliant ploy by Nolan to misdirect the audience so that he can later serve up a completely unexpected twist on a silver platter. I have grown weary of twists but this one was ingenious. The scene where Batman’s air vehicle hovers over all those scared but angry policemen slowly trudging towards Bane’s army gave me a sudden rush of blood to the head. Take the final shot of Batman. The one last look in his eyes... a glint of despair and a hint of regret. Very moving. I don’t think I’ve seen another film consisting of so many ideas, packaged with commercial elements (mind you, they’re like oil and water) into a wholesome entertainer. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t just a masterpiece. It’s philosophy class, like Fight Club. I always knew that Christopher Nolan was a genius in structure and storytelling, but only now do I realize that he’s an intellectual of the highest order.