TIME’s Review of The Dark Knight Rises: To the Depths, to the Heights

Make way, puny Avengers, for the grand tale of a superhero in emotional crisis, as Gotham City faces economic collapse and a reign of terror. Can Batman even come to his own rescue?

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(Warning: mild spoilers throughout — though the film has enough big surprises that you need not worry.)

A gang of thugs has just looted the Gotham City Stock Exchange and crashed out on motorcycles, hostages in tow. The police are helpless as they pursue the miscreants into a tunnel. Suddenly, the tunnel goes dark. A familiar vehicle with monster-truck wheels, driven by a man in black cape and cowl, has joined the chase. Batman is back. An older cop observes the action, smiles and says to a rookie, “Boy, you’re in for a show tonight, son.”

The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), Christopher Nolan’s mesmerizing climax to his trilogy reboot of the DC Comics character, is a show, all right. But not in the way of the standard summer action fantasy. Although his movie contains elaborate fights, stunts, chases and war toys, and though the director dresses half his characters in outfits suitable for a Comic-Con revel, Nolan is a dead-serious artist with a worldview many shades darker than the knight of the title. The Avengers is kid stuff compared with this meditation on mortal loss and heroic frailty. For once a melodrama with pulp origins convinces viewers that it can be the modern equivalent to Greek myths or a Jonathan Swift satire. TDKR is that big, that bitter — a film of grand ambitions and epic achievement. The most eagerly anticipated movie of summer 2012 was worth waiting for.

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Reuniting the core crew from his 2005 Batman Begins and the 2008 The Dark Knight — Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as his butler Alfred, Gary Oldman as police commissioner Jim Gordon and Morgan Freeman as the entrepreneur Lucius Fox — Nolan has created new roles for four of the actors from his 2010 hit Inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the resourceful cop John Blake; Tom Hardy is Bane, the monster who would bring Gotham to its knees; Marion Cotillard is the philanthropist Miranda Tate; Cillian Murphy, who also played the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, returns as a hanging judge as the city explodes in chaos. And Anne Hathaway creeps in and out as Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman.

Eight years after he dispatched the Joker (Heath Ledger) and took the rap for killing Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the idealistic district attorney who had become the villainous Two-Face, Bruce lives morose and secluded in Wayne Manor, seen only by Alfred. Gotham appears at peace, with no organized crime surfacing. By there’s at least one gifted solo artist. Selina, in maid’s garb, manages to pick Bruce’s private safe, making off with his fingerprints and a necklace she has the gall and style to wear. The theft stirs Bruce out of his torpor, and he shows up at a charity ball hosted by Miranda. Selina, momentarily Bruce’s dance partner, tells him, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, cause when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

(MORE: To Catch a Thief: The Evolution of Catwoman)

The form of the storm is a creature called Bane, an immense hulk with an air of courtly menace and, to reduce his pain, a tubular mask that looks like a small creature from the original Alien permanently leeched onto his face. Long ago, Bane escaped from a deep Asian pit where tough men were left to wither and die. Now he is the muscle, and possibly the brains, of the League of Shadows from Batman Begins. And he has a master plan to free — read: enslave — Bruce’s city, employing the ability to cloud men’s minds by lightly touching their heads and, even more effective, a four-megaton nuclear device. “I’m Gotham’s reckoning,” Bane proclaims. “I’m the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.” And to ensure that the debilitated Batman won’t get in the way, he leaves Bruce in the hellhole Bane grew up in.

To clarify some of the plot elements in TDKR, take a refresher glance at Batman Begins. That first movie begins with the young Bruce, in his garden with his lifelong love Rachel Dawes, falling down a deep well into a pit that, for a child, was as terrifying as the pit Bane consigns him to. Worse, because out of the darkness fly a flock of bats. (Hence Bruce’s fear; hence his creation of the Batman doppelgänger to conquer that fear.) As a young man he is drafted by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into training for the League of Shadows, an elite cadre of militant do-gooders — anyway, doers — whose Shadow in Chief is Ra’s al Ghul. The first of many father figures for Bruce, Ducard appears again in TDKR. So do other plot strands: an ice pond that must be crossed, the sealing off of Gotham’s bridges, the jacket of Bruce’s dead father that Jim Gordon drapes on the shoulders of a poor little rich boy.

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As a boy in Batman Begins, he saw his parents murdered by a street thief; those deaths triggered his vigilante vengeance. As a man in The Dark Knight, he lost Rachel in an explosion; that death sent him into his eight-year seclusion, devotedly tended by his servant and surrogate parent, Alfred. But Bruce is not the only TDKR character in a prolonged state of bereavement. John Blake’s father, also a policeman, was killed the night Harvey Dent died. Another character, the offspring of one of Batman’s earlier nemeses, tells him, “I could not forgive my father until you murdered him.” All these grownup children are members of the Dead Parents Society; all are emotional orphans.

Crippled by personal tragedy, then forged into something more durable and dangerous, Bruce, John and the rest express or repress their true nature by playing roles, donning masks. “No one cared who I was,” Bane says through his respirator, “until I put on the mask.” John, who feels a filial kinship to Batman, recalls his days in an orphanage: “You get to learn to hide the anger, practice smiling in a mirror. It’s like wearing a mask.” Selina hides in plain sight, wearing her Catwoman frock at a society ball. When Bruce says, “That’s a brazen costume for a cat burglar,” she asks, “Yeah? Who are you pretending to be?” He replies, “Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire.” When does the pretense become the persona, and the persona the person?

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Nolan’s mask is his guise as a director of comic-book entertainments, when he’s really out to excoriate American greed and laziness and its citizens’ susceptibility to a demagogue’s threats and promises. Bane — who could be Osama bin Laden with Darth Vader’s voice in “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s body — convinces or cows virtually the whole city with his harangues. (He’s a very verbose dictator.) In TDRK, the mayor is smug, the deputy police commissioner is weak, the government eager to lock up suspects without trials, the Gotham rabble eager to loot the penthouses of the wealthy when Bane declares the city liberated. “This was someone’s home,” says Selena, briefly stricken by conscience as the mob trashes a Fifth Avenue mansion. Replies Selina’s giddy sidekick Holly (Juno Temple): “Now it’s everyone’s home!”

The film’s allusions to the Patriot Act and the decadelong incarceration of terror suspects in Guantánamo are obvious; and this time the connection of Gotham City to New York City is scarily explicit — at least to people who live or work in Manhattan — with scenes shot at the New York Stock Exchange and the specter of terrorism brought to the city’s streets not by airplanes but by in-person anarchy. The Occupy Wall Street connection is probably pure chance, since Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the script (from a story by the director and David S. Goyer) long before last September’s start of demonstrations in Zuccotti Park.

But the Occupy Gotham coincidence fits Nolan’s nearly Olympian misanthropy, his disgust with the corruptibility of both class and mass and his suspicion that the only salvation is in a nearly invincible hero — a rich man with the strength and altruism to save desperate America from itself. (Is Bruce Wayne Mitt Romney? Is Batman a Mormon?) Beneath that comic-book dream of the infallible fixer is an implicit warning that, in the real America, a superhero will never fly out of our dreams and into the night sky.

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Occasionally the movie’s pulp and fantasy origins expose themselves. The opening set piece, in which Bane and his cohorts are rescued from captivity in a CIA plane by hitching a ride on a larger jet flying above it, is the kind that was more suavely imagined in several James Bond films decades ago. (Bane, through his apparatus, often sounds like a 007 villain; you wait for him to say, “No, Mr. Wayne, I expect you to die.”) You may also wonder why Bruce took ages to learn, even from Alfred, that his business empire is near depletion; why no Gothamite, police or civilian, thinks to shoot Bane in the leg or apply a kung fu kick to his respirator; why, in a street fight between Batman and Bane, none of the thousands of allies or adversaries joins in to take one or both of the men down; and why the thin frozen ice, on which condemned men in wintry Gotham are meant to fall through, miraculously refreezes for the next group of victims. (There’s another implausibility at the end, involving a plane and a nuclear bomb, that we won’t parse here. We’ll just say: if you live across the river from Gotham City, move.)

More often, though, the movie’s emotional gravity gives special heft to venerable Batman tropes. When, after all these years, the Bat-Signal illuminates the sky (Bruce has draped an unconscious villain on a searchlight to form the famous silhouette), it’s seriously thrilling, because so much more is at stake here. Batman Begins showed Bruce’s hellish preparation for his defense of Gotham, and The Dark Knight illuminated a skirmish with one charismatic Joker; those movies sounded the alarm for the all-out war movie that is TDKR.

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Composer Hans Zimmer’s percussive score underlines the dovetailed themes of battle and death. The first sounds in the film are a heartbeat’s thump-thump-thump that grow ever fainter; and Zimmer proceeds with sounds mimicking gunfire and ticking machinery. The movie’s pace, both solemn and brisk, is a miracle of conveying reams of narrative — a hallmark of the old Hollywood masters, whose storytelling was typically more synoptic and coherent than that of today’s directors. TDKR is old-fashioned in two other ways: it renounces both the 3-D standard for big action pictures (though 72 minutes of the 160-minute movies can be seen in the IMAX format) and the tendency to make every movie digitally. A proud end credit reads: “This motion picture was shot and finished on film.”

This motion picture also boasts performances whose range and depth match the material. Among the series’ new recruits, Hardy eventually reveals Bane as a creature who inflicts no more pain than he has experienced; Cotillard makes Miranda a seductive plutocrat generous enough to fund a bold new society; Gordon-Levitt is so appealing as a straight shooter, a kind of junior-grade Bruce Wayne, that he could spin off a superhero series of his own. Only Hathaway doesn’t perform as if she’s wearing weight-of-the-world epaulets; Michelle Pfeiffer’s frosty-furious Selina, in Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns, was closer in tone to TDKR. But Hathaway, for all her ripe smiles, also allows for the ambiguities that transform a poor kid into a Catwoman. And she, like Bale, looks great in black.

(MORE: Battier and Batter: Review of Batman Returns)

Caine’s Alfred, frequently on the verge of tears as he talks tough Cockney love to Bruce, imparts a depth of poignancy nearly shocking to viewers; they forget they’re in an action picture and recalibrate their sensibilities to accommodate Caine’s rich, naked portrayal. Bale, a boyish 30 when he first slipped into the cape and cowl back in 2004, has matured impressively in the role. For the first half of TDKR he is a gaunt, haunted wraith, so weary of life that he might have joined his beloved Rachel in the grave. Then he has to throw off what Miranda describes as his “practiced apathy” and transform Bruce, through the most arduous regimen, from a weak sister whom Bane can easily humiliate in a fight to the new, improved Batman facing his and Gotham’s direst challenge. When Catwoman warns the Crusader to forget about the city’s rabble because he’s “given them everything,” the whispered reply is, “Not everything. Not yet.” By the end, the actor has given everything, left every nuance and agony on the table for his big finish. So has his director.

Nolan has said he was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; he borrowed the novel’s setting in a time of revolution, its use of a storm motif and its proliferation of characters who are the doubles or mirror images of each other. (Bane, who literally went to the same school as Bruce, might be Batman’s evil twin.) At the end, Alfred reads the last lines from A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to than I have ever known.”

That could be a summing up of Nolan’s Bruce/Batman, and of The Dark Knight Rises. The movie may not top The Avengers at the worldwide box office, but it is a far, far better thing — maybe the best, most troubling, assured and enthralling of all the superhero movies.