There is no irony in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight world. No “c’mon folks, it’s just a guy in a mask.” Nolan is dead serious about his tortured comic hero. This distinguishes him from Joss Whedon, who served up his excellent The Avengers with a giant wink (while still basking in the literal pleasures of the genre). Nolan buys in fully to the Batman mythology, treats it with almost evangelical reverence.
In Christian Bale, he has found the perfect collaborator, an actor who takes his craft so seriously, he has been known to starve himself (more than once!) to fully inhabit a role. So what do these men see in the Dark Knight? They see a Nietzschian figure—representing the polar extremes of man: His capacity for enormous strength—moral and physical—and his capacity for violence and abject nihilism.
Also, there’s a woman dressed like a cat.
Okay, so maybe I don’t take Batman quite as seriously as Nolan and Bale do, but nevermind. It’s great to see gifted people passionately invested in something like this.
And, oh, what an epic trilogy it has been.
Part two, The Dark Knight, will always be the best, by virtue of Heath Ledger’s crazed, hilarious, indelible performance as The Joker. But this is a fitting conclusion.
Wisely, Nolan doesn’t try to give us another charismatic villain. Tom Hardy’s Bane is pure monster—his face obscured by a grotesque mask, his voice dehumanized by a Darth-Vader like speaker.
The breakout performance here is from Anne Hathaway as Cat Woman (cleverly, her “ears” are actually a kind of special safe cracker’s goggles, that she props on her head.) She’s the jolt of sexiness, energy, and wit that the film so dearly needs—especially since Bruce Wayne is such a grump. But, if anything, Hathaway’s so good she throws the film out of whack. There’s another significant woman in Wayne’s life, Marion Cotillard’s billionaire environmental activist Miranda Tate. But she doesn’t quite resonate the way Hathaway does. (When you can make an earthy sexpot like Marion Cotillard recede into the background, you know you’re doing something right.)
The other newcomer here is Joseph Gordon Levitt (cute how Nolan is reassembling his Inception cast, huh?), appealingly relatable as an earnest and brave cop with a dark past of his own.
With this final installment, Nolan continues to distinguish himself as the greatest director of large-scale action scenes in the business. Full confession: I’m usually the type who suffers through action sequences, glancing at my watch, waiting for the sensory assault to end. Not so with Nolan—from the first scene of an airplane hijacking, to the hand-to-hand combat between Batman and Bane (both were trained to fight as ninjas by the League of Shadows), to an extraordinary scene where a halfback tries to outrun a bombed out football field (bonus! The scrambling-for-his-life runner is played by Heinz Ward) —I was riveted.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman—quite literally, two of the most reliable actors in the business—are back as Wayne’s wise old cohorts, both part enabler, part conscience. And Gary Oldman has a heroic spin as James Gordon, the police commissioner who is a true Batman fanboy.
The politics of the film are a bit muddled—with bits of 9/11 hysteria mixed with Occupy Wall Street anti-capitalism. And the film’s extreme violence is particularly hard to watch in light of last night’s Colorado shootings. (There are no words to describe how sad and sickened I was to wake up to this horrific news. My deepest sympathies go out to the victims and their loved ones.)
The Dark Knight trilogy has always been about internal struggles writ large against a high-stakes action backdrop. And no recent film has done that better.
So can Nolan and Bale go back to making real movies now?