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The Fire, The Voices, The Torment! Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

It is difficult to not simply resort to hyperbole when greeted with a film as infinitely satisfying as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. So well crafted is the work on show, and so downright captivating is the material presented that it’s tempting to simply wallow in the scale of everything, one’s critical faculties crippled in the face of the grandest of visions. It’s debatable as to whether or not there has been a project quite as highly anticipated as this, the British filmmaker’s closing chapter to one of the most successful film franchises of all time, in recent memory at least, but it’s probably safe to assume that it features very highly in the consciousness of both the mainstream and geek culture. 

The opening section of the film is the most leisurely paced, as the director prepares his canvas for the chaos that will reign over it before pictures end. Following a breathtaking opening prologue, which introduces the audience to Batman’s latest adversary in a fashion that sets the tone for the rest of the picture (it’s big and it’s loud, it’s tense and it’s terrifying, and all told physically, without the aid of computer generated imagery) we step back and see the wider landscape laid out. Gotham is dissected and placed back together. Layers of society are outlined, from criminal to king, before being merged together to form a grand tapestry of the city. If The Dark Knight owed a debt to the oeuvre of Michael Mann, then the final, and most expansive film in Christopher Nolan’s Bat-franchise takes its cue from Fritz Lang, and most especially to the director’s 1931 sprawling tale of crime and the city M. Superimposed over the top of this great city tale is the contextually relative story of Bruce Wayne. Several years out of the limelight since last we met, Wayne is forced to readopt the mantle of the Bat in the face of Gotham’s greatest threat to date, which sees a city fall first economically, and then physically.

With a storyline so achingly relevant that one might be excused for suspecting that the Occupy movement was an extravagant piece of viral marketing for Mr. Nolan’s opus, the current political climate proves the ideal superstructure on which for the director to reflect upon. Contemporary mirroring for this series is nothing new: Batman Begins, the first film in the reinvigorated Batman franchise was an explicitly reactionary piece to the events of 9/11 and notions of fear, while The Dark Knight, with it’s musings on truth and justice, can be read as a reaction to the political and authoritative fallout seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in which the “system” failed the people (and lets not forget, The Joker was often referred to as a “force of nature”). The Dark Knight Rises hinges itself upon the financial meltdown, with economics the ultimate doomsday device held by the terrorist threat at the heart of the movie (and one earlier mooted by the antagonist of Batman Begins). What better device for destroying the American Dream than the couplets of Capitalism? While Gotham City might be the fictional North American city over which the Batman sits perched, it remains the archetypical AMERICAN city in every other way. Nolan subverts the iconic imagery of the US in his quest to portray it’s downfall: the Star-Spangled Banner (the song) acts as a precursive hymn to chaos, while the Star-Spangled Banner (the flag) waves flatly post-chaos, threadbare and half-broken. The humble yellow school-bus, previously a vessel for transporting chaos in The Dark Knight, here acts as a getaway vehicle from certain doom.

There’s no greater visual signifier of the threat hanging over Gotham than Bane, the primary villain at the centre of this latest instalment. As with Batman, Bane is as much of a symbol as an actual presence. If the earlier villain was “a force of nature” then Bane is a bona fide natural disaster. And quite literally too: how many supervillains have the means or capacity to force the Earth below them to quake? Bane, while ever the lacking figure in his initial iteration as a comic-book villain (and let’s not mention his brief appearance in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin) is given a new lease of life in The Dark Knight Rises. Reinvented from the ground up, although bearing some semblance to the character during his Bane Of The Demon mini-series, Nolan’s Bane makes for the ideal correspondent to the director’s Batman: the academic equal as well as the physical, and an orphan to boot, albeit one lacking the comforting figure of an Alfred Pennyworth in place of parents.With that in mind, it’s the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred that is perhaps the key line running through the series. The films most dramatic scene plays out between the two, sans score with the only accompanying audio being the echoes of the increasingly dramatic debate taking place between the two (with this particular exchange the inverse to the stifled dialogue of Bane).

Elsewhere, an exciting ensemble fills out the on-screen personas. John Blake, a new character in the Nolan series is the natural successor to Harvey Dent, serving as a reminder of what the latter could have been, had the events of the earlier film played out differently (he also recalls Thomas Wayne too, the series’ first analogue for good). He is good, personified, and an example of Wayne’s ultimate vision of the Bat as a symbol inspiring and aiding the ordinary. Extending the shared protagonist attitude employed with The Dark Knight this latest instalment is even more of a multi-character work. Much of the third-act build-up to the final reel takes place without the titular character on-screen at all, instead choosing to focus on the efforts of a Gotham rising against a threat too big for any one man to handle. Blake, and to a lesser extent, Gordon are at the forefront of this opposing revolution. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (who is notably not once referred to by her more famous moniker) is on fine form too, her debutante anarchist making for an intriguing element within the grand scheme playing out, and a formidable counterpart to the films other strong female presence, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate.

It’s a brutal film, but one that is not as disturbing as it’s immediate predecessor. Structurally the work is one ground in an urgency and escalation. Nolan even throws in a staggered fade to black, no doubt intended as a nod to the concept of the interval if not preceding an actual pause, following one of the films most personally intense moments, and a sequence which leaves our protagonist in a state of limbo. While many films would struggle to build upon such a moment, The Dark Knight Rises uses such a situation as mere warm-up, with the film escalating in to unimaginable areas as the film progresses in to the third act. Put simply, the film is huge. The scale of the thing is quite unlike anything one might expect in this age of digitisation, and impresses even more greatly when placed alongside it’s lacklustre contemporaries that overly rely on such tricks to convince audiences that empty bombast trumps actual spectacle. It’s on this front that the Nolan film succeeds greatest, the site of several thousand actual humans engaging in action a sight to behold. Iconic imagery bleeds subtext, while allusions to the earlier films in Nolan’s series (especially Batman Begins, with both films containing highly personal “Bruce Wayne must overcome…” arcs, that never feel tired in their similarities) ensure that The Dark Knight Rises is the ideal final chapter to a series rich in overlapping and under-riding ideas.

The Dark Knight Rises cements the notion that the cinematic blockbuster landscape of 2012 is one set to be remembered for the formidable performance of the superhero movie, both critically and commercially. While Joss Whedon’s The Avengers feels like a new dawn in superhero cinema, Nolan’s film feels very much like the end of another. And it’s not only the end of an era in terms of a franchise, but the end of an era in filmmaking: it’s safe to assume that Nolan’s spectacular finale is the end of grand scale 35mm filmmaking. With that in mind one can’t help but find the whole affair a rather somber one. But a glorious one at that.