At the risk of sounding like genius DoP/Avengers Assemble critic Wally Pfister, let’s keep this summer’s superhero ruckus alive.
Christopher Nolan’s trilogy closer lost to Joss Whedon’s quip-fire assemblage at the box office, but Christian Bale’s comment on TDKR’s extras explains why Batman rises above Marvel’s spandex sizzler.
“We always wanted to show the consequences of what [Bruce Wayne] does.”
A sense of consequence barely bothered Avengers Assemble, joyful as it was, but Nolan reveres the dramatic clout involved in having something at stake. In his Gotham, emotional wounds linger, action has heft and moral choices have repercussions lent substance by real-world fears.
Is that more than a film about masked men growling at each other can take? David Cronenberg argued so: “I think it’s still Batman running around in a stupid cape.”
Roll with the pulp punches, though, and Nolan’s integrity of narrative and worldbuilding stands as a rich, dense benchmark of old-school epic storytelling in a climate of weightless CGI spectacle.
So it figures that The Dark Knight’s climax reverberates in TDKR, just as its predecessor ran with Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) warning at the end of Batman Begins of escalating atrocities.
With our hero a shadow of himself, his orphaned heart seared anew by Rachel Dawes’ death, Bale delivers his most fragile Wayne yet.
And as Gotham’s peace wobbles on the fib of Harvey Dent’s virtue, so Chris and Jonathan Nolan’s script develops the trilogy’s themes with microscopic rigour. Wayne’s wrecked body also rings true, coming from a director who honours the physical impact of in-camera set-pieces.
Get past the no commentary, the no deleted scenes, and the shameless Joel Schumacher cameo on an exhaustive (and surprisingly moving) Batmobile doc, and Nolan’s “done for real” shoot makes for uncommonly thrilling disc featurettes.
“It’s something that makes us gasp,” gasps Tom Hardy of the air hijack shoot. “People actually walked on wings of planes!” And we gasp again, at footage of the chopper-hoisted Bat, a stadium prepped for levelling and 1,000 extras flooding Wall Street.
TDKR climaxes in a street war, like Avengers Assemble, but Nolan favours reallocating effects money to a “cast of thousands” over CGI. His standard isn’t the megaplex: it’s the grand-scale Hollywood epic or Metropolis, in ways that 2012’s Fritz Lang-indebted Total Recall can’t hope to match.
Bane is the perfect villain for this Gotham, “a necessary evil” wielding the thump of threat needed to give physical and emotional weight to Wayne’s live/die choices.
Hardy’s stare, muscularity and extravagantly offbeat speech chill: you’d change seats on a night bus to avoid him, then change buses if he started monologueing through that bonkers mask.
Bane isn’t as famous as the Riddler but he is the villain Gotham needs to close the trilogy, just as second-tier spook the Scarecrow fitted Batman Begins’ fog of fear. Nolan’s large-scale emotional architecture ensures the twists and turns also pay off the promise of BB.
Cracking ice, Bruce in a balaclava, falls, climbs, parental traumas, doubles, symbols... the density of echoes repays revisits, though Alfred’s memories of baby Bruce land with a tender immediacy rare in such films.
Nolan’s respect for physical reality extends to his love of flawed human faces: Michael Caine and the gloriously oily Ben Mendelsohn ground TDKR as surely as the asphalt grit of Pfister’s cinematography.
Some expository grunting is required to carry the narrative load, but Nolan knows how to ease the heavy lifting. The cool-shit dial shrieks off the scale for the opening air-jack and new vehicle The Bat’s take-off, where weight, propulsion and brisk editing combine to knock the wind out of you.
A little levity helps, the Nolans’ script chalking up meta-gags about Bane’s sonic boom (“What a lovely, lovely voice”) and Selina Kyle’s heels, pipping fan-forum grumblers to the post.
Offering contrast to the men whose masks ease their hurt, Anne Hathaway makes Kyle a wily manipulatrix, her face effortlessly switching registers depending on what the situation demands. In a film that could have bulldozed, she supplies surprise swerves as well as curves.
Ditto Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who doesn’t so much act for the camera as dance with it, lending grace to potentially stolid ‘last good cop’ John Blake. He also figures in the end reveals, which deliver on themes of myth established in BB.
Just as Blake’s dressing-down of Gordon (the “dirty hands” line) introduces the theme of each generation rectifying a previous generation’s ills, so the heartfelt climax allows for the idea that each generation will replenish Batman.
Not that TDKR is anything so crass as a franchise re-starter: re-authoring Batman as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end, Nolan’s trilogy (available as a boxset from 3 December) feels like it could be the ground from which all Bat-myths sprung, which isn’t bad going for a 73-year-old.
But it carries the hint that Batman will always return.
That loving nod to the character is a send-off to celebrate, even if it’ll be a long time before a superhero series inspires like this one.