As Tenet continues its release in international markets, we’re taking a look back at filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s entire feature-length filmography, exploring each of his films one day at a time. Today we continue with his eighth feature, and his final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.
Full spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises follow.
The story in Christopher Nolan’s much awaited third Batman film often misses the mark. And yet, the way that story is told ranks amongst some of his finest visual filmmaking. Ranging from enormous to intimate, The Dark Knight Rises was Nolan’s seventh and final collaboration with cinematographer Wally Pfister, and was the last time all the Nolan regulars — from Pfister, to editor Lee Smith, to composer Hans Zimmer — would work in tandem. The result is a film that, despite not always coalescing, contains enough incisive parts to create a fascinating, powerful whole.
In our latest deep-dive into Nolan’s work, we look at how The Dark Knight Rises became one of Hollywood’s best-looking blockbusters in a decade defined by CGI bloat, in addition to exploring the movie’s underserved ensemble and its major failings as a piece of political filmmaking. It’s big, bold, bizarre, and feels born of Nolan’s worst creative instincts, as well as his very best.
The Dark Knight Rises often pays lip service to the era’s looming politics, a socio-economic boiling pot waiting to spill over. It taps into the same wellspring of post-Recession frustrations as Occupy Wall Street — the film was nearing the end of production when the movement began — though it seems content with merely using those anxieties as a colourful backdrop (at times literally; it even filmed at the New York Stock Exchange while Occupy was in full swing just a few blocks away).
By refusing to investigate its tale of inequality and revolution, the film approaches its themes from a wrongheaded vantage.
As a follow-up to The Dark Knight, Gotham’s descent into city-wide chaos plays like The Joker’s promise fulfilled. However, four years earlier, when the series’ concerns were questions of global security, The Joker represented abstract fears of modern terrorism and the resultant moral failings in opposing it. His target was society’s ethical foundations, and his goal was to prove that even the most upstanding citizens could be corrupted by fear. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane (Tom Hardy) positions himself as a revolutionary who gives the poor the means to overthrow the rich, and who frees those imprisoned under the “Dent Act,” a crime bill that appears to grant the police expanded powers but doesn’t fix infrastructural problems. The relationship between these two premises is unfortunate at best, conflating Bane’s social upheaval with the city’s moral rot.
Scenes of Gotham’s downtrodden displacing its wealthiest unfold as part of Bane’s master plan, which upends the city’s traditional law and order. As the poor and homeless throw the affluent out onto the streets, convening kangaroo courts for their sentencing, the film’s narrative POV sides not with the impoverished, but with the citizens in most danger from this upheaval: the police, and the well-to-do board members of Wayne Enterprises. In The Dark Knight Rises, the poor cause pandemonium, while the powerful form Gotham’s apparent moral and infrastructural backbone.
The film’s major mouthpieces against these dominant structures are a villain and an anti-hero, Bane and Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) respectively. While the former’s outlook is all but revealed to be a sham, the latter’s seeming anti-capitalist leanings — “You’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us” — slip away entirely during the revolt. Not only does she disapprove of the communal redistribution of wealth (which the film frames only as stealing people’s homes), she ends up eloping with a billionaire; an easy fix to her predicament.
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Like Bane, the film doesn’t seem to believe in much when it comes to its economic setting. It exploits vague conservative fears of economic justice and the redistribution of means (not to mention, fears of “vaguely foreign” terrorists), but no one in the film, either for or against this revolution, ever espouses a coherent ideology. Characters occasionally quip about Gotham stockbrokers concentrating money at the top, while Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the boys at his former youth home mention the lack of job opportunities. But the people who suffer the most onscreen economic hardship are, in fact, billionaires like Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and those in charge of running his company, who are eventually forced into hiding. Little narrative attention is paid to the film’s actual questions of economic downturn — during Bane’s revolution, or after it.
No matter what issues its characters occasionally vocalize, the film eventually falls back on the heroism of its “good capitalist” (as Slavoj Žižek calls him), a hero who seeks mostly to restore Gotham’s unequal status quo. The film’s final scenes, set to a narration from “A Tale of Two Cities,” show us the legacy Bruce Wayne leaves behind after Batman’s apparent demise. It’s Dickensian in one specific way (he turns his mansion into an orphanage), but for a trilogy that began with addressing inequality on a ground level — we have seen Gotham’s streets, and the hardship of its poorest, as far back as Batman Begins — this resolution is a cosmetic fix at best. By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, the police are back in charge, those who sided with Bane are locked up once again, and the city’s orphans, who now have a large house to hide out in, still don’t have any job prospects. (At least Bane gave them work in the sewers!)
More broadly, the film hints at vague political concepts that feel like remnants of a hasty first draft. Eight years after The Dark Knight, the “Dent Act” has helped clean up Gotham’s streets, though what powers it provided police to do so, and why revealing the murders Dent committed would undo its effects, remains a mystery. These aren’t mere background details. They’re the film’s central premise, both logistically — it’s the first time in the series Gotham is rid of organized crime — and thematically, since Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) wrestles with the Act’s apparent deception, and Batman has been able to give up his mantle, albeit temporarily.
However, while this glue binding the plot tends to wear thin, the stories of Gordon and Batman are perhaps the film’s strongest suits, especially as they relate to the trilogy as a whole. If nothing else, The Dark Knight Rises makes for a worthy sequel to both prior Batman entries in how it wraps up the story arcs of these pre-existing characters, both of whom make perfect thematic additions to Nolan’s repertoire.
Batman, Gordon and “Virtuous” Lies
The final scenes of Batman Begins set up a Caped Crusader who, unlike his comic counterpart — an ink-and-pencil IP in print for perpetuity — seemed destined to give up being Batman. Finding a better alternative to vigilante crimefighting was part of Bruce’s journey in The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises is even bookended by him having hung up his cowl. The interim is populated by a quintessentially Nolan tale of lies and self-delusion.
Bruce’s story, when divorced from larger concerns of Gotham’s social strata, is particularly potent. That disconnect is undoubtedly a failing of the series’ political promises, but in isolation Bruce’s arc proves to be a moving closing chapter, doing what no other Batman story has been able to do in the character’s eight-decade history: It gives Batman a happy ending.
It’s been eight years since the death of Rachel Dawes, and like other Nolan protagonists before him, Bruce hasn’t been able to heal despite the passage of time. His Batcave and ornate mansion have now been rebuilt; he’s back to square one, trapped in amber and wasting away physically, while ignoring even the little good he could still put out in the world (the boys home he sponsored no longer receives funding). Of course, Bruce’s predicament is, in part, a result of Alfred (Michael Caine) lying to him by burning Rachel’s letter in the previous film, in which she confessed her decision to marry Harvey Dent.
Alfred admitting to this deception drives a wedge between them. This development is, in microcosm, a sign of the many release valves yet to be turned, in a film whose very premise is built on deception. While many prior Nolan works feature characters lying for an apparent greater good, those lies are often revealed toward the end of each story. Being a sequel, this is Nolan’s first film in which the ripple effects of those lies can be felt from the very beginning, and thus, those effects form an integral part of the story.
Gary Oldman, for instance, embodies this entire theme. He wears it on Gordon’s face from the get-go, turning the corrosive impact of his deceptions silently inward. Even his movements feel stilted and weighed down. His pained performance reaches its apex when Bane finally reveals the truth about Dent — reading a speech Gordon wrote himself — in a scene where Gordon angrily attempts to justify his lies to Officer Blake. Through Gordon’s eye-contact alone (or lack thereof), we know exactly how he feels about his shameful decision. It’s perhaps the most nuanced performance in the trilogy, dramatizing what even the film’s own plot mechanics often fail to: that wrestling with these “virtuous” lies can be a lonely, soul-wrenching affair.
The reckoning for Bruce’s deceptions comes in the form of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who reveals herself to be the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). Miranda, aka Talia, helps tie up one particular loose end which had been silently eating at the trilogy’s foundations. Bruce’s journey in Batman Begins (a film in which refusing to kill one’s enemies is a major theme) climaxes with his bizarre declaration to Ra’s, mere moments before the cult leader falls to his death: “I won’t kill you,” Bruce tells him, “but I don’t have to save you.” In practice, there’s little difference.
Neither Begins nor its immediate sequel ever confronts this moral self-deception. If anything The Dark Knight skips forward to Batman having a much more solid moral code, which prevents him from using lethal force. Talia fulfilling her father’s mission, while exacting revenge on Bruce for his death, is the impact of this moral failing finally coming full circle. However, this reckoning works better on paper than it does in execution. Talia herself doesn’t have much of an impact on the story — another two-dimensional Nolan femme fatale, she’s neither intriguing as a romantic interest, nor does she have enough screen time or narrative weight to render her “twist” particularly shocking.
Despite being a worthy conclusion to Batman and Gordon’s stories, The Dark Knight Rises is an ensemble piece, and it does little for newcomers like Bane, Selina Kyle and John Blake who, while well-rounded in isolation, remain disconnected from many of the film’s larger goings-on.
Villains and Sidekicks on Thematically Rocky Ground
The film begins with a plane heist reminiscent of The Dark Knight’s “Skyhook” scene, painting Bane as a dark mirror to Bruce Wayne. He is Batman’s equal and opposite, a member of the League of Shadows and spiritual successor to Bruce’s former mentor, Ra’s al Ghul. Though instead of turning against the extremist leader, as Bruce once did, Bane leans further toward the League’s fanatical outlook. More pertinently, where Batman contends with the emotional pain of seeing his parents gunned down, Bane exists in a state of constant physical agony — the reason for his sedative mask, which resembles skeletal hands prying open his jaw. In some other world, this could’ve been Batman.
Tom Hardy is physically imposing in the role. He’s usually shot from below, making his mere 5-foot-7-inch frame feel colossal, even in silhouette, though he eschews traditional notions of the gruff and growling comic book villain. His voice is often goofy and high-pitched — even childlike — and his subtle head-shakes, like when he gives Gotham “back to [the people]” make him seem almost playful. He’s a predator luring his prey with a false sense of comfort, welcoming his followers with outstretched arms before flying into a fury of full-bodied punches. However, despite Hardy’s dedication to this gonzo portrayal, Bane’s actual outlook and fanaticism feel watered down, when they ought to feel like the film’s thematic backbone (as The Joker’s did in The Dark Knight).
That Bane is secretly acting out of protective love for Talia makes him all the more complex. His final scenes reveal the beating heart beneath the beast, but the film leaves the looming question of his true beliefs unanswered and unsatisfying. His plan involves extended chaos, and instilling Gotham with hope for survival before blowing it up anyway, but this sadism doesn’t gel with his supposedly pragmatic motives.
Bane is confronted with a plea of “This is a stock exchange! There’s no money you can steal.” To which he responds: “Then why are you people here?” It’s a tongue-in-cheek indictment of Gotham’s elite, in the vein of Ra’s’ own plans from Batman Begins. But while Ra’s wanted to destroy Gotham for its decadence and rampant inequality, he also hoped it would rebuild itself anew. Bane and Talia’s methods, involving a nuclear bomb, don’t mix with this apparent altruism inherited from Ra’s, but they aren’t replaced with a coherent alternative either. Bane’s plan serves a mostly recursive plot function; at best, it’s a vehicle for Batman to swoop in and save the day after some time away.
With Gotham’s revolution revealed to be a false flag, Batman has little reason to address the deep-seated social and economic malaise unearthed by Bane. Remove the nuclear bomb from the equation, and the story begins to have real potential — Bane’s motives become less about destruction and more about actual upheaval — but in doing so the film also loses its ticking clock and the urgency of its climactic action. In the end, these are more vital to the film at hand, and that’s a problem.
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Selina Kyle, on the other hand, does occasionally espouse a thematically-appropriate outlook, in that she nominally disapproves of Gotham’s status quo. Hathaway plays the duplicitous Kyle with aplomb; where Gordon embodies the emotional impact of deception, Kyle embodies the act of deception itself, slipping smoothly and self-assuredly between varying states of emotional truth. It’s a magnetic performance, but Kyle is also the equal and opposite of Inception’s Ariadne, a woman who was all plot function and zero personality. In contrast, Kyle may very well be the most layered woman and the best-written femme fatale in Nolan’s filmography (a shallow list, admittedly), but excising her from the film would also have little impact on how its story plays out.
A character with a more intrinsic connection to the film’s themes is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Robin” John Blake. He’s a combination of the comics’ three key Robin sidekicks — eventual cop Dick Grayson, angsty orphan Jason Todd (whose father was gunned down by organized crime), and Tim Drake, who deduces Batman’s identity — and he eventually takes up Batman’s mantle. Blake arrives at this point by following a similar trajectory to Batman and Gordon in the series (and to characters in other Nolan films like Insomnia and Dunkirk) in that he slowly begins to lose faith in the structures meant to protect people.
When Blake leads a rescue mission by ferrying orphans across a bridge, he’s fired upon by fellow officers acting under orders, shattering his belief in the badge he once wore proudly. In the hopeless moments that follow, he watches Batman save the day by flying the nuclear device to safety; inspired, he opts instead for the altruistic lie of masked vigilantism in the film’s closing moments. His conversations with Bruce throughout the film all build to this decision, as he’s made to understand the mask not only as a symbol, but as a pragmatic deception meant to protect those he loves. He’s fully functional from both a plot and story standpoint — a low bar, but one the film doesn’t often clear.
And yet, despite its often thematically rocky ground, The Dark Knight Rises is awash with stellar technical work behind the camera.
Saved by Great Filmmaking
IMAX cameras, which run 70mm film sideways, offer a much larger frame than traditional 35mm. The Dark Knight was the first narrative feature to be shot on IMAX in any capacity; about 28 minutes of its action scenes were filmed this way, but The Dark Knight Rises features 72 minutes of IMAX footage, and not just for its action.
While the expanded (or “taller”) 4:3 frame offers a gigantic canvas — on which thousands of extras charge into battle, like an epic from the silent era — Nolan also deploys the format with more subtlety this time around, often for intimate closeups. Batman’s quiet contemplation as he flies away from Gotham takes up the entire enormity of the IMAX screen, trapping us within his moment of resignation, while Bruce Wayne waking up to an empty mansion after Alfred’s departure emphasises the haunting emptiness of this space, in all directions. What is normally a tool for visual spectacle is used to highlight Bruce’s utter isolation; video essayist Patrick Willems theorizes that the format made Nolan a better filmmaker.
Every department in the film’s making seems to be functioning at its optimum. Nolan and Pfister not only use the IMAX canvas to its fullest, but use the movement of the camera to capture the sheer magnitude of the film’s unfolding plot. Most of Nolan’s work employs a steady shoulder-mount, or at most, a camera tracking sideways or forward ever-so-slightly. In The Dark Knight Rises, he occasionally returns to the much more kinetic, free-flowing approach of his debut feature, Following, albeit on a much grander scale.
When explosions begin to engulf Gotham, the camera pushes forward overhead; Nolan’s favoured establishing shot, of a city approached by helicopter, now functions as a harbinger of doom. It captures not only mood and architecture, as it often does in his work, but the sheer scale of the destruction, with bombs going off in circular formation around Gotham Stadium (and around the island itself, as its bridges collapse one by one).
Once we return to the ground alongside Blake, he rushes to protect Gordon, and another establishing shot typical of Nolan is amped up as well: the way he follows characters into a room, in a medium shot filmed from the rear, so we can enter alongside them. Here, the push of the camera, as it tracks Blake, begins to accelerate with each new cut. It sprints forward, faster and faster through streets and doorways, charging deeper into darkened interiors as the scene reaches its climax.
Where Nolan once used these techniques to calmly establish space — following characters from a safe distance, and steadily approaching towering structures — he now uses them to disorient, suddenly placing us within a newer, more dangerous, more unpredictable status quo, injecting otherwise tranquil moments with adrenaline.
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When Bane begins to explain his master plan, editor Lee Smith takes us forward in time with brief glimpses into Gotham’s descent. The camera shakes as people are ripped from their homes — a feature of the IMAX camera’s mechanical gate weave, a side-to-side shudder most visible on giant screens — as if the film itself was trembling in fear of revolution. The story’s politics are still backward, but their portrayal is no doubt effective. It feels nothing if not momentous, throwing us right in the middle of a profound and unprecedented sea change.
This beginning of Gotham’s plummet is scored by booming horns from composer Hans Zimmer — one of his many high watermarks throughout the film. The way he captures the bombast of Bane and the League of Shadows, despite their lack of thematic clarity, elevates them to the level of dramatic opera (for instance, in the perpetually rising, chant-heavy opening track “Gotham’s Reckoning”). While the music in Batman Begins was controlled and melodic, Zimmer created Bane’s theme by having his western orchestra sit on the floor and bang and pluck at their instruments free-hand in a drum-circle, as if letting loose through tribal tradition, throwing off the shackles and rigid structures of western civilization.
Zimmer’s other compositions are more subtle. His Catwoman suite, “Mind if I Cut in?” is as smooth, mysterious and alluring as the character herself, while the track “Why Do We Fall?” carries Bruce Wayne seamlessly from his ultimate despair — failing to escape the pit — to his rousing moment of victory, transitioning seamlessly to Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s themes from Batman Begins, as Bruce emerges reborn. The music helps bring the story full circle.
A film is, of course, much more than its individual parts, but so many of its shots, scenes and concepts in isolation feature career-best work. The costume design, by Lindy Hemming, imbues Bane with a sense of regality through the high collar of his bomber jacket alone, and the sound editing and effects, by Michael Babcock, Richard King and Michael Mitchell, provide a living, breathing feel to Nolan’s acoustic assaults. Gunshots and vehicles roar (often sampled from animal sounds) as they tear through the night, while music-less fight scenes feel visceral; every blow sounds like crunching bone.
Production designer Nathan Crowley, who’s served on every one of Nolan’s films since Insomnia, is vital to the film’s back half. Every vehicle, every surface and every street begins to have a worn-down, lived-in quality when the timeline jumps forward to the dead of winter, after Gotham has been under siege for several months. The snow never seems lily white or freshly fallen; rather, it looks like ash, as if we’re walking through the ruins of a burned down city.
When we cut to the prison pit — modeled by Crowley off the Chand Baori well in Rajasthan, India — its stair-like formations, which lead nowhere, speak to the very nature of the prison and Bane’s emotional torture, like constant reminders of an upward trajectory without the possibility of escape. It’s also the location of the film’s most vital scene.
Escaping the Pit
Of the many lies wrestled with in the film, the weaponization of hope, as a false promise, is embodied by the prison well. After Bane breaks Batman’s body and tosses him in the pit, he dangles the hope of escape in front of him like a toy. The gaping maw of this prison, and the high contrast with which its cells are lit, dramatizes a familiar Nolan/Pfister aesthetic: the idea of light invading and reflecting off darkened spaces. Here, the light is an embodiment of salvation, just out of reach.
Wrestling with hope as a double-edged sword also gives way to Nolan’s M.O. of powerful bursts of memory. When Bruce fails to climb out of the pit, he’s left dangling by the rope that was his safety net, conjuring a flashback (in the form of footage from Batman Begins) of his father rappelling down a well to save him. “Why do we fall?” asks the elder Wayne, his question echoing like a fleeting dream as Bruce finally awakens. It’s as if we’re meant to fill in the gap ourselves, with the series’ familiar retort: “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
This pit is both an adaptation of the comics’ Peña Duro — the hellish Caribbean prison Bane was born into — and the Lazarus Pit, a supernatural wellspring from which dead characters emerge reborn. The Lazarus Pit is often associated with Ra’s al Ghul who, in the comics, is an immortal warrior. The Ra’s of the movies, who died in Batman Begins, confronts Bruce in the form of a hallucination, and reveals the film’s take on immortality: legacy, in the form of a living descendant. This idea also echoes Ra’s’ own words in Batman Begins about embodying an idea and becoming “more than just a man.” By the end of the film, not only does Batman, the vigilante, achieve a form of immortality through his own successor (Blake), but as a symbol, he transcends flesh and blood, painting his burning insignia on the side of a bridge to rally Gotham’s citizens.
The film’s version of the Pit being framed from below, like the boarded up well from Bruce’s childhood, is especially apt. Not only does Bruce emerge from this prison reborn, having embraced his fears rather than keeping them at bay, but in doing so he finally leaves the childhood well as a psychological space too — a prison of fear which has so tormented him for decades.
In Batman Begins, a key scene involves Bruce standing up amidst a swarm of bats after travelling deeper into the well, burying his fears in another moment of self-delusion. When Bruce attempts to escape the prison without a safety net years later, a similar swarm appears and engulfs him from all sides. Instead of standing up and keeping his emotions at bay, he continues to cower, embracing fear — of bats, of death, and of failure — as an intrinsic part of himself. “How can you move faster than possible,” a fellow prisoner asks him, “fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit?” Fear, after all, was Bruce’s impetus for becoming Batman in the first place.
Unlike the Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film, this Bruce Wayne — a man left physically and spiritually shattered — has found a way to heal through time itself, connecting with memories in the form of images from previous films as he changes the nature of one scene in particular. This time, he’s able to escape the well on his own. This time, he learns to pick himself up.
Despite the film’s numerous overarching flaws, this story at its core — of a man fighting to stay alive, emerging victorious despite not “fixing” what he believed broken within himself — resonates on a deeper level. The Dark Knight Rises may not always “click” intellectually, but it delivers some of the most rousing emotional highs of Nolan’s career. And, in a series about abstract symbols transcending the literal, that might just be enough.
Siddhant Adlakha is a filmmaker and film critic based in Mumbai and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SiddhantAdlakha.