The Dark Knight Rises (****)

The extraordinary burden placed on director Christopher Nolan to deliver a great film, a good one would disappoint, seems to have fuelled the gifted director to create something simply astounding. Though the film lacks the complex, nightmarish villain of The Dark Knight (2008), Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning turn as The Joker, The Dark Knight Rises is an epic and lifts the comic book film, as the previous picture did to an art form. It is without question the year’s finest film thus far and could land in the Best Picture race. Frankly, Nolan shows everyone associated with The Avengers (2012), a good film, how things are done, by making another masterpiece that finishes his trilogy about the Dark Knight. Nolan has accomplished what George Lucas could not with Return of the Jedi (1983), making a third film that matches the previous two, that takes us further into the characters and the story.

Tapping into topical fears such as terrorism and economic meltdown the director gives his picture an urgency, an immediacy, with his finger on the pulse of today’s’ society, holding a mirror up to the audience.

Eight years have passed since the events in The Dark Knight (2008) and the death of Harvey Dent, for which the citizens of Gotham City still hold Batman responsible. Bruce Wayne has retreated into his home surrounded by luxury but misery, his alter ego absent from the world of the city and not missed. Wayne is not living; he’s alive, but living in a world of depression, his own depression, mourning the death of Rachel, unable to get on with his life. Alfred (Michael Caine) is of course worried for him. Yet, he is not alone in his sadness, as Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is at the breaking point, barely able to hold the secret he knows about Batman and Harvey.

Walking with a cane through his mansion, his mind in the past, a shell of the man he was, struggling with his thoughts and what and who he is, Wayne will be called back as Batman when Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives. A very different villain than the Joker, who is never once mentioned by the way, Bane is all muscle and power, a crush, kill, destroy sort of villain, clearly more powerful than Batman. Bane and his massive army plan to decimate Gotham City, just because they can, and there seems little Batman can do about it. A hulking, muscular monster with a breathing apparatus over his nose and mouth that allows him to take in pain medication, Bane is fury incarnate, unleashing hell at whatever target he chooses. Having escaped from a hole, he is like a demon from hell bursting through from the bowels of the earth to walk among us and bring destruction.  But this is not all Bruce Wayne is dealing with. Selina wants to play too.

Characters collide, and war breaks loose in Gotham City but only after Bruce Wayne has been put through sheer hell once again, with memories of Batman Begins (2005) stirred in our minds. We are reminded, time and time again of the mental and physical anguish Wayne went through in Europe before becoming Batman, as he relives much of it, all for the good of himself, to bring himself and his alter ego back to life. Like the rising phoenix, he fights the crime he so despises and finds the best part of himself to do it.  He allows himself to remember why he began the journey as Batman in the first place.

Nolan deserves a great deal of credit for making an epic, a massive picture full of chases, explosions, aerial battles, and yet still allowing it to be an intimate study of people, flawed people, but people nonetheless.

Bale has never explored the depths of the character Wayne/ Batman as he does within this film. He is simply superb. Can anyone ever question him as the best portrayer of the character again? This is a tortured man, beaten down by who he is, but what he has become, by what he feels guilty for. Bale is extraordinary in the part and about the voice…it works.

As the cat burglar, never called Cat Woman, Anne Hathaway is a revelation giving the film a burst of humor, sexiness, and a playful quality the film needs. Anything this dark needs some light humor, something to break the intensity and Hathaway provides it. For me, she was more realistic, more grounded than Pfeiffer as Cat Woman, and yet every bit as sexy. She is proving she can be an electrifying actress, capable of dominating a film, even something like this filled with so much happening on-screen.

Tom Hardy as Bane. OK. Let’s tread gently here. Following The Dark Knight, it is safe to say no villain would live up to what Ledger did with the part of the Joker. I mean the man lifted such a character to an entire new level with his genius. There is no chance Hardy can surpass that, and honestly, he does not. Where Joker enjoyed mind games, vicious, murderous mind games, enjoying the chaos he caused, Bane is simply a brute, though a brilliant one. The Joker knew he needed Batman to properly exist himself, but Bane bears no such sentiment, he wants him dead, period, and is going to do what he has to do to make that happen. Hardy is frightening, no question, physically imposing, and terrifying in the manner he goes after the citizens of the city, with no remorse, no guilt or pity. It was as though he were attacking a broken ant farm, stomping to kill them for the sheer fun of it. Sadly in his own way he too, like Wayne is in a prison from which he cannot escape, the difference being, escape for him is impossible, while Bruce still can get out.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman have always been welcomed additions to the casts of these films, and this one is no exception. They bring warmth to their characters, an immense believability, and we believe they truly care about Wayne/ Batman. Each understands for all his flaws, he is a good man wanting to do the right thing.

In smaller roles, but no less vital, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as a decent young cop devoted to right, not unlike Gordon in his youth, and Marion Cotillard is lovely as always as Bruce Wayne’s new love interest.

Christopher Nolan has, since 2005 elevated the Batman legacy to an art form with three magnificent films that forever changed the landscape of comic book hero movies. This franchise was dead after Batman and Robin (1997) as dead as something this big could be. Yet he re-thought it, re-conceived much about it and went back to the drawing board. Giving the films a mythical feel to them, he has done what Richard Donner did with Superman (1978), elevating the characters to something much more than they were on the page, allowing them to be flesh and blood, real people, giving his films a startling realism, yet also allowing them to be myth, the stuff of legend. The reason Ledger was so frightening was because he was so real, so devoted to his cause, so into what he was doing. He did not kill Rachel and damage Harvey because he wanted to, he did it to see what happened after, to see what sort of outcome came about and how he hurt those who loved them. Suffering was what he wanted more than anything. He was a terrorist. So is Bane, though a different kind. Bane enjoys the destruction he causes, the havoc he wreaks, if he smiled, it would be because of what he was doing. Again he is realistic, a nightmare made flesh, and Batman, an ordinary man with no super powers, is truly challenged to fight him. God…he must rely on his, humanity (??) to defeat him. And that is what Nolan invested these films with, a great deal of humanity, and in doing so he took the comic book movie out of the mere entertainment arena and allowed it to become movie art, the best films of the year, films that the Academy should celebrate!!

Audiences will make this blockbuster a major success, and so they should. Nolan demonstrates what a real popcorn movie is, and has the guts to give it a darkness we expect from something like Apocalypse Now (1979) but not a Batman movie. He understood that the thing we kids loved as kids reading the comics, that we believed what we were reading WAS POSSIBLE, and then he did it on-screen. We believed, we still believe, and so does he.

This one is a dark work of art.