The Dark Knight Rises is looked down upon by many, but it’s a fantastic film and a very worthy conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Batman trilogy.
To say that I was hyped for The Dark Knight Rises leading up to its release would be a massive understatement. Though I only saw The Dark Knight for the first time in early 2012, I was blown away by it like most people, and I loved Batman Begins when I saw it very shortly after. These films gripped me instantly and even changed the way I thought about movies in general, and I couldn’t wait to see what a third one of them would do. The Dark Knight Rises would also be the only film in the Dark Knight trilogy that I would get to see on the big screen. Much to my delight, I left the film with my expectations greatly fulfilled. As I thought about it more weeks afterward, I began to notice a few more little faults and holes that I wasn’t the biggest fan of … but then, as I thought about it even more, I noticed more things that I loved and elevated the film back up in my eyes. Even after ten years and multiple rewatches, I still see The Dark Knight Rises as a slightly flawed but incredible way to end Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and it remains one of my personal favorite movies.
But I’ve also come to realize that a lot of people were not pleased with the film. The Dark Knight Rises has many fans like me who love it, but it’s also been ridiculed as the hands-down worst of the trilogy, a clunky mess, and one of the weakest films in Nolan’s lineup. Even some of its fans acknowledge it as not great. Whenever I say that The Dark Knight Rises is one of my favorite Batman movies, let alone one of my favorite movies in general, there’s always at least someone who reacts with confusion or even bewilderment. While there is a handful of common criticisms that I either agree with or understand, some of the other complaints leave me scratching my head wondering if they were even referring to the same film. In either case, in honor of both the recent release of The Batman and the ten-year anniversary of The Dark Knight Rises, I’ll be going over why I believe this to be such a strong, exceptional film that deserves to be looked at with similar awe and reverence as the other two entries in the Dark Knight trilogy. To do so will require me diving headfirst into spoilers, so consider yourself warned if you’ve yet to see the film.
THE DARK STATE OF GOTHAM
The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, after Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) decides to let Batman take the blame for Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) murders to keep Gotham’s hope alive and his efforts in cleaning the streets intact. At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, this seems to have worked, with major criminal activity in Gotham all but eliminated. However, it doesn’t take long to recognize a few things that aren’t quite right beneath the surface. Crooked businessmen like John Dagget (Ben Mendelsohn) are still making shady deals and working with villains like Bane (Tom Hardy) to try and get ahead. Many orphaned children still remain impoverished and uncared for, something that’s not criminal activity but still shows signs of a great systemic problem in the city. And, of course, the achieved peace stemmed from a lie at the hands of a police commissioner. It’s evident that, while the Dent Act certainly brought down crime, it did little to cleanse the core of Gotham that spawned that crime in the first place. It’s the equivalent of trimming weeds to make a garden look nicer rather than getting the weeds out at the roots.
In this case, Bane, Talia (Marion Cotillard), and their army are the deadliest of all weeds, taking advantage of Gotham’s festering corruption to set their plans in place and tear down eight years of progress with one brutal blow. The Dark Knight Rises shows the dangers of such crooked, insufficient solutions: if anything, they only ended up inspiring more bitterness, hatred, and cynicism in the long run. Bane not only takes advantage of this to set up his siege, but he uses it to inspire the kind of domestic terrorism that feels disturbingly real especially nowadays. By exposing the city’s huge lie and the faultiness of those who remain in power, the anger of those oppressed is weaponized to turn Gotham into a warzone. When the rich and privileged are dragged out and assaulted, you see not just the newly freed Blackgate prisoners taking part, but hotel bellhops and other low-class workers joining in as well. The Dark Knight Rises has been speculated to reflect the Occupy Wall Street movement it came out very close to, even though the filmmakers have denied that movement being their inspiration. Whether you believe that or not, with the rise in politically charged hatred and violence in recent years, the execution of Bane and Talia’s plan feels more uncomfortably relevant now than it did even back in 2012.
BRUCE WAYNE’S FALL AND REBIRTH
In between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has hung up the cape and cowl of Batman. Many were surprised and confused as to why, with the misconception rising that he quit being Batman due to his grief from the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But in The Dark Knight, he’s trying to raise Harvey Dent up as the new face of justice so that Gotham would no longer need Batman. Over the following eight years, that’s seemingly happened. Plus, Batman has been branded as a murderous criminal, meaning he can’t continue to help people without compromising the lie (unless he began actually killing innocent people, which … wouldn’t be the best idea). I just assumed ahead of time that Batman wouldn’t be around anymore, so I don’t know why that caught people off-guard.
Which leads me into the plight of Bruce Wayne. He’s now a recluse, physically disabled, in the dark from his own company’s status, recklessly making poor choices, and emotionally damaged to the point of not seeming to care about his own life. It’s a grim state to see him in, but not only does it feed off of the momentum from The Dark Knight, but it’s exactly what Rachel foresaw in both of the previous films in this trilogy. In Batman Begins, she claims that Bruce Wayne is a mask for Batman and not the other way around. In The Dark Knight, she believes that even if Gotham no longer needs Batman, Bruce himself would never not need Batman, urging him to not make her his hope for a “normal life.” And here, we see the manifestation of those warnings. Bruce doesn’t feel it right to move on from Rachel, and he doesn’t know how to live with lifelong pain and grief without Batman to channel it through. Even when he does try to don the Batman persona and go back out into action, this emptiness lingers and hinders his resolve and prowess. Like his city, what functions on the surface hides the damage underneath.
So, it’s no surprise that Bane is so certain that Bruce won’t escape the pit he holds him in, confident that he can squeeze out what little is left of Bruce’s spirit. But instead, being pushed right to the brink of physical and emotional collapse winds up having the opposite effect: it forces out a desperate fight to escape that rekindles Bruce’s will to live, maybe even stronger than it ever was before. The spark that fueled his compassion and desire to save others was never truly gone. It was just lost, until it was rediscovered at his lowest point. I’ve heard some people say that his solution of climbing out without the rope was a cheap solution, but I consider this a beautiful final test of Bruce’s fire and survival instinct. By utilizing his rediscovered fear of death, he pushes himself to the absolute farthest point he could go not just in body, but in spirit. He makes the escape almost no one else did, not with his gear and resources, but with the long-dormant strength from within. He embraces the light in a way that even Bane couldn’t do, visually represented by the rare sight of Batman fighting in broad daylight. That’s very fascinating, inspirational, and powerful, especially if you’ve been invested in this Bruce Wayne from the beginning like I have.
One aspect that’s often pointed to as a plot hole is that we never see how Bruce gets back into the locked-down Gotham after escaping the pit. But while one scene or even a few informative shots would have been nice to at least give us an idea of how he did it, this never bothered me. We’ve seen how resourceful he can be, so I can see any number of possible ways he pulled off even a feat like this. In an already-packed movie, it makes sense to let us fill in the blanks ourselves here.
THE MANY LAYERS OF BANE
While I slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s Joker as a villain, Tom Hardy’s Bane is very close behind him, ranking alongside the Joker as one of my favorite villains in all of cinema. His physical presence alone is something to behold, not just for his hulking, imposing figure, but the way he carries himself with such a matter-of-fact assurance that he’s always the most menacing person in the room. Nolan also knew how to plan out the most imposing shots and angles of him possible, to a point where you constantly forget that Tom Hardy is actually shorter than Christian Bale! Hardy’s ability to convey a wide range of intense expressions just through his eyes is a sight to behold, making Bane even scarier and more intriguing to watch. Some people have a hard time understanding Bane with his distorted voice, but I was able to understand about 90-95% of his dialogue on my first viewing, and I was able to easily infer what I couldn’t make out from context. It’s really a non-issue for me.
But none of that is as important as why Bane does what he does. I’ve heard some fans express disappointment that he’s just a glorified League of Shadows lackey rehashing a previous villain’s motivations. But while he clearly shares core ideals with Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), his background gives him a very unique, much more personal drive to carry out the League’s terrible deeds. We learn that he spent his entire childhood in the pit, subjected to the same suffering that he puts Bruce Wayne through. He’s experienced firsthand what it’s like to live in oppression, to be constantly taunted and tortured by a life in darkness with the light just out of reach. To a point where he says the light was “blinding” when he finally did see it, further illustrating how jaded and bitter he’s become towards the world. When you combine this outlook with him being indoctrinated by the League of Shadows extreme viewpoints on society and crime, it’s no wonder why he has both such a passionate devotion to “cleansing” Gotham and such a vile desire to torture it before doing so.
And his motivations don’t even stop there. Though we spend a large portion of The Dark Knight Rises thinking that he’s the child of Ra’s who climbed out of the pit, it turns out that Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is Talia al Ghul, the one who really climbed out and freed Bane afterwards. I’d be lying if I said this twist was needed, but I still really like it because it gives Bane another reason to do what he does: redemption. He failed to escape the darkness on his own, and he was looked down upon by the father of someone he protected and grew to love. He has something he owes Talia, and something to prove to her, Ra’s, and himself. Like Bruce, he’s looking for fulfillment through something he believes in to give purpose to his own suffering, seeking it through what his twisted mind believes is salvation. As tears begin forming in his eyes through Talia’s recounting of their history, it’s clear how much vulnerability and pain he carries underneath his dominant demeanor. This is what makes him such a scary villain and three-dimensional character, and a perfect antagonist for Bruce at this point in both of their lives … though he is taken out way too anticlimactically, I will admit.
THE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
The Dark Knight Trilogy has thrived on, among many other things, its roster of fantastic characters, and The Dark Knight Rises is no exception, whether we’re talking about the major players or the supporting roles. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues to be a big part of the trilogy’s soul, and he ended the previous film telling a terrible lie that paints his child’s would-be killer as the patron saint of Gotham. His sins and his self-corruption in an already-corrupt system are catching up with him all these years later, and the burden makes him more sympathetic than he’s ever been in this trilogy. Talia al Ghul is an effective deceiver, with Cotillard being very convincing as Miranda Tate and sinister as Talia (bafflingly poorly acted death scene notwithstanding). Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is as charismatic as always, Ben Mendelsohn is great as the wormy, pathetic Dagget, and Matthew Modine’s Peter Foley has a small, solid arc as a cop who finds the bravery to fight when everything is on the line. And then there’s Michael Caine as Alfred. While everyone agrees that Caine’s performance is top-notch, Alfred’s stance against Bruce continuing as Batman has had a few viewers scratching their heads, seeing as he’d urged Bruce to endure as Batman in the last film. But those are two very different situations. Whereas Batman had a role to play in The Dark Knight, it’s clear that Bruce is latching onto Batman now for unhealthy reasons, as I already discussed earlier. And as far as Alfred knew, Batman didn’t have a purpose anymore, so why wouldn’t Alfred want Bruce to move on?
On the other side of the law, we get Anne Hathaway playing Selina Kyle, who provides a lot of dry wit and has a lot of the film’s funniest lines, without coming across as forced comic relief in a trilogy that thrives on its dark, serious storytelling. Though she contributes to Bane’s horrific acts, not only is she boxed into doing so, but she clearly doesn’t realize how far he was going to take things. As she wanders through someone’s abandoned house during the riots, you can see her realizing that maybe what sounded great in her head – the rich getting what’s coming to them and the poor rising to claim their rights – has a much uglier reality. But then we also see her enjoy unleashed life in a city with no rules … but then Bruce’s consciousness rubs off onto her and she partakes in his mission to save it instead of fleeing to save herself. She’s a great addition to this trilogy’s cast of memorable characters redefined by Nolan’s vision.
But my favorite supporting character of The Dark Knight Rises is John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt). He’s introduced as an example of pure idealism and unwavering passion to do what’s right, a mix of Bruce and a younger Gordon, which also makes him naturally trustworthy to Bruce. Him figuring out Bruce is Batman just through a look gets ridiculed a lot, and while it is admittedly a stretch, I see it as indicative that he and Bruce grieved their losses in the same way, making it even easier to buy them having such quick faith in one another and making him feel all the more fitting to pick up the Batman mantle in the end. That final role for him is the main reason I love the character. He’s the manifestation of the notion that Batman is more than just a man, but a symbol that can, as Bruce says, be anyone and be everlasting. To paraphrase Batman Begins, it’s not who Batman is underneath the suit, but what he does that defines him. Not only can Bruce live past Batman, but Batman can live past Bruce, bringing this entire trilogy full-circle. As for Blake’s proper name being revealed as Robin … it’s a fun little nod to the comics, okay? A comic-accurate Robin would never fly in Nolan’s Batman, so this is a nice alternative that says more about the spirit of who Blake is rather than what comic character he’s meant to be.
PERFECT BLOCKBUSTER CRAFTSMANSHIP
I won’t spend a ton of time talking about the filmmaking and effects of The Dark Knight Rises, as these are what even detractors of the film can agree are done well. I do want to note that, while Christopher Nolan had clearly mastered grand-scale action set pieces by The Dark Knight, it’s The Dark Knight Rises where he firmly got a handle on close-range action and combat. Nowhere is that more evident than in my favorite scene in the entire Dark Knight trilogy, the sewer fight between Bane and Batman. Every hit Bane inflicts looks and even sounds painful, especially with the near-total lack of any score to set the foreboding mood. Bane is practically a horror movie villain as he pummels Bruce little by little, and Bruce himself exhausts every trick in his arsenal and gets progressively more desperate in his losing fight. So much of the scene visually tells you what physical and mental state these two are in and portrays just how far Bruce has fallen, although very poignant dialogue from Bane is also present. It’s brutal without showing one drop of blood, and it’s as perfectly paced and tension-filled as a scene can get, especially for a superhero movie. I really don’t think it gets as much credit as it deserves.
But naturally, the visual work Nolan does on a grander scale is breathtaking to say the least. One of the best things about Nolan’s whole trilogy has been his commitment to practical effects and stunts wherever possible, and this third installment is no exception even as it brings the scale to new heights … quite literally, in the case of the fantastic opener that tops even the Joker’s introduction in The Dark Knight. The crew really dismantled a prop plane miles above the ground, really built a Bat aircraft, really pumped thousands of gallons of water into the sewers beneath Wayne Manor, and really had thousands of extras fighting in the streets. This all makes The Dark Knight Rises look and feel as timeless as its predecessors, and very few comic book films have since topped its weighty sense of scale and spectacle. That alone warrants a lot of respect and is something I think many overlook when the film is in discussion.
THE ENDGAME OF THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
In regards to the overall story, The Dark Knight Rises is about as fitting a conclusion to a three-film arc as you can get. Every character who’s been around since the beginning feels like they’ve come so far, and the new characters contribute a lot to those journeys while having great stories of their own. The city of Gotham has certainly been put through all kinds of hell: suffering from corruption and rot, seeing the arrival of a potential savior, watching everything spiral even more out of control, finding false peace in buried lies and clean fixes, caught in the explosive backfire that brings them to their knees, and ultimately pulling through their lowest period and proving again that there’s still a heart and soul to Gotham’s people that’s worth fighting for. It’s hard to know whether things will finally truly improve for the city after this, but there are promising signs like the conversion of Wayne Manor to an orphanage and the ongoing inspiration of Batman, who himself has been reborn in terms of both his legacy and the identity underneath the suit.
We end the film with Alfred sitting down in a café in Florence, looking over, and seeing Bruce and Selina alive and well, making his repeated fantasies of seeing such a sight finally a reality … or is it? Much like Nolan’s Inception, this ending is open to one of two different interpretations: either Bruce escaped the bomb’s explosion after flying it over the water and is now living a live beyond Batman, or he didn’t survive and this is just another one of Alfred’s fantasies. Many have argued that what Alfred sees has to be real because Selina is there with Bruce, but remember that Alfred has seen what Selina looks like and made a half-joking remark trying to set Bruce up with her. So, I think it’s perfectly valid to interpret this ending either way, and there are plenty of details to support either take (the Bat’s autopilot, Bruce not being recognized in Florence, etc.).
FINISHING A TRILOGY RIGHT
I think part of why The Dark Knight Rises is treated more harshly than the other two Nolan Batman films is because it doesn’t have some grand claim to fame in cinematic history. Batman Begins was the much-needed revival of Batman’s fallen film career. The Dark Knight was a groundbreaker that brought a new level of respect to superhero films. The Dark Knight Rises is an exceptional film, but it didn’t change the landscape. All three films have little flaws and nitpick-worthy choices, but this third film wasn’t vital or refreshing enough at the time to distract from them as much. But if you give The Dark Knight Rises another look now, you might find that it’s aged a lot better than you’d expect. We live in a time of being inundated with all kinds of franchise and superhero movies, shows, and properties. A lot of them are very good, but many agree that as they keep getting pumped out, their manufactured qualities are becoming more apparent, with conflicting creative voices, production and effects that look rushed, safe narratives, and the constant need to find some way to keep the stories going long after they should have ended. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t like that. It takes chances, it doesn’t cheap out on any action set piece, and its dialogue, feel, and tone are 100% true to the same vision as what came before.
Most of all, though, what sorely needs to be praised more is that The Dark Knight Rises concludes a multi-film story definitively. If Nolan had wanted to keep this series going longer and milk as much money as possible from it, he could have done that. But instead, the Dark Knight trilogy has a beginning, middle, and end to an overarching story, it tells that story without any gimmicks or thoughts of further franchise expansion, and thanks to The Dark Knight Rises, it goes out on the most fitting note possible and knows when to stop. How rare is that, especially now? So many other film series either backtrack on promises at the last minute, end unexpectedly because of negative reception, or keep going and overstay their welcome. The Dark Knight Rises should at the absolute least be respected for the integrity of not falling into any of those traps. But I’m hoping that more newfound respect will also come to it for many, many other reasons.