By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 23, 2012 at 3:20PM
"If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely...a legend," Ra’s al-Ghul says in “Batman Begins,” and it has become the defining thematic throughline of the Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. But as we see in “The Dark Knight Rises,” legends and ideals -- and the movements that follow them -- are more about what they stand for than what the truth of them actually is. When ‘Rises’ opens, Harvey Dent has been immortalized as one of the great crimefighters of his day, his Two-Face legacy hidden by James Gordon, with the Harvey Dent Act (essentially the Patriot Act) hailed as helping to clean up the streets. It’s a manipulation sustained for the greater good...but on the opposite end of the spectrum is Bane. While some have pointed out the parallels of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the themes of the film, and though Bane himself uses that language to present his takeover of the city, he couldn’t care less. Essentially co-opting the simmering resentment of the 99% to build an army of followers, Bane twists a growing movement for his own nefarious ends -- income equality is hardly on his agenda. Symbology is at the core of the Nolan’s Batman films as Bruce Wayne’s Batman has always been a catalyst for change and one to inspire such courage in others be it Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent or, in this film, John Blake. "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne,” Bruce tells Alfred on the plane back to Gotham at the beginning of “Batman Begins.” “As a man I'm flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting. " And everlasting Batman becomes with his sacrifice inspiring the city and specifically John Blake. And as the film ends with Batman’s supposed death, he is immortalized, with his symbol as an enduring force of good living on after him (it’s particularly impressive that a hallucination of Ra’s al-Ghul gives the League of Shadows -- and their destruction of Gotham -- a “never forget” reminder of their twisted existence). And the symbols and themes go on and on, from the 'Rise' mantra which ties into it the classic line, “Why do we fall, so we can pick ourselves up,” to another key exchange in “The Dark Knight": “People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?” Bruce asks. To which Alfred responds, “Endure.” In Nolan’s world, legends and ideals are only as powerful and potent -- whether for good or evil -- as what they represent. Truth is a detail. And this is the kind of intelligent, deeply thought, challenging thematic material that we don’t see in comic book movies very often...or really, movies in general.
For all its virtues, "The Dark Knight" suffered a little from what every Batman film before Nolan had been plagued with -- the title character being overshadowed by a more colorful villain (or villains). In contrast, "Batman Begins" gave a real look at the character of Bruce Wayne, and Batman, but the bad guys are a touch undercooked as a result. "The Dark Knight Rises" gets the balance right, and as a result, Christian Bale might give his best performance of the trilogy. Although his disappearance mid-film (see below) stymies things somewhat, he's simply given more to get his teeth into than the previous film; from the broken, grieving recluse to the superhero trying to find his feet again to the prisoner watching his beloved city be torn apart before his eyes to the returning hero knowing he might have to make the ultimate sacrifice, the arc gives Bale many notes to play, and helps to really re-emphasize the heroism of the character in a series that's not been afraid to lay on a little ambiguity about the role of the vigilante. He can pull the heartstrings too; as good as Michael Caine is in their farewell scene, Bale, wrenched to say goodbye to the man who raised him, yet unable to forgive him, is more than his match. And yet he's never simply dour: Bale has some of his lighter moments in the series too, and even gets to have a roll in the hay. See, being Batman isn't all that bad...
Following up Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker -- the mass murdering, psychopathic criminal in “The Dark Knight” -- is a nearly impossible task. But somehow, Nolan and company almost pull it off with Bane. (After our screening, the girlfriend of one of the Playlisters said, “Bane makes the Joker look like a fucking pussy!”) Bane (played, exquisitely, by Tom Hardy) is a hulking brute, a brilliant ideologue and a perfect foil, both mentally and physically, for Batman. As introduced in the Bond-esque prologue, Bane is a mercenary who makes his powerful employers nervous, part of a secret organization that might have cast him out of their ranks for being “too extreme.” What makes Bane truly terrifying in that sense is that he is a fanatical zealot, a terrorist who’s unstoppable because he believes in his ideological agenda to the death (chilling comparisons to any kind of fundmentalist terrorist definitely make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up). He looks amazing too – he’s wears a mask that is supposed to help him breathe but it seems ripped out of an H.R. Giger sketchbook (it also resembles a muzzle, which works thematically later on). And Hardy brings a raw physicality to the role in the way he walks (never runs), his thumbs hitched into the inside of his jacket, with a kind of princely grandeur. This adds a chilling dimension to the character – he’s in no rush to end the world and totally confident that his plans will be carried through. As the movie’s real centerpiece, his fight with Batman underneath Gotham is truly amazing – while he is talking throughout the entire sequence, it’s more about what his punches say than anything else – as with each thunderous hit he is knocking Batman off his perch as Gotham’s defender. By the end, Batman’s mask is cracked, his back broken, and his spirit in deep disrepair. Powerful stuff. As terrifying as he is, when the big twist comes, Hardy brings real pathos, those eyes (which are often doing quite different things to the voice) weeping for his (seemingly) unrequited love, the memory of his injuries, and rejection from the League of Shadows. Oh – and how can we not talk about Hardy’s voice for Bane? Initially a bold, almost giggle-inducing choice, it fast becomes hypnotic, scary and velveteen, and nothing like you've ever really heard before.