Big summer blockbusters don’t have to be terrible. The original ones — Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark — weren’t, and harnessing the considerable resources of Hollywood talent at the service of a large-budget, crowd-pleasing entertainment is something we do better than anyone; it’s one of the few things (like bombers and motorcycles) that America still builds well. The trouble is, so few filmmakers bother with matters like characterization and wit and intelligence, and those that do are often hamstrung by the creativity-by-committee that is the bane of studio “tentpoles,” and that’s why Christopher Nolan is so valuable. His Batman trilogy (and The Prestige and Inception, which he made between them) serve as a forceful reminder of the kind of quality that the marriage of art and commerce can birth — and the use of “art” here is a deliberate one, a word choice not made lightly. In the seven years since Warner Brothers handed the keys to their biggest franchise over to a British filmmaker best known for a twisty indie, Nolan has done nothing less than redefine blockbuster cinema: what it is, and what it can be.
Like The Dark Knight, Nolan begins his film with an electrifying set piece (seen by some IMAX viewers of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol), in which supervillian Bane (Tom Hardy) is extracted, mid-air, from a CIA flight, taking a nuclear scientist with him. The events of this prologue have importance within the narrative, but as with the last film, it also showcases the filmmaker having a good time playing with his expensive toys; he’s dazzling us with tangentially-related thrills, like the openings of the best Bond movies.
When we return to Gotham, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, the fictional heroism of Harvey Dent a firmly-established “truth” — as is the murderous villainy of “the Batman” (I love how they always call him “the Batman”), who hasn’t been seen since. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) barely has either; holed up at Wayne Manor, he’s the subject of Howard Hughes-ian rumors of fingernail growth and urine in mason jars. His atrophy is rattled by Selina Kent (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar masquerading as staff at a charity event, who makes off with the pearls in his safe — and his prints from its keypad. Following her trail leads him to Bane, who is preparing an army of subterranean henchmen for an anarchistic takeover of Gotham that will leave the city in a literal rubble, or maybe as a crater.
That’s the plot, but just the broad outlines; Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who co-wrote the script) have crafted a big, busy movie with an abundance of characters and multiple plot strands. But for all he’s got going, Nolan somehow never loses control — this is an accomplished and tremendously confident filmmaker, both in the execution of his thrilling chases and action beats, and in his manipulation of the complicated, multi-faceted narrative. He’s so skillful a storyteller, in fact, that he makes the ballsy decision to make a Batman movie that, for a good chunk of its second act, takes Batman clean out of commission. It does not hurt the film; our interest as viewers does not flag.
Much of that success is the result of Hardy’s harrowing performance as Bane. Unlike what we’ve come to expect from “comic book villains” (even from Heath Ledger’s nihilistic Joker), there is no joy to this performance, no nonsense — he’s all scary business, and when he first faces our hero, Hans Zimmer’s score is nowhere to be found, the better for us to hear the crushing of bones and thuds of his form hitting the ground. (Hardy’s dour presence is nicely offset by Hathaway, who turns in a loose and funky piece of work, and one so sexy it damn near melts the lens.) Bane’s threat is real, and gives the picture weight; when his plan culminates in an orgy of destruction, the sequence isn’t played for thrills, like in a Transformers movie — it’s fucking terrifying, the crumbling bridges leading to the island of “Gotham” a chilling reminder that this fanciful story is grounded in a very recognizable reality.
That’s a risky bit of visual business, but Nolan isn’t screwing around; he’s myth-making, and there is a moment of triumph for Bruce Wayne late in the second act that has the kind of genuine, stand-up-and-cheer exhilaration you wait an entire movie for. Title of this piece notwithstanding, The Dark Knight Rises has its problems; the early scenes, for example, require the writers to fill in a lot of blanks, and not always with finesse. But it’s a tremendous picture, bold and grand and deliberately provocative in a way that major motion pictures are often afraid of, from the Patriot-and-Gitmo overtones of the “Dent Act” to the gleeful mixing and juicing of political ideologies in the citizens’ uprising. Political-minded moviegoers and pundits will presumably spend the next couple of weeks examining the Occupy (and Tea Party) subtext of the picture, and will certainly come to no consensus. At some point in the midst of that discussion, it will be worth remembering that this was a series that, a mere decade and a half ago, offered up nothing more intellectually stimulating than Arnold Schwarzenegger zapping a freeze-ray and bellowing “CHIIIIIILL.” Nolan proved that the Batman franchise could be saved, and could be popular art. Now the rest of Hollywood just needs to get the message.