Gotham City is not in peril. It is a strange and unfamiliar opening to Nolan’s third and final piece in his Batman trilogy. The city so familiar with war is enjoying peacetime; “pretty soon we’ll be clamping down on overdue library books” quips Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rookie cop.
Fortunately for an audience who expect IMAX action, this stability is based on foundations of sand, and terror is never far away. The figurehead of justice through whom the city has unified, former district attorney Harvey Dent, was, in fact, a bloodthirsty madman, and so the fulcrum of Gotham’s supposed stability is little more than a vacuous image.
Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon holds the secret close to his chest, purporting that ‘the people of Gotham are not ready for the truth’; whether this is his decision to make represents a poignant question which underpins all 164 minutes of action. More importantly, the secret is not kept for long.
Bruce Wayne himself, along with his masked alter-ego, has retreated from the murky moral undergrowth of the realpolitik. Eight years of solitude are all that have filled the gap since we last set our sights on Wayne Manor, and, since Rachel Dawes has died and Gotham rests, it seems there is little personal motivation for Wayne to relent in his quest for a little peace and quiet.
A few fresh faces on the scene are what necessitate a change of pace. The first is Selina Kyle, the sumptuous cat burglar played by Anne Hathaway who is more lynx than domestic feline. Thieving, conniving and exuding mischievous confidence with a quiet audacity, Hathaway manages to remain grounded, revealing the occasional fleeting glimpse of weakness that hints at pretence and façade, saving her from betraying the naturalistic tone with too much comic-book bravado. Despite a world-class performance, however, Hathaway is somewhat let down by an impatient script which breezes over her character arc with little depth; undeservedly, she is never promoted to anything more than a side-point.
Contrasting this is the film’s villain, Bane, a bombastic nihilist with a towering presence and an inhuman persona. Having gathered an innumerable cohort of mute minions in the sewer system beneath Gotham, Bane wreaks havoc not only through brute force, but also by playing puppet master, establishing a presence on the board of Wayne Industries in order to bring the company to its knees from within.
Whilst there could be no competition in a comparison with Heath Ledger’s pantomimic super-villain, Bane nonetheless possesses an unreadable quality which renders him a compelling nemesis. Tom Hardy’s incongruously jovial vocal delivery is central to this, but there’s also the inclusion of an intriguing back-story which took place in a sort of conceptual prison, reminiscent of Dante’s circles of hell. Such an unfortunate past begs questions about the origins of immorality, forcing the audience to ponder over what board-member Roland Daggett refers to as “pure evil”.
What’s more, Bane’s physical prowess makes for punishingly entertaining cinema, not least in the wincingly visceral fist-fight he conducts with Batman himself. The sheer power he weilds is enough to draw out the tension of the piece, as one is left genuinely wondering how Bruce Wayne is going to wangle out of this one, a feeling rarely experienced in superhero films in which the hero often feels invincible. Christian Bale’s unfalteringly stoic portrayal of a fragile Bruce Wayne himself should not go unnoticed in this regard, either. His relationships, with Alfred, with Miranda, with Selina, all portray a totally believable insecurity, narrowly discernible through cracks in the shell of the billionaire hermit.
Despite the impressive dynamics between characters, it is in the set pieces that Nolan truly shines as an auteur. The opening sequence, in which a plane is chopped in two in mid-air and a passenger abducted, is a fine example of Nolan’s ability to dazzle and bewilder with all the legerdemain of an illusionist. Truly, if there is one working director that demonstrates that there is no need for 3D in order to perform such tricks, it is Nolan.
Perhaps the raison d’être of the piece, however, and the element that has generated the most speculation, is its political edge. Bane is, in some respects, the spokesman of a very real sense of disillusionment. He labels himself as the city’s reckoning, tearing down Commissioner Gordon’s lies and revealing the truth about Harvey Dent. As such he is an enemy of opaque government and corruption. He storms the stock exchange, accusing bankers of theft, thereby representing some of the themes and ideas of today’s Occupy movement. His speech to the people of Gotham is drenched in revolutionary rhetoric, with inspiration from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, giving him the air of a class warrior, battling against the oppression of the decadent upper echelons.
The beauty of this element of the script, however, is that Bane is, in reality, apolitical, a fraud. His rhetoric is a tool to mobilise an angry mob, not an expression of a genuinely ideological motive. Nolan’s piece highlights the danger of disillusionment, but it does not offer up any grand answers. The people of Gotham are represented in an unflattering light, a fragile entity held in check only by the lie of Harvey Dent and savage under the tyranny of a war lord. Gotham is a world that needs a leader, but it does not exist in a universe of clear-cut goodies and baddies. Nolan’s saga has been truly post-modern to the last, and it is precisely in its lack of clear answers that earns its mantle as a film of our times. It is not a happy tale, but it is a poignant one; the people of Gotham are just as disorientated as we are.