And Holy Toledo, did he.
The film opens on a Gotham that's largely recovered from the municipal carnage that took place in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It's 8 years later, and both of Bruce Wayne's alter egos have gone into seclusion. But as the trailers are so fond of reminding us with that oft-used sound bite, "There's a storm coming Mr. Wayne."
Christopher Nolan is without peer, as a director. Go look at his Rotten Tomatoes page. His lowest credit is in the mid 70s; everything else he's touched as director, producer, what have you has been box office gold and critically hailed; even his first major short film Following recouped its modest budget to the tune of almost 8 times over. The man is a modern Midas and it's little wonder. He is a master craftsman when it comes to the art and discipline of film making and The Dark Knight Rises is just more proof on top of existing fact. The film opens much in the way The Dark Knight does, introducing just a blueprint of the plot and the main villain. From there, it's a solid 20 to 30 minutes before the action even really gets going again, yet it doesn't drag in the slightest. Nolan builds an unnerving sense of placidity, a true calm before the storm, that brilliantly reflects Gotham City's placement in the scheme of events. Even in the lighter passages of the opening moments of the film, there's an undeniable presence of growing menace; the only way it could be more palpable is if there were big block letters across the screen flashing "THINGS ARE ABOUT TO GET MUCH WORSE." And of course they do, in a brilliantly satisfying way.
Nolan's selection in casting further reflects his abilities as a director. As the film plays out, the cast of characters ends up getting separated and reunited in various ways. And with so many characters to keep track of, it could have been very easy to lose track of who's where and why's what when and with whom and all that jazz. But each characterization is so genuine and committed, and likewise Nolan's direction is so measured and precise, not a moment of screen time is wasted and not a jot of the plot is lost in the action.
Hans Zimmer's score is back in force, as always, to remind us that apparently no one does heroic symphonic music better than he can. All the familiar motifs from the previous films reappear in The Dark Knight Rises, in addition to some new ones. This one is a bit more percussion oriented than the previous two, but that too goes right along with the overall feeling of deep impact film making employed here.
In the first five minutes of the movie, Bane's voice sounds completely ridiculous; like a 13 year old whose voice keeps cracking while muffled under his hand. During these opening moments, I feared that the entire operation might be derailed by this, but either I got completely used to it or they somehow managed to change the resonance the next time the character appears on screen. A close call, but one that had me thoroughly distraught for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Nolan has largely managed to keep his films free of self-referential camp, and that's a good thing. With that in mind, there were one or two lines of dialogue that felt like necessary evils. At one point Bane says "You came back to die with your city." To which Batman growls. "No. I came back to stop you." THEY FIGHT. It teeters on the brink of all-too-familiar "comic book trash talk" like that once or twice. Not wholly enough to discredit the entire operation, but just enough for me to roll my eyes a few times. There are a couple of cliches in the affair that I could have done without.
Another Bane-related minor gripe is that his voice mixes strangely with the rest of the film. Almost as if he's doing a live ADR voice-over of his lines. This is likely due to fans who claimed his dialogue was indecipherable in the trailers. I didn't have a problem understanding him in the trailer, didn't have a problem understanding him in the film, though a few critics are still bemoaning that point. So it seems that in an attempt to reach out to fans, the sound mixing on The Dark Knight Rises was hastily reconstructed in the weeks leading up to release. It's strangely overpowering; as if his voice is coming from the speakers themselves rather than the film. But it didn't bother me for very long, and I still blame texting teens for the "Bane's voice is hard to understand" campaign.
The hype surrounding this film is well-deserved, and while there will undoubtedly be detractors (there always are) my hope is that The Dark Knight Rises will go on to set and break box office records because it's the kind of film that deserves that kind of critical and financial recognition. The performances are dead on, the visual effects are thrilling, the action sequences full of adrenaline and emotion, and the few twists along the way are as satisfying as vintage M. Night Shyamalan.
I'd like to say that a part of me regrets that the trilogy is completed; that I'm sad to leave it behind. But I'm surprised to say that I'm not. Nolan has expertly crafted a specific set of films that follow a logic and narrative so uniquely their own that here, at the conclusion, we're treated to a satisfying sense of closure rather than a post-credits promise of bigger and bolder things to come. The tagline for the film, "The legend ends," is perfect in every sense. It communicates exactly what the film's ultimate aim is and it implies that we will feel happy to reach the conclusion, rather than regretful. The legend has ended, and it was a glorious end; one truly worthy of the reputation constructed over the course of the two films leading up to it.
Cheers, Mr. Nolan. My hat is off to you.