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Christopher Nolan has completed the first truly great super hero trilogy. The Dark Knight Rises is a vicious warning about the dangers of complacency and it’s also an exquisite reminder of how the smallest acts of kindness can lead to a lifetime of heroics.

Rise Above

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)

Writer/director Nolan has a uniquely elegant storytelling sensibility. This third, and final, chapter in Nolan’s Batman series is a whopping 164 minutes of ideas, themes, characters, and action that deftly brings Bruce Wayne’s story to a solid conclusion.

The story picks up eight years after the Dark Knight raced off into hiding after taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s nefarious actions and betrayal of all he previously represented. Bruce Wayne’s holed up in the restored Wayne Manor, a recluse the media tries to paint as a modern Howard Hughes, a disheveled man who’s lost all his senses and his marbles.

Bruce (Christian Bale, The Fighter) hobbles about the manor with the assistance of a cane, his time banishing crime from the streets of Gotham as the Dark Knight having taken its toll on his body.

As for his beloved Gotham, the legend of Harvey Dent and the subsequent Dent Act formed the basis for corralling Gotham’s worst and keeping them behind bars. It’s a time of peace. And with peace comes complacency and sloppiness.

Lurking in the shadows is a new evil. It’s an insidious evil that wants to destroy Gotham and has quietly been planting the seeds of the city’s destruction.

That evil is Bane (Tom Hardy, The Fighter), a man described as having been born in Hell and forged by suffering.

But he’s not alone. He was excommunicated from the League of Shadows for being too brutal, but he has his followers. And there’s also a cat burglar on the prowl, one Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada).

They share certain sensibilities, most especially a disgust for the wealthy.

Occupy Gotham

There are two key hallmarks in Nolan’s Batman series. One is the notion that nothing’s sacred (as with the destruction of Wayne Manor in Batman Begins and the murder of Bruce’s girlfriend in The Dark Knight). The other is an uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist and shed light on the fears of the day.

The Dark Knight Rises continues that trend. The sacred won’t be discussed here. The zeitgeist will.

Wayne Enterprises is now on the ropes. The lack of profits has had a trickle-down effect, the tap running dry for the funds donated by the Wayne Foundation to some of Gotham’s most deserving charities. It’s a surprise to Bruce, who’s been too detached from the world to realize how far his own empire has fallen. Reality sets in when that cat burglar slinks off with Bruce’s fingerprints, which in turn are used in a stock market heist that completes Wayne Enterprises’ fall and leaves Bruce broke, albeit allowed to hold on to Wayne Manor.

As Selina comments, “The rich don’t even go broke the way the rest of us do.” It’s a sentiment Bruce is all too aware of when she says, “I’m sorry you lost your money.” His reply, “No you’re not.”

Shades of the recent Occupy movement are unmistakable. What’s impressive is the direction in which this take on the movement goes; it’s a natural progression to chaos. The wealthy are pulled out of their well-heeled homes and put out on the street. Such scenes smack of Nazi Germany and the devastating madness similar jealousies wrought during World War II.

Tattered American flags dangle above once proud streets as Gotham turns into a city of lawlessness. Bane has a master plan and he executes it immaculately, placing bombs beneath Gotham while the complacent busy themselves with the irrelevant. With thousands of police officers trapped in large scale underground tombs for the living, there’s a new order in Gotham and it’s not pretty.

To quote Bruce Wayne at the end of Batman Begins, “It’s all a bit complicated.” The Occupy movement is one story element. Pure terrorism is another. Identity and (personal) information overload is yet another. And so are investments in sustainable energy and the ease with which some forms of renewable energy can be turned against mankind.

There’s plenty of darkness for the Dark Knight to rise against. But the really scary thought is the plausibility of such darkness becoming a reality.

Of course, this is a comic book movie, right? So all of the above is open to one’s own interpretation.

The Bane of Bruce’s Existence

Adding new characters in a series like this is similar to walking a tight rope. It’s a balancing act to maintain a sense of grounded reality while tapping into the outlandish nature of so much of the Batman lore. There’s that persistent fear of suffering through another Joel Schumacher fiasco.

Nolan maintains that balance well with his take on Selina Kyle, who takes a Robin Hood-like view of her actions. Well, at least she has the “take from the rich” part down pat. What does a girl really want these days? A clean slate; she wants the ability to clear her name by clearing the networks of all references to her activities.

There’s an allure to skipping over A-list villains like Penguin and Riddler and going for a less-familiar villain, such as Bane. He’s well established in the Batman canon, but he’s more of a B-lister and the kind of character who can serve as a sort of blank canvas for Nolan’s thematic needs.

Bane wears a mask for reasons entirely apart from Batman’s mask. Bane’s mask is a medical device that helps him endure a constant pain that dates back to his days in Hell, growing up in the world’s worst, most harsh and desolate prison.

He has an intricate back story that includes Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson, The Grey) and the League of Shadows. But it’s a back story that’s been muddied by misinformation and misinterpretation. In other words, Bane has the perfect back story for a guy whose arsenal is built around deception.

As Bane explains in the early going, nobody paid attention to him until he started wearing a mask.

That mask and his penchant for deception serve as foils for both Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Bruce and James have both been living their own lie in perpetuating the myth of Harvey Dent’s heroism. But does it make a difference if that lie was created to heal wounds instead of open them?

Faith Rewarded

Amid all the action and evil there are also some terrific character sketches that define what it is that makes a man a hero.

A persistent, hotheaded young gun in Gotham P.D. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception) begins to understand what makes Bruce Wayne tick. Their discussions revolve around rough childhoods, putting on a smile to hide pain, and the more dramatic side of such a noble effort, the donning of a mask to not just hide the pain, but also to protect the wearer’s loved ones.

And Bruce reiterates the core idea of the Batman: It’s a symbol, one devised to instill fear in the bad guys and provide a source of inspiration to those in need. Anybody could be Batman. Being Batman isn’t about extravagant, multi-million dollar toys and busting mob bosses. Batman is about the little things, such as a police officer offering words of comfort to a boy whose parents were killed right in front of him.

The Batman trilogy told by Nolan is all about Bruce Wayne’s journey from a world of suffering and a self-destructive bent to planting the seeds of good in a city overrun with weeds. Having been thrown into that hell-hole prison of Bane’s upbringing, the question is can Bruce muster the willpower to rise again and not only save Gotham, but also save himself?

Cutting through the darkness, Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan Nolan manage to find the heart of the matter.