- - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Holy trilogy, Batman! After three films, it’s finally become clear as a Batarang to the face what British director Christopher Nolan’s marvelously grim ‘n’ gloomy take on the caped crusader really was about: not Batman and not even the villains he fought, but their home, Gotham, and the breakdown of urban social order. And, yes, also guys in ribbed rubber costumes beating the living snot out of each other.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is a blitz film about a city under siege in which survival requires personal sacrifice and resistance to mob impulses. Like its immediate predecessor, “The Dark Knight,” Mr. Nolan’s final Batman film flirts with contemporary politics: The movie’s chief villain, a beefed up mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy), raids the city’s stock market and leads a revolution against the city’s wealthy and privileged, berating them for their decadence while promising to return the city to the people.

This fatally undermines the attempt by President Obama’s camp to connect Bane’s villainy to the homonymous Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. If anything, Bane is the opposite of a corporate capitalist bad guy — he’s an egalitarian huckster attempting to destroy Gotham from within by stoking the city’s have-nots against its haves via London-style riots.

But is the movie just Occupy Gotham, with Bane as a supervillain class warrior and Batman — the alter ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne — as an avatar of the 1 percent sent to save the city?

As with Mr. Nolan’s earlier entries in the Batman franchise, the political particulars serve partly as background to give it contemporary flair, the narrative equivalent of high-tech Bat-junk hanging around Batman’s secret cave lair. But the class warfare that drives Bane’s urban siege also serves a larger metaphor.

Mr. Nolan has said the movie is inspired by Charles Dickens’ novel about the French Revolution, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and that’s telling: “The Dark Knight Rises” is not so much anti-Occupy Wall Street as it is anti-revolutionary, positioning Batman as a small-c conservative defender of duty and common manners.

Americans frequently have cast Batman as a vigilante bent on vengeance, but Mr. Nolan’s British sensibility repositions him as a warrior in a fight for social decency: He fights crime with a stiff upper lip.

This brings us back to the part about guys — and, in this instance, a gal, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) — who don bodysuits and vacuum-formed horned masks and then proceed to thwack each other senseless for our amusement.

As “The Dark Knight” explicitly acknowledged, there is something odd about the idea of a hero who dresses up like a bat and stalks a city looking for criminals. But the popular and critical success of Mr. Nolan’s films suggests something odder still: the enduring cultural fascination with Batman.

How many mental hours — not to mention hard-earned dollars — have Americans devoted to creating and consuming the elaborately imagined adventures of this quasi-psychopathic spandex-clad weirdo? Yet at this point, liking Batman is as common as hating Congress, and some of our best pop artists have devoted considerable effort to relaying his story. The character, who first appeared in a 1939 comic book, arguably has passed the test of a true fictional classic: He’s stood the test of time.

Mr. Nolan’s franchise certainly will help cement Batman’s place in the pop-culture canon for years to come. While it consistently has proved weak on narrative — too crammed with incident and muddled plotting — it has succeeded on the force of its tone and the strength of its characterizations. The same is true of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which brings back a slew of familiar faces, including Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth; Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s gadget guru, Lucius Fox; and Gary Oldman as police commissioner Gordon, while adding several new ones, including Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young cop and Miss Hathaway as Catwoman.

Mr. Nolan’s gloriously bleak take on Batman is perhaps the best possible vision of the seven-decades-old character — a powerful man who, like the city he inhabits, is at war with himself. In part that’s because, unlike many would-be superhero auteurs, Mr. Nolan has figured out that Batman’s origin story is not the most interesting thing about him. Instead, he’s cast the Dark Knight as a reflection of the world he lives in, a defender of security and calm in an era of uncertainty and instability — a dark anti-radical who is not part of any revolution but is leading the charge against it, one Bam! Pow! and Whap! at a time.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Dark Knight Rises”

CREDITS: Directed by Christopher Nolan from a screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan

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