Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was never going to be the same after the Colorado cinema massacre.
In the run-up to last Friday, the final instalment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy was one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of 2012.
Now it will forever be synonymous with the murder of 12 cinemagoers and the wounding of 58 other people at a midnight screening of the movie at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora.
As a result, some of the events depicted in the movie have taken on a whole new, unwelcome connotation.
And that is a shame as Christopher Nolan has crafted a fitting denouement to a remarkable screen trilogy.
For fans of Frank Miller’s Batman comics, Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ rescued a franchise which had descended into over-the-top theatricality, returning the series to the original dark vision of its author.
While Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’ movies were entertaining, they were not dark enough for many Miller devotees with some of the performances veering towards the camp in a bid to woo mass audiences.
Joel Schumacher’s tenure as the director of ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman and Robin’ was disastrous, with garish visuals and even more ludicrous pantomime performances from Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze.
So when Nolan took over the franchise in 2005 with ‘Batman Begins’, he was under pressure to deliver the kind of movie fans of the original comics had longed for.
The director’s pedigree was strong – he’d helmed three of the most inventive thrillers Hollywood had seen including the breathtaking jigsaw that was ‘Memento’ with Guy Pearce and ‘Insomnia’ starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams.
Nolan didn’t disappoint with a movie which focussed on the origins of Batman and appeared more concerned with character and plot than the setting up of hackneyed one liners.
The director surrounded Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman with a heavyweight cast that included Michael Caine as the loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth, Morgan Freeman as the gadget obsessed Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman as police Sergeant James Gordon, Liam Neeson as Wayne’s mentor Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul, Tom Wilkinson as the mobster Carmine Falcone, Katie Holmes as Wayne’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes and Cillian Murphy as the villainous, Dr Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow.
Aided by Wally Pfister’s assured cinematography, Lindy Hemming’s spectacular costumes and Paki Smith and Simon Wakefield’s grim set designs, Nolan’s dark vision of Gotham received decent reviews and made $372 million at the box office.
But it also announced Nolan as a filmmaker who was not afraid to infuse his blockbuster with contemporary parallels. ‘Batman Returns’ emerged in an age when the world and George Bush’s America was in the grip of the War Against Terror and the post 9/11 paranoia surrounding Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
Three years later, he revisited Gotham with ‘The Dark Knight’ which featured a blistering Oscar winning performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker.
Maggie Gyllenhaal emerged with some credit taking over as Rachel Dawes and Aaron Eckhart turned in an impressive performance as the ambitious District Attorney, Harvey Dent/Two Face.
The War on Terror was even more to the fore in ‘The Dark Knight’ with Ledger’s Joker bringing carnage right into the heart of the city and instilling fear into its citizens. To combat him, Batman deployed surveillance techniques much like the Bush administration.
But Nolan also usurped audience expectations, with Batman facing an uncertain future at the end of the movie - incurring the wrath of a Gotham which blamed him for Harvey Dent’s death, blissfully unaware that the District Attorney had a homicidal alter ego, Two Face.
The movie earned rave reviews and £1 billion at the box office.
‘The Dark Knight Rises’ picks up the action eight years later, with a daring assault on a plane chartered by a CIA agent (‘The Wire’ and ‘Love/Hate’s’ Aiden Gillen) by the movie’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy).
A bald mercenary who is built like an Olympic weightlifter with a Hannibal Lecter style mask permanently clasped around his mouth, Bane is keen to grab a Russian nuclear physicist, Dr Leonid Pavel (Alon Abutbul).
The reason why he wants Pavel is so he can convert a clean energy source Bruce Wayne’s Corporation had been working on into an atom bomb which will destroy Gotham.
Bale’s Bruce Wayne has become a recluse since hanging up his Batsuit. He now leans heavily on a walking stick and has been so preoccupied with grief that the Wayne Corporation is being driven into the ground.
Robbed of his mother’s pearl necklace by cat burglar Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway), he soon realises that she was not there to steal jewellery but to copy his fingerprints, so a slimy rival businessman John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) can get his hands on the clean tech project initially developed by Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) but taken forward and then stalled by the Wayne Corporation.
Daggett has, of course, teamed up with Bane who launches a bold raid on the Stock Exchange, sparking a debate between Bruce Wayne and his trusty butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) about whether Gotham needs and is willing to accept the return of Batman.
The shadow of Osama Bin Laden once again looms large in Nolan’s final part of the trilogy but the director throws in for good measure scenes which will resonate with a world in the throes of a recession which has exposed corporate greed and has spawned the Occupy anti-capitalist movement.
Bane’s revolt is reminiscent of the French Revolution, with Gotham’s wealthy seeing their homes ransacked and show trials taking place, with the privileged being challenged to accept either a formal death sentence or exile which involves a rather treacherous trek across a frozen river to almost certain death.
Nolan has once again conjured up a jet black vision of the city and is assisted by some stunning cinematography by Wally Pfister, clever film editing by Lee Smith, Hemming’s elegant dark costumes, Paki Smith’s gothic set designs and a pounding musical score by Hans Zimmer.
The director’s refusal to shoot the movie in digital and in 3-D has to be applauded and there is no doubt cinemagoers lucky enough to see ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ in its IMAX format will derive the most pleasure.
The stunt work and special effects are as thrilling as we have come to expect from Nolan’s Batman series and the performances (with one notable exception) are rock solid.
Cotillard and Joseph Gordon Levitt shine (the latter as the rookie cop, John Blake who still believes in Batman) and there are satisfying minor roles for Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, Mendelsohn and Gillen.
Christian Bale cuts a more vulnerable figure as Bruce Wayne/Batman and he is ably assisted by cast regulars Freeman, Caine and Oldman.
Tom Hardy, however, has a hard act to follow in taking over from the late Heath Ledger as the movie’s most prominent villain and at times he struggles to have the same impact.
In some scenes Bane cuts a terrifying figure and Hardy turns in a typically muscular performance. However the mask distorts his voice so much that at times his intonation sounds a little comical. At certain points of the film Bane sounds like a slightly more sinister version of The Fast Show’s car salesman, Swiss Toni.
Arguably the most impressive performance is Anne Hathaway’s as Selena Kyle/Catwoman.
Very much regarded as an emerging talent, eyebrows were nevertheless raised when Hathaway was cast by Nolan, with some Batman devotees saying they just didn’t get his decision, that she was too slight to carry the role.
Amid all the bombast, however, Hathaway turns in a shrewd, agile and charismatic performance, showing an air of menace and street savviness that audiences will have not seen from her before. This is an actress who is taking risks and she is clearly having a lot of fun doing it.
With Michelle Pfeiffer’s movie stealing performance in the same role in ‘Batman Returns’ etched in many cinemagoers’ minds, Hathaway’s performance is at least her equal, if not better as a scheming, manipulative and, it has to be said, slightly more unhinged 21st Century version of Catwoman.
While Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s screenplay fails to scale the heights of ‘The Dark Knight’, this is nonetheless a brave, brainy blockbuster.
Like his previous movie ‘Inception’, it deals with some very big themes in a way that never condescends its audience. While crafting the darkest show in the country, this Nolan assumes his audience is as smart as he, his cast and crew are.
As the film critic Mark Kermode has consistently and passionately argued, Nolan’s greatest achievement is producing intelligent blockbusters that directly challenge Hollywood moguls who have long held the view that playing to the lowest common denominator is the sure way to box office gold.
Without giving too much away, the climax of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is open to interpretation and will no doubt provoke much debate.
But in the wake of the Aurora massacre, it must also be acknowledged that the high body count and regular bone crunching violence of the movie will make some viewers uneasy.
The shadow of Aurora gives two scenes in particular a whole a new connotation.
As Batman walks into a rooftop fight between Catwoman and a number of armed villains, he remonstrates with her when she reaches for a gun, telling her that he does not approve of weapons being used.
Later, in the heat of the climactic battle to save Gotham City, Catwoman reminds Batman of this conversation after she has opened fire on the villains using his heavily armed motorbike, quipping that she doesn’t approve of his no guns policy.
The movie’s message on guns is mixed but if Christopher Nolan’s tenure as Batman director has taught us anything, it is that the world is full of contradictions. No-one and nothing is black or white. There’s only darker and darker shades.