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Christopher Nolan: Deconstructing The Dark Knight Rises
Welcome to THE DIRECTORS SERIES PODCAST, a show dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors. In the show, we breakdown the careers of film directors like Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson just to name a few. From their early works and short films to their blockbuster achievements and Oscar glory.
THE APOCALYPTIC EPICS is the fourth chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and career of director Christopher Nolan. In this episode, we deconstruct with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
LINKS AND RESOURCES FROM THIS EPISODE
- Watch: The Directors Series on Youtube
- Download Chris Nolan’s Screenplay Collection in PDF
- Watch: The Dark Knight Rises
- The Directors Series Film Director Essays
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- $1 Closed Captions for Indie Filmmakers – Rev ($10 Off Your First Order)
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- Storytelling Blueprint: Hero’s Two Journeys
- The Dialogue Series: 38 hours of Lessons from Top Hollywood Screenwriters
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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Despite the record-shattering success of 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, the promise of an early retirement-enabling payday and a higher budget than the GDP of most small countries, the prospect of Nolan returning to the world of Batman a third time initially inspired hesitance. There was no ill will or negative experience fueling his reluctance, but rather, the demons of artistic integrity. “How many good third movies of a franchise can people name?”, Nolan reportedly asked of himself; indeed, he was all too cognizant of the hard and simple truth that, more often than not, threequels turn out to be the worst entry of a given franchise.
Case in point: THE GODFATHER PART III, or SPIDER-MAN 3– even RETURN OF THE JEDI was arguably disappointing in relation to the episodes before it. THE RETURN OF THE KING, Peter Jackson’s third chapter of his LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, seemed the exception to the rule, what with its several Oscar wins including Best Picture.
Even then, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is usually regarded as a single, unified narrative rather than three separate installments. Simply put, Nolan valued his artistic integrity over a dump truck full of cash, and if he was going to return to Gotham City for a third time, there needed to be a great — and necessary — story to tell.
He kept the opportunity in the back of his mind as he shot INCEPTION, even going so far as sketching out rough outlines as to what a third Batman film might entail. His initial plan, which would have seen Two-Face become the main villain after The Joker throws acid on his face during his trial, was no longer an option considering Heath Ledger’s death and his earlier decision to fold Two-Face’s villainous arc into the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT.
Once Nolan hit on the idea of using a third film to definitively end his rendition of Batman, the necessary elements that would ensure his return began to come together. As they had done for their previous Batman films, Nolan and his screenwriting partner and brother, Jonathan, looked for inspiration in classic graphic like KNIGHTFALL, NO MAN’S LAND, and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. The brothers also drew from unexpected literary sources like Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, braiding its themes of violent revolution and massive social upheaval into their massive script– the first draft of which apparently ran four hundred pages long.
Titled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the project quickly asserted itself as Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date, with a story containing no less than the fall of modern civilization and the potential death of millions within its staggering scope. Thankfully, Nolan had a crack team of producers at his disposal– his wife Emma Thomas and Atlas Entertainment’s Charles Roven, both of whom had been invaluable allies in making Nolan’s previous Batman visions possible.
Given that this was as close to a surefire billion-dollar blockbuster one could possibly get, Warner Brothers saw little problem in greenlighting Nolan’s massive epic despite a price tag upwards of $200 million. Their unwavering faith in Nolan’s ability– a faith that’s practically unheard of in modern commercial filmmaking– gave him the creative freedom and near-unlimited funds he needs to fill in his largest canvas yet while ending his groundbreaking DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY on his own terms.
Escalation has been a key foundational principle in Nolan’s take on Batman. As the stakes of his crusade have intensified, so too has Nolan expanded the scope of the Dark Knight’s world. With each successive installment, the narrative scale has ballooned exponentially, so where else can THE DARK KNIGHT RISES go but the uppermost strata of epic spectacle?
Eight years have passed since Harvey Dent fell to his death and Batman took the blame, going into exile to protect Gotham’s citizens from the devastating revelation that their White Knight had been twisted into a murderous psychopath named Two-Face. In that time, Gotham has entered a period of relative peace and prosperity– a city no longer in need of a vigilante savior. So too has Bruce Wayne gone into exile, sealing himself away in the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes-style recluse.
Christian Bale returns for his third and final appearance as Bruce, bearing the signs of significant wear and tear as he hobbles around on a cane throughout his mausoleum of a mansion. Without Batman, he’s a sad, lonely figure– a man without a purpose, and after the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, a man with very little left to live for.
He’s finally shaken from his long stupor when a prized personal memento — his mother’s pearl necklace — is stolen by a crafty cat burglar posing as a caterer during a gathering for the anniversary of Harvey Dent’s death and the passing of sweeping anti-crime legislation in his name. This development coincides with a number of others simultaneously swirling around Gotham, like clouds gathering for a massive storm that will make Bruce’s return as the Caped Crusader not only inevitable, but necessary.
Indeed, Nolan has many masters to serve in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES– not only does he have to cook up compelling narrative arcs for a suite of new characters; he has to service lingering threads from the previous two installments while bringing everything to a satisfying close. As a result, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES clocks in at a truly monumental two hours and 45 minutes long– every second being essential to the advancement of Nolan’s narrative. Naturally, there’s a lot of story to cover, and Nolan doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on huge developments.
The startling revelations and showstopping sequences come so fast and furious that the audience must race just to catch their breath, but that is the magnitude of scale that, unwittingly or not, Nolan has set up for himself. Indeed, nothing less than the threat of Gotham City’s full-stop annihilation will satisfy Nolan’s narrative and thematic requirements.
This necessary existential threat is embodied in the figure of Bane, an ideological zealot excommunicated from The League of Shadows (previously embodied in Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS). A relatively new figure in Batman’s rogue gallery, Bane became a high-profile villain instantly upon his comic book debut in the early 1990’s by breaking Batman’s back and putting him out of commission for several years.
The character had made a filmic appearance before, in Joel Schumacher’s disastrous 1997 film, BATMAN & ROBIN, but the filmmakers had stripped him entirely of his formidable intellect and reduced him to a one-note, brutish henchman of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. He had been so badly mishandled that the revelation of his inclusion in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was initially met with profound skepticism by fans, if not outright derision.
However, Nolan’s choice of villain had always been informed by the story’s key ideas and formative themes first– he reportedly rejected early pressure from Warner Brothers to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as The Riddler, refusing to build his narrative around a predetermined villain. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES required an adversary who could match Batman on both the physical and mental level, and Bane — at least in his comic-book incarnation — fit the mold.
Like The Scarecrow or The Joker before him, Nolan’s rendition of Bane is informed by a grounded reality that ditches his usual mutant-luchador aesthetic in favor of a militaristic, revolutionary edge complete with a monstrous mask that delivers san analgesic gas to quell crippling chronic pain from a prior injury.
He arrives in Gotham to finish Ra’s Al Ghul’s mission to annihilate the city, although his strategy — to cut Gotham off from the outside world and use the threat of a nuclear bomb to turn the city’s economic classes against each other — is decidedly more sadistic than his predecessor’s. He plans to nuke the city anyway, but first he wants to systematically break down the people’s confidence in their own civilization while figures like Batman and Commissioner Gordon are forced to helplessly watch their beloved city tear itself apart.
Tom Hardy, one of three cast members to make the jump from INCEPTION to Nolan’s Batman saga, reportedly gained thirty pounds for the role, transforming himself into a hulking brute with a brilliant, tactically-oriented intelligence. Hardy faced a considerable challenge in playing Bane, considering the cumbersome mask that covers half his face– all that intellect and unhinged megalomania had to be conveyed entirely with his eyes. As such, Hardy infuses Bane’s eyes with the quiet intensity of conviction, his piercing stare commanding his small army of mercenaries like a brutish cult leader.
One of the more peculiar aspects of Hardy’s performance is the particular voice he uses, affecting a high-pitched musicality inspired by the voice of Bartley Gorman, a Romani gypsy and Irish bare-knuckle boxing champion. The choice, while unnervingly effective, wasn’t without controversy– audiences in early screenings of the film’s opening prologue complained they couldn’t understand Bane’s dialogue at all. The final product alleviated those concerns, thankfully, allowing the full power of Hardy’s showstopping performance to shine through and achieve a pop culture infamy similar to the type enjoyed by Heath Ledger and his interpretation of The Joker.
Nolan also brings back INCEPTION’s Marion Cotillard, who plays a new character named Miranda Tate. An enchanting member of Wayne Enterprises’ Board of Directors, Miranda is initially positioned as Bruce Wayne’s best hope for the continued operation of his profit-draining fusion energy program. Cotillard brings her signature elegance to the role, presenting herself as a potential love interest for Bruce who can help soothe the lingering pain of Rachel Dawes’ death.
However, Miranda has other plans in store– namely, using Bruce’s trust and her corporate credentials to gain access to a nuclear fusion reactor underneath the city. At the risk of spoiling one of the film’s biggest twists, Miranda eventually asserts herself not only as the true mastermind behind Bane’s evil plan, but also as a key figure that links THE DARK KNIGHT RISES directly to BATMAN BEGINS.
With only so much screen-time left to realize the vast universe of Batman characters and plot lines, Nolan risks painting a picture that feels, at best, incomplete. His grounded interpretation of the property naturally would exclude some of Batman’s more fanciful villains like The Penguin, Killer Croc, or Clayface, but there are some characters that are so iconic that any version of the Caped Crusader would feel lacking in their absence. Thankfully, Nolan is able to smuggle in two more just under the wire, albeit radically reimagined from their comic book counterparts.
The character of Catwoman is integral to Batman’s universe but is admittedly too theatrical for Nolan’s take on the property. He strikes a satisfying middle ground in casting Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, downplaying the slinky cat burglar’s feline affectations to the point where the name “Catwoman” is never even uttered. Instead, Nolan and Hathaway rely on the character’s duplicitous mystique to convey her comic book heritage (in addition to subtle visual cues like a pair of night vision goggles that resemble cat ears when flipped up on top of her head).
Drawing from the classic femme fatale archetype, Hathaway further honors Catwoman’s origins by basing her performance on the Hollywood Golden Age starlet Hedy Lemarr, the original inspiration for Catwoman in the comics. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Selina Kyle attempting to obtain a secret device that will erase her criminal history and allow her to start over with a clean slate– a path that conveniently crosses Batman’s while communicating her murky moral compass.
Additionally, her self-aware cynicism allows Nolan to infuse an otherwise somber and bleak storyline with crowd-pleasing moments of natural levity. The other iconic character whose absence would make for an incomplete depiction of the Batman universe is his sidekick, Robin.
It’s admittedly difficult to imagine how the plucky Boy Wonder would fit into Nolan’s grim and grounded approach– indeed, Bale has gone on record to say that he would leave the franchise if Nolan ever brought Robin into the storyline. With the inclusion of INCEPTION’s Joseph Gordon Levitt as a driven young cop named John Blake, Nolan gets to have his cake and eat it too.
The fresh-faced rookie doesn’t just share Batman’s burning passion for justice– he also feels a direct kinship with him, having also grown up as an orphan and felt the need to hide his emotions behind a figurative mask. Indeed, it is this quality that allows him to deduce Batman’s secret identity when no else can. While he doesn’t become Batman’s sidekick in the traditional sense, Blake’s tireless ambition nevertheless positions him both as a crucial ally in the quest to take back Gotham from Bane’s vice grip as well as an ideal successor to the Batman mantle itself– playing beautifully into Nolan’s vision of Batman as an incorruptible symbol beyond the reach of death or decay.
Nolan throws a brief nod to Robin’s place in the annals of Batman lore by revealing Blake’s real name to actually be “Robin”, thus bringing all of the character’s thematic and functional qualities to his vision of Batman while dropping the sillier, distracting elements.
Nolan’s sprawling supporting ensemble is marked by faces both familiar and new, with the one consistent quality among them being an impeccable pedigree. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman all return as Bruce’s triptych of mentors, allies and father figures– their own respective arcs reaching their logical ends in a satisfying manner.
Caine’s reprisal of Bruce’s trusty butler, Alfred, finds an unexpected degree of emotionality, having reached a breaking point in his relationship with Bruce where he can no longer abide his reckless risks. He regrets indulging his master’s whims, fearing he’s created a monster while betraying his sworn duty to Bruce’s parents. Oldman’s third turn as Commissioner Gordon sees his character on the verge of retirement– a war hero rendered useless and irrelevant by a prolonged peace. He too is disillusioned and burdened, deeply ashamed of his role in the cover-up of Harvey Dent’s death and the lies he has perpetuated since.
The events of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES gives Gordon one last chance at redemption, enlisting him to serve his beloved Gotham City as he never has before. Freeman, as the usually-jovial head of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox, also finds that his association with Batman has dug him into a deep hole, forced by Bane to pervert a miraculous nuclear fusion device into a devastating atom bomb that will decimate the city. Nestor Carbonnel returns as Gotham’s mayor, Anthony Garcia, and although he doesn’t have much in the way of a compelling character arc, he nevertheless serves as a vital embodiment of civilized law & order– everything that Gotham has to lose when Bane takes the field. Two major characters from BATMAN BEGINS also make fleeting appearances in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, helping to tie Nolan’s trilogy together into a unified whole.
Cillian Murphy returns as Dr. Jonathan Crane — better known as The Scarecrow– and while he doesn’t don his signature mask here, he does find a suitable role for himself in Bane’s new world order as the merciless judge of a kangaroo court, gleefully sentencing his enemies to an icy grave. Ra’s Al Ghul also appears in two iterations: one being Liam Neeson in a brief cameo as Bruce’s hallucination in the pit, and the other being Josh Pence as the younger Ra’s in a revelatory flashback sequence.
Finally, a handful of faces unfamiliar to Nolan’s Batman series portray notable new characters. Matthew Modine, best known for his leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, plays Foley– a petty, vindictive police officer positioned to take the reins from Gordon. He manages to just barely fit in a compelling arc within THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ sprawling narrative, ultimately finding the courage and conviction within himself to join the fray against Bane’s forces of destruction.
Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn plays Daggett, a smug billionaire and a petulant business rival who thinks he can use Bane for a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises, only to find that Bane serves no one unless it also serves himself. Finally, Juno Temple plays Jen, a low-level thief and Selina’s partner in crime.
From a thematic standpoint, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES must contend with the un-enviably tricky balancing act of fashioning a narrative that resonates with distinct, clear-cut themes within the confines of its running time, while also paying off the themes set up in the previous two installments. BATMAN BEGINS dealt with the concept of fear, while THE DARK KNIGHT focused on the idea of chaos.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ primary theme is pain– embodied not just in Bane’s brutal methods, but also in Bruce’s quest to overcome his own pain and complete his life’s work as Batman. Up until this point, Bruce’s pain had been mostly internal– anguishing over the deaths of his parents and Rachel Dawes. Throughout the trilogy, Nolan has taken great care to show the physical toll that the life of a vigilante takes on Bruce’s body.
Indeed, the success of Nolan’s entire take on the Batman universe rests on the fact that Batman is not a superhero; that he’s flesh and blood like the rest of us. THE DARK KNIGHT shows bruises and scars pockmarking his body, while THE DARK KNIGHT RISES establishes that Bruce’s knee has basically been destroyed, necessitating the use of a cane.
Bane simply finishes the job, breaking Batman’s back and throwing him down into a pit halfway across the world. Pain defines the limits of Bruce’s physicality, with each successive installment in the trilogy finding those limits constricting ever-tighter. In order to meet the extraordinary challenge of Bane, Bruce must fight through his pain and rise above his physical limits.
In this light, the ascension also becomes a defining theme of the story– Bruce’s internal quest is externalized by his attempts to climb out of a pit that had only been previously conquered by Bane himself. An ascent naturally implies a lower starting point, and Bane’s own rise to power begins in Gotham’s labyrinthine sewer system– the perfect vantage point from which to observe the deep social divisions that roil beneath the fabric of the city.
Even with a team of crack mercenaries at his disposal, Bane knows he doesn’t have the manpower to mount a successful siege against the whole of Gotham. Instead, he turns the population into his unwitting agents by inciting class conflict between the have and the have nots. He encourages the Gotham rabble to lay siege to the penthouses of the wealthy elite, as righteous punishment for their greed and gluttony.
He also advocates open anarchy, prompting the citizens to liberate criminals unjustly imprisoned by sweeping legislation passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death. Indeed, he does away with conventional justice systems entirely, instituting kangaroo courts that make a mockery of due process in a bid to quickly condemn his enemies to death.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES paints a vivid– and perhaps extreme– picture of what modern life might look like following the violent overthrow of society; a picture that resonated far more than Nolan could have enter anticipated, considering the film’s release during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In provoking the simmering resentment between the various economic classes of society, Bane is able to expose the fragility of the institutions that keep us from the brink of madness. THE DARK KNIGHT was released a few months prior to the bottom falling out of the economy at the start of the Great Recession, which sparked a widespread conflagration pitting the poor, working, and middle-class population against the wealthy elite class.
In drawing inspiration from this conflict, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES becomes something of a cathartic experience for those hit hardest by the recession. Nolan allows audiences to revel in sequences like Bane’s stock exchange heist and images of wealthy Gothamites being forcibly pulled from their penthouses and thrown out onto the street.
This plot point also makes for compelling character development on the part of billionaire Bruce Wayne, whose ability to maintain his superheroic exploits has always rested in his immense wealth. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Bruce stripped of that wealth, forced to save Gotham with whatever meager resources remain at his disposal– only at this point is Bruce able to ascend to the realm of the “superhero”, transcending the limits of his mortal physicality and securing the legacy of Batman as an incorruptible and enduring symbol.
As the conclusive chapter of the trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES also uses its thematic foundation to connect directly with BATMAN BEGINS. The first film painted Gotham as a dark, filthy, and crime-ridden city where the police force was universally corrupt– an environment primed for a solitary vigilante intent on taking justice into his own hands. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES comes full circle, with Batman’s efforts having inspired the police to clean up their city and act out en masse against the tyranny of evil.
It’s noteworthy that Batman — a character often depicted as operating only at night and in the shadows — faces Bane for a final standoff in the bright light of day. The various forces that have been swirling around Gotham all these years are finally out in the open, fighting with the crystal clarity of conviction and purpose.
Batman finally fights side by side with his comrades in blue, united in their effort to pull Gotham back from the brink. Nolan had taken great care with his previous Batman films to flesh out the urban tapestry of Gotham via its various infrastructural systems– the villains of BATMAN BEGINS repurposed water and transportation systems towards their own ends, and Batman harnessed the power of communications systems in his fight against The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. When combined with Bane’s utilization of underground sewer systems as a hidden staging ground and his perversion of a fusion-based energy system into an atomic bomb, we as an audience stand to know exactly what Batman and the citizens of Gotham are fighting for.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES furthers Nolan’s exploration of IMAX in the narrative realm, shooting in the format as much as possible. Emboldened by the substantial punch it gave THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister employ IMAX frequently– essentially, any shot that doesn’t require dialogue due to the operating noise of the camera itself.
That being said, the filmmakers are well aware of the format’s visceral impact and are careful not to dilute it, carefully staging full action sequences and select shots in order to play to IMAX’s strength as an immersive experience. As it did on THE DARK KNIGHT, this makes for a viewing experience that frequently switches between the full IMAX frame and the standard 2.35:1 35mm film frame– many times from shot to shot. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES would be, at least as of 2017, the last collaboration between Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, with Pfister graduating to the director’s chair himself in 2014 with his debut, TRANSCENDENCE.
This final collaboration finds Nolan and Pfister building upon the aesthetic they developed for THE DARK KNIGHT, adopting a neutral, desaturated color palette dominated by steel and stone tones. With the trilogy now complete, it becomes evident that the filmmakers have fashioned a transitory lighting scheme that gradually moves from the darkness of BATMAN BEGINS to the snow-capped brightness of day in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, echoing Batman’s deliverance of Gotham from moral decay to virtuous law & order.
So too has Nolan’s scope expanded appropriately, ballooning to stakes that are nothing less than apocalyptic as Bane mounts his revolutionary siege on an entire city. Nolan’s camerawork ably conveys the sweeping scale of his narrative, employing a mix of classical dolly and crane moves with handheld maneuvers and majestic aerials to capture stunning images like the movement of huge crowds doing battle in the streets, or a series of coordinated explosions detonating across the city.
As we’ve come to expect by now, Nolan captures most of these astonishing visuals in-camera via practical effects, supplementing with CGI only when absolutely necessary. The plane hijacking sequence that opens the film serves as a prime example, with Nolan and company painstakingly staging an high-altitude heist over the Scottish countryside.
Visually speaking, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES represents the aesthetic apex of Nolan’s particular style– since his lo-fi debut with 1998’s FOLLOWING, he has steadily built upon his visual skill set and developed his ability to realize epic spectacle while managing the intimidating logistics that such efforts entail. While critics may argue over the logical integrity of an admittedly overstuffed narrative, the excellence of Nolan’s technical craftsmanship is never in question.
Returning production designer Nathan Crowley marks his seventh consecutive collaboration with Nolan by partnering with Kevin Kavanaugh. The art department maintains aesthetic continuity with the previous two entries while subtly building upon them, giving a slight update to THE DARK KNIGHT’s iteration of Wayne Tower and the corporation’s cavernous R&D department.
Crowley and Kavanaugh update other iconic aspects of Batman lore like Wayne Manor and The Batcave, giving each a fresh appearance that feels nonetheless similar to how they looked in BATMAN BEGINS. For instance, Wayne Manor retains its familiar Gilded Age architectural flourishes while expanding upon the mausoleum concept from BATMAN BEGINS.
In the first film, the idea of Wayne Manor being in a constant state of mourning was communicated chiefly by the white sheets draped over the furniture. With THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the lack of color has seeped into the walls themselves, as if happiness and passion have left Wayne Manor entirely. Indeed, the appearance of Wayne Manor is a manifestation of Bruce’s initial interior state, which is one of aimless despair and endless sorrow. The Batcave has been upgraded to include a computer platform that rises up from its hiding spot underneath a natural pool of water.
No doubt installed shortly after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s evident that this equipment hasn’t been used in several years. Crowley and Kavanaugh’s fresh-but-familiar approach extends to Batman’s fleet of vehicles, which now includes a revisionist take on the classic Batplane that transmogrifies its usual sleek silhouette into that a steroid-addled bat crossed with a military helicopter. Ever true to form, Nolan chiefly uses CGI to augment what is predominantly a practical effect– production footage reveals the Batpod to be a full-size anchored atop a truck that would later be digitally scrubbed from the shot.
The filmmakers had even built an animatronic Batman to sit in the cockpit, giving their illusion that much more of a tactile believability. The Batpod from THE DARK KNIGHT makes an encore appearance, becoming Batman’s vehicle of choice after the Tumblr was destroyed in the previous installment. Indeed, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the first Batman film in which his signature Batmobile is absent entirely, save for the desert camo R&D models owned by Wayne Enterprises and later stolen by Bane’s mercenaries.
The appearance of Gotham City also evolves, with Nolan’s vision of the fictional city changing rather radically from the one that drove its design in the previous two films. The influence of Chicago, so deeply felt in the bones of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, here gives way to the iconic spires of New York City. Since the conclusion of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has been steadily chipping away at the layers of stylistic artifice he’d initially imposed on Gotham.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES envisions an entirely new Gotham– one that drapes a thin veil of fiction over famous Manhattan landmarks like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, and 1 World Trade Center (then still under construction). This particular rendition of Gotham also incorporates sections of other cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, which editor Lee Smith seamlessly cuts together to form one cohesive urban environment. In addition to other key sequences, the concrete arteries of LA’s downtown host the concluding beat of Bane’s Wall Street heist– which, thanks to the magic of editing, began 3000 miles away in New York.
Here, LA’s multi-level network of highways provides Batman a convenient escape route when he’s cornered by an armada of police cruisers. The urban interior of Pittsburgh is the stage for the film’s climactic battle, while Heinz Field doubles as the home stadium for the Gotham Rogues football team before it becomes the unwitting site for Bane’s explosive debut.
When blessed with a virtually-bottomless production budget, one might wonder why Nolan and company saw fit to disguise their locales as the fictional city of Gotham by simply spraying a little fake snow on the streets and calling it a day. However, those who might feel disappointed or even cheated by their perceived lack of imagination fail to realize that this was Nolan’s endgame all along.
As far back as his initial pitch to Warner Brothers executives, Nolan’s take on Batman was always built upon the notion of the character existing in reality. Rather than build an elaborate, fantastical world to draw the audience into, he means to draw Batman into our world. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES achieves this aim once and for all, juxtaposing the Caped Crusader against a landscape we can very much recognize as our own.
In regards to the film’s score, one could be forgiven for expecting the composing team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to finish what they started with BATMAN BEGINS. However, after Nolan paired with Zimmer exclusively on INCEPTION, Howard reportedly felt he would be a third wheel, and decided to bow out.
While this act arguably streamlines the score’s creative process, Howard’s absence is palpable– gone are the romantic swells of strings that find Batman or Bruce in a quiet moment of introspection, depriving the score of a crucial emotional resonance. This isn’t to say Zimmer fails to deliver of his own accord, however– the dynamic of the score simply shifts to favor the militaristic and intense nature of his prior contributions. He appropriately builds on the themes established in the previous entries, developing them towards their logical conclusions.
Naturally, new characters mean new themes, and Zimmer once again manages to embody the characters of Bane and Selina Kyle in musical form. Expectedly muscular and percussive, Bane’s theme immediately communicates an overwhelming sense of strength and power, his background in the League of Shadows and his apocalyptic ambitions conveyed through a hypnotic male chorus chanting the Moroccan word for “rise”.
Selina Kyle gets a slinky, playful theme that echoes her comic book heritage as Catwoman, employing light flutters on a piano bolstered by quietly urgent strings. While not as well-rounded as the scores for BATMAN BEGINS or THE DARK KNIGHT, Zimmer’s efforts here nevertheless close out Nolan’s trilogy on an epic, triumphant note.
Nolan’s artistic signatures as a filmmaker are on full display throughout THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, from its massive scope to its jet-setting narrative that takes his crew to far-flung locales like Morocco or Scotland. His take on Bruce Wayne and Batman has always been informed by his penchant for extremely-flawed male protagonists. The character’s development as seen in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES continues the trajectory Nolan established with BATMAN BEGINS, all the while uncovering new angles of his psyche.
We first find Bruce so disheartened by the loss of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent that he’s exiled himself and Batman away from the world for almost a decade. He’s lost heart in the myth that he spent so much time, energy, and money building up. When he decides to once again put on the cape and cowl, his regaining of his life’s purpose ironically makes him too proud. His conviction about the righteousness of his mission has been warped to such a degree that he drives Alfred, his closest ally and friend, away from him entirely. This also leads to his merciless beating at the hands of Bane, having failed to do his homework on his opponent beforehand.
Bruce’s story in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is one of re-earning the mantle of Batman, of gaining a renewed conviction for justice that will enable him to finally fulfill his lifelong quest. The conceit of functional style that runs through Nolan’s filmography maintains its presence here through Batman’s iconic suit, in addition to other aspects like Bane’s militaristic garb and mask, Selina Kyle’s jet-black burglar outfit, and even a wearable device that allows Bruce to regain the power lost to destroyed cartilage in his knee. The plot affords Nolan ample opportunity to explore his fascination with architecture and the malleability of the urban environment, with Bane exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of Gotham’s civic infrastructure. The underground sewer system allows him to move throughout the city undetected while staging his massive operation.
This position allows him to penetrate fortified structures like Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department by tunneling up from below. The strategic placement of explosives on bridges and other key points throughout the city allow him to effectively shut down Gotham in one fell swoop, cutting it off from the outside world and effectively creating his very own kingdom to rule as he sees fit. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t as concerned with the manipulation of time as his previous work, opting for a linear narrative that progresses steadily forward– save for a massive time jump in the middle that sees several months pass under Bane’s occupation.
More so than he did in THE DARK KNIGHT before it, Nolan structures his climax around a literal ticking clock: that time-honored movie trope of a bomb counting down to detonation. Considering the inspired turns of story that drove Nolan’s previous two Batman entries, it isn’t difficult to see why some critics felt let down by his use of an admittedly-cliche narrative device. That being said, the ticking clock nonetheless provides a propulsive framework for Nolan to employ his signature cross-cutting techniques, nimbly tracking multiple threads of action and character as they race to save or destroy Gotham.
A purist attitude towards the supremacy of celluloid film over digital acquisition has always been a crucial aspect of Nolan’s artistic character, but his reputation for active advocacy really begins here, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Thanks to the monumental success of films like THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION, he had enough industry clout to gather a number of high-profile directors like himself for a private IMAX screening of the film’s plane hijacking prologue shortly before this film’s release. With some of Hollywood’s most-celebrated luminaries as his captive audience, he proceeded to make his case about the importance of keeping celluloid alive as a vital option for filmmakers to employ. In this bold new digital age, film has taken on an inherently nostalgic quality– one that’s easy to romanticize, or take for granted.
Nolan used his platform to underscore the dangers that digital poses towards the continuance of celluloid, the least of which being its appeal to the studio’s bottom line. Digital may now have the capability to match (and even surpass) the resolution of film pixel-for-pixel, he argued, but there’s a lot that digital couldn’t replicate and that they thus stood to lose– qualities like a wide latitude, an organic texture, and its strength as a long-term archival format immune to the ravages of memory rot and data corruption. In the wake of major manufacturers like Fuji closing their doors and leaving Kodak as the only game in town, they faced the imminent risk of losing the choice to shoot on film altogether.
Thankfully, his pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears; his colleagues and contemporaries agreed that the preservation of celluloid as an acquisition option was of urgent artistic and cultural importance. This alliance proved instantly formidable, with their efforts leading to several studios agreeing to a processing partnership with Kodak that would guarantee film’s immediate survival. Of all of Nolan’s contributions to the art of cinema, his active advocacy to preserve the availability and the magic of photochemical film for future generations stands to become one of his most important and enduring.
Thanks to the bar set by THE DARK KNIGHT and the passing of four years when most sequels aim for two, expectations were understandably sky-high for Nolan’s trilogy capper. It was, simply put, the most anticipated film of 2012. Its box office dominance was a foregone conclusion, with the marketing campaign aptly positioning the film as a major cultural event that was not to be missed.
The moviegoing public responded in kind, the most dedicated of whom turned out en masse across the country for midnight screenings on release day: July 20, 2012. The overwhelming excitement of the film’s release was immediately tempered by tragedy, however, when a young man named James Holmes dressed up, in his words, as The Joker and opened fire on an audience at a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado.
Twelve people lost their lives, with fifty-eight more injured. Nolan and his collaborators immediately issued statements about the massacre, expressing their profound heartbreak. This unfortunate brush with history no doubt must have deeply affected Nolan– to him, the movie theater was a sacred space, akin to a cathedral.
It was a forum where people could gather and share a communal dream-like experience, and once that bubble had been popped, it was like innocence lost– there was no going back. Whatever the purpose might have been, Holmes’ barbaric act couldn’t keep audiences away– perhaps inspiring some to go to the theater as an act of righteous defiance against fear and terrorism.
This defiance, coupled with the overwhelming popularity of the Batman property, quickly propelled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES past the billion-dollar mark to become the 19th highest-grossing film of all time. Critics admired the film for the most part, lavishing praise on Nolan’s technical craftsmanship and command of vision while conceding that the narrative was overlong and rather unwieldy. Individual criticisms aside, critics and audiences alike mostly agreed that Nolan had closed out his trilogy in satisfying fashion.
Nobody, however, could deny the impressiveness of his achievement: not only had he shepherded one of the most successful and well-regarded trilogies of all time, he had capably (and seemingly effortlessly) executed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES on the largest and most challenging scale of mainstream studio filmmaking. In completing THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan had formed the bedrock of his cinematic legacy, and a solid platform upon which to build his towering works to come.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at Patreon.
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