“Is it him?” a trembling wide-eyed child asks a Gotham City police officer, “Is he back?”
“FUCK YEAH!!!!” would obviously be an inappropriate response by an officer of the law to a 10-year-old child but, under the circumstances, it would be an understandable one. Yes, four years after we last saw him disappearing into the murky Gotham night, The Bat-Man is back. Bollocks to The Olympics, this is the cultural moment we’ve actually been looking forward to.
The story picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, which saw Batman falsely assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent – aka Two Face – for the greater good of the city. The lie worked and Gotham subsequently passed The Dent Act, draconian anti-crime legislation which has seen the city’s streets swept clean of criminals and scumbags (along with, presumably, computer hackers, illegal file sharers and whistleblowers…) Meanwhile, traumatised by his bruising battle with The Joker, Bruce Wayne has hung up his cape and retreated into Howard Hughes-esque seclusion. Visitors to Wayne Manor catch just the occasional glimpse of a bearded figure with a walking stick lurking on the battlements. Batman is hobbled; physically as well as psychologically; “you don’t have any cartilage left in your knees!” his astonished doctor tells him, “there’s scar tissue on your kidneys and concussive damage to your brain tissue”. He’s basically the superhero equivalent of Owen Hargreaves.
The times are a’changing. The Gotham economy is headed south, the gap between rich and poor is growing and even Wayne Enterprises – once thought too big to fail – is haemorrhaging cash. Into this uncertain world steps Bane, a muscle-bound masked terrorist who was formerly a disciple of Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows (a refresher viewing of Batman Begins is recommended before you go into this). Bane arrives in Gotham seeking to exploit the growing unrest amongst its citizenry and complete the diabolical work of his former mentor. This latest Batman nemesis is played by Tom Hardy (a future recipient of the OBE for Services to Maximuscle..) It can’t have been easy for him having to follow in the footsteps of Heath Ledger who a) gave a pitch-perfect Oscar-winning turn as The Joker in the last film and b) then immediately died – thus giving his performance an almost sanctified status that any future Bat-villain will be judged against.
Hardy’s tactic is to go BIG. Bane is simply enormous; the embodiment of brute, and brutal, force. When he comes up against Batman there’s a real sense of threat – that the caped crusader might be about to get his arse handed to him. Batman, remember, is essentially just a guy who’s quite good at Kung Fu backed up by some innovative body armour solutions. When Bane’s sledgehammer fists start raining blows on him, Bruce’s special suit suddenly looks about as effective as the children’s batman costume I used to dress up in when I was 7 (ok 17..) He also has the obligatory ‘gravely voice’ although Hardy’s version of this was reportedly so menacing that early test audiences couldn’t actually understand what he was saying so it had to be digitally remastered. The new version is more theatrical and ever-so-slightly camp (although I probably wouldn’t say that to his face), a synthesis of Darth Vader, JR Hartley and, at times, traces of Harry Enfield’s Nelson Mandela impression.
Even in the fantasy Gotham universe, real world problems loom large. “You and your friends lived so large for so long and left so little for the rest of us” snarls Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar at the billionaire Bruce Wayne. There’s also a stunning sequence where Bane and his cohorts storm the New York (sorry Gotham) Stock Exchange and kidnap a bunch of terrified FX Traders. “This is the Stock Exchange”, whimpers one, “there’s no money to steal here.” “Really?” Bain retorts, “then what are all you people doing here then?” These current affairs parallels can possibly be taken a little far however. Rush Limbaugh – noted for his deep readings of cultural memes – pointed out the similarity between the name Bane and Bain Capital, the controversial hedge fund set up by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Clearly a conspiracy by liberal Hollywood socialist Nazis to steal the election…
So anyway, is it amazing? Is it definitely amazing? The answer, I’m fairly sure, is yes. It’s probably fair to say it doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Dark Knight – but that’s only because that film had Heath Ledger’s electrifying, once-in-a-generation performance going for it. Aside from that, it’s every bit as visually stunning and pulse-racingly spectacular as the second film. And definitely one for the IMAX. The epic tracking shots of the Gotham skyline projected onto a screen the size of the Moon make it worth the extra money alone. I’d also say it’s probably Christian Bale’s best performance of the trilogy. He brings a tragic, almost Shakesperian, sense of fatalism to the role and is ably supported by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman as his various surrogate father figures (at times Batman must feel like he’s living out the plot of Three Men and a Baby…)
The bulk of the credit, though, should go to director Christopher Nolan who has not only created the best superhero franchise of all time but, more than that, a dark and complex modern fairytale that sits comfortably alongside anything ‘proper cinema’ has to offer. And all that from a storyline about a man who dresses up as a bat! Anyone who can make that premise anything other than hilarious is clearly a serious talent.
Having said that, the tension between the serious and silly becomes more noticeable in this last instalment. Tellingly, for instance, Anne Hathaway’s feline character Selina Kyle is never explicitly referred to as Catwoman. Nolan will probably be relieved to be moving on as I can’t see how he could maintain his hyper-serious tone if he had to continue raiding the comic book source material. It’s hard to imagine, say, The Riddler fitting into Nolan’s brooding neo-noir aesthetic. Or Mr Freeze. Or the phrase “Holy Mackerel Batman!” Although I would absolutely love it if, in his Director’s Cut Blu-Ray, Nolan edited a couple of these bits in at crucial moments in the drama…
Obviously, even if the director is leaving, it’s unlikely that the studio will want to put such a profitable series to bed and a clue as to where the post-Nolan franchise may be headed can be found in the character of John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a young Gotham beat cop who finds himself coming to Bruce Wayne’s aid. Now, I wouldn’t want to give away any spoilers, but it’s fair to say that if you’re a young clean-shaven athletic type and find yourself working closely alongside The Bat-Man, your character arch is only really headed in one direction… and it will probably involve lycra.