There’s no contest. The Dark Knight Rises, which opens next week, is the most hotly anticipated movie of the summer. And yes, it lives up to the hype. But what’s most astonishing is not Batman’s new flying machine that zooms around skyscraper canyons, or a flirty Anne Hathaway poured into a skin-tight catsuit and stiletto boots, or a muzzled terrorist who looks like an S&M wrestler on steroids. No, the most breathtaking moment in the epic finale of the Batman trilogy is when Michael Caine weeps.
Why? That would be a spoiler. Let’s just say the domestic bickering between Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Alfred (Caine), his paternal butler, finally comes to an emotional head. “Sir Michael Caine is always going to surprise you,” says writer-director Christopher Nolan, on the phone from Los Angeles. “Having worked with him on five movies, I knew he was going to bring something special to that scene. But when he performed it, it was absolutely gutting. We sat there in dailies and people were just sobbing.”
Don’t be surprised to see Caine honoured at the Oscars, or to see The Dark Knight Rises vie for Best Picture. Some franchises simply peter out. Nolan’s trilogy, like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter sagas, has an engineered momentum that builds to a monumental climax. After Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), “this is not another episode in a series for us,” says Nolan. “It’s the third act in one large story.”
It also lands as the third act of a superhero summer, the last of three blockbusters after Marvel’s The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man. As an action movie with physical and emotional heft, The Dark Knight Rises would appear to be the heavyweight contender. But The Avengers vaulted past the Potter, Pirates and Transformers franchises to become the third-highest-grossing movie in history after Avatar and Titanic, reaping a worldwide box office of $1.4 billion. Tough act to follow—even though The Dark Knight earned over $1 billion.
Twenty years ago, who could have predicted that Hollywood would be a comic-book kingdom? Blame it on Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), which spawned a breed of dark, operatic spectacles for grown-up fanboys. Now every self-respecting star needs a franchise and a mask, while comic-book culture ravages the ecology of the multiplex like an invasive species.
But Nolan doesn’t see his work as part of the trend. “We never saw our films as comic-book movies,” he says. “The jumping-off point for Batman Begins was to make a movie, like any other adaptation.” Yet he realizes that Rises’ anchor spot in this superhero summer will affect its fate. “How it’s going to do, I have no idea,” says the 41-year-old British director. “All I can do is make the best film I can and hope people go along for the ride.”
There is a lot riding on it. Everything about The Dark Knight Rises seems to be an escalation of scale. With an estimated budget of $250 million, it clocks in at a mighty two hours, 44 minutes. Half the movie was filmed in the giant IMAX format, while the rest was shot on 70-mm and 35-mm film. Stubbornly old-school, Nolan refused to use digital video or 3D. And he often chose bravura stunts over computer graphics—from men dangling off a plane to 11,000 extras watching a football game as the field erupts with explosives.
“Audiences are ruthless in their demand for freshness and novelty,” says Nolan. “They don’t want to see the same thing again and again. They need to see it done in a different way and in a different place. It’s a particular challenge with a sequel because you want familiar elements.”
Along with Caine, they include Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman who return as Wayne’s two other father figures, Commissioner Gordon and his CEO Lucius Fox, respectively. (“He’s got a lot of fathers for an orphan,” Nolan concedes.) But he has two new divas to play with: Hathaway’s cat burglar Selina Kyle and philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).
The Dark Knight Rises picks up the story eight years after The Dark Knight. Having taken the fall for the death of district attorney Harvey Dent, Batman has vanished. Bruce Wayne, the tycoon behind the cowl, is now a bearded recluse who walks with a cane, holed up in Wayne Manor like a Gotham Howard Hughes. When a ferocious new villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) lays siege to his financial empire, he hauls the batsuit out of storage. (It’s surprising how little screen time it gets—first we wait for Batman’s return, and later, while Wayne is imprisoned in a pit, we wait for him to rise again.)
Scarred by a horrific injury (what comic-book villain isn’t?), Bane is masked by a contraption that pumps him with painkillers—though its main effect is to turn his accented voice into an unearthly growl while channelling shades of Hannibal Lecter and Blue Velvet’s Dennis Hopper. Bane’s dialogue could benefit from subtitles, especially since he has to explain so much of the plot. Batman’s voice is distorted, too, so when they converse it’s like listening to talking dogs. No matter: in the end, it all comes down to a fist fight.
This time Batman is not just fighting crime, but saving his city from annihilation. Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker, who picked off victims one by one for sheer sport, Bane is a terrorist on a doomsday mission, armed with a nuclear device stolen from Wayne Industries. “That was an important part of giving this film the scale it needed,” says Nolan. “When you’re just stuck in Gotham, there’s a danger things start to feel a bit village-y.”
Between the spectre of epic terrorism and the allure of lethal women, there’s more of a James Bond feel to this Batman opus than the others. “But it’s been there throughout,” says Nolan. “We’ve been shamelessly plundering the Bond movies that I loved growing up. It would be more obvious if it had an English character at the head. This is a very American story.” Even if this Brit director has stocked it with Brit actors—Bale, Caine, Oldman and Hardy. “You go for the right people for the job,” he says, “and they turn out to be English.”
The pedigree of the cast imparts automatic gravitas. And unlike so many comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Avengers, Nolan’s work is not a maze of jokey, postmodern asides. These are action movies freighted with dramatic and intellectual ambition. Hathaway’s Catwoman may come on like a Bond girl, an agent of comic and erotic relief, but she has a subversive agenda. “There’s a storm coming,” she tells Wayne. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us.”
Sound like Occupy Wall Street? Nolan did just that when he used 1,000 extras to film a pitched battle between cops and mercenaries in Manhattan. “When we went to Wall Street to film, the Occupy movement had grown up around it and there were ridiculous reports we had chosen it for that reason. But it took a year of planning, and the scene had been written two years before that.” While 9/11 casts a long shadow over Gotham’s scenes of terrorist destruction, the Occupy echoes are prescient. Nolan “had no way of knowing,” says Bale. Filming just blocks from the protest, he recalls, “I was looking at him—how did you know?” Gotham, explains Nolan, “is a parallel world, and you wind up mirroring the concerns of the time.”
One concern among those who care about cinema is that it’s being overrun by comic-book franchises: the masked superhero has usurped the face of the movie star as Hollywood’s most powerful icon. Which Nolan doesn’t dispute. “We’re definitely well into a phase where our actors are not willing to brand themselves as movie stars the way actors of the past did,” he says. “When you look at a guy like Christian, whether he’s wearing a mask or not, this is one of our great actors. But he wants to be different in every film. He doesn’t want the audience to go to a Christian Bale movie; he wants them to come see the character he’s playing. That’s true of most leading men working today. That wasn’t true 20 years ago.”
Nolan and Bale say they are both done with Batman—although The Dark Knight Rises ends on a note that will allow another filmmaker to pick up the franchise where they left off. But Nolan, still a force behind Hollywood’s superhero hegemony, is producing next year’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel. The key to comic-book material, he insists, is to treat it as “a source for movies of different types, not a genre—if the comic-book movie is a genre, like the western, the audience will want something different.”
As for his own directing future, “I have no idea where I’m going next,” says Nolan. Down the road, a Bond movie would not be out of the question. And he doesn’t even rule out 3D, if it’s appropriate. “I’m all about choice,” he declares. “I don’t like being told the way I should make a film.” For one of the few filmmakers who can stand up to the studios, that may be the ultimate Hollywood superpower—the ability to say no.