Christopher Nolan is that rarest of things - a blockbuster director who makes movies aimed at adults, not teens.
Christopher Nolan is a master of playing the Hollywood game. Over the past few decades he has wryly worked within the industry’s increasingly restrictive practices, building his clout to such a extent that studio executives are happy to invest in his vision safe in the knowledge that their hefty advances will be more than compensated for. Informed by the knowledge that movie audiences are far more intelligent than the industry may like to think, over the course of the past few years he has managed to inject weighty concepts into the blockbuster format. And, in doing so, he has raised the tone of mainstream cinema in general.
Many, of course, cite Inception as his crowning masterpiece, as well as the best example of Nolan’s deft manipulation of the industry. Coming off the back of the enormous success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan was finally granted the enormous $160 million budget for Inception that he needed to realise the script he had been sitting on for years. For my money, however, it is his Batman trilogy itself - now completed with the arrival of The Dark Knight Rises - that truly embodies Nolan’s ability to keep the execs at bay while producing innovative work in the process.
One way in which Nolan has achieved this is by bringing the blockbuster back to a predominately adult audience. Recently William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, was asked what he felt was the defining difference between the film industry today and when he first began in the 1970s. His response was that when he began, films were made for adults, whereas today a film requiring even a moderately sized budget seemed to be aimed at children. As Friedkin so perceptively observes, where once mainstream cinema looked to find mass audiences by appealing to both the children in the audience as well as the kid in all of us, today simple concepts and cheap spectacle outstrip content to such an extent that neither child nor adult are left particularly entertained.
The last decade of rampant comic-book adaptations have been particularly liable to chose explosions over substance and aim themselves at a discernibly younger audience. With many characters now over 50 years old, comic books have a huge number of adult fans. Furthermore, in the 1980s, the likes of Alan Moore’s hard-edged and deeply politicised graphic novel Watchmen brought deeper levels to the form which various ongoing series took notice of, introducing more sinister elements and storylines into their established comic-book universes. Yet, despite this, the majority of the adaptations which arrived at the beginning of the 2000s merely indulged in the campy spectacle of men in tights with super powers.
The exception was Batman Begins in 2005 which brought the comic-book movie back down to earth and, more importantly, to an adult audience. Combining a gritty, realistic aesthetic with the usual gadgetry and set pieces, Nolan managed to have his cake and eat it too. He gave the studio their bat-winged blockbuster, while providing an intelligent and engaging adaptation for cinemagoers. It was a critical and box-office smash, and the greater success of The Dark Knight – which, true to its title, brought the series into far darker territory – proved that even a corner of mainstream cinema as seemingly simplistic as comic-book adaptation could be genuinely remarkable. The Dark Knight Rises serves as a magnificent full stop to this revolutionary series.
In the previous two films, Gotham City has been torn apart by gang leaders – and occasionally sociopathic clowns. In The Dark Knight Rises, however, it is flourishing and Batman has been absent for all of eight years. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), once a playboy in Gotham’s high society, has become a virtual recluse, his life outside of Wayne Manor having ended the day he hung up his cape. Yet the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a beastly mercenary hell-bent on destroying the city, will force Wayne into action - in a fight for Gotham’s salvation, as well as his own personal escape from the role of lonely protector.
What is instantly most striking about this final instalment is the sheer scale of it. Without giving too much away, the threat Bane poses is far larger than anything we have seen yet, orchestrating a mass pseudo-revolution in order to take control of the entire city. Yet we are also confronted with the threat Bane poses to Batman himself. Among sweeping aerial shots of mass destruction, there are terse scenes of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat, giving the film a terse physicality. Muscle-clad, bald and embellished with a Darth Vader-like ventilator, Bane cuts a genuinely menacing figure, even if he does occasionally derail the odd scene with his bizarre voice, which sounds somewhat like a mad Eastern European scientist.
In this film, Nolan delves ever deeper into the emotional core of the narrative - and, in doing so, he both offsets and justifies the level of spectacle on show. In one deeply affecting scene, Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) reveals to him his fear that he will never get to see him with a wife and child in tow, as he had always dreamed. This sweetly conservative hope for the man he has virtually raised since birth is heart-rending, and Caine’s habitually restrained performance feeds beautifully into the sincerity of the scene.
Nolan’s efforts to tie up the strands of the series the film’s final few minutes are admittedly rather clunky. A few unexpected twists feel needless while, more worryingly, the ending itself seems like an all too blatant hint at a possible follow-up. While these may well be nothing more than a few final treats for the audience, it remains unsettling given that Nolan has vowed this will be his last addition to the Batman franchise. It would be terrible to see such a fantastic, game-changing series sullied by less-skilled hands.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.