The Dark Knight Rises may be the darkest, the grimmest, the most depressing summer popcorn movie ever. It is not summery. It is not popcorny. There is no adventure. There is no escapism. There is only grinding reality. There can be no mistake that the people of Gotham are us, we 99% huddled in the dark and frantic for a hero we will not find.
In Christopher Nolan's first Dark Knight film, Batman Begins, Gotham was a clearly fictional place. It was inspired by New York City, no question, but the Gotham skyline was emphatically a fantasy. Here, there is no longer any pretense. The iconic buildings and bridges of the Manhattanscape are not disguised or altered. That is Fifth Avenue, symbol of luxury and wealth. That is Wall Street, symbol of excess and greed.
Who occupies this city? The 99% are janitors and delivery guys who are ignored and pass invisibly through halls of power. They are a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who steals from the rich because it's a good way for a clever girl to make a living. They are the idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose romanticism will be shattered as he confronts the realities of his hero, police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Gordon is on the other side: He has been abetting the elevation to City Savior of district attorney Harvey Dent and the demonization of the Batman, who took the fall for Dent's sins at the end of The Dark Knight.
And there's billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). He has turned recluse and is presumed to have gone all Howard Hughes, but over the course of this story - beautifully, bleakly written by Nolan and returning writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer - we learn that even hidden away in his stately manor, he wields power, and that we cannot, should not trust to his good motives, for he likes to play god, or at least master of the universe.
What happens in such an unfair world? Enter a villain, the masked Bane (Tom Hardy), who takes advantage of those who are hurting, those who have been taken advantage of. It takes only a little mass urban blackmail before Gotham is on Bane's side, and despotism descends. The peasants of Gotham become a citywide mob, following a madman because he understands them.
The Batman and Bane are two sides of a coin, both former disciples of Ra's Al Ghul and his League of Shadows. They are physically and, in some ways, philosophically matched, garnering mythic power from their anonymity and from their certainty about what's "right" for everyone else. The cult surrounding both of them is chilling.
This is a dysfunctional world that cannot continue, and yet it seems intractable. Even the day of reckoning for the 1%, which is foretold by Selina Kyle to Bruce Wayne and comes to pass with Bane's rise, doesn't seem to change much of anything. This mess feels unfixable.
The cast is extraordinary, carrying a weight of tragic, unavoidable destiny throughout. Hardy deserves special mention. His eyes and body language are about all he has to work with as an actor, with most of his face covered through the entire film, but he is a terrifyingly brute presence. They make a dark movie for our dark days even more gloomy, and less dismissible as mere entertainment. This is a beast of a film.