On my way home from seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I recalled an hours-long debate I’d once had with friends at a party. The subject of debate was the Batman film franchise, and the ultimate merit of each of the actors who had been cast as the World’s Greatest Detective. Ultimately, the question came down to this: Could you play a good Batman without playing a good Bruce Wayne? After all, the most disappointing of the Batman films were at least partially so disappointing because Batman had been done somehow incorrectly. This is why it was thrilling to have Christian Bale cast in the role. Sure, the “Batman voice” has been widely bemoaned and parodied, but, ultimately, Bale succeeds because both the material and his performance work with our expectations of what Batman should be.
The Dark Knight Rises is, in that way, a total delight. We get to see more of Bale as Bruce Wayne, and much of the film is devoted to deconstructing the symbolism of Batman. Bale’s acting is as strong as ever, but it is the challenge to Bruce Wayne’s character, both in the storyline and in the portrayal of the character, that make his performance truly compelling.
Part of the strength of the Batman series, in any media, has been entwined in the strength of his villains. In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, the inclusion of both Bane and Catwoman is necessary to fulfill the rising action and conclusion of what is the third act of one continuous story. Bane is the villain necessary for truly testing Batman’s own strength. Batman is, ostensibly, a Lawfully Good superhero. The opposite of the Lawfully Good superhero is not the Chaotic Evil of the Joker, but the Lawful Evil presented by Bane and his fascistic uprising in the film. Chaos reins in Gotham, and the audience is forced to critically examine what–and who–we place our faith in.
Catwoman is a great choice to balance this opposition, as she has always been a bit of a libertine. Hathaway does well to summon the ghosts of Catwoman past, evoking the Pfeiffer performance, as well as notes of the camp found in the classic television series. When she nails it, it’s dead-on, but it ends up seeming inconsistent, because hers is a more subdued Catwoman. The strength of the character is still present, though, because Catwoman’s message has always been one of independence and self-reliance. Her refusal to get caught up in any particular moral category is what will always make her a great antihero—perhaps the antihero we both need and deserve.
The overall “message” of the film seems muddled as it progresses. Parallels with the Occupy movement, as well as other political movements of last year, are fairly blatant, even if the point of their depiction is not. Ultimately, the deconstruction of Batman, and the power structures of Gotham, results in a much more precise message. While superhero vigilantism is dependent upon power structures, opposing them, challenging them, and working with them, this film is ultimately about every day heroism. This is the film’s greatest success. We understand the difference between avenging and enacting revenge, and this is what all good superhero stories do, however ambiguous the journey may have been.