Nolan’s previous two Batman films were celebrated for grounding the superhero genre in a grittier, darker reality. But The Dark Knight Rises pushes things even further: The epic-length movie (two hours and 45 minutes) contains a long and surprisingly grim stretch in which Gotham is overrun by anarchy and civilization breaks down. The film plunges into the abyss instead of just peering into it, and Nolan works the audience over with the confidence he’s gained from making risky, daring movies ( Memento, Inception, The Prestige) that found mainstream acceptance. He knows just how long he can push without turning off the viewer.
“That was very much at the forefront of our thoughts: How far do we want to take things?” Nolan says. “It was a long and torturous process to get that right. There are ways we offset the bleakness of the story. For example, we don’t go to a post-apocalyptic place, like Mad Max did. We drew more on the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, which gives the movie more of a feeling of a historical epic.
“But ultimately, we’re testing the characters in this movie, and we’re also testing the audience’s relationship to them. You want to mine the depths of despair and push the story to an extreme place, so the heroic figure of Batman is needed more than he has ever been needed. His symbol achieves an even greater stature.”
Unlike most makers of big-budget blockbusters, Nolan writes his own scripts (the only exception was 2002’s Insomnia, which was a remake of a Norwegian thriller). His canvases are enormous, but he sneaks his personal obsessions and interests into the corners. When Nolan’s planned biopic of the wealthy recluse Howard Hughes was derailed by Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, he simply incorporated aspects of Hughes’ life into The Dark Knight Rises, turning Wayne into an eccentric hermit who rarely leaves his mansion and has started to go a little batty.
“I always loved the relatability of Bruce Wayne,” Nolan says. “He is not a superhero in the usual sense. He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider and he wasn’t born on Krypton. He’s just a guy who’s done a lot of pushups. His only real superpower is his extraordinary wealth. He’s someone who suffered enormous trauma as a child — his parents gunned down in front of him — and what he’s carried with him all his life is an extraordinary level of rage, sadness and all kinds of angst. All these negative elements in his soul are pushing him in a certain direction, and he’s desperately trying to turn that into something good. That’s why his best adversaries are the ones who represent some other, darker direction he could have chosen.”
Geoff Boucher, a pop culture writer for The Los Angeles Times and founder of HeroComplex.com, says the heroes and villains in Nolan’s trilogy are often two sides of the same coin.
“Gotham City is an affliction: It changes people,” Boucher says. “These characters, in a way, are all the same person: Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, Ra’s al Ghul [Liam Neeson’s villain from Batman Begins], the Joker, Harvey Dent. They just made specific choices that led them down their various paths. You could argue that the title of The Dark Knight Rises refers to [four different characters] in the movie. That’s just Nolan being a lot smarter than the rest of us. He likes the complexity and ambiguity of things like Blade Runner, which he cites as his favorite movie. He believes films should be like a fever dream you debate with your friends for years. Inception and The Dark Knight were unlike any summer movies we had ever seen. They were cerebral and complex and throwbacks to another time: They reminded me of A Clockwork Orange in a way. The Dark Knight Rises does, too.”