Casting quirks have introduced into the current superhero blockbusters an element of the racially divisive – at least for British audiences, who will be asked to choose between England and Wales as well as good and evil. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is again played by a Welshman (Christian Bale), albeit one who speaks in the husky mid-Atlantic drawl of a late-night DJ. The role of his tormentor, Bane, is taken by Tom Hardy, a London-born actor dynamic enough to inflate a character who’s no more than a glorified heavy. Then there is The Amazing Spider- Man in which Andrew Garfield (Anglo-American but English-raised and accented) is pitted against Rhys Ifans (nationality: take a wild guess). Hollywood always has superhero movies on the go, so I’d clear my diary prettysharpish if I were Rob Brydon or Nerys Hughes.
These sorts of connections can suggest themselves while you’re watching a film going through the motions. The Dark Knight Rises ends a trilogy that has revived a discredited franchise, while The Amazing Spider-Man is wooing viewers with another incarnation of something they’ve already rejected. “Reboot” is the snazzy name given to this flogging of an almost-expired horse but there’s an element of re-shoeing as well: a fastening of shiny new silverware on to the same weary beast. There’s nothing amazing about The Amazing Spider-Man but it’s nice to be reminded that incidental human pleasures are more special than effects. Each ephemeral puff of the film’s CGI has faded from my memory, yet I retain the vivid image of Garfield, with his giraffe limbs, swan’s neck and sculptural nest of hair, skipping – skipping! – with happiness.
Such frivolity in a Batman movie would be punishable with a spell in the hellish prison where the hero spends most of The Dark Knight Rises. The writer-director Christopher Nolan has fashioned a unique psychic space for this trilogy: scuzzy and urban in texture and tone but with leaps into the grotesque, the films are devoutly po-faced. Only now, with The Dark Knight Rises, has their effect become anaesthetising, so that we barely register surprise unless there is a naughty thrill, such as the sight of tanks rolling past Saks Fifth Avenue. As the picture opens, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, has been absent from public life for seven years, and Gotham City needs him. “The Batman has to come back!” gasps Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), sounding not unlike a Warner Bros executive realising that the studio is all out of Harry Potter films.
The urgency can be summed up in a word: Bane. Like Batman, Bane has a thing for masks; his one administers pain-numbing gas beneath what looks like a boxer’s sparring headgear clamped on to his bulb-like skull. It also muffles his delivery; struggling to enunciate, he sounds like John Houseman with his fist in his gob. (The line “What a lovely voice” comes out as “Whah wuvee woss.”) Hardy has apparently re-dubbed the part since early footage was greeted with a universal “Eh?” but he still makes the summer’s only blockbuster to require an ear trumpet instead of 3D glasses.
Bane kills his own henchmen with the kind of casualness typical in a hirer’s economy but this is a mere preamble to his master plan: to destroy Gotham using an atomic bomb that resembles a giant Christmas bauble (and would be almost as painful if trodden on). Bruce is banished to a far-off, primitive prison (the film is big on prolonged suffering – he has to share a cell with Tom Conti). But he has many allies to fight in his stead including a young police detective (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) unembarrassed to commandeer a school bus full of orphans in an action movie, and a burglar who cracks Bruce’s safe before somersaulting out of the window like a kung-fu Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. That’s Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who favours the dainty eye-mask rather than the PVC bodysuit of yore. She also gets a go on the Batbike, which has wheels that roll sideways; it’s like an executive toy. But then everything in a Christopher Nolan movie feels as if it belongs on the desk of a CEO.
As Nolan’s films have got bigger, he has gravitated away from eloquent spectacle and towards clinical destruction. The Dark Knight Rises has riots and street battles and freeway chases; AK-47s go off so regularly that the silence between the rounds is more startling than the gunfire itself. But among the Blues Brothers- style excess, there is no single image to rival the Cocteau-esque horror of that intimate scene in Nolan’s Batman Begins when the villain, zonked on his own hallucinogenic gas, imagined a warped, seething vision of Batman. When the new movie contrives an opportunity for the awe-inspiring, such as the sequence involving a football field primed with explosives, it is invariably rushed, as though there were 100 more arresting scenes to get to. (There aren’t.) Nolan has become hooked on the grandiose, at times even the biblical. For anyone who admired the witty playfulness of his early films, it’s a dark night indeed.