The most anticipated film of the year, The Dark Knight Rises is a sprawling, commanding, entertaining film that nevertheless buckles a bit under the weight of both expectation and the responsibility of bringing this apparent trilogy to a satisfying conclusion.
Director Christopher Nolan, working in a more ambitious vein than any other comic-book-hero purveyor, ultimately meets that final challenge, but trying so hard to tie his Batman films — Batman Begins and The Dark Knight preceding The Dark Knight Rises — together into a coherent, linked package results in a final installment that's a less compelling standalone film than his bravura middle chapter.
The film opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, which turned the deceased Dent into a law-and-order martyr and sent Batman, a wanted vigilante and presumed murderer, into hiatus. With a “Dent Act” filling the city's prisons, this is Gotham in peacetime, with surface glitz hiding an underclass army forming — literally — in the sewers. In this Gotham, Batman's gloomy alter-ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has turned into a Howard Hughes-style recluse, at least until mysterious, alluring cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) knocks him off his feet.
“You think all this can last?,” class-warrior Selena whispers into Wayne's ear at a society gathering, before telling him that there's a storm coming.
This storm comes in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist/warlord/Bond villain whose revolution turns Gotham into the equivalent of a failed state, but whose motivations are rooted in Wayne's own past.
The Dark Knight Rises is packed with references to income inequality and its implications, and to Wayne's privilege. This would seem to be fertile and provocative territory for a Batman movie, but meaning proves elusive. There's a lot of sociological and political stuff here, but it's all murkier — more confusing, or maybe just more confused — than in The Dark Knight, which grappled with elastic but relevant questions about ends and means — what it takes to combat more extreme threats, and what it costs — in a more coherent, focused manner.
What The Dark Knight Rises really cares about, more than ideas or pure cinema (the action sequences are bigger and more militaristic but, aside from that football stadium detonation seen in the trailer, less exciting), is story.
The Dark Knight had a more arresting central performance (Heath Ledger's brilliant Joker), more bracing action set-pieces (the rat-a-tat-tat opening bank heist, the soaring Hong Kong job), and a tidier final thrust in triangulating its three central players (Batman, Joker, Harvey Dent). Just as the Howard Hawks/John Wayne collaboration Rio Bravo is less a western than a dialogue-driven comedy in which people happen to wear cowboy hats and gun belts, The Dark Knight was a Michael Mann-style crime epic in which a few characters happened to wear silly costumes.
Drawing very heavily on the series opener Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises is more rooted in plot and backstory and might better please comic-book partisans' hunger for mythology — not to mention their hunger for hope that this iteration of the series might continue.
But with so many motivations and plot mechanics tying together so many figures, at least The Dark Knight Rises expands the character universe nicely. And while so much of the focus has been on Hardy's roid-rage Bane as the primary villain, perhaps more interesting are two other imports from Nolan's Inception: Marion Cotillard as Wayne Enterprises boardmember and ally Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Batman-loving street cop on the make, who emerges as a kind of de facto Robin early on. But best of all is a Nolan newcomer: Hathaway, who gives the film most of its wit and humanity as a nicely sketched take on the “Catwoman” character (though Selena Kyle is never referred to by that moniker in the film). But in a film so consumed with backstory, hers is more hinted at than examined. Selena is the most interesting thing in the film — I kept wanting it to stay with her — but the character is under-explored.
As to that finale: Without giving anything specific away, there's a false ending that ducks into a quick little epilogue that will be satisfying to many but feels a little out-of-step with the character of these Nolan films.