The Dark Knight Rises is a competent and effective action picture. It’s buoyed by fine performances, a snappy story and steady, workmanlike direction. If it has a problem, it’s that it’s not very much fun, and this is a movie about a man who wears a cape and has a flying tank. In the end you feel exhausted and wrung out, which you should after a good action movie, but you don’t feel very much like lining up to do it again. It’s not a roller coaster ride; it’s a hard workout.
The movie is, of course, the third and final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s aboveboard and highly successful Batman trilogy that started in 2005 with Batman Begins and reached high water with The Dark Knight in 2008. This new movie is possibly the most anticipated release since The Phantom Menace (1999), an unfair burden for any picture. The quality of The Dark Knight Risesis consistent with the other two films and is a worthy closing to one of the more sacred properties in Hollywood. That it is the most troubling of the three is curious for a story in the third and typically happiest segment of a three-part story but, look, I get it. Batman is the darkest of the superheroes, and I’m not arguing for a return to the soapy camp of Batman & Robin (1997), but the Gotham here is so glum, so somber, and both its assassins and its heroes are fairly dour.
It’s been eight years since the events at the end of The Dark Knight took place, and Gotham is a crimeless oasis. Batman (Christian Bale), who selflessly took the rap for the murder of the district attorney-turned-madman Harvey Dent, for reasons that were never adequately explained to me in the previous film, is now the enemy, while Dent has been elevated to the status of a fallen martyr. Subsequently, Batman hasn’t been seen in years and his billionaire alter ego Bruce Wayne has resigned himself to his massive manor. It seems the last criminal in town is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a jewel thief who has the skill to rob from Wayne and the beguiling allure to draw him out of seclusion.
Despite the lack of crime, the gap between the Waynes and the wants has grown too large and there’s grumbling of a class war. “A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne,” Kyle tells Bruce. To help accelerate that storm is Bane (Tom Hardy), a South African anarchist with a crustacean mask on his mouth who has devised a plan to hold Gotham hostage with a nuclear weapon by trapping its inhabitants in the city, shutting the rest of the world out, and sealing its police force in the sewers. He also does away with Batman, sticking him in the same diabolical prison where he was born and raised, a giant pit at the bottom of a maddeningly impossible opening that only one other person has ever climbed out of. The city is then left to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the last two honest cops not trapped below, to save it.
The movie has the same tone as the previous entries; in fact, it combines elements of Batman Begins in its ultimate destruction plot with The Dark Knight and its questions of human decency. A lot of Bane’s plan hinges on the assumption that “normal” people will act the way he presupposes they will, and after The Dark Knight’s optimistic assertion of the unpredictable value of human behavior, it is disheartening to see the mob pessimistically react as expected here.
The usual suspects are back including Morgan Freeman’s gadget guru and Michael Caine’s compassionate butler (though this character’s screen time is limited, to the movie’s detriment). The performances are all very good. Bale is fine as always in the thankless Batman role, but the problem is that this time his humorless vigilante is pitched against the similarly rigid Bane. That’s not a complaint about Hardy who has to overcome a lot to be effective behind the cumbersome mask, and I liked his privileged, effete Afrikaner accent, but the movie needs an outlet for zaniness. The fun of The Dark Knight was watching Batman battle his antithesis, Heath Ledger’s Joker, a character with a laissez-faire attitude on the destruction of civilization. Hathaway does her best to provide that outlet but her character isn’t written that way. In fact, she and her rival for Batman’s romantic attention, a businesswoman played by Marion Cotillard, are hardly more than types for Batman to choose from, despite being set up to seem more than meets the eye.
The anticipation for a movie like this becomes unfair because it makes it too easy to focus on what’s wrong with it. It certainly isn’t the filmmaker’s fault that Ledger couldn’t reprise his role for this installment. Actually, there are many aspects of The Dark Knight Rises that are superior to its predecessors, particularly in Nolan’s ability to clearly and artfully tell a story. There aren’t any bravura filmmaking sequences here, but he by and large avoids his pattern of still, guilelessly composed shots during the expository moments, and the movie is better for it. This is an exciting picture. It’s dramatic and arresting and that doesn’t happen by accident. Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan, continue to treat their scripts like puzzles, and in a high-stakes crime story like this one it works. It’s not an easy task to make a satisfactory closing statement with the eyes of the world on you but, like his hero, Nolan rises to the occasion.