(by Dustin Putman
Widely considered to be a watermark in the annals of comic adaptations and superhero movies, 2008's "The Dark Knight" was akin to near-perfect lightning in a bottle, a motion picture where every element fell exactly in the place it was meant to. An exhilarating summer blockbuster, yes, but also a mesmerizing, intricate, deeply involving crime drama about the power of guilt, the goodness in humanity, and, ultimately, the sometimes necessary need for sacrifice. To say that it was an incalculable leap forward from the groundwork writer-director Christopher Nolan (2010's "Inception") set up in 2005's solid but uneven "Batman Begins" is an understatement. Now, at long last, the filmmaker (along with co-writer Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by David S. Goyer) has reached the grand finale of his groundbreaking, adult-minded trilogy with "The Dark Knight Rises." Perhaps it was asking too much to expect Nolan to be able to match the success of his middle chapter—third parts are notorious for being letdowns—but this is a lesser film all the same. Too much muchness and a belabored last hour are the Caped Crusader's biggest foes here, and the script, overall, just isn't as airtight as "The Dark Knight." Does that mean it's not a good picture, though? Hardly. When "The Dark Knight Rises" keeps on track, it's dramatically spectacular. By the pitch-perfect last fifteen minutes, few will be hard-pressed to deny that it's not at least a worthy capper to this latest incarnation of the D.C. Comics franchise. Article continues below
It has been eight years since Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) allowed his private alter-ego of Batman to take the rap for vengeance-seeking District Attorney Harvey Dent's criminal actions and eventual demise, and in that time he has become something of a recluse and pariah as Gotham City has returned to a semblance of normalcy. Although organized crime has largely dissipated, it takes the appearance of two new opponents for Bruce—stealthy cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and masked, muscled sociopath Bane (Tom Hardy)—to draw him back into his black cape and cowl. Still tortured by the deaths of his parents as a child, he now adds the loss of childhood friend and would-be soul mate Rachel Dawes to his list of things to be unhappy about. As his committed butler and friend Alfred (Michael Caine) sees it, Master Wayne will never be free until he is able to let go of the pain that controls him. As Bruce sees it, he may never make amends for his guilt until he gives everything—including himself—over for the greater good. Such a possibility suddenly seems imminent when Bane finds a way to crush Gotham City's very infrastructure while taking the people and metropolis hostage as he prepares for the meltdown of a fusion reactor within his possession.
Everything comes to a head in "The Dark Knight Rises," which follows the lead of its predecessors by taking a starkly realistic, emotionally rattling stance on its tortured hero, a man with no actual super powers who may have a few fancy gadgets at his disposal, but is as fallible as you and I. While plot points are carried over from the previous films, the late Heath Ledger's unforgettable Joker is not mentioned, better to remain an eerie, unspoken shadow over where Bruce Wayne is in the here and now. As for the new heavy this time, Bane is memorably daunting, a walking contradiction who looks like a pumped-up wrestler and sounds like a psychotic Orville Redenbacher as he speaks with elder British eloquence through a mouthpiece strapped to his face. He might not quite be at the level of Ledger's seemingly otherworldly brilliance, but Tom Hardy (2012's "This Means War") nevertheless immerses himself so deeply into his role that the actor all but vanishes completely.
If "The Dark Knight," at 153 minutes, was so lean in its pacing and storytelling that not a second could have been trimmed, "The Dark Knight Rises," clocking it at 164 minutes, does not hold such close scrutiny. There is a difference between complex and bloated, and there are admittedly times when the film begins to sink and lag beneath the sheer number of characters and subplots Christopher Nolan juggles. By throwing in just a little bit more than can be comfortably handled, the seams show as Bruce spars with the opportunistic Selina Kyle, flirts and then beds energy conservationist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and deals with other relationships ranging from Alfred to family friend and inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to the wise, fair Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Beyond that, there is a fascinating parallelism to Bruce and young police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a fellow orphan who understands his pain better than anyone.
As timely themes ranging from economic strife to the fear of homeland terrorism arise, the forever mounting momentum trips up when the climax where Bane attacks Gotham, which should have been set over a single day, runs on for literally several months in the lives of the people onscreen. This narrative decision puts quite a damper on things, only bettered by how miraculously into high gear it shifts by the last quarter hour or so. Still, there is a slight clumsiness to the pile-up of exposition that comes just when the movie should be cutting to the chase. As for one key twist that will go unmentioned, it leads immediately into the cliché of the "Talking Villain," who stops his/her dastardly plan so he/she can hash out a life story and explain their motive for no good reason besides narcissism.
In portraying the title character over three films, Christian Bale (2010's "The Fighter") has taken advantage of the time afforded him to explore the psychology of a demons-wrestling Bruce Wayne better than any other actor who has played the role before. Whether he's appearing as Bruce or throwing on a mask and gruffing up his voice as Batman, Bale has given his work enough layers and sympathy for his fate to mean all the more to the viewer by the conclusion. He and a tender, heart-baring Michael Caine (2012's "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island"), given some particularly poignant moments as Alfred, are especially in the zone when together, the history of their bond palpably felt every minute they share the screen.
New to the series in pivotal roles, Anne Hathaway (2011's "One Day") reimagines Selina—and Catwoman—in an entirely different way than Michelle Pfeiffer indelibly played her in 1992's "Batman Returns." As a feisty thief who is at once materialistic and economically conscious—in other words, she hates the rich—Hathaway makes the part her own even as her past, and her need for a clean slate, are left ambiguous. As Officer John Blake, an upstanding fellow who has fought the urge to be angry at the world for similar things that have plagued Bruce Wayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2011's "50/50") is excellent, arguably the best new addition. Where Gordon-Levitt takes his character from beginning to end is not completely surprising, but it is deliciously fitting. Finally, Marion Cotillard (2011's "Contagion") is let down by the script as Miranda Tate. Positioned as a love interest for Bruce, minus any depth or chemistry, Cotillard is mostly left to flounder, wondering what her purpose is until she comes more into focus in the third act. Even then, however, Miranda never quite fits with the rest of the feature's chess pieces.
If certain aspects of "The Dark Knight Rises" can be picked apart, it comes only as a noteworthy trait because the former chapter in the trilogy was so difficult to criticize. Judged on its own merits, or even as the last part to a very fulfilling puzzle, it is a mature and sprawling achievement that proves big-budget filmmaking need not be all flash and no brains. The stuntwork and visual effects are of the highest order, while action set-pieces, including an opening scene plane hijacking and the later mass destructive takeover of Gotham, should overwhelmingly please fans. The ending, too, aided immeasurably by Hans Zimmer's (2012's "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted") booming score and Wally Pfister's (2011's "Moneyball") richly evocative lensing, is something special to behold. It might take a little too long getting there in the grand scheme, but "The Dark Knight Rises" finally approaches cinematic nirvana just as it reaches the perfect denouement, closing the book on a vision of Batman unlikely to be equaled when Warner Bros. no doubt reboots the character in a few years' time. If the studio is hoping to recapture the same sort of brooding magic that Christopher Nolan concocted, they really needn't bother to try.