Orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) suits up as Batman to bring rough justice to the streets of Gotham and drown out the cries of his soul, dressed in an iconic high-tech suit that's made him a pop-culture legend. The seemingly contradictory challenges of that suit nicely echo the seemingly contradictory needs of these three films helmed by Christopher Nolan, beginning with Batman Begins in 2005. The costume has to be flexible enough for Wayne to move and grapple, but it also it has to be convincingly strong and enduringly tough enough to make you think that Wayne would not, in fact, be slain within five minutes of Batman's first battle against gun-carrying crooks.
So too do Nolan's Bat films likewise have to be flexible, to incorporate mind-blowing spectacle and deft archetypal spins on a classic cast made of jut-jawed heroes, good citizens and preening psychopaths. They also have to at least seem rigidly set somewhere within both the laws of physics and the audience's suspension of disbelief, more Michael Mann than Stan Lee. In a world of high-tech digital advances and phantom 3D CGI images light as air, Nolan uses big IMAX cameras to capture very large (mostly) real things on old-school film, and at the same time does so in the service of a featherweight fiction with almost (barring the occasional flash from Mr. Caine or Mr. Freeman) no hint of a smile.
The other fact is that The Dark Knight Rises will now and forever be judged against the series' second installment, The Dark Knight, and will be found wanting. Put aside the grim reality that Heath Ledger passed after principal photography. The less brutal note is that these films are genre films, and thus much improved (or, more firmly, made) by a good bad guy. The Dark Knight had two of them, Ledger and Aaron Eckhart, helping that film play out as a shadowy cover version of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance by way of Heat, a story about the rule of force and the rule of law and their mutual enemy, chaos. Tom Hardy has brawny shoulders and a broader brogue as Bane, a mask-wearing mercenary who commits himself to both destroying Batman and Gotham alike; it's nothing like, or as good, as Ledger's capering showman-terrorist. And Aaron Eckhart's reform-to-revenge American schizo Harvey "Two-Face" Dent was far more interesting than this film's new player, Anne Hathaway's silky, skillful cat burglar Selina Kyle. Hathaway is game as glammy grifter Kyle, but the character lacks the grimly ironic arc of Eckhart's Dent; these stories often work best as clumsy tragedies, Macbeth in oven mitts, and Ledger and Eckhart's work made for exactly that. The Dark Knight Rises is less thematically interesting, less structurally compact and less energetically propelled than The Dark Knight, a comparison that is less a slight than a simple statement of fact.
The story, as ever, is by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer; the script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. There's a lot of bother about Bruce Wayne being a recluse and Gotham being better; Dent died eight years ago, and Batman took the wrongful wrap for that death and murders Dent committed to better keep the fragile state of safety alive. As you may have noted, The Dark Knight hovers, in both plot and theme, throughout The Dark Knight Rises like a restless ghost or, less politely, the thin hot aroma of burnt, over-done popcorn. There are also a few scenes that contort themselves even more back-breakingly to reference Batman Begins, the film that kicked off Nolan's series of well-liked moneymakers with Bale. The enthusiastic refer to Nolan's storytelling choices and visual motifs in these films as iconic American filmmaking; less charitably, Nolan's storytelling choices and visual motifs in these films can also be summed up as Batman by way of Bond, with a dark black suit and deep blue balls. That swipe isn't just at Nolan's generally sexless blockbusters (though Bats does get a little action between the action this time around) but, also, at how Nolan himself seems to hold the comic book elements of the material at arm's length. Note that Hathaway's Kyle is never, out loud, called 'Catwoman'; as Devin Faraci of Badass Digest has sagely noted before, there's a cheerless and restrained feel to Nolan's take on material that started as gaudy four-color children's entertainment, almost tangibly like Nolan is somehow ashamed of making a movie based on a comic book.
This last film in Nolan's trilogy falls over itself to dot several t's and cross several i's on the way to the finale, and I meant what I said; the plot is impossibly convoluted from the outset, and hardly improves. Patriarch cop Inspector Gordon (Gary Oldman) and defiant young rebel rookie John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) serve as our heroic common men in an American city rendered, in an oddly reactionary plotline, an American Stalingrad by Hardy's Bane, a madman speaking (through a muffling face-mask) the rhetoric of revolutionaries. There's some corporate intrigue up among the one percent, too, with Marion Cotilliard as Wayne's could-be savior and other sundry smoothie bad guys. There's also a curious third-act dip while Gotham is seized for over 90 days and Bruce Wayne is far, far away slowly crafting a redemption montage.
The film closes off Nolan's films with as nice a visual farewell a director's given a franchise since the perfect-circle end Paul Greengrass gave the Bourne films. But The Dark Knight wasn't a hall-of-fame, game-changing home run; The Dark Knight Rises feels like a hustle-filled but ultimately cursory trot around the bases, a pleasing but slightly wheezy victory lap as we raise the Bat-jersey, as Nolan tailored it, to the rafters of the pop-culture arena.
Will other directors try to put Wayne on the big screen again? Probably as certainly as the sun will someday rise (or, more bluntly, as certainly as Warner Bros. stock will someday dip). But for now, I come not to bury The Dark Knight Rises but to lightly, passingly praise it, at the very least as big American filmmaking of the kind that makes ripples as it goes by. If we must have these corporate visions of a heroic idea, you could do worse than Nolan's broad-shouldered, blue-tinged crime-fiction as escapism, shot on film with, more often than not, real objects and real actors. Nolan's success, graded over three films and on a curve, is such that he now has a "legacy," and even now blogs talk of reboots and sequels and about what will happen to Batman in the absence of Nolan. I for one hope that Warner Bros. announces their next Bat-project ASAP, if only to keep the Internet from imploding.
I also look forward to what Nolan -- free from servitude to a key property in the WB stable -- will do next far more avidly than I do any what-if Bat-plans. Add up the profits from Nolan's films and you know we'll be back with Bruce Wayne again soon, because there's definitely money, and possibly magic, to be made here again, which is why you should get ready for another round of this nonsense in about five years, and 10 or less after that again. (If I seem overly-concerned with the future of a franchise Nolan seems to be done with, trust me, so is The Dark Knight Rises.) To paraphrase Raimi's Spider-Man, this is Nolan's gift; this is his curse. The Dark Knight Rises may not be the greatest comic book movie of all time, and yet we'll buy more than enough tickets to guarantee this is what all summer blockbuster moviegoing will aspire to look like -- and for that matter, aspire to period -- for a long, long while.
3 out of 5 stars