Christopher Nolan has spent two Batman movies teaching us that not all superhero movies have to be wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. His screenplays, co-written with Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, go beyond just an adaptation of a spectacular comic book---they're thoughtful, dark, and about wrestling with more than just criminals. The third movie in his trilogy has more pressure on it than Lord of the Rings and Star Wars combined to wrap it all up, deliver more unforgettable characters, and give us another satisfying opportunity to see a billionaire dressed in black exorcising his personal demons. It's a tall order. And the last act of the film delivers in a shocking way. What comes before it is imperfect, but since we're talking about Nolan here, it's still worth seeing, discussing, and then seeing again.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been hiding in his mansion for the eight years since The Dark Knight, with only a cane to prop up his body and his aching heart. The city of Gotham has flourished and crime is at an all-time low, thanks to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) perpetuating the lie that Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) died a hero. A bunch of criminals have been put away, but the Two-Face secret is festering and slowly infecting those who know the truth. The chink in their armor is exploited by Bane (Tom Hardy), who shows up in peacetime Gotham and causes a lot of seemingly unrelated and challenging-to-understand mischief that involves a clean-energy source made by Wayne Enterprises. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has been flyng under the radar, stealing jewels as the "Cat" burglar, but as Gotham gets less peaceful, she finds herself entangled with Bruce Wayne, Batman, Bane, and any skirt-chaser with an expensive watch. If you're not going batty from all these characters yet, don't forget that Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) are still around, as well as Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) as a wealthy clean-energy TKTK with a great haircut.
Usually it's Gotham that needs saving, but this time, the tables have turned, so this installment is all about fortifying the broken-down Batman through various channels. His toys are the best to date--anytime the Batcopter, Batpod, or even Bat Knee Brace enter a scene, it's nothing short of electrifying. As Wayne comes out of hiding, spurred on by the first smell of Big Trouble since Dent's death, even the rare moments of humor pack a huge punch. Thanks to a script that maneuvers all of the characters with a reasonable amount of ease, it's easy to see how they're all contributing to the huge build that you know will end in a big kaboom.
The most interesting of the bunch though is the much-anticipated-and-pondered Selina Kyle. She's not the caricature we're used to, and it’s hard to pin down who (if anyone) she's helping, which makes her seem less powerful and more of a scavenger who goes with the best deal at the time. Hathaway is a little short on sass, which the movie could have used, but ultimately it helps keep the movie less cartoony. And with Alfred doing even more emotional heavy lifting this time around, they constitute the entire heart of the film. Which brings me to what I didn't get out of this film that I desperately wanted.
I didn't buy Bane as anything more than a super-strong juggernaut able to easily overcome a guy who had let himself go for eight years. The last villain in this franchise made it unfair to anyone who came after him, because he was truly unpredictable, terrifying, and psychologically devastating. Bane is all brawn, which doesn't interest me nearly as much. And my feelings are probably a direct result of still not being able to understand what he was saying. They definitely improved upon that first unintelligible trailer, but I still only caught about 85% of what he was mumbling, so it’s hard to make any judgment on his acting. All he did was fight really well and bellow that he was Gotham's reckoning. By the end, I just saw him as a set of biceps. As a result, Batman, instead of conquering hidden fears or rewiring his brain to defeat a foe he couldn’t understand, he basically just had to do some crunches and rock climbing. I didn't get the sense of human spirit from this film that I felt before, and when the final act arrived, Gotham was a mess, but so was the plot.
All that said, the last section is so intoxicating that it makes me want to label it with clichés like pulse-pounding and you'll be on the edge of your seat. After a couple hours, Batman gets more screen time, the characters' intentions are revealed, there's more action, and I had to get the Kleenex out. Although I didn't find it the most interesting film in the series, it's a satisfying ending to a trilogy that helped me understand what makes movies good, surprising and enduring. And to its credit, it doesn't end 10 times--just once. And you won't forget it.