The pattern established by previous notable superhero trilogies is, unhappily, repeated with this final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman saga. Like the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies and the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” trio, the first installment was good if not great, and the second even better. But the third proves a serious disappointment. The title may indicate that the Caped Crusader rises here, but like a souffle that doesn’t turn out right, the movie implodes. Alternately lugubrious and frantic, crammed with incidental characters, plot threads and expository flashbacks that try to explain a numbingly complicated but ultimately silly story, “The Dark Knight Rises” feels every bit of its 164-minute running-time, and then some.
If the verb in the title is off, however, the adjective is right on. Like “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s picture is a mostly grim, gritty affair, an atmosphere brilliantly captured in Wally Pfister’s elegantly gloomy cinematography. It takes up some years after the close of the last film. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has holed up in Wayne Manor, a crippled Howard Hughes-like recluse, having retired his vigilante identity after allowing Batman wrongly to take the rap for killing supposed White Knight DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who was actually the nefarious Two-Face. The ruse allowed Dent to become a posthumous icon that inspired Gotham to come down hard on crime via what appears to be a local version of the Patriot Act. The only person who knows the truth, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), has begun to deeply regret his role in the lie.
What whets Wayne’s interest in starting up the Bat-computers again is Selena, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a smarty-pants burglar who purloins his mother’s pearls (and his own fingerprints with them). Tracking her down ultimately leads to the discovery that Gotham is being targeted for something awful by brutal, muscular, grotesquely masked Bane (Tom Hardy), who turns out to be an excommunicated member of the Legion of Shadows, the group with whom Wayne had once trained until, as Batman, he’d had to face off against its mad leader Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson, who reappears briefly here) and take him down.
Eventually Wayne decides, against the wishes of his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), to don the cowl again and prevent the destruction of Gotham the Legion had once planned and Bane is now intent on carrying out. His instrument will be a fusion reactor developed by Wayne Industries’ resident genius Fox (Morgan Freeman) as a source of free energy but mothballed because it proved too dangerous. Bane plans to turn it into a nuclear bomb with which he’ll hold the entire city hostage. But to achieve his goal he needs to take over the Wayne empire, which involves an elaborate plot to bankrupt Bruce through a slimily corrupt mogul.
And that’s just the tip of a ludicrously convoluted plot that also involves the plane-jacking of a Russian nuclear scientist in mid-air, a “Black Sunday”-style assault on a Gotham football game, bombs rigged in the city’s sewer system, multiple chases through Gotham’s streets and skies (the former via the familiar Batcycle, the latter courtesy of Fox’s latest innovation, a speedy hovercraft called The Bat), a grim and supposedly escape-proof underground prison somewhere in the Caucasus, and a number of other assorted threads. Bits of this are drawn from the comic pages—Bane’s “breaking of the Batman” arc plays a prominent role here, for instance, through in much attenuated form. But basically this is intended as a parable of redemption, not only of Wayne and his alter-ego but of Catwoman as well.
The film also appears to want to make some sort of socio-political statement, but frankly the message is incoherent. There’s plenty of stuff about the corruption of the establishment, from a brief shot of a fatuous president (William Devane) and a philandering congressman to the obtuse, cowardly assistant police commissioner (Matthew Modine) and the despicable businessman in league with Bane. Yet the call to popular action against them, with its Marxist tinge, is just empty rhetoric from a nihilistic thug, his minions are bloodthirsty criminals, and their methods involve Soviet-style show trials. Ultimately salvation comes from the very forces of the old order the script, especially through the mouth of Selena, has castigated for greed and lack of social concern early on. The only purity comes in the form of an orphanage that’s the chief concern for principled young cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who becomes the conflicted Gordon’s chief aide; it’s a place that seems to come out of “Boys’ Town,” circa 1940, and whenever the movie puts it center-stage it seems absurdly old-fashioned. You half-except Spencer Tracy to show up as the priest in charge.
But Blake isn’t the only new character introduced as part of the “social consciousness” theme. There’s also Miranda (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy, philanthropically-minded Gotham heiress who becomes Bruce’s romantic interest. Which leads to another tug-of-war the picture poses: will Wayne ultimately wind up with “good girl” Miranda or “bad girl” Selena—and so finally get over his lost love. And that’s tied up with the question of whether he and Alfred can overcome their rift.
This is an awful lot of territory for one movie to try to cover, and frankly “The Dark Knight Rises” doesn’t do a very good job of it. As edited by Lee Smith, it comes across as fractured and episodic, with characters disappearing for long periods before being thrust abruptly back into the limelight, sputtering along through long, slow, talky sequences that suddenly give way to frenetic action set-pieces before lumbering into somnolence again. No effective chronological feel is ever established, so that what must be happening over weeks or months seems to be occurring in mere days. Flashbacks with voiceovers are repeatedly introduced as flat means of explaining back story (the worst occurring in the big climax, which should go like a house afire but gets bogged down in yet another tired twist). It certainly doesn’t help that at least in the screening on which this review is based, the sound mix was extraordinarily poor, a factor that renders a good deal of important dialogue—especially the lines of both Batman and Bane, both of whose voices are electronically distorted—virtually unintelligible. Even when others are speaking, the mix often gives Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score such prominence that it virtually drowns out the words.
Of course on the purely visual side the picture is top-drawer, with Pfister’s often stunning images complemented by superior effects work But for the most part the cast does not fare well. Bale suffers mightily as Wayne, but in his Batman outfit he’s still pretty anonymous. Hardy has even worse luck as Bane—and not merely because he’s being asked to follow in the footsteps of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, whose performance was so mesmerizing. Hardy’s constantly encased in his mask, and since the character is nothing more than a hulking brute, there’s little be can do with it, especially since there’s no room for facial expression. (Bane is not, if you’ll pardon the expression, a capital villain.) It was rather courageous of Nolan and his brother Jonathan to include Catwoman in their script, given the 2004 Halle Berry debacle, but Hathaway brings a sultry spin to the part, along with most of the few moments of levity the story allows. Oldman, Freeman and Caine are the usual reliable selves, but Modine is vacuous, Cotillard has a thankless part, and Gordon-Levitt is wasted in a role that offers this fine young actor mere poses to play.
Though Nolan has chosen to terminate his association with Batman with this film, he adds a postscript, considerably lighter in tone than what’s preceded it, that serves as an invitation to move the franchise in a new direction. Whether the studio will decide to follow his suggestion is debatable. But what the ambitious yet overstuffed “Dark Knight Rises” makes clear is that his decision to bid farewell to the Caped Crusader is a wise one. A pity he couldn’t have ended on a higher note.