Compositing numerous character arcs and plot threads with which Batman aficionados will already be familiar, The Dark Knight Rises takes off with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) been shaken from vigilante retirement upon the appearance of a new villain in town; the mask-wearing international master criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) who enacts an ambiguous plot which Wayne's concerned butler Alfred (Michael Caine) suggests might be connected to foes from Batman's past. It doesn't help matters that the Caped Crusader's list of allies is as flimsy as his injured right leg. The city wrongfully holds him responsible for the death of Harvey Dent eight years earlier, but he still has friends in GCPD Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), and wealthy socialite Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) whose investment in Wayne's company have yielded a clean energy source which could be weaponized if allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Also along for the ride is anti-heroine Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a slick cat burglar whose allegiances are in question and flux as she tries to steal and slink her way out of an increasingly dangerous Gotham.
With such a wealth of Batman mythos serving as their inspiration, Nolan and his co-writers (brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer) have made The Dark Knight Rises a series capper of thematic density, but unfortunately not quite one of thematic finesse. While The Dark Knight focused its subtextual eye on the spectrum of morality and its relation to anarchy vs. order, the motifs explored here are a sprawling mix that shift in and out of prominence depending on the progression of the narrative – the strength required to move on from grief, the cost of redemption, drawing strength from fear, self-preservation vs. fighting for societal good, capitalism and inequality, courage and cowardice, and more are all blended into the ambitious screenplay. But what Nolan's cerebral undertones boast in complexity they sacrifice in precision, making it difficult for any one theme to resonate much beyond the scene(s) of its examination. That certainly doesn't mean that they don't resonate at all, just in fits and starts, but there's still a lot of food for thought simmering beneath the surface of this movie.
But even if you couldn't care less about what's simmering beneath it, the surface of The Dark Knight Rises something to behold. The structure of this three-hour epic is not, has some allege it to be, unsound, but it is oddly paced at times. Such is the case with a three-hour movie, to which a tight and tidy three-act structure cannot always be applied. Mostly, those 164 minutes just fly by, thanks in part to Lee Smith's editing, in part to the spectacle of the action, and in part to the compelling performances which keep us perpetually engaged. Bale is once again a rock solid centre, evoking more of Wayne's tortured psyche than we've yet seen in a Batman film. Standouts among the other returning cast members are Gary Oldman, arguably the franchise MVP for his utterly convincing performance across the three films as Commissioner Gordon, and Michael Caine, who in a brief but unforgettable masterclass of acting delivers the single most moving scene of the entire trilogy. Anne Hathaway is a sultry delight as Catwoman, channeling some previous incarnations while still making the character her own, and Tom Hardy is mesmerizing as Bane, whose already commanding physical presence is made all the more threatening by the obscurement of his mouth (his voice is a bit like Sean Connery doing Darth Vader, which is easier to get used to than it sounds).
As we've come to expect, Nolan's craft is immaculate. Chris Corbould's dazzling practical effects captured by Wally Pfister's immersive photography makes a strong case for the film to viewed in IMAX wherever/whenever possible. Additional incentive to seek out an IMAX theatre is a heightened appreciation of the thunderous soundscape. Richard King's sound design here equals his career best, especially the extensive adr work on Bane's dialogue dubbing. And Hans Zimmer's mighty, bass-driven score (buttressed by compositions from the previous two films) can never sound more powerful than when heard through a formidable IMAX sub-woofer. The action is beautifully staged and executed, the fight choreography improving vastly upon the somewhat confusing fisticuffs seen in The Dark Knight, particularly in the centrepiece bout between hero and villain, which will surely satisfy any fanboy's need for that one iconic moment.
We can (and in all likelihood will) debate the relative quality of The Dark Knight Rises against its predecessors Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but we can't debate the lasting influence of Christopher Nolan's achievement on modern pop culture. By infusing the pulpiest of comic book legend in a hyper-realistic setting, eschewing the Gothic stylistics of Burton or the campy gleefulness of Schoomaker, Nolan forged a bold contemporary fantasy of social relevance, artistically legitimizing an entire genre. Superheroes and supervillains do not exist in our real world, but as The Dark Knight trilogy makes vividly clear, the values that they stand for do exist, and the battle they wage against each other is real and ongoing. Where evil and chaos persist, so do goodness and hope. Too deliver such a meaningful message from a pile of old comics with such pertinence and intelligence, is indeed a significant cinematic achievement.
***1/2 out of ****