Let’s cut to the chase:
Everybody needs to see the film before the discussion begins in earnest, because I suspect some mild – very mild – disappointment will creep in when all is said and done. The Dark Knight Rises suffers from some of the highest expectations ever placed on a motion picture. Therefore, “pretty good” looks a lot worse than it should, especially when the pretty good on display is as rich and meaty as this. Director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy – and by everything we see here, we will likely never return to this universe for a fourth outing – elevated the superhero genre to the status of near art while retaining its supremely entertaining core. This final chapter certainly doesn’t let the team down (well, not much), and its sometimes problematic efforts to tie everything together reflect Nolan’s commitment to the standards he has set. That said, it’s not quite what many of us hoped.
The film certainly carries its share of surprises, some of which you’ve probably guessed, but others which sneak up on you in marvelous ways. (I’m working hard to keep this all as spoiler-free as possible, so forgive me if I’m a little coy.) It’s worth noting that the things we see here would never have been conceivable in a comic book movie before Nolan arrived. As with the second film, The Dark Knight Rises delves deep into our national psyche to lay bare the horrors that lie within. 2008’s The Dark Knight focused on terrorism and the horrible things we do in the name of staying safe. Here, it’s class inequities: the sins of the One Percent and the insanity that ensues when the pendulum swings too far the other way. The sinister Bane (Tom Hardy) – disciple of Ra’s al Ghul and new leader of the League of Shadows – hopes to leverage such chaos into an elaborate revenge against Batman (Christian Bale).
The Caped Crusader has certainly seen better days, now pushing forty and living like a recluse in the wake of the conspiracy instigated at the end of The Dark Knight. The series’ commitment to gritty realism tackles the big question of Wayne’s advancing age here. The years have taken their toll and he can’t keep bounding across rooftops the way he once did. But what else can he do? Even with Gotham thriving, he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struggle to reconcile all the good they’ve done against the lie that enabled it. The theft of his mother’s pearl necklace at the hands of clever burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) gives him an excuse to leap back into action, but his fatalism lingers and may ultimately destroy him.
That’s the crack that Bane wants to exploit – with help from allies both witting and unwitting – across the film’s sprawling 165 minute length. Said length, however, also results in unnecessary bloating: empty scenes that slow down the pace and deliver nothing in return. In addition, the tightly wound plot can’t always get from point A to point B without a little hand waving – romantic complications, in particular, never really justify themselves, nor do the motivations for certain key figures. And my God, are the two main characters afflicted with a case of the mumbles. Bale’s gravelly voice has always caused problems for some fans, and while his performance here is otherwise strong, he proves all but incomprehensible at times. Hardy falls into the same trap, though it’s less the fault of the performer than the sound mixing which renders his masked voice a buzzing drone.
Beyond that, however, the cast more than lives up to expectations. Series newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt scores a coup as a young cop with a particular affinity for the Batman, while Oldman, Michael Caine (as the stalwart Alfred Pennyworth) and Morgan Freeman (as master gadgeteer Lucius Fox) do their usual terrific work. Special mention is reserved for Hathaway, long feared to be a weak link, but who absolutely nails her own unique version of Catwoman here. She plays up male dismissal of her gender: adopting a silly goose façade just long enough to get close, then ripping her opponents’ throats out. She conveys shades of both Michelle Pfeiffer and Julie Newmar, while adding a distinct touch to make it hers.
The rest of the film reflects Nolan’s desire to go beyond simple entertainment. Political pundits on both the left and the right have condemned the film’s presentation of revolutionary terror: calling it alternately the lionization of Occupy Wall Street or an authoritarian backlash against working-class unrest. Both interpretations hold merit, but the film doesn’t define itself by such petty limitations. Instead, it prefers to hold up a mirror and let us draw our own conclusions, making it a fodder for intelligent discussion rather than a polemic jammed down our throats. It lacks the intensity of The Dark Knight and sometimes trips over itself with its flashbacks and double-crosses, but the depth and complexity remain intact, ready for us to start pulling it apart as we will.
It takes the same approach when determining an exit strategy. The finale arrives with excitement and verve, even as Nolan works hard to wrap up all of his lingering plot threads. If you’re not careful, you might even leave with a little tear in your eyes. Its flaws remain, and I imagine the ending will send forums across the interwebs buzzing with all manner of pro-vs.-con throwdowns. But Nolan stays true to his original vision and brings the curtain down with the same ideals he started with. The missteps are hard to overlook only because the canvas is so large. Disappointing? At times, but only because we demand so very, very much from it. It gives us everything it can and leaves us satisfied, if not quite blown away like we want to be. Considering the sorry state of DC’s feature-length movies, I suspect we’ll look back on it with fondness before too long: a grim, flawed, and ultimately admirable conclusion to the most incredible superhero saga ever to grace the screen.