Eric D. Snider

The Dark Knight Rises

You may recall that the last time a series of Batman movies ended, it was with rubber nipples, Chris O'Donnell, and ice puns. Christopher Nolan's 21st-century trilogy, which started with "Batman Begins" and reached its zenith with "The Dark Knight," now draws to a close with "The Dark Knight Rises," and it's a much more somber affair than the last time we said farewell to the Caped Crusader. (Of course, the awfulness of "Batman & Robin" was the reason it turned out to be the end of that run.)

"The Dark Knight Rises" does have one thing in common with Joel Schumacher's franchise-killing disaster, though: both are the weakest entries in their respective series. "Batman Begins" thrillingly reintroduced us to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his personal demons; "The Dark Knight" was a complex psychological nightmare made legendary by an iconic villain. Part 3 dutifully wraps up the themes and story lines already established, and feels like part of a master plan. But though it's good -- "weakest" is a relative term -- it doesn't take advantage of the delirious momentum built by the previous films.

Eight years have passed since the death of Harvey Dent (spoiler alert: Harvey Dent dies at the end of "The Dark Knight"), and the two-faced district-attorney-turned-lunatic is a Gotham hero, his crimes having been scapegoated to Batman, who has vanished. Still reeling from the tragedies of the last film, Bruce Wayne now lives like a hermit in his fancy mansion, attended by faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine). The streets of his beloved Gotham have been cleaned up. But all that means is that the criminals have moved underground.

The new bad guy in town is Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, masked psycho whose eloquent speaking voice -- that of a young, drunk Sean Connery -- and high-flown platitudes about rich-vs-poor belie his monstrous appearance. Meanwhile, also engaged in a bit of class warfare is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an expert cat burglar and con artist who robs rich people like Bruce Wayne.

Also meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) considers revealing the truth about Harvey Dent; a uniformed police officer named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to clear Batman's name; millionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) tries to get Bruce to re-invest in an energy project; Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) keeps an eye on the armory; and various wormy businessmen make corrupt back-room deals with various low characters.

Bane is at the center of a lot of this, eliciting fascination and some giggles from us, but not enough fear. He's working according to mysterious motives that are connected to the events of "Batman Begins," advocating chaos the way the Joker did in "The Dark Knight" (albeit strategically rather than randomly), and is more physically, brutishly powerful than his Gotham-menacing predecessors. All of that would seem to make him a fitting villain for the trilogy's last chapter -- but he lacks personality. He has too much screen time to be nothing more than an unstoppable killing machine, yet Nolan (co-writing as usual with his brother, Jonathan Nolan) doesn't flesh him out, either, and Hardy can only do so much from behind a mask. The frequent callbacks to previous films, with their more interesting and alarming antagonists, make Bane suffer all the more in comparison.

Something else missing from this Batman film is Batman. We get very little time with the Caped Crusader, and what we do get tends to be businesslike. Instead of using gadgets and tricky maneuvers, Batman engages in ordinary fistfights, when he fights at all. I understand that the nature of the story being told here requires Batman to be absent frequently, and to be more grimly focused when he is present, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing for those of us who enjoy seeing his superhero exploits. He's practically a supporting character in his own movie.

His billionaire alter ego has a more pivotal role, and Bale still plays Bruce Wayne with haunted, barely restrained anger. He's almost upstaged by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's young cop, who appears idealistic and fresh-faced but has anger issues of his own, and by Anne Hathaway's black-clad feline thief. There's real fire in these new characters, which is especially useful with series regulars like Caine, Oldman, and Freeman relegated to the background.

The story has several satisfying twists (I don't know if they'll all be surprises for readers of Batman comic books) and is laid out carefully, without any rush. Nolan has confidence in his grim story, as well he should, and in his ability to tell it compellingly. Terrorism, fascism, class warfare, government stability -- this is heavy stuff. But unlike "The Dark Knight," which was also heavy, "The Dark Knight Rises" isn't very deep, and its surface-level thrills aren't powerful enough to sustain the film for two hours and forty-five minutes. But it caps off the trilogy with passion and dignity, if not always with slam-bang entertainment. Whoever directs the reboot in five years will have a lot to live up to.

Grade: B

Rated PG-13, a lot of action violence, a little mild profanity

2 hrs., 44 min.

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Notes:

There was also kind of a "thing" with this movie and Rotten Tomatoes commenters and whatnot, which you can read about here.

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