Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
As the villainous Bane (played with cold menace and humorless presence by Tom Hardy) and his minions storm into Gotham City's Stock Exchange building and empty rounds into scared, cowering suit-and-tie-clad yuppies, it's important to keep repeating to one's self: "It's only a summer blockbuster. It's only a summer blockbuster. It's only a summer blockbuster...."
Welcome to Hell, the major studio tentpole edition. Coming off the lighthearted playfulness of director Joss Whedon's The Avengers and filmmaker Marc Webb's subtly Twilight-tinged The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in Christopher Nolan's epic Batman trilogy, looks, feels, and attacks like a horror movie aimed at Wall Street and all of the One Percenters out there. Just as 2008's The Dark Knight posited our country's fears of terrorism under Heath Ledger's Joker's insanity, The Dark Knight Rises takes aim at the have-plenties through the homicidal scope of Bane and his plan to empower the have-nots. There's a "People's Court," in which Gotham's most powerful citizens are forced to choose "death or exile," the latter option leading them to try and leave town by hopelessly walking across the river on flimsy ice. Again, while watching Nolan's incredibly dark franchise-closer, remember, "It's only a summer blockbuster."
The fact that, once again, Nolan and his partners in brainy popcorn cinema, his co-writing brother Jonathan Nolan and fellow co-writer David S. Goyer, have turned a bankable, should-be-accessible superhero flick into a challenging work marked by cerebral cat-and-mouse games, unpleasant social commentary, and underlying evil is deserving of endless praise. Thus, Nolan's decision to stop making Batman films is a rather disheartening one, especially when, it's sad to report, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately falls short of sheer greatness, providing sufficient closure in light of its inability to trump Nolan's prior Batman efforts in all-encompassing quality.
Clocking in at a whopping 165 minutes, the heaviest Dark Knight movie yet is filled to the brim with rich characters and twisty storytelling, but the creators here aren't completely able to pull it all together. Whereas the 2005 series opener, Batman Begins, effectively balanced origin story requirements with intelligent characterization and satisfying action, and The Dark Knight rollicked along with a towering villain and an airtight script, The Dark Knight Rises offers a slew of jaw-dropping sequences and a ridiculously ambitious plot, but also a marginally clunkier script than the two previous films.
The Dark Knight Rises is a legitimate knockout of a motion picture, flaws and all. Nolan's predominantly bleak film is too far-reaching in its scope, and too masterfully crafted in its technical pursuits, to be rendered a disappointment.
It's important to make one point absolutely clear at this juncture, though: The Dark Knight Rises is a legitimate knockout of a motion picture, flaws and all. Even though it frustratingly pales in comparison alongside The Dark Knight, Nolan's predominantly bleak film is too far-reaching in its scope, and too masterfully crafted in its technical pursuits, to be rendered a disappointment. No one else in Hollywood, or any overseas markets, for that matter, makes the kind of audience-respecting and fearlessly massive sensory overloads that Nolan does, and The Dark Knight Rises is easily his biggest one yet.
If the lack of actual Batman mentions thus far seems glaring, it's worth noting that The Dark Knight Rises is strangely frugal with its Caped Crusader scenes; after showing up for the first time over an hour into the film, the titular hero only reappears in costume three more times, and one of those times he's turned into a pointy-eared punching bag. Overall, it's the Bruce Wayne show, and Christian Bale gives his best performance as the orphaned billionaire yet.
Eight years removed from the events seen in The Dark Knight, Bruce is now a recluse hiding out on the top floor of his mansion, walking around with a cane and growing unkempt facial hair. The rest of Gotham's elite still party in his manor, however, and it's at one particular shindig that the sneaky Selina Kyle (a radiant and charismatic Anne Hathaway, the film's undisputed MVP) infiltrates in order to swipe Bruce's mother's pearl necklace. Really, though, she's been hired to get his fingerprints, for an employer who'll remain anonymous here, in light of spoilers.
Just know that the cunning Ms. Kyle, whose propensity for wearing a skintight black latex suit while cat-burgling has afforded her the moniker "Catwoman," is an allegiance-shifting pawn in a much larger scheme, one whose anti-Gotham roots trace all the way back to Batman Begins, the previous Bat-flick most crucial for unspooling The Dark Knight Rises. And in that connection, Nolan's true trilogy intentions are clearly apparent, interweaving subplots and mythologies introduced in its predecessors into this film's conclusive, end-all-be-all look at an emotionally tormented hero's struggles with his role in Gotham's turmoil.
At the helm of the city's escalating destruction is the aforementioned Bane, a diesel mercenary sporting a crab-like, mouth-concealing mask (which he uses to keep fear out) who speaks like A Clockwork Orange's main droog Alex in a Darth Vader mask and carries out an elaborately conceived plot to trap Gotham's residents and force them to adhere to his sadistic form of governmental rule. Absolutely ripped, he's powerful enough to lay waste to anyone in his path; also brilliant, he's able to orchestrate the kidnapping of a Russian nuclear physicist in mid-air by transporting his captive from a crumbling airplane to a fully functional one (in the film's magnificent opening scene, an exercise in unbelievable virtuosity from Mr. Nolan).