Nothing short of the resurrection of Heath Ledger as the Joker could fully sate fanboy appetites for the final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. But it's not Ledger's spectre that haunts the The Dark Knight Rises. Instead, it's the fear of failure; specifically, Nolan's.
The Hollywood landfill is full of failed third acts in movie series and there's a sense of bare knuckle resolve in Dark Knight Rises that emanates from a brilliant filmmaker determined not to fall prey to the curse of three. You feel that determination in every frame, every note in Hans Zimmer's elegiac score, in all the performances, and in a film that doesn't want to end until there is nothing left.
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This fear of failure is palpable, as Nolan empties himself of everything he has as a writer-director into his movie. As Catwoman tells Batman, "You don't owe these people anymore. You've given them everything." The same could be said of Nolan and this film and to the franchise.
The Dark Knight Rises is not only the most ambitious superhero film ever put to screen, it's also the grimmest.
The Batman movies from the late 1980s and 1990s began as a gritty interpretation of the masked vigilante hero of Gotham, but creative concessions caused them to devolve into comic affairs, vacuous and justifiably dismissed. Nolan's trilogy is born of similarly dark origins, only growing bleaker and more serious minded by the second installment and utterly funereal by the third, literally casting its broken hero into a pit of desperation and death.
This isn't the Batman and Bruce Wayne we left from The Dark Knight. Now eight years later, Wayne (Christian Bale) is a ghostly visage of a billionaire playboy. His Batman took the fall for the death of Gotham's White Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and his former ally's descent into madness and murder, and quietly disappeared into the darkness as a wanted criminal. With Batman's apparent retirement, the soul of Wayne is in a state of decay. He's a never-seen recluse in his empty mansion, leading to all manner of Howard Hughes rumors. Bale's Wayne is emotionally bereft, a discarded soul resigned to a world in which Batman is no longer needed or wanted.
Gotham has moved beyond its vigilante hero, spurred by a new law named in honor of Dent to more quickly and easily round up criminals. The city's mayor proudly parades the success of the Dent Act as a political tool for his reelection, while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is conflicted by the truth -- that Dent was corrupted and not worthy of the honor, and that the city's shiny present and future is a farce built on a lie.
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While Batman is no longer needed in this make-believe world of low crime, it's a terrifying new villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), a bald mountain of flesh and brawn and steely intellect sporting a strange breathing mask, who brings Batman out of retirement.
Years of bruising fights and falls from dangerous heights have exacted a heavy toll on Wayne; there are signs of head trauma, and the lack of cartilage in one leg requires him to walk with a cane. It's this kind of real-world authenticity that considers the physical price of being a superhero -- even in a movie about a billionaire armed with high-tech and expensive gadgets, armor, and vehicles to fight crime -- that separate Nolan's Batman from other comic-book films.
Bane wants to lead a revolt in the city, the haves against the have-nots. And as he makes his terrorist plots against the ruling class from his subterranean lair, Batman prepares for their showdown, one he knows he can't win.
Newcomers to the film include an earnest young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former orphan who shares a similar background to Wayne and understands his private pain, and Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway).
Wayne has a fateful encounter with Kyle, a stealthy burglar with impressive fighting skills, as she tries to steal from him. But theirs will be a complicated relationship, with Wayne sensing more to Selina than the criminal past she's desperate to have erased. Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate is a cursory character whose worth to the film is proven by the final act. Bane was the wise choice by Nolan as the film's villain, the antitheses of the Joker as a creature of brute force and bone-snapping strength. Impressive camera tricks and effects afford the 5-foot-10-inch Hardy a taller, more imposing frame than in real life, and he delivers a strong but not overplayed performance. Unfortunately, as the film's early trailers suggested, the actor's Shakespearean delivery is occasionally victimized by the mask, with several lines of dialogue unintelligible.
But this film isn't about Hardy. The Dark Knight Rises is Bale's film, with the Wayne-Batman arc brought to a rousing conclusion.
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If Batman Begins is about Wayne finding himself through Batman, The Dark Knight Rises is about Wayne losing himself when Batman is absent.
This leads to an emotional confrontation between Wayne and his butler/father figure Alfred (Michael Caine), and a heart-aching confession much later. Frankly, there's more soul in these two moments of The Dark Knight Rises than anything found in The Avengers, a film focused solely on popcorn thrills and giddy audience pleasure -- and succeeding wildly at both -- rather than taking chances.
The Dark Knight Rises is all about risks, and there are payoffs and failures to go with it. This is a somber, bruising finale to the series that smashes the mold of what blockbuster entertainment can be; yet, it will test audience patience with a running time 15 minutes shy of three hours -- with too much of those minutes wasted before the film fully engages moviegoers.
The Dark Knight Rises is absolute proof that great movies can come in threes. If this is a misfire, then it is a spectacular one.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by David S. Goyer, John Nolan and Christopher Nolan. A Warner Brothers release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality, and language. Running time 165 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Batman ...........Christian Bale
Bane ......... Tom Hardy
Catwoman ..........Anne Hathaway
Alfred .......... Michael Caine
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.