Note: We tried to avoid as many plot particulars as possible in this review, but please consider this fair warning about any potential spoilers.
At one point toward the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, the (fictional) president of these United States refers to besieged Gotham City as "our nation's greatest city," to which I say, really? Throughout the long history of Batman's adventures, Gotham has mostly seemed a crime-ridden hellhole, a place of fear and despair whose only hope is a tortured vigilante who is never quite as reliable as he ought to be. This impression has never been more stark than in Christopher Nolan's portentous trilogy of Batman films, which reaches its rattling, keening conclusion with The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan's Gotham City is a sinister, nervous place, one obsessed with heavy ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, duty and obligation. These are also the chief thematic interests of Nolan and his screenwriters, and they lay a coat of tough guy philosophizing over the film that's as thick as the city's stern gray skies.
As in the previous two films in the trilogy, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan's striving for deeper, moodier meaning is both a blessing and a curse for The Dark Knight Rises. On the plus side it imbues the perhaps otherwise standard superhero proceedings with a sense of towering drama that initially holds our interest and briefly convinces us that we are watching something truly important. But then those illusions tend to falter and fade somewhere in the middle stretch, with all the clamoring and clashing maxims and moral questions muddying and running together like watercolors. What were we really talking about in Batman Begins with all that scorched-earth anarcho-nihilism League of Shadows stuff? What were the Joker and the Batman actually discussing in The Dark Knight's many intensely scored back-and-forths? It was mostly riffs on the darkness of human nature mixed in with some growling about the power of the individual to effect change, right? Which is all well and good, but do those fairly simple ideas really need all the pomp and circumstance, the booming Sturm und Drang, they get presented with in these films?
Maybe they do. The Dark Knight Rises, which is easily the most pretentious of the trilogy, did lose me about halfway through, when the action slows a bit for some blurry exposition and ham-handed introspection. But by the end of Nolan's tremendous, rumbling 40-minute-or-so-long finale — a dazzle of tension and symphonic action — I was fully engaged again, a sweaty, palpitating believer once more. Ultimately do we really care all that much what Nolan was trying to say, or if there was ever really anything to say about it? He says it so damn well that the answers almost cease to matter. The Dark Knight Rises is by no means a perfect film — despite all the technical wonder, there's still a secret shallowness to the bat cave — but as the conclusion to a mostly satisfying, genuinely inspired film series, it's a competent, at times thrilling, success.
I'll spare you any plot particulars in case you didn't heed the warning up top, but know at least that Gotham has been relatively calm for the past eight years (even though everyone looks as scared and miserable as always), as the false legacy of the dead secret villain Harvey Dent has been used to extend police powers and bring a tight-fisted peace to this crimiest of cities. With everyone thinking that Batman killed Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, who always seems a little bored in these, doesn't he?) has holed himself up with the sheet-draped furniture of Wayne Manor, his oft teary eyed old butler Alfred (Michael Caine) his only human contact. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), the only other man who knows the truth about Dent and Batman, is holding the line as best he can, but the lies are starting to wear on him. Dent threatened to kill his wife and son, after all, so being forced to continually praise the man's memory for the better part of a decade has taken a weary toll on Gordon. At the start of the film, everyone is reasonably at rest, but more unhappy than ever because of it. Lucky for them, then, that a mysterious mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) and his menacing crew of toughs have arrived in town and are up to no good in the city's sewer system. Finally, something to do! Other distractions, for Bruce/Batman in particular, include a slinky, secret-keeping cat burglar with shady crime world connections named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and a beautiful businesswoman with soulful eyes named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Babes, baddies? Meet your Batman. He's back.
Bleak and unhurried, The Dark Knight Rises unfolds over an ample, almost decadent 165 minutes, and if the story maybe doesn't use every second of that time efficiently, it's still a rare example of a long film being exactly as long as it needs to be. There are a lot of disparate strings that need to eventually tie together, and Nolan insists on making each connection as carefully and craftily as he can. It's no news, but boy is Christopher Nolan a master of composition and movement. He and cinematographer Wally Pfister, and editor Lee Smith, build set pieces of interlocking scenes with stunning technique — the scenes corkscrew together tighter and tighter and yet somehow remain wide and open, grand and magnificent. (I was fortunate to see this on a reasonably gigantic IMAX screen; I'd recommend you do the same.) And of course Hans Zimmer's music is as indispensable as ever. He takes already bracing sequences and turns them into operas of flight and thunder. Zimmer's scores are truly the individual highlights of the series.
Well, the other individual highlight would be Heath Ledger's crackling, brilliant turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Tragedy being what it is, Ledger could not be around for this film, so Nolan had to bring in two more characters from the old Batman roster to keep the story going. Those would be Bane and Selina Kyle/Catwoman (though she's never called Catwoman in the film), and they do a fine if inevitably slightly underwhelming replacement job. Hardy, who speaks from behind a strange H.R. Giger-ian mask, affects a croaky, almost old-timey voice that is generally frightening most of the time, but that veers into silliness more often than it should. As we've come to expect from Hardy, he's a physical marvel, here as big as a refrigerator, but still somehow strikingly nimble. Hardy is a true shape-shifter, and this is his most hideous transformation to date. Bane is all hulking evil and hidden pain; he's hard to look at for too long. As Selina Kyle/Catwoman, I must grudgingly admit that Hathaway does a far better job than I thought her capable of when her casting was announced. She is not flawless — there's a curly-cue, put-on scratch to her delivery that occasionally suggests something more akin to the great Batman: The Animated Series than to Nolan's decidedly un-cartoony milieu. And her fighting is not exactly convincing; she's got the technical maneuvers down, but I didn't feel any thunk of impact when she landed a neat kick or swinging punch. Still, though, she's an undeniably transfixing presence in the film, all hardness except for her big watery eyes, so I must tip my hat to her and those that cast her. Oh, and, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in the film as a young idealistic cop. So, keep an eye on him.
But back to all that philosophizing. There's a distinct, unsettling political current running throughout the film that feels sensational and lopsided. In the film, something akin to a hyperbolized version of Occupy Wall Street, or at least a general anger about income inequality (this film was in the works before the protests, after all), is portrayed as merely a scary seethe of anarchistic, anti-establishment rage. The film doesn't paint financial fat cats terribly well either, but they are at least not depicted as violent, city-destroying monsters. In Nolan's defense, by picture's end it does seem that his ultimate intent was to make an equivocating plea for a middle ground — don't blindly distrust government and industry, but don't trust it too much either — but that wishy-washiness does wind up dismayingly feeding right into the frustratingly muddled, almost sophomoric ideology that lies squishily at the heart of the entire series. I wish The Dark Knight Rises didn't feel so intellectually soggy, because much of the rest of it is a cool, confident, grownup wonder. I appreciate an effort to say something bigger or more significant in a summertime superhero flick, but sometimes a little pondering goes a long way. The film overstates its own thesis and sags and wobbles because of it. Nolan's Batman conclusion is a rich, lush, and walloping entertainment, but it still leaves us mostly in the dark.