'The Dark Knight Rises' ... and Falls

The second half of Chrisopher Nolan's final Batman film can't deliver on the promise of the first.

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"The Batman," Police Commissioner Gordon croaks weakly to Bruce Wayne early in The Dark Knight Rises, "must come back." The commissioner frames the matter as a civic obligation, though one imagines that Warner Bros. Pictures may have harbored motivations of a rather more commercial nature. In any case, here we are, with the third—and theoretically final—installment of writer/director Christopher Nolan's take on the caped crusader.

Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) makes his plea to Wayne (Christian Bale) after suffering multiple bullet perforations and a near-drowning at the hands of Bane (Tom Hardy), a seething mass of bicep and trapezius who is also, unfortunately, a terrorist mastermind. Bane is assembling an army in the sewers beneath Gotham City and the police, commanded during Gordon's recuperation by a fainthearted deputy (Matthew Modine), seem unequal to the gathering threat.

Of the Batman films, it's the one in which Nolan's ambitions have most clearly outstripped his results

It's been eight years in movie time since the conclusion of the last film, The Dark Knight, when heroic-attorney-turned-sociopathic-killer Harvey Dent died in the midst of an altercation with Batman. The latter demanded to be held responsible for the former's crimes, in order that Dent could remain a symbol of hope for the denizens of Gotham. And indeed, the city subsequently used his memory to pass the Harvey Dent Act, which granted the police extraordinary powers to combat organized crime. (The film toys with the idea that this may not have been a good thing to do, but briefly and without much conviction.) As a result, there has been relative peace in the city, and Bruce Wayne has retired to his manor to live as a Howard Hughesian hermit. Batman has not been heard from at all.

But you know how it is: Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. Soon enough Batman is onto the scent of Bane, taking the occasional break to swap jabs, jibes, and a layer or so of lip gloss with cryptic cat burglar—yes, this would be Catwoman, but Nolan is sharp enough to skip the moniker—Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Selina warns Batman that Bane is too strong for him after his long layaway, as does his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). And sure enough they prove, at least for a time, to be correct.

The Dark Knight Rises is two hours and 45 minutes long, and it's easy to consider it to be made up of two roughly equal halves—especially as there is a shocking incident at around the 80-minute mark which splits the movie in two almost literally.

The first half of Nolan's film is bold, innovative, and darkly thrilling. The opening sequence, in particular, is a tour de force, an aerial extraction that puts The Dark Knight's shanghaiing in Hong Kong to shame. And while the movie's other big set pieces don't rise to the level of its predecessor, its fight sequences are a considerable upgrade—vivid, visceral, and raw.

The credit is owed primarily to Hardy's Bane, who, while not quite so indelible a villain as Heath Ledger's Joker (how could he be?), is one several times the size. Hardy has been big in past roles—he gained more than 40 pounds of muscle for his breakthrough role in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson—but here he is almost implausibly immense, a mountain of flesh with a neck as thick as a normal person's waist. With his volcanic physique and a voice that booms metallically from behind a tube-crossed facemask, Hardy commands nearly every scene he is in.

Hathaway does about as well with the Selina Kyle role as one could reasonably hope, and evinces surprising combat agility of her own. But the whole good/bad-girl role demands a tricky dance, and one made no easier by a leather jumpsuit and goggles that flip up on top of her head like, yes, cat ears. Though she occasionally lets the hint of a purr escape her lips—don't do it, Anne!—she thankfully never goes the full Eartha Kitt. Oldman and Morgan Freeman (as Batman's avuncular weapons designer, Lucius Fox) are customarily terrific, and space is carved out nicely for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an aggressive young cop. Bale is again solid as Bruce Wayne, but even he looks as though he's tired of the breathy rasp he's required to adopt when he slips on cloak and cowl. And Marion Cotillard is largely wasted as a clean-energy philanthropist and possible love interest.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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