'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.

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.

Apart from Hardy, it's Caine who is the real standout among the cast, offering a more melancholy turn on Alfred Pennyworth than in the earlier films. Particularly moving are the scenes in which he pleads—and ultimately does more than plead—with Wayne to understand that Bane is too powerful to tackle head-on. "You're not the Batman anymore," he implores. "You have to find another way."

There was an opportunity here for Nolan to show us that other way, to (again) stretch the boundaries of what is possible in a superhero film. Instead, alas, the latter half of The Dark Knight Rises retreats toward conventionality and, while perfectly fine on its own merits, can't help but disappoint. As was the case with the previous two movies, Nolan bites off a great deal but proceeds to chew somewhat less.

It's a common trap for sequels to be handcuffed by nostalgia and the desire to tie up loose ends. One of the strengths of the previous film, The Dark Knight, was that it broke free, abandoning the airy mysticism of Batman Begins for something bleaker and grittier, positioning itself as a kind of gangland neo-noir. But The Dark Knight Rises instead harkens back to the first film, to Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows, to slender, overwrought meditations on the nature of fear and the soul. And while some of the backward references—to Martha Wayne's pearls, for instance—are touching, they ultimately become wearisome. Three flashbacks to Batman Begins are at least one too many.

There are more particular missteps as well. An oddly off-key, Occupy-Wall-Street-inspired political undercurrent suggests that a substantial population of ordinary Gothamites would be so dissatisfied with their civic institutions that they would join Bane—who has by this time done some decidedly terrible things—in a violent insurrection against the city's wealthy elites. (Yes, this is an anti-Bain Bane.) And one character's recovery from a rather crucial impairment defies pretty much everything that I believe is known of human physiology.

Is this setting too high a bar for what is, after all, a superhero movie? One can surely make the case. But it's Nolan himself who put the bar up there. Moreover, it's hard to escape the sense that that a movie as self-serious as this one—it is even more grandiose than the The Dark Knight­—ought to display a little more, well, seriousness.

The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie, and at times a very good one: complex, intense, and sharply executed. But of the Batman films, it is the one in which Nolan's ambitions have most clearly outstripped his results. Last time out, he reinvented the superhero genre. This time—even at his best—he is merely recycling it.