[S]even years after his cinematic return in Batman Begins, the caped crusader bows out in The Dark Knight Rises, arguably the most anticipated superhero movie thus far. Alas, he does — despite a whole lot of noise along the way (courtesy of Hans Zimmer) — go out with more a whimper than a roar, repeating the cycles that played out in Begins and the more recent Dark Knight, albeit with more action spectacles and a better villain. Battling for “Gotham’s soul” against an anarchist and his assorted thugs, with the dual threats of widespread destruction and personal exposure haunting his every move, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) might feel a little de-ja-vu, though he never acknowledges it. Similarly, few will acknowledge or identify this latest film’s failure.
No mention is made of The Joker in The Dark Knight returns, which is probably because series newcomer Bane (Tom Hardy) basically fills the void left by Heath Ledger’s death, doing here as his predecessor might have done, save for the fisticuffs his more physically threatening build equips him for. Batman’s latest foe speaks with a seductive-yet-sinister voice through a mask that feeds him anaesthetic, nullifying the pain he might feel without it while he himself inflicts a great deal of suffering upon those standing before him, who either accept or reject his anti-American, pro-anarchy sentiments (which at times see him resemble the fictional monster many right-wingers would seem to have in mind when they fret over socialism). Though his similarity to The Joker is ever-apparent, his mission would be the same as that of Batman Begins baddie Raz al Gul (Liam Neeson): to see Gotham die.
Emerging to combat his latest, physically imposing nemesis despite the cliched speechifying of faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce Wayne dons the Batman attire following eight years of exile in the wake of his voluntary framing for the crimes and murder of Harvey Dent — a.k.a. Two-Face. Fixed up with a range of new gadgets by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he sets about “rising” with distinctly mixed results — some to do with the introduction of a revamped Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but the majority of it surrounding Bane and his cronies. The same is true of the movie; at times it’s a sprawling, revelatory work of action cinema, but all too often a hackneyed studio picture suffering the curse of so much banal imagery and recycling of ideas satisfactorily explored in the preceding films.
In the wake of his ventures into blockbuster territory, director Christopher Nolan has resembled a more refined, plot-minded version of Michael Bay, bringing narrative depth with his epic stunts of explosive imagery and titillating darkness. But whereas Bay might seem to have come on leaps and bounds with a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Nolan’s final entry into the Batman series sees him commit similar mistakes of indulgence and excess. The big difference is that where Bay militarized space, Nolan stages unlikely terrorist plots that require massive leaps of faith to believe could even come close to happening, or he has men travel massive distances in no time at all to a city we’re told is shut off to the outside world, leaving plot holes in the wake of set-pieces (which again, are hardly ever dissimilar to those in The Dark Knight) that dazzle the eyes (and perhaps even the mind) but don’t have the depth or courage of his story’s convictions.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan basically does what a whole lot of Hollywood directors do when staging large-scale productions centred around wanton destruction and violence. He justifies himself with lofty ideas about national crises and human tragedy that, alas, are only skin-deep. He allegorizes post-9/11 paranoia with the duel for Gotham’s present and future fought between Batman and Bane, an easy, now-cliched approach not best improved by lame sequences that divide their face-to-face encounters, such as Bruce Wayne’s prolonged imprisonment, out of which he literally rises from his entrapment, like a phoenix (sigh).
By far the best scenes are those featuring Bane, the series’ strongest villain thus far, who successfully ups the ante from what The Joker came to make audiences expect. Tom Hardy cuts an intimidating figure and simply owns the role, proving the perfect foil to Christian Bale’s moody Bruce Wayne, who runs the whole psychological gamut he did in the last two films all over again, with added despair inflicted on him by Rachel Dawes’ death, and Alfred’s middle act revelations about secrets kept. Michael Caine’s work as Alfred is at the same level as ever, whereas Morgan Freeman barely registers in his reprisal of the Lucius Fox role. Elsewhere, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt act with capital As, never resembling real people in their portrayals of a billionaire and a Gotham cop/detective, respectively. Finally, Anne Hathaway plays a too-prominent Catwoman with a bit more subtlety than Halle Berry did several years prior.
The many viewers who come to see The Dark Knight Rises will witness a range of outlandish, daring scenarios concocted by the crew behind it (an entire police force underground; so-called people’s courts that force former authority figures to choose death or a perilous trek across a frozen river; bat-shaped crafts whose design seems an impossibility; a nuclear bomb). Alas, however immersive they might be (and the one thing Nolan will always make are visually and emotionally involving works) you cannot shake the notion that often they have been achieved as the consequence of a Hollywood production team’s showy impulse. That they coalesce into something that’s certainly less than the sum of its parts merely seals the deal.
None of that is to say the movie isn’t well structured and acted enough to earn a pass should Nolan have found the appropriate conclusion to a much-hyped trilogy of comic-book adaptations. Indeed, the film’s sense of scale and strength of image ensures that its lengthy runtime flies by, and the continued presence of Bane — who dominates the picture more than Bale’s much-touted protagonist — only improves sequences that are otherwise shallow and excessive. Nolan sets up for one of two endings: an excellent one that would conclude on an appropriately somber note and one that’s so overly sentimental that it’s ludicrous to even consider its inclusion in what’s been promoted as a dark-minded franchise. In a cowardly, inept way, Nolan plumps for both. That’s the final of many bad decisions stopping a potentially great movie dead in its tracks. As with summer blockbusters past, The Dark Knight Rises looks great on the surface, but digging beneath its veneer reveals a work of benumbing hollowness. It’s less than meets the eye.