Batman is dead.
Let me walk that back. The Nolan Batman we knew and loved in “Batman Begins” finally bit the dust in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Sure, he was already on wounded knee in the ridiculous “The Dark Knight,” but most of us forgave that film’s many flaws in light of Heath Ledger’s once-in-a-millennium performance. No, the Nolan Batman that made me praise “Batman Begins” so much — the practical, don’t-bother-suspending-disbelief millionaire using his fortune to transform into a superhero — finally met his literal maker in the final installment of this acclaimed trilogy, specifically, his roots as a comic book superhero where the world is filled with pulpy plot devices, unbelievable technology and a propensity for leaving major characters only half developed.
In some respects, this is the most-fitting tribute Nolan and his Batcrew could pay homage to Bob Kane and DC Comics, the creators of Bruce Wayne. The widely regarded thinking man’s superhero director seemed to take a movie off and indulge this flight of fantasy. While injecting one or two scenes of truly moving dialogue between Bruce and his longtime protector Alfred (Michael Caine), the rest of “The Dark Knight Rises” is every bit the bloated summer spectacle you expect from everyone except Chris Nolan — the man who dared to build his Gotham with realism and introspection, characters with feelings and stories that redefine what a superhero could be. But this latest film literally jams explosives underneath that city’s infrastructure and pushes the detonator without looking back.
Christian Bale may have turned in his best performance of the franchise as a reclusive Bruce Wayne forced from retirement after the emergence of a crafty cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) and the muscle-bound, masked madman Bane (Tom Hardy). It’s startling to see how far he transforms the character as the story jumps ahead eight years since the credits rolled on “The Dark Knight.” Similarly, Caine’s Alfred is as poignant and vital to telling Bruce Wayne’s story as he was in “Batman Begins” despite his limited time on screen.
But whereas comic books have been an excellent medium for adequately building fully formed heroes and villains in the same story, “The Dark Knight Rises” lays bare Nolan’s fundamental flaw in treating good and bad with equal measure throughout the trilogy. “Batman Begins” is so Bruce-centric that most people have already forgotten about Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul and Gotham’s gangsters. Similarly, “The Dark Knight” has no time to spare for advancing Bruce as a character while plumbing the depths of the depraved Joker and similarly chaotic Two-Face.
In this film’s case, the motivations for Bane — a tremendous villain who pushes Batman and Gotham’s finest to their breaking point — are nebulous at best, outside of the explanation that he was once a member of the League of Shadows, trained just as Bruce was before Ra’s Al Ghul decided to excommunicate Bane. Perhaps I missed the key to understanding the mind of Bane while trying to decipher his words, which sound over-corrected in his introductory setpiece (which is an otherwise astounding bit of cinema when experienced on an IMAX screen) and horribly mixed to the point of being unintelligible at other times. It’s a disheartening reality, especially when compared the Oscar-worthy sound editing and mixing Nolan’s crew has brought to the table in the previous Batman films and “Inception.”
If there is some solace in the story outside of Wayne Manor, it’s Hathaway’s swagger-laden treatment of Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. If the Nolan brothers and screenwriter David Goyer got one thing right, it’s the badass nature of Gotham’s First Lady of Treachery. Hathaway steals virtually every scene she graces with the help of the script’s snappiest lines.
Also brightening the drearier moments of the film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose “hothead” Gotham cop John Blake deepens our appreciation of Bruce Wayne’s backstory as Blake, who grew up as an orphan, works to unravel the disastrous schemes of Bane and Co.
Turning in utterly unremarkable performances are franchise regulars Gary Oldman (as the weathered and weary Commissioner Gordon) and Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises honcho Lucius Fox. They combine with “Inception” star Marion Cotillard’s poorly conceived and modestly acted Miranda Tate for a trio of VIP in Bruce’s life who come and go as needed in the convoluted story.
Perhaps the more fantastic moments of “The Dark Knight Rises” — in the sense of them being the product of fantasy — would have been easier to swallow if not for the heavy-handed symbolism that runs rampant throughout. Nolan has stuffed allusion and allegory from the Iraq war, the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Occupy Wall Street movement to the point where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be rooting for the on-screen terrorists as they spit out populist slogans. Ultimately, it seems as though “The Dark Knight Rises” makes a strong case for corporate capitalism and The Way Things Are — so much for Bain Capital being the bad guy, Rush Limbaugh.
Beyond the muddled message is Gotham itself. While the city understandably looked different as the Batman films changed hands from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher to Nolan’s take in “Batman Begins,” the city again is transformed from the unmistakably Chicago-esque metropolis of “The Dark Knight” to a strange mishmash of Manhattan and Pittsburgh in this final film. I’m willing to fathom that years of decimation by means of super-villainy has changed the landscape of the city to some extent, but it’s near impossible to reason that a dedicated fan of all three Nolan Batman films will sit through back-to-back-to-back screenings of the franchise without wondering what the production design people were thinking — perhaps a decent “Inception”-style Architect was unavailable.
But for all these flaws, these grating questions that grow and grow in the back and front of my mind, “The Dark Knight Rises” is excellent popcorn entertainment that seems much shorter than its nearly three-hour running time. While it marks a step backward in Christopher Nolan’s otherwise brilliant cinematic résumé it’s also a must-see summer spectacular.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is rated PG-13. Running time: 165 minutes. Two stars out of four.