When people lament the state of American movies, they bemoan the recycled stories and stale conceits, the cookie-cutter plots, the impersonal filmmaking, the lack of artistry and daring in big Hollywood films. I’m not talking the usual trap of falsely romanticizing the past: There has never been a period of Hollywood cinema this crowded with remakes and franchises and sequels and reboots.
There are exceptions, of course.
With “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan swings for the moon. Saddled with the impossible expectations surrounding the final chapter in his trilogy of Batman movies, Nolan surprises by one-upping you. He gives you something even grander and more fantastic than you expected. This long, sprawling, layered epic isn’t “fun” in a traditional summer-popcorn kind of way; it’s heavy.
Opening eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, his body battered and creaky (he needs a cane to walk), his alter-ego of Batman no longer needed in Gotham City, where Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has exploited a lie to wage a successful war on organized crime.
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Then Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist thug with the build of a wrestler and a life-sustaining mask clamped to his face, emerges from the city’s sewers with an army of followers and a sinister intent. The screenplay of “The Dark Knight Rises” crams a lot of themes and ideas into the framework of a superhero movie. Bane is a warrior for the disenfranchised, the forgotten and the ignored. His methods, though, are brutal and murderous, and his solution to social and economic disparity is of the scorched-earth variety.
Wayne is a billionaire — rich enough to qualify as the 1 percent of Gotham’s 1 percent — which makes him a target for Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive cat burglar whose proclivity for crime is fueled by a sense of entitlement. Except the hero’s finances are waning: Even he is not immune from an economic downturn, one of the many ways in which Nolan deftly anchors his comic-book movie with a timely relevance. Wayne’s wealth has always been his only real superpower, the thing that facilitates all his wonderful toys. But when Bane starts wreaking havoc in Gotham (his first target: the stock market exchange), Batman must rise to the challenge.
“The Dark Knight Rises” borrows key elements from several famed comic-book storylines. But the movie is ultimately less devoted to loving homage and hero worship than to completing the story that started in 2005’s “Batman Begins.”
Nolan co-opts the superhero genre: He plays by its rules and delivers some sensational set pieces, many of them done with old-school practical effects instead of CGI. Nestled inside this brooding, dark picture is a mandate to entertain.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is not without flaws. The story is so busy, some minor roles are given short shrift. For long stretches, the tone is grim even by Nolan’s standards (he has never been a maker of cheerful films). Despite the seriousness of his intent, Nolan is not above relying to comic-book logic. He’s not immune, either, from the cliche of the ticking time-bomb rapidly counting down to zero.
But in the middle of such a grandly ambitious picture, those things don’t matter. “The Dark Knight Rises” is an uncommonly well-acted summer movie. Bale has grown gracefully into the role of the tormented hero — he has never been more commanding or vulnerable in the role — and Hathaway pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of rescuing Selina’s cat mask from kitsch.
Hardy’s portrayal of the imperious Bane will invariably be compared to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the “Joker,” arguably the most iconic performance of the last 20 years. But the comparison is unfair and facile, because the characters could not be more different (or serve more different purposes) and Hardy, most of his face hidden by a mask, does subtle, wonderful things with his eyes.
For all its pomp and grandeur, though, “The Dark Knight Rises” is practically stolen outright by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a conscientious police officer who, like Wayne, grew up an orphan. The actor is in many ways the audience surrogate into this strange, complicated story: He’s not a hero, he’s not yet corrupted or world-weary, and he still believes, perhaps naively, in the infallibility of good.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is, without question, the final chapter in Nolan’s Batman saga. But oh, what a way to go out.