Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises aims to be nothing less than the be-all, end-all of the comic-book genre, a movie that encapsulates all the superhero movies that have come before it, and renders all that might follow a tad irrelevant. The film has dozens of characters, an epically complicated vision of good and evil, and a score that rises up every few minutes. It's hard not to admire the scope of the storytelling, and the director's sheer determination to make us take it seriously.
What is missing, though, is the sense of anguish, perversity and danger that gave such weight to this film's predecessor, The Dark Knight (2008). That movie showed us a man tearing apart at the seams, unable to distinguish any longer between guilt and innocence. This one just puts us through the familiar paces of a reluctant superhero who must dust off his cape and accept his fate as a peacekeeper. Instead of looking like no other comic-book movie you've ever seen, it ends up looking like dozens of other films, only on steroids.
Eight years have passed, and Gotham City has settled into a sustained peace, just as Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) seems to have disappeared into exile. The populace remains under the impression that Batman is a thug who murdered their beloved district attorney Harvey Dent, a lie sustained -- albeit not without a fair amount of guilt -- by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman).
Nolan, working with his regular screenwriting partner, his brother Jonathan Nolan, has long been attracted to the moral gray zone in this series, and he's at it again. Does a government owe its people the truth, even if the lie produces a long-range benefit? (Hundreds of hardened criminals have been arrested under a law created and named in Dent's honor.) Is Wayne betraying himself and the people by not standing up as "The Batman" and instead remaining holed up in his mansion, where he stews in regret over lost love Rachel Dawes?
Perhaps needless to say, these matters will soon be put to the test, courtesy of an elaborate plot by Bane (Tom Hardy) -- an evildoer wearing an S&M-like mask with metal teeth -- to stage an overthrow of society. Turns out that, in addition to an exegesis on truth and civil liberty, The Dark Knight Rises is also a consideration of wealth, power and social equality, and the historically fine line between socialist revolution and fascism.
Along the way, we also meet a wily jewel thief who sometimes dresses as a cat (Anne Hathaway), a young police officer who grew up in an orphanage (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a businesswoman trying to develop a means of sustainable global energy (Marion Cotillard) and a gaggle of imprisoned men lurking at the bottom of a seemingly inescapable well. And whereas the previous installment seemed grounded in a more recognizable reality than any comic-book picture ever made, this one takes a turn toward the über-geeky and reintroduces the League of Shadows, the vigilante gang led by Ra's al Ghul, from 2005's Batman Begins. (Liam Neeson turns up, albeit briefly, to reprise the role.)
Exhausted yet? You will be after nearly three hours of this. The problem isn't the ambition on display, but that Nolan keeps piling on layers of meaning and portent. Alliances keep shifting, and there are double- and triple-crosses, until it all starts to mean nothing -- and the movie begins to collapse under the weight of its own pomposity.
And unlike The Dark Knight, this third installment in Nolan's Batman franchise is curiously lacking in truly whopping action set pieces. There's a gripping airplane hijacking sequence early on, and the bombing of a football stadium is very well-executed. But despite the incessant Hans Zimmer music, nothing here achieves the operatic grandeur of the opening bank robbery or the bombing of Gotham City Hospital in the last picture. As enjoyable as both Hardy and Hathaway are to watch, there are also no villains that can begin to approximate the unnerving depths of the late Heath Ledger's Joker.
The best thing to be said for The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan's deft visual imagination, the way Gotham once again approximates elements of New York and Chicago but ultimately seems to exist in its own gorgeous alternate universe. And in two scenes, Michael Caine, back again as long-suffering butler Alfred, brings an unexpected tenderness and bald emotion to a previously cold-to-the-touch franchise. A little more heart -- and a lot less bombast -- and this movie might have been the game-changer its creators so desperately want it to be.