You’d need a dictionary to encompass the sprawl that is “The Dark Knight Rises,” and I’ll start you off with 26 words:
Ambitious, bloated, complex, deceptive, exhilarating, frustrating, grandiose, hallucinatory and intelligent.
Joyous, kick-butt, laughable (in spots), moving, noisy, operatic, powerful, quick – despite running 165 minutes – and righteous (morally).
Sexy, tough, unbelievable, violent, well-acted, xenophobic (the bad guys are the usual Middle Eastern terrorists, tarted up as a secret society), yippie-abusive and zany.
Director Christopher Nolan, who wrote the script with brother Jonathan, gets so many of the big things right that I wished they had taken more time with the little ones.
The siblings tie up their Batman saga beautifully, linking this third chapter back to “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” yet the plot is pock-marked with improbabilities. The narrative arc is designed with the elegance of a Gotham skyscraper, until the very ending is a cheat. The casting could not be improved except for one key player, though to tell you why that one falls short is to spoil an important surprise. (I won’t give any twists away.)
Consider this moment: Bane (Tom Hardy) slaughters people on Wall Street and takes others hostage, tying them to getaway motorcycles in a scary, riveting scene. Yet as the deputy commissioner (Matthew Modine) leads the chase, he spots Batman. He orders every available cop to pursue Batman instead, because the Caped Crusader’s reputation in Gotham is mud.
That kind of silliness would scarcely be noticed in a Michael Bay movie. But Nolan constructs thrillers so brilliantly that it sticks out, and the movie pokes us in the eye this way every so often.
You can banish memories of the steroidal Bane from the non-Nolan “Batman & Robin” of 15 years ago. This one is almost impossibly bulked up, but smart and even subtle in Tom Hardy’s performance. (Although many people told me they didn’t understand lines spoken through his mask, especially when the soundtrack thundered.)
Bane wants to “liberate” depraved Gotham City by destroying it, as Ra’s al Ghul tried to do in “Batman Begins.” He converts a nuclear fusion device built by Bruce Wayne and environmentalist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) into an atomic bomb that will blow up everyone in a six-mile radius – about 12 million people – and threatens to detonate it if anyone tries to leave the city.
He unleashes anarchy by opening prisons, arming the poor and declaring war on the well-off. Little does any Gothamite know that the bomb is set to go off at a certain time, whatever may happen. (Like a true jihadist, Bane is willing to die in the mushroom cloud.)
Opposing him are mostly the usual folks: Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale, growly as ever), technological genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and plucky young Blake, a cop who – like Wayne – happens to be an orphan. (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is the welcome new face.)
Around the edges of the story slinks Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who is never called Catwoman. She’s a burglar and martial artist who steals from the rich but seems to stay poor herself, and the Nolans are ambiguous about her: At one point, she seems like a lesbian, yet she could also be taking a romantic interest in Wayne. She talks eagerly about class warfare but does nothing to hasten it.
Her main goal is to wipe out every reference to her in every computer in the world at once, thus eliminating her criminal record; this seems more far-fetched than the idea that Bane’s sidekicks can place explosives in half the sewers in Gotham without attracting attention.
Nobody here provides the kind of electric, psychotic charge Heath Ledger’s Joker gave us. (In fact, The Joker isn’t mentioned, though he’s presumably still in a Gotham prison or Arkham Asylum.) The tension in “Dark Knight Rises” comes not from personalities but from complicated situations, and Nolan builds those up carefully.
I saw the film on an IMAX screen, with sound so loud I felt I was walking among dinosaurs. I didn’t miss the 3-D that seems to be required for action movies these days; Nolan finished the trilogy as he began, and the action doesn’t suffer a whit for being in two dimensions.
The characters, now – they do suffer from being two-dimensional at times, especially supporting players who behave in a clichéd way. But after the first two of Nolan’s “Batman” films reached heaven, it would be churlish to complain too loudly that the most ambitious of the three can’t rise quite as high.