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‘The Dark Knight Rises’ buckles under the weight of its own excesses

The Dark Knight Rises
Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
USA, 2012

In retrospect, it may have been impossible. 2008’s The Dark Knight managed to be the greatest comic-book adaptation of all time by, essentially, cheating. It stripped the genre of its most outlandish acts of superheroism, and imbued its basically rote good-vs.-evil plot with real-world concerns, if not exactly placing itself in a real world setting. It walked a fine tightrope between reality and fantasy, aided immensely by its star turn from Heath Ledger as a fiery, anarchistic iteration of The Joker. It resembled an outsized version of a 1970s crime movie more than it did the likes of, say, Iron Man, or even its own direct predecessor, the origin-story-centric Batman Begins,

Faced with the task of bettering or at least matching The Dark Knight, director and co-writer Christopher Nolan has opted to double down on just about everything. The Dark Knight Rises is quite possibly the gloomiest and most convoluted summer blockbuster of all time, a nearly-three-hour smorgasbord of doomy prophecy, bone-shattering violence, and large-scale destruction. Unfortunately, while Nolan’s singular voice remains intact in terms of the film’s palpable sense of atmosphere, Rises overshoots, bending itself backwards to act as definitive trilogy capper, contemporary social statement, and resonant character piece all at once, ultimately falling a little short in each respect.

Eight years on from the events of The Dark Knight, Batman has long been considered the culprit responsible for the death of Harvey Dent, and Batman himself, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, haunting the halls of his own mansion. Despite his weakened physical condition – he hobbles around with a cane thanks to a bum leg – he has to reconsider his retirement when rumors start to surface about a preternatural evil amassing strength in the underworld: a hulking brute who goes by the name of Bane (Tom Hardy). A large host of other players contribute in ways that Nolan would probably prefer kept close to the chest, including a, ahem, cat burglar (Anne Hathaway), a Wayne Enterprises ally (Marion Cotillard) and a peculiarly eager young police officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), along with returning sage stalwarts Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Alfred (Michael Caine).

While Ledger’s Joker loomed large over The Dark Knight, Hardy’s villain is, by design, a less captivating creature, more a sheer physical presence than a fully-rounded character. On that level, Hardy more than fits the bill, making clear very early on that Wayne/Batman may simply be no match on a mano-a-mano basis. (His memorability as a villain is sadly crippled by his far-too-complex plan, which features a few naggingly prominent holes.) The surprise highlight of the film is Hathaway, whose wily, resourceful femme fatale is, by turns, ferocious, witty, and wounded. She might be the most fully-realized female character ever to appear in a Nolan film.

Despite the 165-minute runtime, though, it’s surprising how little justice is done to the rest of the characters. Caine’s Alfred, so vital to the success of the other two films, is absent for the majority, a loss that hurts the film’s emotional resonance in a big way. Oldman’s role is also diminished; here, he’s more of a cog than a character. Strangely, though, the man we really don’t see enough of is Wayne himself. With the Nolans’ script throwing in so many characters, plot contortions, red herrings, and set-pieces (none of which hold a candle to the highlights from its predecessor), we lose sight of the character’s internal struggle for long stretches of the film.

Nolan’s concerted attempt to forge a strong connection to the other films in the series, particularly Batman Begins, also feel off, especially since The Dark Knight was such a startling formal break from that film. Nolan overplays the continuity angle through incessant (though thankfully brief) hand-holding flashbacks. Yet the film also tries its hand at state-of-the-nation timeliness, much as The Dark Knight did with its startling evocation of brutish terrorism. This time around, the stated motives and iconography suggest nothing less than class warfare, as well as the spectre of Occupy, here crossbred with Orwellian fascism; in one scene, Bane literally, and pointedly, stamps his boot on a human face. (Forever, he hopes.) But where The Dark Knight has the chutzpah to draw an actual conclusion on human decency in times of crisis with its final sequences, Rises is content to simply inject provocative language and imagery to no particular end.

Where Rises does excel, typically for Nolan, is in its sometimes-breathtaking descents into sheer darkness. As Bane’s plot threatens to transform Gotham into an Escape from New York-style isolated hellscape, Nolan finds new ways to ratchet up the stakes again and again, while temperatures drop and the city is enveloped in ice and snow. This results in some very effective stretches, wherein it seems as though the film might genuinely subvert familiar outcomes; that’s more than can be said for any of the Marvel films, wherein multi-picture contracts and comic-book “faithfulness” offer safety nets at every turn. At its best, Rises feels almost dangerous.

But those moments don’t come often enough. Despite those bright dark spots, and the refreshing lucidity of Nolan’s action choreography (as well as his satisfying, and likely very expensive, insistence on practical effects), Rises manages to feel all at once like too much and too little, losing itself amidst the endless bluster. There is an upside, though: if anything, Rises proves that Nolan is, if anything, only improving as a technician, so hopefully as he leaves franchise filmmaking behind, he can regain his footing with a project less bound by expectation and obligation. All that ambition ought to be applied more judiciously next time around.

Simon Howell