It’s an all-too-human failing that we’re unable to encounter new experiences without comparing them to previous ones. The Dark Knight Rises - third (and everyone says final) film in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman series – is action-packed, dark, dramatic, and consistently thrilling. It’s everything comics fans and ordinary moviegoers want in a summer blockbuster, and especially this one. Unfortunately, in the inevitable comparison with Nolan’s brilliant previous effort, The Dark Knight, this new installment comes up short. While it’s by no means a disappointment, the feeling of something lacking nags at the back of your mind throughout.
On our return to Gotham City, we find eight years have passed since The Batman (Christian Bale) took the rap for Harvey Dent’s murder spree as Two-Face. His alter-ego an outcast, Bruce Wayne has retired and secluded himself in the rebuilt Wayne Manor, hobbled by a bullet wound to the knee.
In death, Dent has become even more of a hero to the people, and an inspirational figure in the war on organized crime. Hundreds of gangsters have been locked up in Blackgate Prison, and Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) wonders if it might finally be time to reveal the truth.
The mob may have been cleared from Gotham’s streets, but there’s still plenty of wrongdoing going on. Bane (Tom Hardy), a beefy terrorist who wears a mysterious gas mask, is about to enter the picture, working with some evil financiers to attack Wayne’s finances and steal control of his company. But Bane’s background is even more sinister, and soon his secret plot will threaten the entire city. Stopping him is a challenge that The Batman may not survive.
The script by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer) contains twists that may surprise even hardcore Batman fans, while reasonably respecting established comics lore. A repeat viewing of the first movie, Batman Begins, is highly recommended - Rises is linked closely in theme and action to it, though with an abundance of new characters, including Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as hero cop John Blake, and Marion Cotillard as new Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate.
Which might be the source of that nagging feeling. Like most sequels, the extended cast constantly threatens to defocus the story, and the events of Bane’s complicated scheme leave major and much-beloved characters like Gordon, butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and even Batman himself off-screen for long stretches. The movie always holds your attention, but not without the sense of waiting for something else to happen next. It’s a far cry from the more immediate chess game between Batman and Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, where every moment kept you on the edge of your seat. Part of that was due to Ledger’s incredible performance, but I think mostly it was about the unpredictable villain he played. Bane is a great character, and it’s nice for once to see him portrayed with brains as well as muscle, but he comes off as little different from other great terrorist villains in other great action movies.
The cast is uniformly great. Bale continues to give us a fantastic Batman, whatever you may think of his re-dubbed, “demonic” Bat-voice. It’s at least in line with the previous films, and with Bane mumbling through his mask, Bale and Hardy play off each other well. Of the newcomers, Hathaway has the toughest job, presenting a believable Catwoman. It’s a tough role to write, let alone play, but she acquits herself well with what she’s given. Gordon-Levitt’s Blake takes up a lot more space in the movie than he has any right to, but is never less than watchable. And, as always, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (as Batman’s weapons designer Lucius Fox) are underused.
Comparisons are unfair. As it is, The Dark Knight Rises is completely entertaining and a fitting bookend to a trilogy. But it’s cursed to have come after The Dark Knight, and that takes a little bit of the shine off an otherwise excellent movie.
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