I was not bored while watching The Dark Knight Rises. How could I be? It’s nearly three hours of actors I love playing iconic roles that they’ve defined for seven years now in one big, loud, frenzied Batman movie. And it’s all guided by director Christopher Nolan, who can probably pull off this kind of mayhem in his sleep by now.
But I was not exhilarated while watching The Dark Knight Rises either. Because big and loud is pretty much all it is. Well, and dumb too. Rises is really, really dumb from a story standpoint. You know all those deeper themes that made The Dark Knight so great? Escalation, the nature of pure chaos, the eternal ying and yang of good vs. evil, the sacrifice of privacy for protection in a post-9/11 world. Yeah, forget all that. Rises is about a group of mercenaries who decide to blow Gotham off the face of the Earth … but first they’re going to fuck with the city’s populace for a little while. That’s not a simple, reduced summation of the movie. That’s the goddamn movie. There is some very minor political subtext involving Gotham’s lower-class being urged to rise up and retake their city from the one percent, but it’s vague and easily lost in the commotion. There are also plot machinations dealing with the acquisition of a Wayne Enterprises-built nuclear bomb and twists involving characters who we think we know but really don’t. Several story strands are picked up from threads that dangled from the previous two films in the series. But none of these things enhance the plot it any way; they merely service it.
Even worse, over and over again, Nolan chooses to focus on the bombast rather than the characters. Think of that amazing interrogation scene in The Dark Knight, where Batman is unleashing his rage on the Joker, pummeling him over and over, yet the Joker just laughs knowing that Batman, with his strict no-murder policy, holds no real power over him. You won’t find anything like that in Rises. Batman movies usually succeed or fail based on the villains (the Bruce Wayne-centric Batman Begins being the exception to that rule, although its baddies are just fine), and Bane (Tom Hardy), the hulking, masked brute at Rises’ center, is a huge step down from Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s not really Hardy’s fault. It’s pretty difficult to give a defining performance from behind a rubber mask, even when your character’s dialogue is pumped through every speaker within a city block at an absurd volume. But if you’ve watched only a trailer for Rises, you’ve already seen everything Bane has to offer. He’s big, he’s intimidating, and he’s good in a fight. That’s basically it. Whereas Ledger constantly surprised with the tics and subtleties of his performance, Hardy mostly just stands around looking like a badass, which can be fun but won’t exactly elevate the material.
Faring better is Anne Hathaway, who plays a master thief named Selina Kyle. (“The Cat” to Gotham’s newspaper-headline writers. Catwoman to you and me.) Hathaway and Christian Bale show off a nice rapport almost immediately, when Selina breaks into Wayne Manor to swipe Bruce’s fingerprints. Throughout the movie she flitters between her fake personalities and her more hardened true self, which begins to soften once Gotham starts falling to pieces, and Hathaway runs that gamut seamlessly. The only real negatives with Nolan’s version of Catwoman are that she disappears for a long stretch in the middle of the film and that the relationship between Selina and Bruce never quite organically gets to where Nolan wants to take it. (The Batman/Catwoman sexual dynamic is way more effective in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, and I swear Bale’s Wayne looks more longingly at Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight than he does at Selina here.)
The other new cast members are a very good Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a headstrong young cop and a mostly wasted Marion Cotillard as a powerful woman with a vested interest in Wayne Enterprises. The returning cast is as reliable as always and, again, a large reason why the film occasionally works. Bale spends too much of the movie either suffering from physical trauma or flying that damn Bat helicopter thing, yet he still proves to be great fit for the part of Bruce Wayne. (I love the look he gives that random cop who takes a shot at Batman.) Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine all do their things as winningly as they always have. And the little bits featuring Bane’s kangaroo court, with a familiar face as the appointed judge, are great.
The film moves at a solid pace. It’s exciting despite being largely soulless. By the time Gotham has been cut off from the rest of the world, its citizens imprisoned in their own city, Rises becomes of blur of bodies — mostly cops and crooks — being moved around by Nolan’s invisible hands. You never get a strong sense of how things work in the city once Bane takes over, perhaps because nothing is really shown from the average Gothamite’s perspective. (Catwoman has a roommate who’s maybe supposed to convey this. She has approximately two lines.) There are plot holes galore, although, honestly, that accusation could be thrown at the first two movies as well. Logical leaps of faith are part and parcel with this series.
Much discussion is sure to spring from the film’s final minutes — a string of scenes designed to provide closure, be it of the expected or the surprising variety, to all of Rises’ primary players. I actually thought these moments were stirringly realized and may help the movie be remembered as a fitting, if not overly successful, conclusion to the trilogy. Rises is not a Spider-Man 3 or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-level disaster. It’s not a monumental failing that serves to damage the greatness that came before. But it is an average, underwhelming finish to a series that had something truly special coursing through its first two films.