When people lament the state of American movies, they bemoan the recycled stories and stale conceits, the cookie-cutter plots, the impersonal filmmaking, the lack of artistry and daring in big Hollywood films. I’m not talking the usual trap of falsely romanticizing the past: There has never been a period of Hollywood cinema this crowded with remakes and franchises and sequels and reboots (even the hallowed Pixar has announced a sequel to Finding Nemo, which already sounds even more unnecessary than The Godfather Part III).
There are exceptions, of course. But most of the serious contemporary American directors — Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher — have cultivated their audiences and now play primarily to them. Every once in awhile they get lucky with a breakthrough hit, but they’re not necessarily swinging for the fences.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan swings for the moon. Saddled with the impossible expectations surrounding the final chapter in his trilogy of Batman movies, Nolan surprises by one-upping you. He gives you something even grander and more fantastic than you expected. He dreams big. This long, sprawling, layered epic, with the requisite cast of thousands, isn’t “fun” in a traditional summer-popcorn kind of way; it’s heavy. Opening eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, his body battered and creaky (he needs a cane to walk), his alter-ego of Batman no longer needed in Gotham City, where Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has exploited a lie to wage a successful war on organized crime.
Then Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist thug with the build of a wrestler and a life-sustaining mask clamped to his face, emerges from the city’s sewers with an army of followers and a sinister intent. The screenplay of The Dark Knight Rises, which Nolan wrote with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan, crams a lot of themes and ideas into the framework of a superhero movie. Bane is a warrior for the disenfranchised and the forgotten and the ignored. His methods, though, are brutal and murderous, and his solution to social and economic disparity is of the scorched-earth variety.
Wayne is a billionaire — rich enough to qualify as the one percent of Gotham’s one percent — which makes him a target for Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive cat burglar whose proclivity for crime is fueled by a sense of entitlement (“How could you ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us?” she purrs into Wayne’s ear). Except the hero’s finances are waning: Even he is not immune from an economic downturn, one of the many ways in which Nolan deftly anchors his comic-book movie with a timely relevance. Wayne’s wealth has always been his only real superpower, the thing that facilitates all his wonderful toys. But when Bane starts wreaking havoc in Gotham (his first target: the stock market exchange), Batman must rise to the challenge.
The Dark Knight Rises borrows key elements from several famed comic-book storylines, most notably Knightfall, in which Bane crippled Batman in a fight, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, in which an aging Batman was forced out of retirement, his body creaking and groaning. But the movie is ultimately less devoted to loving homage and hero worship than to completing the story that started in 2005’s Batman Begins. Nolan co-opts the superhero genre: He plays by its rules and delivers some sensational set pieces, many of them done with old-school practical effects instead of CGI. More than an hour of the film was shot with IMAX cameras, to sensational effect, because Nolan understands showmanship and spectacle, and he uses Hans Zimmer’s rousing, restless score to exhilarating effect. Nestled inside this brooding, dark picture is a mandate to entertain.
But Nolan isn’t slavish to the demands of the superhero genre. He doesn’t throw in periodic action beats just to keep the pace from flagging, and he takes a centrist approach to the meaty political and social subtexts of his story, which allows for a variety of readings and interpretations. The film has already been decried as everything from a Republican fantasy to an anti-Romney screed, and it hasn’t even opened yet, a testament to how well Nolan achieved his goal. This is not the sort of movie you can just leave behind in the theater. And like any true finale to a trilogy, the picture doesn’t work nearly as well if you haven’t seen the previous two installments: It’s not designed to stand alone.
The Dark Knight Rises is not without flaws. The story is so busy, some minor roles are given short shrift, such as the deputy commissioner of Gotham (played by Matthew Modine), who could have been excised entirely from the movie. For long stretches, the tone is grim even by Nolan’s standards (he has never been a maker of cheerful films). Despite the seriousness of his intent, Nolan is not above relying to comic-book logic and coincidences when he needs them. He’s not immune, either, from the cliché of the ticking time-bomb rapidly counting down to zero.
But in the middle of such a grandly ambitious picture, those things don’t matter. The Dark Knight Rises is an uncommonly well-acted summer movie. Bale has grown gracefully into the role of the tormented hero — he has never been more commanding or vulnerable in the part – and Hathaway pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of rescuing Selina’s cat mask from kitsch. Hardy’s portrayal of the imperious Bane will invariably be compared to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker, arguably the most iconic performance of the last 20 years. But the comparison is unfair and facile, because the characters could not be more different (or serve more different purposes) and Hardy, most of his face hidden by a mask, does subtle, wonderful things with his eyes.
For all its pomp and grandeur, though, The Dark Knight Rises is practically stolen outright by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a conscientious police officer who, like Wayne, grew up an orphan. The actor is in many ways the audience surrogate into this strange, complicated story: He’s not a hero, he’s not yet corrupted or world-weary, and he still believes, perhaps naively, in the infallibility of good. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Blake tells Wayne about the inexplicable anger he feels in his bones and how he’s learned to hide it by practicing smiling into the mirror. In Gotham City, as in life, everyone sooner or later needs a mask. The Dark Knight Rises is, without question, the final chapter in Nolan’s Batman saga. But oh, what a way to go out.