The bat signal is lit. Since 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” the world needed another proper superhero movie, one that tested our minds and rattled our core.
Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, “The Dark Knight Rises,” is more of an enduring challenge than some will expect. For others, it will even feel little like a superhero movie. But its heavy themes of untapped emotion and social anarchy dwarf the flimsy blandness of “The Avengers” and “The Amazing Spiderman.” It does the Batman franchise proud.
Eight years after Batman was assumed to have killed Harvey Dent at the end of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a recluse in his mansion and Gotham City is at peacetime. Gotham as it existed in 2008 represented that period of post-9/11 decadence when America was thriving but needed a hero and a changing of the guard. Now Gotham too is in a dry spell, with polarizing social unrest brewing just beneath the surface. This world needs another martyr to return to a moment of glory.
To fill that void is Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy), a skin-headed muscle-man with a rudimentary Darth Vader face mask amplifying his voice (reports from last year’s Comic-Con claimed that Bane’s voice was muffled under the mask, and now Nolan seems to have overdone the vocal dubbing to the point that Bane is the loudest guy in the room). His vision is one of social anarchy, and he plans to hold Gotham hostage with a nuclear weapon until society crumbles around the war state.
Yet Bane’s psychological game is a different one than The Joker’s. The Joker believed that all people were inherently bad, willing to do evil to save themselves when prodded. Bane however seeks the embedded anger within people. By unleashing their deep, disturbed emotions, they can cast off fear and do great things.
This is Bruce Wayne’s quest too, long the most morally complex of all the superhero alter-egos, and now the anchor to a notoriously bleak film about emotions. Nolan and his brother Jonathan provide Wayne three characters in whom he sees himself. There’s Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy philanthropist wishing to provide an alternative energy source to the world. Then there’s Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a rebellious outcast herself now slinking around Gotham as a sneaky cat burglar. And lastly is John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), another idealist orphan with hope for justice as an up-and-coming detective.
As Wayne juggles all these personal demons, Batman himself is mostly sidelined. We realize that it’s Wayne without the mask, not with it, that makes him the most mysterious.
Consequently, the emotions Nolan is juggling are crippling to “Rises.” There’s a pivotal fight between Bane and Batman where Bane lays into Batman with ease until a defeated Wayne is in the fetal position on the ground. Nolan has a way of shooting this and other fist fights in close-ups from over the shoulder, giving us a sort of clunky, first person view of the beat down. Watching it feels like its own sort of pummeling body blow.
“The Dark Knight Rises” then is a draining film. Nolan’s plotting is dense and rigid, and his pacing is too. Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler Alfred delivers nothing but dreary parables to Bale’s tortured face. Bane’s master plan and the set pieces Nolan concocts are absolutely bananas, but because they constantly teeter on the preposterous and the grittily realistic, they’re more jaw-droppingly depressing than invigorating. And all the while, Hans Zimmer’s relentless score pounds away with its thunderous timpani. In this way, something like a little boy singing The National Anthem right before a devastating underground explosion during a football game is so memorable because of its momentary silence.
“Rises” lacks the charismatic energy of Heath Ledger’s Joker and the overwhelming aura of excitement and surprise he cast over all of “The Dark Knight.” Nolan makes up for it with a giant last minute twist of its own, but the tone is not the same. The labor and struggle required to get to this point in this 164-minute film is too great to provide the necessary shock. It almost seems to forget the words of a not-so-great man: “Why so serious?”
What we’re left with is a monumental, but heavy film. Its slight solace is that although it hardly promises yet another sequel, it seems to ensure that all will be well in Gotham’s internal universe.
Whether or not this is the film that fans anticipated after the unbelievable one-two punch of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” is unclear, but “Rises” is an interesting and challenging movie with a gravity that few other films this year share.