The canvas is epic, the themes are profound, the execution is ... clunky. Welcome to Christopher Nolan's third and allegedly final Batman picture, The Dark Knight Rises ? that so-called rising taking hours, by the way. No Batman film ever had less Batman.
It opens with Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne a recluse, hobbling around his mansion, in mourning for a lost love, his superhero persona dormant for eight years. The Caped Crusader is a fugitive now. He took the blame for the murder of district attorney-turned-mad-avenger Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, to protect Dent's reputation.
And that rep is not just intact but the inspiration for the Dent Act, which the mayor of Gotham City boasts put thousands of bad guys in prison with little in the way of due process. With the scum now off the street, business flourishes while the gulf widens between rich and poor.
Nolan means to draw parallels to our own society ? wealthy people living high while beneath them, in the sewers, apocalyptic forces gather, embodied here by a masked muscleman called Bane, played by Tom Hardy.
I'm not reading into this: The sentiment is voiced by Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who preaches class warfare to Bruce after he catches her rifling his safe. Yet he's oddly taken by this incorrigible bad girl who thinks society leaves her no choice but stealing from the rich.
This may be a comic-book movie, but it's weighty stuff. Nolan's Batfilms come out of what fans regard as the third wave, the postmodern, grown-up era beginning with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen. In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan explored both the tortured soul of a vigilante and the possibility of justice in a world with so many colliding values.
Bruce learned that revenge was selfish, that justice, as one character put it, was about harmony. Then, faced with a villain ? the Joker ? who embodied anarchy, he had to data-mine all Gotham City, civil liberties be damned.
Now, in The Dark Knight Rises, the authoritarian city is seized by a villain, Bane, posing as a modern-day French revolutionary who exhorts the populace to strip the decadent rich of their property. Secretly, though, he plans something more lethal.
It takes awhile to get your bearings; Nolan is not an elegant storyteller, and apart from a witty assault on a football field, his action scenes are a hash. Early on we learn the villain Bane is tied to Ra's al Ghul, Liam Neeson's Batman Begins mastermind, who planned to decimate humanity in the name of environmental balance ? so there's a same-old same-old quality here.
Bane cuts a frightening figure with his Mexican-wrestler musculature and steel-mandibled breathing apparatus, but Hardy's distorted voice is a cross between Darth Vader and Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man. He's unintelligible.
He does maul the Dark Knight convincingly, but that means another long stretch in which Batman leaves the film while Bruce builds himself back up for another go. Is Bruce fit enough? Poor Michael Caine as Alfred the butler gets all nasal in tearful speeches pleading with his master to give it up and start a family, the most likely mating prospect being Marion Cotillard as a millionaire businesswoman. And, of course, Catwoman.
Hathaway is the best thing about The Dark Knight Rises. Wisely, Nolan hasn't made her in the mode of Michelle Pfeiffer's nut ball in Tim Burton's Batman Returns but as a sleek, wisecrack-slinging cat burglar, and Hathaway is so poised and charismatic that it hardly matters that she's not a stylized comic-book supervillain. She might be bisexual, by the way: She travels with a cute little blond thing. But Batman, like Bond, has a way of getting under women's skin.
The Dark Knight Rises has terrific moments, and if it lacks a force like Heath Ledger's Joker, it isn't as assaultive as The Dark Knight. Nolan fans should be pleased, at least until the terribly coy ending. But with all the murk and solemnity, there's no exhilarating pop. You might say it never quite rises.