Near-great "Dark Knight Rises" caps off trilogy with spectacular, satisfying end

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
164 min., rated PG-13.
DC Comics' toyetic Caped Crusader has come a long way since the campy TV series, Tim Burton's inventively gothic vision, and Joel Schumacher's splashy (and in the case of 1997's "Batman & Robin," overblown) departure into camp. With 2005's introspective, entertaining "Batman Begins," writer-director Christopher Nolan reinvented everything we knew about Batman, aside from retaining Bob Kane and Bill Finger's original lore. Redirected as a crime noir rather than a superhero comic-book, his new vision was restarted with a more starkly realistic Gotham City, a doomsday-dark tone, and a richer, more vivid characterization of the crime-fighter. Then with 2008's "The Dark Knight," Nolan created a darkly thoughtful, viscerally stimulating, and uncompromising motion picture, also one of the most accomplished and mature-minded graphic-novel pop entertainments in the superhero genre. So, of course, the visionary filmmaker's one-two punch calls for an epic conclusion to his self-contained trilogy, which comes with big-hype, big-ticket expectations. Luckily, Nolan doesn't disappoint with "The Dark Knight Rises," a cinematic event if there ever was one. Topping his masterful predecessor is a tough act to follow, but this final chapter comes close to greatness. 

Eight years have passed since Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), as his alter-ego of Batman, took the fall for District Attorney Harvey Dent's vengeful acts and death after standing as Gotham's white knight that took down organized crime and corruption. As Bruce saw it, "you can die a hero or live long enough to become a villain," so feelings of guilt have left him hanging up the Bat suit and living in the shadows of Wayne Manor as an old, hobbling recluse with little interest in life. He also grieves the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), who died at the hands of The Joker. Just when the metropolis has found peace, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) still revering what Dent stood for, Master Wayne stumbles upon cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who slinks off with his late mother's pearls. More trouble is in store for Wayne when a hulking mercenary known as Bane (Tom Hardy) gets ready to "occupy" Gotham with his underground army and wipe out Wayne's fortune. Meanwhile, Wayne gets involved with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist on the executive board of Wayne Enterprises, and Gordon finds an ally in young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shares a similar history with Bruce. Will Batman re-emerge and will Gotham welcome him?

For its behemoth 164 minutes (only 16 minutes short of 3 hours), "The Dark Knight Rises" sets up many plot threads, introduces several new characters, and catches up with returning characters, while still raising the stakes for a conclusion. That's a lot of ambitious cramming. While "The Dark Knight" was beautifully paced and edited so tightly that it never felt like 152 minutes, its successor tends to bloat and overreach but doesn't come apart at the seams. Coming from Nolan (along with being co-written by his brother Jonathan) of such brainy, well-structured work as "Memento" and "Inception," a sprawling narrative tapestry should be strong, and for the most part, it is. Only does it become his short-lived Achilles' heel in the film's climax, as everything should start paying off and a plot twist of misdirection and more expository dialogue bog down the momentum. Also, all movies have plot holes, this one included, but as long as the story is involving, why quibble? Nolan builds such a spectacular resolution for his characters that a small slip-up is quickly forgiven.

Having positioned himself as the most versatile Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale (still speaking in that deep, gravelly growl when he puts on the suit) further layers the character with his reserve of torment and wrestling with demons. Batman is just human after all, but the character's arc of facing his fears and pain feels complete. Gary Oldman is still the film's rock of Gibraltar as Commissioner Gordon, who's going through his own personal gloom. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are still around, respectively, as trusted butler/father figure Alfred and Wayne Enterprises manager/gadget provider Lucius Fox. Caine, especially, openheartedly and touchingly sells his emotional bond with Bruce. 

The Joker is never mentioned, paying respect to the late Heath Ledger and his fully committed, indelible performance that achieved fearless bravura. But as Batman's latest foe, a bulked-up Tom Hardy completely disappears into the role of Bane. Though there's much less personality to Bane than The Joker, Hardy makes him a fearsome presence, a brute that has ice water in his veins and just wants to do some damage. The actor's voice is distorted (sounding like Darth Vader with the eloquence of Christopher Plummer) and much of his face is obscured with a claw-like wrestling mask, but nobody could've made it as menacing. While no one can quite match the slinky predation of Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously perfect turn in Tim Burton's "Batman Returns," Hathaway puts her own stamp on the slippery role of Selina Kyle (who's never given the actual moniker of Catwoman). Bringing sparks of sly humor, posing a physical threat, and changing her attitude on a dime, she's frisky, believably stealthy, and fun to watch without camping it up. Halle Berry who?

In the film's most effective addition, Joseph Gordon-Levitt never lets the film's huge scale smother his grounded, layered character work as upstanding cop Blake. His character is idealistic but intelligent, and DC devotees might be quicker on the uptake than some to realize this isn't the last time we'll see of Blake. As for the lovely Marion Cotillard, her Miranda Tate is problematic. Her romantic subplot with Bruce is a non-starter, until she becomes more functional in the final act. And not only do some familar faces drop by, including Matthew Modine and Juno Temple, but characters of Nolan's previous Batman pictures make cameos.

What separates Nolan's trilogy from any other cinematic comic-book property is the filmmaker's refusal to put a leash on grim, weighty, and cerebral themes such as terrorism, anarchy, chaos, guilt, and personal demons. Though his heady versions of Batman hinge on self-seriousness and can't quite be equated with "fun," they are decidedly urgent, exciting, and relevant reflections of our times. Nolan also brings impressive scope to the entire picture, with production values that are nothing short of exceptional. Cinematographer Wally Pfister makes every frame look gritty and substantial; the visual effects and stuntwork are markedly real and lack any use of CGI, at least from what the eye can see; and Hans Zimmer's percussive score, aided by kettle drums and chanting, lays on the doom and punctuates every beat. From the overwhelmingly tense, James Bond-esque opener, as Bane hijacks a plane, to the chill-inducing collapse of Pittsburgh's Heinz Field during a crowded football game, Nolan knows just how to stage action set-pieces and leaven the film's brains with thrills. This is a big, long, heavy juggernaut, though less gloomy and nihilistic than "The Dark Knight," but an often awe-inspiring and wholly satisfying capper. By the end, there's a light at the end of the dark tunnel for the Batman and it's consistent cinematic bliss for the audience.

Grade: A -