Christopher Nolan's epic Batman trilogy comes to a satisfying, if occasionally clunky, conclusion with The Dark Knight Rises. It is the least-satisfying of the three films, but that's only because it doesn't quite attain the masterpiece stature of his Batman Begins or The Dark Knight.
All things considered, it's still a damn good ride.
Eight years after the events of the last film, a reclusive Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is hiding out in his cavernous house. His knees are shot; his will is bent; and he's starting to annoy Alfred (Michael Caine), who wants him to get a new girlfriend. In short, Bruce Wayne is not living the good life after his beloved Rachel met an untimely end.
When things in Gotham begin to boil over in the absence of the Bat, he seriously considers a return to costumed vigilantism. When Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) gets into trouble, that seals the deal.
Wayne/Batman's main adversary in the movie is Bane, a brilliant, strategizing Neanderthal who wears a mask and is infamous for breaking Batman's back in the comics. As played by Tom Hardy, Bane winds up being the film's biggest flaw, because Nolan and crew completely blow it with his voice. From the instant Hardy delivered his first line in the film's opening airplane sequence, the voice struck me as odd and "clean" for a guy wearing a mask.
It's no secret that many patrons who saw TDKR preview footage whined about not being able to understand Bane. Nolan refused to retool the voice at first, but relented and redid some of the vocals in postproduction. The result is something that feels inorganic and cartoonish. Bane has plenty of dialogue, so you can't escape the problem.
As a physical opponent for Batman, Bane is a lot of fun. Two smackdowns between the characters are awesomely staged. They are also quite scary, because we know that Batman has been out of it for a while, and his fighting chops aren't up to snuff. You get a true sense that Batman might get his life ended by Bane. This is his first opponent in the Nolan films that actually provides a true, physical threat, aside from guns and weaponry.
In the end, I took Bane for what he was: A formidable and entertaining physical opponent for Batman who sounds a little like a strangely happy Gandalf after a whiskey bender, with a little bit of Darth Vader thrown in for good measure.
Also on the villain front, there's Selina Kyle, played this time out by Anne Hathaway. The film never refers to her as Catwoman, but we all know who she is. Hathaway takes a subtle approach to the role that works beautifully. She has a moment during her first interaction with Bale that is the best of her career thus far. She's also physically impressive in the suit, and mostly convincing when high-kicking bad guys twice as big as she is.
As Blake, a rookie cop with an allegiance to Batman and a growing disillusionment with the system, Joseph Gordon-Levitt steals scenes. He has a certain power onscreen that will make you hope the series continues with him in a bigger role.
However, this is Bale's movie. You could make a convincing argument that he was overshadowed by Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. This installment moves his Bruce Wayne back to the center, and Bale's Batman concludes the trilogy as one of the deepest and most-memorable superheroes in cinema.
Nolan has a strange tendency to cast fading American actors in his Batman pics. Anthony Michael Hall and Eric Roberts figured prominently in The Dark Knight, and this chapter features Matthew Modine as one of Commissioner Gordon's fellow cops. Modine's work in the movie qualifies as unabashed scenery-chewing, and it rubbed me the wrong way.
The movie plays a lot on current events and themes, including political upheaval, lower-class disenchantment, terrorism and financial corruption. The first two films were parties with otters and kittens compared to this one, so be prepared for something somber.
When the action-set pieces come into play, the movie rocks like no other—but it does have its slow moments. While I appreciate a film that breathes, I could see the pacing annoying people looking for straight-up action.
If the series continues with some of the current players—and the film's ending does leave the book open for a number of possibilities—let's hope Nolan has at least a producer's hand in the next chapters. (He claims he's finished directing Batman films.) He actually has been part of the process for Man of Steel, next summer's retooling of Superman.
Even with the stupid Bane voice and Matthew Modine stinking up the place, there's enough greatness in The Dark Knight Rises to make it one of the summer's better spectacles.