It stands proudly alongside its older siblings, as good as (or better than) “Batman Begins” and better than “The Dark Knight.” I realize I'm in the minority in considering the middle film as the weakest of the three, but — unlike the first and (I anticipate) the new entry — I have never once felt the impulse to rewatch it. Too many action threads being juggled and intercut in the final stretch, and — more heresy — an initially riveting performance by Heath Ledger that overstays its welcome.
Nolan once again packs the final act with an unnecessary number of parallel threads, but they seem better balanced this time around. As a result, “The Dark Knight Rises” zips by faster than its immediate predecessor, despite being 15 minutes longer at 2 hours and 44 minutes.
The villain is Bane, allegedly played by Tom (not Thomas) Hardy. I say “allegedly” because, except for a few seconds, Bane spends the entire film wearing a mask apparently purchased at a Hannibal Lecter yard sale and speaking in a gruff, electronically processed voice — a cross between Darth Vader and one of the bad guys from “Road Warrior.” We can take on faith that it's Hardy, but Nolan could just have substituted Harry Shearer for the audio and Steve (not Jane) Austin for the video, and no one would have been the wiser.
If the last film was packed with political resonance, this one is even more so. Rush Limbaugh has asked if anyone could possibly believe the villain's name is a coincidence; he sees it as an underhanded liberal trick to associate Mitt Romney's venture capital firm with an evil monster planning to tear down America, city by city, town by town. (Wait till Rush finds out Democratic senator Patrick Leahy has a cameo as a Wayne Industries board member.) Given that the Bane character was created in 1993 and the decision to use him in this film dates back at least two or three years, I can believe it's a coincidence; in fact, I'm quite sure it is.
(But could it be coincidence that our Dark Knight of the Bale-ful Countenance struggles against Hardy's Bane-ful bad guy? Given that “baleful” and “baneful” are both synonyms for “destructive” and “pernicious,” could this be another sign that Batman's enemies are stand-ins for his own dark side? Or am I catching Limbaugh's paranoia? And who are all those people reading my brain waves right through my tinfoil fedora?)
But there are other quite intentional suggestions of politics throughout the film. Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen may be irrelevant lame-joke references, but another 19th century British novelist isn't: to wit, Charles Dickens, author of “A Tale of Two Cities.” Bane spouts populist rhetoric and prods Gotham's 99% to overthrow the fat-cat 1%. It actually sounds like a pretty good idea, but Bane knows that they will become a government of vigilantes and kangaroo courts. Gotham essentially turns into a simplified version of Paris during the French Revolution. This may sound like a stretch, but near the end, a spoken eulogy quotes the book's “far far better thing I do” speech.
Where, you may ask, is Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) in the middle of all this? He has disappeared from the public eye for eight years and turned into the Gotham equivalent of Howard Hughes. “Is it true that he saves his hair and fingernails in mason jars?” someone asks. Actually, his grooming has stayed a bit more conventional than Hughes', but he has barely seen, or been seen by, anyone except faithful retainer Alfred (Michael Caine).
Until, that is, burglar Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into his lair one night. She piques his interest and draws him out of solitude. It turns out that in addition to the pearls she grabs, she is also doing an errand for the villain, thus kicking off the conflict of Wayne vs. Bane.
Hathaway is one of the film's prime assets. She's not obvious casting, but, as Selina, she matches or beats Michelle Pfeiffer (in Tim Burton's “Batman Returns”) and easily trounces Lee Meriwether (on the '60s TV show) and Halle Berry (in the legendarily bad 2004 “Catwoman”). She, Caine and Morgan Freeman (as un-mad scientist Lucius Fox) provide most of the film's humor and, more importantly, its humanity. Nolan's Batman films have their clever moments and lines — e.g., the old “Death or Chee Chee” joke shows up here in new form — but they're still centered around a character who is tormented, mysterious and mostly impossible to identify with.
This apparent flaw — taking the “comic” out of “comic book” — is, however, a necessary aspect of Nolan's great achievement in the development of the superhero genre. Regardless of whatever hints of interesting complexity can be found in the earliest DC comics, they had become, by the '50s and '60s, shallow, simplistic and silly. Only when the company's dominance was challenged by the once moribund Marvel chain's hipper, more relatable creations (most notably Spider-Man) did DC slowly make its superhero tales darker and more realistic in characterization.
But the '60s “Batman” TV series showed up before that change. It was not only silly, it was meta-silly: It made the characters exaggerated and goofy and then made fun of what it was doing. It was DC's overly formulaic template run through a post-Warhol lens. The show didn't deal with Batman the character so much as Batman the pop culture artifact: It was campy: the sets were deliberately tacky, the dialogue a stilted distillation of comic book lingo. Every line was delivered with an exclamation point at the end. Fight scenes were punctuated by sound effects rendered as pop art graphics — huge cartoon panels that read POW!, BOFF!, and BLAM! Any current residual affection for the show is overwhelmingly based on nostalgia.
Superhero comics were a sort of “B” culture, a guilty sub-respectable pleasure, despite their broad popularity. Their occasional expansions into other forms of media were juvenile radio and TV shows, cheap Saturday afternoon serials, and quickly tossed together “B” movies. And then the first of the Christopher Reeve quartet of Superman movies (1978) came along — an expensive, hugely successful, quality production. That changed everything.
When the Superman franchise petered out, Warner (owner of DC Comics) moved on to Batman. Tim Burton directed the first two — “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992) — and managed to combine the old-school silliness with the newer seriousness, all in his phantasmagorial visual style. But when he and Michael Keaton jumped ship, Joel Schumacher took over, emphasized the silliness, and ran the series into the ground by 1997.
Warner knew the franchise was still valuable but didn't know how to revive it. They took the sort of chance almost unheard of in Hollywood, entrusting the property to Nolan, a director best known for an indie film (2000's “Memento”) whose story nobody had quite figured out, even after five years.
As everybody now knows, the risk paid off handsomely in both money and critical respect. Nolan's take on the material was very smart, no matter how obvious it seems now. He rebooted the series, removing any vestiges of campiness or surreal production design or strangely unpatched plot holes. (Burton has many great talents, but a strong sense of narrative coherence isn't among them.) It was quite simple: Nolan approached the character with respect. That's all.
He recognized that Batman is unique among major comic book superheroes in that he is just … this guy, ya know? He's not from another planet, he didn't gain bizarre powers in a lab accident, none of that stuff. He's a highly, if dubiously, motivated human who takes on a bizarre public persona for the express purpose of freaking people out. So unlike other DC heroes, his very existence doesn't place us in a fantasy universe.
Nolan put Batman in as real a world as can accommodate a nocturnal crime fighter in tights, cape and cowl. He made a serious film and a serious sequel, with elements of a real-life character — the fascinating, enigmatic and just plain weird Howard Hughes — lurking in the background. Now they've come out in the open.
When he signed on for the first movie, Nolan had spent a year working on a screenplay about Hughes, only to have it made unproduceable because of Martin Scorsese's “The Aviator.” That abortive script was in his mind as he prepared “Batman Begins.”
In an interview shortly before that film's release, Nolan told me, “Hughes was somebody who could do anything. He had essentially limitless finances. His parents both died when he was young, and he was left with the keys to the kingdom, not unlike Bruce Wayne. That's a fascinating situation for somebody to be in — to have all kinds of potential, all kinds of power, but have these inner demons that push him one way or another. Where those things lead is pretty fascinating in both stories.”
And where they lead is what we are shown in this likewise serious final entry in Nolan's trilogy. It's still fun to pick at the movie's few nits and tiny missteps: In Gotham, apparently, when the media report that the richest man in town has lost his fortune, the electric company shuts off the power the next day. And the film should end about 15 seconds earlier, on a medium close up of Alfred's face, to leave a touch of ambiguity. It's as though, in “Inception,” Nolan had held on the final shot until we conclusively knew whether the totem tipped over or not.
Like I say: nits and tiny missteps. As a whole, “The Dark Knight Rises” takes the promise of the first film's approach and follows it to its natural conclusion.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun