Groping for shape and substance in the long shadow of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is an unexpected disappointment. Nolan, a director of rare intelligence and logistical skill who's completely at home in the blockbuster idiom, stages some exciting scenes here (especially an earth-ripping attack on a packed football stadium); but most of the requisite battles and automotive chases feel recycled—we've seen them before, and better-organized, in TDK. It's a peculiarly dispiriting film.
Crucially, and predictably, TDKR offers nothing on the order of Heath Ledger's electrifying performance in the previous movie. Ledger's Joker was a singular creation by a gifted actor, and it powered that great picture past its occasional lapses. Here, the designated villain is Bane, a muscle-bound mountain of ambiguously motivated evil, played by another fine actor, Tom Hardy. Bane's most visible super-skill is underwhelming—he's a really good fist-fighter. And with his shaved head and his mask, he recalls not only the hulking Humungus of the 1981 Road Warrior, but any number of cheesy professional wrestlers. The mask itself is a serious problem. A techno-appliance said to infuse the character with a steady supply of pain-killing something-or-other, it covers the lower half of Hardy's face, robbing him of any possibility of facial expression and drowning his voice in a Vader-esque rumble that renders some of his line-readings incomprehensible. Even the Bane super-costume is wanting: in place of the Joker's rancid nattiness, we have here a big lug in a sheepskin jacket.
The story, approximately derived from the Batman comic sequence Knightfall, is an over-crowded jumble, set eight years after the events of the previous movie. Batman, in disgrace after taking the fall for the death of two-faced DA Harvey Dent, has disappeared from the scene; and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale again), the do-gooding billionaire beneath the bat-cowl, has become a recluse, hobbling around his mansion in a bathrobe and beard. (He's still in a deep mope over his long-dead love object, Rachel Dawes.) Although the movie opens with a spectacular mid-air plane hijacking that wouldn't be out of place in a latter-day Bond film, the introductory scenes that follow it are slow to coalesce.
The admirable Gary Oldman is back as Police Commissioner Gordon, but he spends a considerable part of the picture out of commission. Morgan Freeman once more lends his avuncular presence as Bruce Wayne's armorer, Lucius Fox, but to less intrinsic purpose. And while the reliably excellent Michael Caine, returning as Wayne's loyal Butler, Alfred, imparts a rich, sorrowful warmth to his character (and has one especially moving scene), before long you begin to wish he were doing so in a movie more worthy of it. It's good that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand, playing a police detective named Blake, who has a surprising connection to Bruce Wayne. He lends the picture some youthful spine, although he's overmatched by its enervating sprawl.
It's left to Anne Hathaway to give the brightest performance in a picture that's otherwise dark and glum throughout. She plays Selina Kyle, a slinky cat burglar, complete with catsuit and lethal high heels (she's never referred to as Catwoman, but we get the idea). Selina has connections of her own to some nasty thugs in the Bane orbit, but also a romantic thing for Bruce Wayne. Her conflicted nature enables some useful plot complications as the story progresses, and while she's around quite a bit—skillfully gunning a borrowed Bat-pod, kicking a lot of thug butt, getting off a few zingy lines—you kind of wish, whenever the movie slumps, that there were even more of her.
The film is thick with politics of an obliviously nonsensical sort. In an attempt to lend the tale contemporary resonance, the script (by director Nolan and his brother, Jonathan) positions Bane as a self-declared revolutionary, come to liberate Gotham from its oppression by the city's wealthy upper crust (the One Percent, if it need be said). But Bane is so clearly a vicious nihilist—he empties the municipal prison, arms the freed inmates, sets up kangaroo courts—that it's not at all clear why the inexplicably angry populace (they're living in a city scrubbed crime-free after the death of Harvey Dent—what is their problem?) would so ecstatically rally to him. Members of the real-world Occupy movement may bristle at being thus depicted, even at second hand, as witless sheep.
As Bane and his goons wreak mounting havoc on Gotham, we know that only one man can stop them. But where is Batman? Unfortunately, in a major miscalculation, the caped hero is nowhere in evidence for much of the middle section of the film—Bruce Wayne having been consigned by Bane to a faraway prison (in India, it looks like). In this gloomy hellhole, we witness a number of silly things. There's a medical miracle of breathtaking preposterousness, and a long, tedious series of escape attempts whose main effect is to help stretch the movie's bloated runtime to nearly three hours.
I don't think it spoils anything to reveal that Batman ultimately makes it back to Gotham, and that he and Bane have a really big fistfight. The picture ends in a very dark way—and yet, with a giggle-triggering reveal, it also clearly sets up a sequel. Since Nolan has firmly indicated that he won't be doing a fourth installment of this saga, you have to wonder what luckless director might be brought onboard to pick up the Bat shards he's left behind.