Indeed, the Dark Knight rises from the physical and psychological traumas of his classic confrontation with the Joker. Yet the movie devised by director and co-writer Christopher Nolan to wrap up his Batman trilogy mostly hovers, a slave to past glories impossible to retrieve and spotty attempts at creating new ones.
Under other circumstances — for instance, if there were no previous Batman flicks — The Dark Knight Rises might be hailed as a landmark in adapting comic books to the screen. Comparisons to Nolan's first two chapters are inevitable and usually in the past's favor. His ambition to reinvent Batman movie mythology catches up to the filmmaker, resulting in adventure without as much sheer fun as we'd prefer and plotting that requires a lot of talky exposition.
Eight years have passed on screen since The Dark Knight, and four in reality since the late Heath Ledger's frightening, Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker. Out of respect for Ledger, Nolan forbids any references to the role although several dead characters from previous chapters are recalled in photos, flashbacks and hallucinations.
The Joker is a grease-painted elephant in the room nobody acknowledges, the fulcrum of the franchise that can't be replaced. Through tragic fate, Nolan's trilogy is shown to have peaked in the middle, when even the best series are typically treading water.
Now, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a recluse at his stately manor, retired from action, hobbled by injuries and not needed or welcomed by Gotham City's citizens. It's necessary to remember that at the end of The Dark Knight Batman shouldered blame for the evils of deceased district attorney Harvey "Two-Face" Dent. That made Batman a wanted criminal and gave Gotham City a crime-fighting martyr in Dent.
The ensuing lawfulness won't last long. Not with the hulking Bane (Tom Hardy) assembling a terrorist army in Gotham's sewers, planning to destroy the city in order to save it from corporate greed and government corruption. He's a nightmarish allegory of both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, convinced that chaos is a solution. Bane is also occasionally unintelligible, his threats and polemics muffled by a life-preserving tubular mask.
Both Bruce and Bane are dreary sorts, so the presence of Anne Hathaway as cat burglar (but never called Catwoman) Selina Kyle pops off the screen. In a gritted-teeth movie, Hathaway is a refreshing tongue tucked into its cheek — sexy and resourceful, dodging the feline puns and cliches of the role as previously played.
And what of Batman, you may ask? What, indeed. Bruce's retirement and later detour to the sort of foreign hellhole that dragged down Batman Begins keeps the Caped Crusader on the sidelines much of the time. Nolan is so intent on avoiding the genre's jokey bombast that The Dark Knight Rises skirts dullness, turning over much of the derring-do to Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cop with connections to Bruce, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Batman's weapons supplier. Cliches creep in: the countdown clock to beat, a late, left-field reversal of loyalties (i.e. more exposition) and a wee bit of a cop-out at the fadeout.
Nolan stages brawny action sequences — a topsy-turvy skyjacking, assaults upon Gotham's stock exchange and city hall, a fistfight here and there — but not enough to justify its epic running time. The Dark Knight Rises declares its importance with each scene but seldom backs up the claims. It is a climax more fitful than fulfilling, solemn to a fault and begging the Joker's question: "Why so serious?"
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 8893-8365.