Christopher Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy in typically spectacular, ambitious fashion with "The Dark Knight Rises," but the feeling of frustration and disappointment is unshakable.
Maybe that was inevitable. Maybe nothing could have met the expectations established by 2008's "The Dark Knight," which revolutionized and set the standard for films based on comic books by being both high-minded and crowd-pleasing. With Christian Bale as his tortured superhero starting from 2005's "Batman Begins," Nolan has explored the complicated and conflicting motivations of man as well as the possibility of greatness and redemption within society.
Here, as director and co-writer, he's unrelenting in hammering home the dread, the sorrow, the sense of detachment and futility of a city on the brink of collapse with no savior in sight.
There's so much going on here, though, with so many new characters who are all meant to function in significant ways that "The Dark Knight Rises" feels overloaded, and sadly lacking the spark that gave 2008's "The Dark Knight" such vibrancy. The absence of Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the anarchic and truly frightening Joker, is really obvious here. It makes you realize how crucial Ledger's performance was in making that Batman movie fly.
The Dark Knight Rises: The IMAX Experience
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
Length: 164 minutes
Released: July 20, 2012 Limited
Cast: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas
Writer: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Bob Kane
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
It's been four years since "The Dark Knight" came out but eight years have passed in terms of story. Bale's Bruce Wayne suffers in self-imposed exile, sulking about Wayne Manor, mourning the loss of his darling Rachel and carrying the burden of blame for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent. His goal of a peaceful Gotham has been achieved, but he's left as a man without a purpose. Michael Caine, as the ever-loyal valet Alfred, brings dignity and eloquence to the film as he begs Bruce to carve out his own form of happiness. Fellow veterans Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as gadget guru Lucius Fox are their usual dignified selves, but they don't register the way they should because the film is so overstuffed.
Several new characters manage to draw Bruce out of his funk in various ways. Anne Hathaway brings some much needed zest to the proceedings as Selina Kyle, a slinky thief who punctures Bruce's bubble when she lifts his fingerprints from his safe, along with a beloved pearl necklace. She's selfish and cynical, only looking out for herself, but at least she goes about her crimes with some verve and style.
The other woman in Bruce's life, however, is woefully underdeveloped — which is a real problem because she plays a key role in the film's climactic revelations. Marion Cotillard co-stars as Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist who hopes to work with Wayne Enterprises on developing clean, sustainable energy.
Then there's Bane, a muscular mass of pure evil who orchestrates an elaborate takeover of Gotham City. The role is a huge waste of what Tom Hardy can do; his character is so one- dimensional and poorly defined, he is never so much a fearsome figure.
But he is the instigator of the film's dazzling opening sequence: a daring aerial maneuver in which Bane kidnaps a scientist by hijacking his plane from the skies above. That's probably the most effective of the many set pieces Nolan stages here, although the collapse of Heinz Field during a packed football game also has an urgent, visceral quality, with thrills that recall the most imaginative moments of "Inception."
This is the problem when you're an exceptional, visionary filmmaker. When you give people something extraordinary, they expect it every time. Anything short of that feels like a letdown.