Movie review: ???The Dark Knight Rises???

The massive controversy boiling around the conclusion of director Christopher Nolan???s Batman trilogy has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather with a horrifying atrocity perpetrated at a theater showing the movie.  There???s nothing in The Dark Knight Rises that should inspire copycat shootings, or make theaters nervous about showing it.  Judging by what we???ve learned so far, the psychopath who killed and injured dozens of people at a theater in Colorado seemed more directly inspired by the Joker, who was the villain in the previous Batman film, and is never directly mentioned in this one.

With that out of the way, The Dark Knight Rises can be wholeheartedly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Batman Begins or The Dark Knight.  In fact, it can be recommended to anyone who enjoys great movies, for it can easily be counted among their number.

The Dark Knight Rises is not without its flaws.  It???s very long, clocking in at two hours and forty-five minutes.  It???s not bloated or indulgent, but it might have been a little tighter if a subplot or two were trimmed away.  It feels almost like one of the ???director???s cuts??? often released on DVD, with a half hour of extra material added.  But the extra material is all good, and none of it is without purpose.  This isn???t just a movie about Batman ??? it???s about the city he lives in, the power of mythology, the importance of faith, and the nature of civilization itself.  That???s a lot of ground to cover, when you???ve also got to allow some time for a guy dressed like a bat to have heart-pounding adventures alongside a girl wearing electronic goggles that look suspiciously like cat ears when she flips them up.

A few quibbles might also be made with the finale.  They???re impossible to discuss without spoiling the plot, but for what it???s worth, I think Nolan made the right calls, every step of the way.  You???re supposed to feel a little twinge of betrayal at the conclusion of a great magic trick, and Nolan is a keen student of magic.

There???s one rather amazing continuity gap, a very sudden transition between day and night, that???s so blatant it almost feels like the director included it as some sort of inside joke.  Maybe he just wanted to prove that audience could be so caught up in a high-speed chase that they wouldn???t notice the clock appears to have skipped forward about eight hours in a matter of seconds.

But these are minor issues with a phenomenal movie.  I???ll put my cards right on the table: with all due allowance for variations in personal taste, most of the critics panning this movie are leftists who can???t digest its ideological content.  Their politics prevent them from properly appreciating The Dark Knight Rises, so they invent little complaints to justify giving it a ???solid B-plus??? grade, or worse.  Take the liberal blinders off, and this is an ???A-plus??? film all the way.

The politics of envy, and the collectivist hunger for power, take a vicious beating in The Dark Knight Rises, as they are exposed for sucker plays and broken promises.  Bane???s promise that the little people of Gotham will be able to throw the high-and-mighty into the streets, celebrating as their parlors are looted of valuables, ends with the ???little people??? stealing food from each other while a fascist army marches through the streets.  And yes, that looks quite a bit like Occupy Wall Street getting pounded to a pulp by the Dark Knight.

But Nolan did not set out to create a one-sided political polemic.  There is also talk of the responsibility powerful people should feel toward their communities, and high praise for acts of voluntary charity.  Complacency by the upper crust of Gotham City leads to their downfall.  The notion of telling the people a lie for their own good, introduced at the end of The Dark Knight, is further explored, with tragic consequences.  Dishonesty and faithlessness are portrayed as deadly sins among the rich and poor alike.  ???Renewable energy??? is endorsed, although it is noted that Bruce Wayne blew a fortune pursuing it??? and his idea of ???renewable energy??? is a nuclear reactor.

A strong case is even made, by loyal but heartbroken Alfred the butler, that Bruce Wayne never should have donned his black armor and done battle with the forces of the underworld.  This is a film about moral and physical challenges, not a didactic sermon.

In movie time, it???s been eight years since the tragic finale of The Dark Knight, in which Batman was blamed for the crimes of crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, so that Dent could be presented to the people of Gotham as a mythic hero.  In Dent???s name, crime was aggressively cleansed from the streets, and the notorious corruption of Gotham City???s police and politics was purged.  Bruce Wayne retired from both his day job and nocturnal activities, becoming a recluse as he nursed the terrible injuries he suffered in the battle against crime.  But an encounter with a female cat burglar, who no one ever gets around to naming ???Catwoman,??? brings Batman back into action??? just in time to face Bane, a terrorist mastermind of terrifying physical power, malevolence, and determination.

What ensues is a battle for the body and soul of both Bruce Wayne and the city he defends.  Everyone, and everything, is broken by the time this apocalyptic struggle is complete.  The Dark Knight Rises fits perfectly as the conclusion of a trilogy ??? there are particularly heavy references to Batman Begins, so if you haven???t seen it in a while, it???s helpful (but not mandatory) to watch it again before seeing the new film.

The cast is terrific, with Christian Bale better than ever.  Anne Hathaway makes a great Selina Kyle, a character that works surprisingly well with Christopher Nolan???s ???realistic??? approach.  And Tom Hardy is a formidable presence as Bane, accomplishing a great deal with his eyes and body language, as his mask covers most of his face.  Happily, his dialogue is perfectly understandable, and frequently quite chilling.

The visual effects benefit greatly from Nolan???s desire to use practical props and stunts, instead of computer graphics.  Batman???s high-tech flying machine is a particularly awesome spectacle.  It helps a lot that Gotham City, and everything in it, look real.  In a clever touch, Gotham City appears to have mutated again ??? it was heavily patterned after Chicago in The Dark Knight, but now it looks more like New York.  That???s because Wall Street is important to the plot, but it???s also a nice touch that Gotham City is basically standing in for every city.  High praise is also merited for the soundtrack, which puts some incredibly ominous music behind pivotal scenes.

The Batman trilogy is a long, sometimes gloomy, exploration of hope and fear.  The concluding act brings those themes together brilliantly, showing that both are incredibly powerful, and both can be perverted in the wrong hands.  Bane has learned the Devil???s lesson: despair can???t exist without hope, any more than shadows can exist without a glimmer of light.  He manipulates an entire city by turning its hopes against it, and goes to great lengths to prove that people are willing to enslave themselves, in pursuit of the smallest chance to avoid destruction.

But Batman???s wisdom, won across three increasingly brutal cinematic adventures, is deeper.  He received his first lesson from his father, on the day he fell into a pit and found himself surrounded by shrieking bats.  He has to visit Hell, fairly literally, for his final education.  The Dark Knight concluded with a dreadful choice between ???the hero Gotham City wants, and the hero it needs.???  The final chapter in the Batman trilogy is about Bruce Wayne realizing that was a false choice.  He learns that hope is not something good people should wait submissively to receive; that anarchy is the prelude to domination, rather than freedom; that faith demands we hold nothing back; and that fear is a source of strength, because only a hollow man can live without it.  That is how the Dark Knight rises, at terrible cost, from heroism into legend.