Silver Screen: The Dark Knight Rises ***
You can't blame Christopher Nolan for his ambition in The Dark Knight Rises. The recent Amazing Spider-Man made all the safe moves to cruise to broad appeal and big money, but the movie was frustratingly familiar and utterly forgettable. Nolan is attempting to make something more substantial and distinctive with his Batman trilogy. That's laudable, but grand intentions don't necessarily yield ideal results, and in this case the movie seems to choke on its own expectations of profundity.
At two hours and forty-five minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is a slog through stilted lectures and overabundant subplots that reward the viewer's patience with moments of thrilling action and spectacle on a massive scale. But Nolan stingily dispenses these handsomely rendered moments of adrenalized glory as though reluctantly satisfying us so he can return to the higher calling of philosophizing with funnybook characters in a summer blockbuster.
The film opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Batman (Christian Bale), scorned by a public he deceived into thinking him a villain, has retired. Batman's scheme has made Harvey Dent, idealist turned madman, into an icon worthy of his own municipal holiday. With the help of a Dent-inspired city, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has succeeded in making the streets safe, which has led to a business boom. Think Rudy Giuliani’s cleaned-up New York made into an ideal spawning ground for the one-percent.
If that sounds shrill and politicized, well, it'll fit in perfectly with the movie's dialogue. Even the characters' small talk consists of barbs about Gotham City's complacent elite. It's the favored topic of catburglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who grumbles like an MSNBC pundit while she filches valuables from the wealthy. An encounter with her inspires the reclusive Bruce Wayne to return to his vigilante detective work and even ponder coming out of Bat-retirement, much to the chagrin of his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine).
Wayne does strap on his hilariously bulky and impractical-looking suit to go after a masked terrorist leader known only as Bane (Tom Hardy). This musclebound bruiser spouts off about class warfare as he leads his group of Morlock underclass out of their crime lair in the sewers and onto the streets to hatch an elaborate plan. What Bane's army of disenfranchised don't know is that the inevitable conclusion of his plan is the complete eradication of Gotham City.
Meanwhile, a string of subplots twist (and occasionally tangle) around the already-fragmented central plot, some more relevant than others. A fellow wealthy industrialist (Marion Cotillard) presses Bruce to return to their work funding a clean-energy fusion project overseen by gadget master Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). An idealistic cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) inspired by Batman, tries to uncover the hero's secret identity and compel him to return, even as a lazy, self-interested police honcho (Matthew Modine) filling in for Gordon tries to make his bones by bringing Batman down.
There's a lot going on here-- far too much. Nolan and his cowriter, brother Jonathan, have always been fond of elaborate, intricate plotting, and they do weave many of these seemingly disparate elements together. But while the script coheres, it's riddled with redundancies and scenes that stretch on far too long. Nolan tries to jazz up protracted scenes of overelaborate exposition with a frantic, ominous score, but it's a cheap trick that doesn't cover up how so much of the movie is all setup and no punchline.
Both of Nolan’s earlier Batman films were heavy on characters speechifying about the importance of symbology, and that continues unabated even as he attempts to add layers of political commentary. But Nolan doesn't seem to realize that the point of subtext is that it's implied. Instead he saddles his actors with lines that sound like they were copy/pasted from an undergraduate philosophy paper. Watching the characters state and restate the themes and ideas is even more aggrieving when the political allegory itself is so awkward. The upper class are responsible for Gotham's downfall, yet the lower class are represented as barely able to contain themselves from looting and raiding; the primary representatives for the populist opposition are a thief and a deceptive propagandist; and the only person who can save the city is a well-bred, expensively trained rich guy.
To recap: Batman is trying to make himself a symbol at the same time that Nolan is trying to make himself a symbol. He's not so much a character as an overlapping set of representations and ideologies; by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he's even less relatable as a human being than he was in the last film. Nolan moves his characters around the board like chess pieces but as such requires that they stand stiffly in place.
And there's certainly little danger of fun leaking into this film. The black humor in Heath Ledger's performance that livened up the last film is gone, replaced by stump speeches from a villain the Joker would be forced to ask, “Why so serious?” Hathaway's slinky, sexy turn as the sharp-tongued thief is the only bit of levity in an otherwise morose movie. I'm still yet to be convinced there's any point in watching a superhero movie that isn't supposed to be fun.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.