Four years ago, with “The Dark Knight,” director Christopher Nolan produced the greatest comic-book superhero movie ever made. He set the bar so high that it would now be a miracle if he leapt over it. And the first thing to say about “The Dark Knight Rises” is that it’s not as audacious or visionary as “The Dark Knight” was. Yet it’s still a film of ominous grandeur, told with an operatic force that sucks you in and won't let go. The movie is two hours and 45 minutes long and beyond its running time, it is, in every way, an epic experience.
The film opens with Batman holed up in the shadows, depressed and out of commission as he takes the rap for Harvey Dent’s murder. He’s gradually coaxed back into action, first by the appearance of a cat burglar played with superbly threatening narcissism by Anne Hathaway, then by a supervillain named Bane, a hulk in a mechanical face mask who’s like Darth Vader crossed with the Lord Humongous. Tom Hardy, acting from beneath that mask, gives ferociously witty sadistic-sociopath line readings, even if he never has the chance to match the mad-dog spontaneous brilliance of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Bane’s big plan is to sow the seeds of chaos in Gotham by setting off a nuclear bomb. Frankly, we’ve seen that plan before. Yet if “The Dark Knight Rises” has an element of the conventional, what’s remarkable is how grippingly sinister it becomes.
The first “Dark Knight” was the Hollywood movie that, in its pop comic-book way, expressed the turbulent terror of the post-9/11 world. “The Dark Knight Rises” taps the stressed-out desperation of our time not so much with its references to Wall Street but in the way that Christian Bale’s Batman keeps getting knocked down further and further until he has to crawl out of a pit of hell to become a hero again.
What’s topical about “The Dark Knight Rises” is its mood of cathartic anxiety. The film may be a fantasy but it feels as up-to-the-minute as the current presidential campaign. And by the time that’s over, we may all be wishing for Batman.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is in theaters now.