You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, there's a comic-book movie for you. The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy of Batman movies so distinctively rebooted, reimagined, and reinvigorated over the past seven years by director Christopher Nolan at the helm and actor Christian Bale in the Batsuit. And the highly anticipated project arrives with outsize political and cultural ambitions. Theme-wise, Nolan tackles nothing less than societal upheaval, urban unrest, class warfare, personal sacrifice, and spiritual salvation, with some nuclear brinkmanship thrown in for timeliness. That's epic stuff, as grounded in serious social commentary as the literature of Charles Dickens that the director and his coscreenwriter brother, Jonathan Nolan, have cited as inspiration. This is a Batman narrative for a post-9/11 age of anxiety, morally split between the best of times and the worst of times.
Superhero-wise, though, The Dark Knight Rises is still essentially a fanciful corker about an unlikely billionaire named Bruce Wayne who lives in mournful bachelorhood with his butler Alfred (faithfully played by Michael Caine) and who, when fighting crime, zips around town in a cape and a black rubbery cowl. And as a result of the precarious layering of big philosophical notions (can the System be fixed?) over pointy little bat ears, Nolan's meticulously made, grand-scale tale caroms between a self-serious meditation on How We Live Now and an oof! pow! extended fistfight between a good guy and a bad guy, amped up by the insistent percussion of Hans Zimmer's relentless score.
The movie is built for greatness, not to mention a biggest-stakes-yet conclusion scaled to please fans who thought The Dark Knight was snubbed snubbed during the 2008 awards season. But this time the chief villain is a thuggish baldy named Bane (Tom Hardy) whose charisma pales in comparison with that of Heath Ledger's Joker the super-est supernemesis in recent comic-book-movie history. Bane is distinguished mostly by his baroque helmet, with a clawlike mouthguard that is a kid's worst nightmare of orthodontic headgear. As the story begins, Bane (for that's what he is to everyone's existence) arrives in Gotham City, a metropolis now outwardly lawful-and-orderly but inwardly rotten: Since district attorney Harvey Dent was supposedly martyred in The Dark Knight, crime is under control, but societal malaise is rampant. (Behold the wardrobe differences between the rich and the tattered revolutionaries! To arms!)
Bane plans to upend class inequality with a grandiose, scorched-earth plan for destabilization because well, because he's mad as hell, for reasons having to do with a really lousy childhood. But when not blowing up bridges and sports stadiums, this warped baddie specializes in dull, brutish, sustained hand-to-hand violence, much of it directed at Batman. Tom Hardy is a fascinating actor and an alumnus of Nolan's twisty Inception but he's virtually unrecognizable here. At times he's also unintelligible under his mouth muffler, with its resulting Darth Vaderish acoustics. When the fellow declaims his fortune-cookie philosophy ''There can be no true despair without hope!'' a cringing citizenry ought to respond, ''What'd he say?!?''
Amid the political positioning, meanwhile, comic-book conventions still pertain. Inconsequential female treachery is represented by cat burglar Selina Kyle, a slinky vamp played by Anne Hathaway with a surfeit of wide-eyed Liza Minnelli poses and red-lipped moues. Marion Cotillard provides additional feminine mutability as rich philanthropist Miranda Tate. (There are apparently two women in all of Gotham City.) On the side of good, Morgan Freeman returns as Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox, calm and handy with software programs. And police commissioner Gordon, once again embodied with subtlety and soul by Gary Oldman, proves to be a sensitive Charles Dickens lover himself.
Chaos reigns for much of The Dark Knight Rises, often in big, beautiful, IMAX-size scenes that only Nolan could have conceived. Yet when the apocalyptic dust literally settles on this concluding chapter, the character who lingers longest in memory is an average Gotham City cop named John Blake, wonderfully played with human-scale clarity by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It is, Nolan counsels, a far, far harder thing to do ordinary good than to steer a Batmobile. B