"The Dark Knight Rises" concludes the Batman trilogy that Christopher Nolan started seven years ago with "Batman Begins," an epic installment that builds on its past while providing a cracked lens view of the rising social inequality of the present. It's a testament to Nolan's team that he was able to pull off three superhero movies that are tightly integrated yet excellent films in their own right.
"Rises" takes place eight years after "The Dark Knight," with Gotham City in a state of peace under the Dent Act (named after district attorney turned psychopath Harvey Dent/Two-Face). Like the beginning of Frank Miller's seminal work, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman (Christian Bale) has retired from crime fighting after the death of those closest to him. Like the end of that same graphic novel, Gotham's peace is merely a patch over a festering corruption. On the anniversary of the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) plans to tell the world the truth: that Batman took the fall for murders committed by Dent and the Joker (nowhere to be seen). When his courage falters, Gordon's investigation into a congressional representative puts him squarely in the path of Bane (Tom Hardy), a guy so villainous he was thrown out of the League of Shadows.
I was unhappy with the changes to Bane, who was stripped of his ethnic heritage and his steroid-like Venom. But having seen the movie, I now understand — the plot requires Bane to be a white guy. He's been transformed into a sort of anti-Batman, second guessing everything Batman does. Less forgivable is his Sean Connery impersonation, a Scottish burr muffled behind a mask that makes Bane sound like a jovial Santa Claus. It's disorienting to say the least, and at times almost indecipherable, particularly in a THX theater where the soundtrack rattles your ribcage.
Meanwhile, Wayne Enterprises is in disarray. Having already lost control of the company because Bruce Wayne shelved his weapons division, business rival John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) strikes a fatal blow by bankrolling Bane's attack on the Gotham Stock Exchange. Like so many Americans who have lost their wealth, Wayne is now bankrupt as the rest of us.
After being badgered into returning to the outside world by father-figure Alfred (Michael Caine), Wayne is torn between two love interests: board member and global do-gooder Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, stilted) and jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathway, better than expected). They are both more than they appear, a duality that shadows every character except Alfred, which becomes an irreconcilable difference between he and Wayne.
Batman finally rouses to action to take on Bane, only to discover that his false reputation as a murder causes more harm than good, just like it did when the Joker framed Batman for his own murder in The Dark Knight Returns. When Bane's plan goes into full swing, the plot diverges into two storylines: the breaking of Batman's city (No Man's Land) and his body (Knightfall).
What ensues is an all out war that veers from the unbelievable to comic book levels of audaciousness. Nolan's grim and gritty take on the universe doesn't always make sense (3,000 cops for millions of citizens and enough food ferried in to feed them all?), but it makes up for it with spectacle and the chilling parallels to American society today.
That's what makes "The Dark Knight Rises" so good. A villain rises from the Lazarus Pit. The police rise from the ruins of Gotham. Batman rises from the wreckage of his ruined body. Wayne Enterprises rises from fiscal ruin. And, Nolan warns, if we don't do something about social inequality in America, the people will rise too.