Valedictory from the very start, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is somehow both the saddest and the most cartoonish entry in the director's Batman trilogy — sad in a strange way, and cartoonish in a good way. In Batman Begins, the director confounded those anticipating a standard-issue superhero origin story; instead, he gave us an oddly realistic tale of a broken millionaire utilizing his family company's secret state-of-the-art military prototypes to turn himself into a lone crusader for justice. In The Dark Knight, Nolan took what could have been regurgitated tropes and produced a crime epic that was somehow simultaneously Dickensian and internalized — creating a nocturnal world of villains and allies who seemed at times like phantoms conjured by the character's own mind.
Dickens — specifically in the form of A Tale of Two Cities, his novel about the French Revolution — makes a more overt appearance in The Dark Knight Rises. But this time out, Nolan adopts the textures of the comic-book genre in a way he refused to before. We can see it in the magnificent opening setpiece, in which the mysterious vigilante Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked, bald muscleman with a chip on his shoulder and a voice I can only describe as "Robot Sean Connery," takes over a rapidly disintegrating CIA plane in midair. Shot in IMAX, the scene has majesty and derring-do, not to mention the kind of exclamatory dialogue that would have seemed out of place in the earlier films. "What happens if I tear off that mask," someone asks Bane at one point. "That would be very painful," he replies, adding, "For you!"
Meanwhile, in Gotham, Bruce Wayne — aka Batman, aka Christian Bale — is hounded by a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, aka Anne Hathaway) who relishes their noirish back-and-forth. She offers him a post-robbery kiss-off as she crouches in a window sill, her impossibly long legs gathered under her, before seductively, athletically slinking off backwards into the night — not the kind of foreplay The Dark Knight or Batman Begins would have easily indulged in.
There's a tonal balancing act going on here that Nolan has never really tried before. Even as The Dark Knight Rises finally embraces the superhero genre, the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne has never been as vulnerable in the earlier films as he is here. Our hero walks with a cane when we first see him, his body broken from too many years of crashing into walls and leaping on cars. Quietly moping beneath Wagnerian underground waterfalls, he has become one of Nolan's compulsive melancholics. When his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) admonishes him for not being able to move on from the death of Rachel Dawes (The Dark Knight's Maggie Gyllenhaal, here glimpsed in a photo), you might be tempted to color in Bruce's psychological details with those of Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb from Nolan's Inception.
Throughout, there are hints that the only thing this wounded Bruce/Batman has left to give is his life. There's even a potential replacement in an idealistic young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has the same sense of justice and duty Bruce did as a younger man. All these hints and premonitions create a valid sense of urgency for the movie. It's the rare superhero story where you actively fear for the superhero's life.
The Dark Knight Rises takes these pop archetypes and keeps building, as Nolan plays these ostensibly basic characters off one another with delirious, almost godlike fervor. Bruce Wayne might seem like your typical romantically reluctant hero, but you start to sense a real death wish in his eyes. Catwoman may be a boy's fantasy in high heels and tight leather, but her desperation is palpable. (She also has feminine wiles Nolan only hints at. At one point, she seduces a congressman, and the next time we see the guy, he's a lust-stricken zombie. What did she do to him, and can we watch next time?)
As for Bane, he may be a cartoon villain, but Nolan and Hardy make him a haunting, perversely heroic one by the time it's all over. It's remarkable what the actor can do with just his eyes and sheer physicality, but it's also remarkable what his director can do with cinematic shorthand. Many of Nolan's films contain a healthy fascination with myths and half-dreamt glimpses of far-off lands; here he utilizes them to give unexpected shading to a character who could have remained dutifully, satisfyingly shallow.
That care doesn't always extend to the plot, however, which doesn't quite make sense. Before getting down to business — nuclear destruction — Bane wants Gotham to suffer, so he blows up half the city and unleashes a right-wing nightmare of the poor dragging rich people out of their beds and setting up hasty, unfair tribunals, à la the French Revolution. (That said, those itching to find political allegory here should remember that Bane is an angel of destruction hell-bent on wiping Gotham off the map, not a true believer with wild visions of revolution.) The more problematic aspect of this section is that raising the stakes so much also brings in additional, annoying plot complications. Somehow, shots of the president and the U.S. Air Force trying to deal with the takeover of a major American city seem dully literal in this context — a buzzkill in the otherwise hermetically sealed atmosphere of a Christopher Nolan film.
Things get further rushed here: We see glimpses of awful things happening, without really knowing who's responsible. Nolan doesn't want to condemn the people of Gotham too much, and as a result the film doesn't really work as a portrait of social decay. (Then again, neither did A Tale of Two Cities.) The director seems less interested in presenting a potential American dystopia than in creating a kind of mannered, hysterical melodrama. He makes sure to shoot Bane's kangaroo courts in IMAX, indulging in the grandiosity of both the spaces and the heightened emotions. (He even throws in a funny cameo here, for good measure.)
The messiness of these later parts, plus scenes of rival armies facing off in hand-to-hand combat amid the smoking ruins of a once-great metropolis, somewhat recalls Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which also showed the strain of its ever-expanding canvas. That film too was a gloriously expansive cartoon, an attempt to use simple, even simplistic characters and situations to forge a big, bold vision of a nation being born.
But that nation wasn't a real country; Gangs was a retroactive creation myth for the "America" of Sergio Leone Westerns and Bob Kane comic books. In that sense, Nolan's sprawling bleak fantasy isn't just a final curtain, but also a kind of homecoming. Ambitious, riveting and silly in equal measure, The Dark Knight Rises is a resolutely "shallow" epic — problematic, perhaps, but also a work of unforgettable, compulsive beauty.