It would take a gargantuan movie to measure up to the breathless anticipation inspired by The Dark Knight Rises, and director Christopher Nolan clearly knows it. The third and final installment in his Batman trilogy kicks off at a fever pitch and rarely slows down; running just shy of three hours, it’s no less a hyperactive assault than a Michael Bay extravaganza, except that some of the pummeling is done with Big Ideas in addition to contraptions and explosions. Somewhere along the line, Nolan seems to have developed a taste for this sort of breathless showmanship—which is a shame, because his talents lie elsewhere. Unlike Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which balanced clumsy action set pieces with sharp character work and a single thought-provoking principle explored in detail, Rises just keeps piling on more and more and more, until it finally resolves into a ponderous, incoherent mega-spectacle.
I’d like to provide a quick summary of what the film is about, but merely scratching the surface of its complicated (as opposed to complex) story would take up more space than I’ve been allotted. Eight years have passed since The Dark Knight, spent by Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in hermit-like seclusion; Batman effectively no longer exists. But the emergence of a new supervillain, the steroidal, mouth-masked Bane (Tom Hardy), inspires Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a painfully earnest cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to call for Batman’s return. Also in the mix is cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who’s never actually called Catwoman here, and a Wayne Enterprises board member (Marion Cotillard) whose clean-energy project provides Bane with the makings of a nuclear weapon with which to hold Gotham hostage. Do I have room to get into the part where billionaire Wayne becomes a pauper overnight? No, clearly not.
This last development fits into the Nolans’ (Christopher’s brother Jonathan co-wrote the script) ostensible project here, which is to situate Batman within the economic crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But the clutter of signifiers becomes overwhelming, and Bane, unlike the Joker, doesn’t seem to have his heart in his role as oppositional symbol. (Nor can Hardy, often barely audible behind his mask, match Heath Ledger’s slyly outré performance.) In any case, The Dark Knight Rises gives you too much to think about in a context where there’s never any time to think. It’s an exhausting experience, and by the end I felt sadly nostalgic for Selina Kyle’s introductory scene—the only instance of wit and playfulness in a movie that otherwise feels as rigid as the lines in a furrowed brow. Hopefully, Nolan now has this out of his system, and further masterpieces of elegant economy like Memento and The Prestige await.