Something quietly hellish is going on up in the sky: Aboard a plane manned by terrorists holding a hostage, the tables are being turned on the terrorists by an even more sinister organization. Its leader wears a medical device over his mouth that makes him sound like a sadistic godhead. Which he is, transfusing blood from the hostage to the terrorist leader, summoning another plane seemingly out of thin air to dismantle the one he’s on (in one of the most astounding aerial action sequences ever, and it’s not CGI), and telling a fanatical gang member that he must go down with the plane—to which the henchman radiantly complies. This is the handiwork of Bane (Tom Hardy), a villain to rival Heath Ledger’s Joker in devious, psychopathic destruction, unleashed in full awareness that it will be opposed by Batman (Christian Bale). And that’s the sensational opening to The Dark Knight Rises, a worthy conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s three-part Gotham opus of crime and punishment.
So where were we? Bruce Wayne (Bale), having sacrificed Batman to the need of Gotham for a law-enforcement hero—namely, Harvey Dent (who died in The Dark Knight)—is now a recluse, nursing a limp and the memory of his murdered love. Crime is down, but only police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows that the city’s safety has been brokered by a lie. A young policeman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) suspects that something is amiss, and the Wayne mansion is burgled by a lissome, supremely talented thief, Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but no one is expecting that Gotham will soon be brought to its knees by a mastermind criminal with a terrifying past.
And for the first half of this slightly overlong conclusion, Bane is terrifying. The combination of his massive physique (bloated by steroids and who know what else), his artificial yet mesmerizing voice, and his hypnotic psychological manipulations seems not just unconquerable, but irresistible. Batman must come back, but first, he wants to see his fusion-energy invention in the right hands, and so he brings in Miranda (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist who can protect it from being converted to a nuclear weapon. A member of the same tribe if not the same country, Miranda seems a good candidate to bring Bruce to his senses. Or so loyal Alfred (Michael Caine) hopes, as he does what he can to prevent Bruce from donning the bat cape.
But don it he must, as the police force capitulates to Bane’s demands. From its sizzling, exciting set-up, The Dark Knight Rises also capitulates to a few demands: those of fans (and probably studio execs) who want it to play into the previous two (extremely lucrative) installments, hindering the story’s momentum. Major characters, especially Alfred, get showy scenes, while other characters turn up unexpectedly but not out of necessity. Some of the action scenes seem hastily, even perfunctorily, put together. Rises is not on the same seamless and dramatically thrilling level as Batman Begins (and Bale plays the Bat a bit too downcast).
And yet there is much to be captivated by: More often then not, the action is dazzling, with surprising junctures and dazzling photography, especially of the city, and Batman in motion within it. Hathaway plays the first love object worthy of Wayne in the trilogy: She’s flirty and flinty, callous and compassionate, and she delivers her one-liners with aplomb. The script, by Nolan’s screenwriting partner, his brother Jonathan, a notoriously twisty and tricky writer (Memento, Inception), reveals narrative loop-de-loops that give the requisite jolts. And though Bane becomes slightly less intimidating toward the end (in contrast to how Ledger’s Joker become more so), he still ranks with the most memorable villains in the DC Comics canon. Most satisfying of all is how Batman goes gently into that good night, made good by his own indomitable belief. They won’t be making ’em like this anymore.