Eight years after the camp frippery of “Batman & Robin” (1997), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy played dress-up while George Clooney let his nipply bat-suit do most of the acting, director and co-writer Christopher Nolan brought to the screen the origin story of Bruce Wayne and his tortured, emotionally isolated crime-fighting alter ego. Stately and just serious enough, “Batman Begins” was trumped by Nolan’s own 2008 sequel, “The Dark Knight,” which channeled a planet’s worth of post-9/11 panic and pitted Christian Bale’s masked vigilante against Heath Ledger’s unforgettable merry psycho.
Despite a cool billion at the worldwide box office, that film, like any studio machine worth its salt, was not for everyone. The atmosphere of grim, free-floating dread, along with Nolan’s grandiosity and his occasionally flat-footed way with a complicated action sequence, tipped the experience into “not much fun” for some. Not for me. For me, “The Dark Knight” was a memorable death cackle and a striking vision of Gotham City, that familiar dream metropolis on which all our worst fears as law-abiding citizens are continually enacted, on the brink of annihilating chaos. It felt right — exploitive but shrewdly so — for the unraveling times.
Now comes “The Dark Knight Rises,” which makes “The Dark Knight” look like “Dora the Explorer” and is more of a 164-minute anxiety disorder than a movie.
Nolan’s third in the planned trilogy will likely satisfy many who fell headlong into the previous two. The new film works on your nervous system the way composer Hans Zimmer’s kettle drums of doom keeps tightening the screws, long after the screws are tight. There are many things to admire in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and Nolan’s bombast is a far, far higher grade than you’d find in a “Transformers” movie. But nothing in the new film, which turns Gotham over to the masked terrorist Bane, played by an occasionally intelligible Tom Hardy, meets or exceeds the crises of “The Dark Knight,” especially that picture’s ferry-boat sequence, where Gotham’s residents found themselves in a no-win situation and somehow won anyway.
Nolan’s notion of amping up the evildoing in “The Dark Knight Rises” is to simply layer the slaughter in higher and higher piles, though with a refreshing lack of computer-generated imagery. There’s plenty of that too, once bridges start blowing up and Gotham’s 3,000 police officers (a figure apparently referencing the 9/11 victims) are trapped underground while Bane goes crazy above ground. But at least Nolan shoots on film, and didn’t release “The Dark Knight Rises” in 3-D. Who needs an anxiety disorder on an IMAX screen and in 3-D?
The film picks up eight years after Wayne, taking the rap for the murder of district attorney Harvey Dent, has slunk into exile, with only Michael Caine’s Alfred around for company. Gotham has won the war on organized crime, smeary-clown-makeup division. But a nerve-racking alum of the League of Shadows has taken the Joker’s place, and this barely human bull, Bane, a survivor of the worst underground prison around, plans to loose all of Gotham’s worst criminals and turn the city into a perpetual melee of anarchy.
The script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan stirs in the cat burglar known as The Cat (Anne Hathaway), as well as a philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) with an interest in Wayne’s cold-fusion energy research. The film’s great whatzit is a nuke with a six-mile blast radius, and the film’s final hour hinges on the imminent possible elimination of 12 million souls. The film in its entirety works as a granite-fisted one-two punch: First we hear how awful things are going to get, and then they get that awful, or worse. And then a little worse than that.
This is how most lucrative franchises proceed. The final “Harry Potter” film, following its source material, spun an ashen and destructive tale of survival amid carnage beyond previously known limits. “The Dark Knight Rises” features a full complement of cool toys, including a flying machine and (in one of the film’s few actual laughs) a hand-held accessory that Bale’s Wayne uses to shut down cameras wielded by an entire wolfpack of paparazzi. But grievous bodily harm dominates the landscape, and the way Nolan films two key hand-to-hand combat sequences between Bane and the Batman, the (literally) back-breaking nastiness is just sort of a drag.
In all sorts of stories, the tellers must answer the question: How much do we allow the evil to dominate, to set the tone, of whatever apocalyptic scenario is being unfurled for our amusement? Nolan, I think, fell a little too in love with Bane, even though he sidelines him for much of the movie. The scale of the destruction here is monumental; at one point, a pro football game turns into a deathtrap, the playing field falling away from the players, the result of a string of explosives. The worst comes just after we hear a sweet little preteen boy delivering the national anthem, when Nolan cuts the realistic sound altogether and shows us just how far Bane’s team (and the filmmakers themselves) will go to impress us. The effects are excellent. The effect is numbing.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is not dull, or even overlong, despite its running time. It’s more an example of what one character, in a cameo, refers to as “the decadence of Gotham” — Gotham in this case meaning Hollywood. Nolan amalgamates the second movie’s 9/11 breakdown vibe with rampant, murderous visions of class warfare and economic despair. (In one attack Bane and his minions open fire on the stock market, and use traders as disposable hostages.) What worked beautifully in “The Dark Knight” seems overworked and almost ridiculously grim in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Also, I doubt the IMAX Theatre on Navy Pier is presenting the film in premium conditions; quite apart from the sound-design controversy involving Hardy’s plummy vocal inflections getting lost in the digital mix as Bane, the acoustic balance between the dialogue and composer Zimmer’s shut-up-already musical score cannot possibly be what Nolan and his collaborators intended, at least as heard on Navy Pier.
Not that anyone’s actually listening. Like its predecessor, this one has only one thing on its mind. It means to string the audience along, while stringing it out, on a bloody masquerade performed by masked pretenders. In its chosen vision of the world, each hard-won triumph feels like a momentary reprieve from the next 9/11. Bruce Wayne’s millions come and go, but the bat suit is forever. That’s some comfort, anyway.