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Batman returns to Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, but don't get too used to him. There are a lot of other moving pieces in this, the capper to Christopher Nolan's run of dark and enormous Batman films, and just as he was in The Dark Knight, Batman is probably not even the 8th most interesting character in his own movie-- at times he's outshone by characters not even listed in the credits. Nolan makes a lot of nods toward the emotional development of his hero, but never quite connects with him, and doesn't do much better with the motives of the film's villains, represented largely by the hulking Bane (Tom Hardy) but, of course, a little more complicated than that.
There are action scenes set at the stock exchange, talk of power returning to the people and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) purring that it's time for people like Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to give something back to "the rest of us"; The Dark Knight Rises is clearly born from the time of Occupy Wall Street and financial despair, so much that even Bruce Wayne winds up broke. In the 8 years since Harvey Dent died and Batman fled Gotham has become not just safe, but complacent, so much that when a young inquisitive cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) questions the details of Dent's death, even Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman)-- who knows the truth-- brushes him off. But as Selina (a.k.a. Catwoman, though that name is never mentioned) promises, there's a storm coming; when we meet Bane in a stunning aerial sequence that opens the movie, we know it's only a matter of time before he comes looking not just to break Batman, but to bring Gotham to its knees.
The plot is relatively simple, as Gotham endures Bane's hostile takeover while Batman-- and, working separately, the intrepid John Blake-- tries to figure out how to fix it. But as ever with Nolan's Batman movies, which he co-writes with Jonathan Nolan, there are so many damned details to get through to even understand what's at stake, and who's threatening it. Bane's goals are maddeningly unclear for a long section of the movie, as is Batman's motivation to jump back into action, and while the fight scenes between them are electric, neither character feels like the true heart of the movie. That role falls to Gordon-Levitt, who humps around Gotham doing the kind of detective work Batman might do in a smaller story, setting himself up as the clear-eyed hero in a more complex world. He's the best thing in the movie, sneaking just ahead of Hathaway's slinky and witty Catwoman, and at times it seems even Nolan would rather spend time with John Blake than with the Bat.
With the exception of one lengthy detour, the action mostly sticks with Gotham this time around, and the fictional city-- an amalgam of New York's skyline, Pittsburgh's rivers and Chicago's highway tunnels-- comes alive more vividly than ever before. The dazzling IMAX photography certainly helps, using both wide aerial shots and ground-level street scenes to plunge the audience into the grandeur and mounting unrest in the city that's so obviously worth saving. Even Bane says that he is Gotham's reckoning, not Batman's, and populated as it is by such interesting people-- Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, Michael Caine's Alfred, and Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate also being part of the equation-- it's easy to be invested in Gotham's salvation, even when the man in the bat suit charged with saving it is less engaging than he's ever been.
As the conclusion to a genuinely game-changing trilogy The Dark Knight Rises is appropriately big and ambitious, and it's unlikely we'll see anyone make a superhero movie with Nolan's sense of scale and devotion to old-school, captured-on-film razzle-dazzle. It has moments that are captivating and special, but also lines of dialogue impossible to swallow, plot developments that meander, and a commitment to real-world political overtones that don't quite line up with the story. It's sprawling but undeniably engaging, not quite the blast of clever mayhem The Dark Knight was, but no slouch either.
Batman will live on beyond Nolan, and hopefully with a filmmaker who finds him a bit more interesting, but the world he inhabits will never look quite the same, and short of someone letting Nolan make his series of Gotham movies without the Bat, it's probably the best we'll ever see this city. No one goes into a superhero's movie to explore the world he lives in, but Nolan dares us to do it anyway, and his willingness to challenge his own genre makes The Dark Knight Rises, like all of his Batman films, unmissable.