Usually a sequel in a comic book superhero movie series can be safely seen and comprehended without knowing much about the earlier movies in the series. (It’s worth pausing to note that there even is a “usually” for this genre. How did we get to the point where each year there are several comic book movie sequels coming out?) The Dark Knight trilogy from director Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan which concludes with The Dark Knight Rises, is a grand spectacle like its two predecessors. Rises is weighed down by a surprising amount of references to storyline foundations laid in the first installment, Batman Begins, as well as the problem of extricating Batman from the mess he got himself into at the end of the second installment, The Dark Knight. Of course, Batman rising from that mess is part of the point of this movie, but then there is the not-inconsequential storytelling task of creating a new villain and a new catastrophe and dealing with that as well. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is thrown in for good measure. None of this is necessarily a problem. I liked the movie and the series, and it feels complete and unified. But for those of us who saw the earlier movies only once when they were made (2005 and 2008), it means that a fair amount of time watching Rises is spent with furrowed brow recalling just what Liam Neeson’s character said in the opening scenes of that movie seven years ago.
The villain this time around is an anarchist named Bane (Tom Hardy) who sports a mask over his nose and mouth making him look sort of like a giant robotic bee and sound sort of like gravel going through a kitchen disposal. Maybe this was to make Batman’s raspy growl seem more understandable by comparison. Bane and his formidable crew of thugs manage to isolate the city of Gotham (Manhattan in every way but the official name) and hold everyone there hostage through threat of annihilation with a nuclear bomb. That’s a pretty grand set up, I have to admit. But there’s not far you can go with it if the bad guys aren’t actually interested in getting anything for their hostages and instead just want to blow things up. Neither is it the most convincing or compelling of motives for the villains, and this is what I see as the main weakness of all three movies. I can’t really buy into these destructive anarchists being so patient and, frankly, well-organized to pull off some pretty impressive feats of mass-destruction just because they hate civilization (and therefore organization) so much.
That criticism aside, though, Rises has an epic sense of good versus evil and order versus chaos. Michael Caine is a treat as the long-suffering faithful servant Alfred to Christian Bale‘s moody and, frankly, unappreciative Bruce Wayne. Anne Hathaway‘s Selina (catwoman) lends a bit of complexity to an otherwise black and white tale, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds a welcome bit of normalcy to the proceedings. We are not forced to hear Selina utter “meow,” nor does Batman bother too much about keeping his identity secret from those who are going to figure it out anyway. The Dark Knight trilogy is certainly a serious and artfully assembled comic book adaptation that has more in common with an epic war movie than it does with Spiderman (in any of its incarnations) or, for that matter, the earlier Batman movies launched by Tim Burton.