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Anthony Sheppard: The Dark Knight seemed a tad unleavened

This is a huge film – big budget, 164 minutes (probably 3 hours if you include previews, which I was spared), and the end game in the most recent cinematic trilogy of Batman movies.  It’s also a film that seems to want to keep reminding you of those things – it doesn’t so much rise as jump up and down and wave its arms around.  But the end result seems somewhat less rather than more – it’s longwinded and flat where its predecessor was captivating and occasionally breathtaking.  It’s only 12 minutes longer – but the difference feels greater than that. 

Whether or not the Joker of “The Dark Knight” fits your own or the comic book’s (whichever version you’re reading) image of the Joker, Heath Ledger’s Joker elevated that movie to a different level.  “The Dark Knight Rises” has dropped, somewhat, to the level that “The Dark Knight” most likely would have been without Ledger.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, by any means, it’s just the last of a series that unexpectedly peaked early.

We’re back in Gotham where crime has been suppressed and both Bruce Wayne and Batman have disappeared from view – unneeded and unappreciated, battered and bruised into submission.  Harvey Dent has been immortalized, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is his High Priest, and all but the pettiest of thieves are either behind bars or in banking.  But something is afoot, on a scale that only Gordon and a Hollywood director (Christopher Nolan) with access to deep pockets can truly fathom – and Gotham is, of course, in the greatest peril it has ever faced (until next time).

Enter a new villain, Bane (shut up Rush Limbaugh!).  After two films in which Batman’s voice was often criticized as sounding ridiculous, the answer seems to have been to make us forget about it by introducing a voice that sounds worse – with Bane (Tom Hardy) speaking through a mask that protects him from a long-suffered affliction and projects his voice like a psychopathic, socratic, motivational speaker addressing the balcony.

He’s huge and menacing and as prone to casual killing as Darth Vader during a construction delay – but that’s all he is on an individual level, a big, strong, violent guy.  And for a movie that’s excessive in scale and style, the major showdowns come down to two strong guys punching and kicking each other – one with a mask and muscles of steel, and one with a mantle and muscle coverings of Kevlar.  It’s also the latest in a very long line of stories in which characters taunt their enemies and hold them captive rather than simply killing them – as though nobody ever learned anything from Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop.

As I’ve said before, a few months ago, “John Carter” made the mistake of giving us a villain who was essentially just a henchman of a larger force that was never seen.  And while “The Dark Knight Rises” avoids at least part of that trap, there’s less to Bane than meets the eye.  Which is much of the problem of the film – we have a bunch of characters circulating around each other and none of them are especially interesting – certainly not as interesting as the Joker.  Even Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) seems off – he’s beaten down, then angrily gets moving again, then beaten down, and then even more angrily motivated.  Anne Hathaway as Catwoman gets a few fun lines, but she’s more of a plot element than a counterpart and she goes from kicking up her heels to riding the Batcycle as quickly as Barry Pepper went from grunting futuristic anachronisms to flying a Harrier Jump Jet in “Battlefield Earth,” with about as much tutoring.

Joseph Gordon Levitt takes on many of the heroic duties in the story as a young cop who knows Bruce Wayne’s secret (not that it seems very secret any more) and can see past the City’s posturing, with the film acting better as an origins prologue than as a legendary epilogue.  Morgan Freeman is back as Lucius Fox, like Bond’s “Q,” and Michael Caine again plays butler and therapist Albert.

All of which sounds as dark as the movie and perhaps my review needs to rise as much as the film does – so here goes.  It’s an entertaining film.  But it’s not as much fun to watch as this year’s Spiderman reboot or Avengers ensemble.  It’s bigger and grander and more spectacular, but it’s also less engaging – and it employs social commentary as more of a sideshow, as it is within the plot itself.  Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker and he swings big and hard, which can be inspiring at times, but a big swing doesn’t carry the ball any further if it doesn’t connect any better.

What the film does do is wrap up the storyline fairly well, with the requisite number of opportunities for spinoffs, sequels, and additional reboots.  It does its duty and it will make a ton of money from the same fanboys who crashed the servers of reviewers who dared to say less than stellar things, prior to audiences even seeing the finished product.  It will probably show up in technical awards categories and on several action-friendly and/or box office oriented end of year lists, but it doesn’t have anything that inherently elevates it above being a solid, effect-laden outing in a series that has had higher high points. 


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