A version of this review appeared in The Age, July 21, 2012.
It's been a quiet few years in Gotham City since Batman (Christian Bale) – alias billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne – retired from crime-fighting duties at the end of The Dark Knight (2008), sacrificing his public reputation to preserve the memory of two-faced golden boy Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
In death, Dent has become the city's patron saint, and tough laws passed in his name have enabled Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to jail Gotham's remaining gangsters. Meanwhile, Wayne has dwindled into a crippled recluse cared for only by his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and unable to start anew. Now evil is once again on the horizon – which at least should get him out of the house.
Given the absence of the late Heath Ledger, whose demonic portrayal of the Joker took The Dark Knight to a whole other level, there was never much hope that the final instalment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy would be more than a shadow of its predecessor. Still, The Dark Knight Rises is an expert feat of engineering, letting Nolan show off all his talents for spectacle, pacing and plot construction (aided as usual by a screenwriting team consisting of his brother Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer).
Nolan's films are designed like magic tricks or Escher prints, constructing impossible situations from components that seem unremarkable or deliberately banal. Eventually, he'll yank back the curtain to reveal an image out of a full-blown nightmare: a terrorist attack that threatens to put September 11 in the shade, or a Kafkaesque prison where the inmates – gazing up at the sky as if from the bottom of a well – are tortured with the constant, tantalising dream of escape. (Here as elsewhere, Nolan seems bent on demonstrating that composition-in-depth can be just as dramatic without 3D.)
For all the ostensible “darkness” of his vision Nolan remains a gleeful adolescent at core. He may not have Joss Whedon's flair for snappy dialogue but he takes just as much delight in his actors, assigning operatic monologues to most of the leads and giving many supporting players the chance to steal a scene or two. Bale has toned down his macho growl since The Dark Knight, and has more room to explore Bruce Wayne's vulnerable side. On the other hand, Tom Hardy struggles to bring much personality to the villainous role of Bane, a masked, heavy-breathing muscle man who talks like a jollier Darth Vader.
Bane spouts his own eccentric brand of radical, populist rhetoric, a script choice that confirms the basically reactionary outlook of the series. The idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) may denounce Gordon's willingness to impose his own authority while deceiving the public – but despite such obligatory touches of “moral ambiguity,” it's made clear that evil must be fought by any means at hand.
Something of a footnote to the action is Anne Hathaway as a slinky burglar named Serena Kyle, whose mask and leather bodysuit suggest a unmistakable archetype even if the name “Catwoman” is never uttered. Attacking the role with her usual prim over-enthusiasm, Hathaway never convinces as a seductress; instead her tartness serves as counterpoint to the more obviously feline charms of Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, a businesswoman who becomes the new head of Wayne Enterprises.
In theory, the prospect of Batman caught between two formidable potential romantic interests ought to be the film's most fascinating element. Unfortunately, it became clear long ago that Nolan isn't interested in women – though Bale surely would not shrink from portraying this emotionally arrested anti-hero as the ultimate fool for love.