So for "The Dark Knight Rises," the third and final installment in the trilogy Nolan began with "Batman Begins," the feel is different. Serious and determined, and skillfully playing out on a huge canvas, "The Dark Knight Rises" doesn't have the crazy, helium-inhaling inventiveness of its predecessor, a movie that felt a little like hanging on to the back of a flying dragon, if the dragon's been drinking.
Eight years have passed in Gotham City since the events of that film, and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been a recluse during that time. Faithful manservant Alfred (Michael Caine) is worried, but never fear: calamity is on deck, sure to lure Bruce back into his cape as his crime-fighting alter ego.
Most enormously, there is this bulked-up man called Bane (Tom Hardy) who wears a bizarre thong-mask and speaks in a processed voice that manages to be both gravelly and lilting. I'm impressed by Hardy's achievement there, even if I couldn't understand all his dialogue.
Bruce is also distracted by a cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) with a definite feline emphasis in her style. Other new characters include a Gotham philanthropist (Marion Cotillard, lately seen in Nolan's "Inception") and a young policeman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who suspects something about the Batman.
This movie has a lot of past business to cover, some of which involves the Police Commissioner (Gary Oldman), whose decision to "print the legend" at the end of "The Dark Knight" is here called into question. Four years between sequels is a long time to wait before addressing an important plot point, but at least Nolan holds this one up for inspection.
Physically, the film is muscular and sometimes dazzling: the opening sequence has Bane on a plane (we'll leave it at that), and there's a mid-movie set-piece in which Gotham is detonated by Bane and his army of followers.
Although "The Dark Knight Rises" propulsively hurtles from one thing to the next, Nolan knows how to slow down a moment to lend a sense of gravity.
You're left with the impression, at least, that something is at stake, although the reasons for this stuff to be at stake become murkier the longer the movie goes on (and also more dependent on your knowledge of the first two movies in the series).
A few final-act curveballs help keep it lively, and Nolan demonstrates his ability to capture sheer epic awesomeness (hundreds of people fighting hand-to-hand in a gently falling Gotham snow) even if the sequence doesn't make a great deal of practical sense.
The movie's strong on the mythic aspects of the hero's journey -- stronger than actually telling a story, in fact. I like it that Nolan reached for the moon with this trilogy. Part Three comes back down to earth after the triumph of "The Dark Knight," but the sheer scale of the saga is impressive.
Will something else rise in its place? You'll have to watch the last five minutes for that, but it feels like this is the final word from this Bat-team.
"The Dark Knight Rises" (3½ stars)
Christopher Nolan's final segment in his Batman trilogy is enormous in scale and satisfying in its conclusions, even if it comes down to earth after the crazy shoot-the-moon highs of 2008's "The Dark Knight." Here, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) returns to the mask after an eight-year layoff, to battle the giant Bane (Tom Hardy) and a host of unexpected threats. The movie's serious and determined, and sharper on the mythic aspects of the hero's journey than on actual storytelling.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, subject matter
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marsyville, Olympic, Stanwood, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Fox, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.
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