“Rises” begins with an image of an expanse of ice on a river slowly splintering: Everything changes, Nolan is warning us, and even the things that seem strong and solid will eventually crack and crumble. An ominous message, but one that suits the frequently unsettling “Rises,” which brings Nolan’s story cycle full-circle in a plot that is more notable for its solemnity than its super-heroics. If you want a playful, colorful “Batman,” go back to the 1960s TV series or the kooky 1990s Joel Schumacher movies: “The Dark Knight Rises” is many things, but it is definitely not a funfest.
It is, however, a powerhouse picture and very much in line with Nolan’s sweeping style, which crams an amazing amount of information into nearly every shot without feeling fussy or overworked. As with “The Dark Knight,” “The Prestige” and “Inception,” you can see “The Dark Knight Rises” twice and feel as if you are seeing two different movies. The first time, you will pay attention to the twisting storyline; the second, you’ll pick up on all the meticulous details (and puzzling political undertones) that this world-class craftsman has included.
Set eight years after the demise of the demented Harvey Dent — the crusading district attorney who became the madman known as Two-Face — “Rises” reveals a Gotham City that’s eerily in tune with contemporary America. Citizens lionize a long-gone idol while ignoring the unpleasant facts about his moral choices (a la Joe Paterno, perhaps?); the aristocracy makes its own rules and laughs off any possible consequences that could result from breaking them; disillusioned people with troubled histories dream about reinventing themselves and making fresh starts, only to find that’s almost impossible.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a seldom-seen recluse whose very mention inspires Howard Hughes jokes; as for Batman, Wayne’s alter ego, he has been missing in action for years. As Alfred (Michael Caine), Wayne’s faithful butler, observes, “You hung up the cape and cowl, but you didn’t move on.” He accuses Wayne of “just waiting for things to go bad again.”
That doesn’t take long. A growing sense of social unrest in Gotham provides fuel for the fire that is Bane (Tom Hardy), a musclebound megalomaniac whose face is almost entirely concealed behind a respirator that looks like a screaming steel jaw. He emerged from a seemingly inescapable subterranean prison and has continued his ascension with increasingly elaborate crime sprees (including an attack on the Gotham City Stock Exchange that’s one of the most disturbing episodes in an often startling film) that have served as warm-ups for his final, mind-bogglingly ambitious act.
Prior to Nolan’s reinvention of the franchise, Batman villains were often portrayed as flamboyant folk who dressed in Halloween costumes and carried on like Mardi Gras merrymakers. Hardy — who scored his breakthrough role in Nolan’s “Inception” two years ago — turns that idea inside out by making Bane chillingly calm and business-like. There is no room for hammy theatrics in his performance; as Heath Ledger did in his Oscar-winning turn as The Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Hardy fearlessly sinks into the soul of a consummate terrorist, unearthing the frightening power that comes from understated evil. His eyes may occasionally betray his madness, but his demeanor remains eerily level.
“No one cared who I was until I put on the mask,” Bane declares; perhaps Batman could make the same statement. That’s not the only trait they have in common, either. Both men speak in peculiar, sonorous voices (Bane sounds a bit like a semi-suffocated Sean Connery) and carry with them inescapable reminders of where they have been. Years of clandestine crime fighting have left Bruce Wayne with a body that’s battered and aching, so much so that he leans heavily on a cane. Bane’s strangely shaped scars on his back, arms and shaven head are practically hieroglyphics, laying out every page of his horrifying history.
“Rises” is not short on haunted characters. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, serenely sexy) is a talented thief — never once identified in the movie as Catwoman, by the way — who uses her beauty and charm as weapons, although she seems to have grown to hate the same skills that have kept her alive. Police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes frequent visits to the orphanage in which he grew up. Even the sophisticated Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), an alternative energy advocate and Wayne’s possible love interest, has a nasty-looking mark on her back that she won’t discuss. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is still the keeper of Batman’s secret arsenal, although his days in that position may be numbered.
And then there is Alfred, who may finally be ready to walk away from Wayne Manor. “I’ve sewn you up, I’ve set your bones, but I won’t bury you,” he tells Bruce, who is contemplating putting on the Batsuit once again. Caine, who has added a touch of grace and light to Nolan’s previous Batman films, delivers a jolt of poignancy in this installment, finally and painfully drawing a line between supportiveness and self-preservation.
It’s the heart of Nolan’s film: that nothing is permanent, even the things we have always taken for granted. Everything changes and — like Nolan, Bale, Caine, Freeman and company, who have now given us three outstanding Batman films — the time eventually comes when we must move on.
Note: The IMAX version of “The Dark Knight Rises” contains 72 minutes of footage — half the movie’s running time — shot specifically for the enormous IMAX screen. The effect is truly eye-popping, worth every penny of extra admission.