July 18, 2012 at 4:56 pm EDT | by Will Owen
‘Dark Knight’ of the soul

The cast of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ helmed by Christian Bale. (Photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

Director Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” leaves you emotionally drained, exhausted and in a daze when the film ends. Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, expertly toys with current widespread fears of a pending apocalypse and squeamishness over talk of waning American hegemony in this spectacular finale to his Batman trilogy.

“The Dark Knight Rises” has a brooding, moody beginning set eight years after “The Dark Knight.” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is out of the public eye and withdrawn from society and Batman is a faded memory. Gotham still mourns the loss of District Attorney Harvey Dent when Bane (Tom Hardy) interrupts any reflection on the past by reintroducing newfound terror to the city.

Hardy delivers an exceptional performance as Bane, especially considering he’s the follow-up villain to Heath Ledger’s brilliantly disturbing (and Oscar winning) interpretation of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Bane is a hulking mass of muscle with a militaristic breathing device surgically attached to his face, which mechanically provides his voice a diabolical intonation while alleviating the agony of a past facial disfigurement.

Bane at first appears like another greedy aggressor after the Wayne Enterprises empire, with the help of a corrupt board member of the company and a master thief in cat ears, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). The extent of his desire to destroy is revealed by his master plan involving the nuclear reactor of Wayne’s clean energy initiative.

Bruce ditches his unkempt hermit look and squeezes back into the bat suit, but in doing so, is forced to confront the personal struggles that have been with him since the trilogy’s start in “Batman Begins.” Although butler Alfred (Michael Caine) refuses to watch Batman meet his death in another mission to save Gotham, Bruce finds help from faithful weapons expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), policeman and fellow orphan John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the new CEO of Wayne Enterprises, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

Even the cunning and calculating Catwoman comes around. From her first appearance in disguise as an obedient maid who steals Bruce’s mother’s pearls, Hathaway has as much charisma as the two actresses who played Rachel Dawes in the prior two Batman films combined. In their defense, the character Selina Kyle lends itself to far more dynamism and energy — let alone ass kicking — than Bruce’s past love interest.

Hathaway looks sexy and sinewy in her cat suit, but her character is not the objectified acknowledgement that gender roles are changing seen in most action films. She is funny, hardened and resourceful, and just as much a savior to Batman as he is to her.

Christian Bale delivers another excellent performance as Bruce Wayne that heavily draws on the previous two films. Bruce struggles with his inner demons that were intensely developed in “Batman Begins.” “Rises” is full of allusions to the death of his parents and even his childhood fear of bats resurfaces at a pivotal life-or-death moment. The death of Rachel Dawes and the destruction caused by the Joker in “The Dark Knight” hang over Bruce and he initially struggles with either resigning to his role as apathetic, entitled playboy or anonymous keeper of justice.

What’s so striking about Bale as Batman and Christopher Nolan’s directing of the franchise is that the hero’s humanity is constantly reiterated. Wayne’s often battered body, sad eyes and initial withdrawal from Gotham society make him much more complex than most heroes of his genre. Nolan seems to understand that in today’s world, trust in a perfect savior is passé.

“The Dark Knight Rises” continuously blurs divisions between good and evil, with even the brutal Bane showing a glimmer of humanity in the end. Nolan challenges our trust in the institutions we depend on through police ineptitude, corporate corruption and a horrifying sequence of explosions right after the singing of the National Anthem at a Gotham “Rogues” football game. At one point when the situation is beyond dire, an anonymous white male president offers empty, flagrantly rehearsed words of hope to the city.

Like most self-serious, epic films these days, “The Dark Knight Rises” is too long (2 hours, 40 minutes), but the plot is easy to follow and doesn’t drag. The special effects, action scenes and all of Batman’s toys also keep the proceedings engaging throughout.

Much of the film’s middle section is full of hopelessness and dread. The ending is heart-wrenching and visually stunning, but that’s not to say it isn’t bittersweet. That it’s an emotional mixed bag is part of what makes it such a satisfying conclusion to the franchise.

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